Columnist: Camping trips are often in-tents experiences


My family and I have always enjoyed camping, from rustic tent camping, hearty backpacking trips, easy car camping and near-camping in cabins.

I recently took my children to the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park campground between Dayton and Waitsburg. We went with our friends Beth and Dave, along with their sons, Jakob and Benjamin.

The highlight of the trip for my children was the river, a joyful experience soon stopped by my fear of someone getting swept downstream. But for the few minutes they had to enjoy the swift current of the Touchet River they were thrilled. I can’t say I blame them.

They joined another group of small children who had a much more laid-back mom. She chatted happily on her cellphone while her three youngsters courted death — I mean, played in the water.

The kids had discovered a section of the river where they could jump from the bank into a current that carried them about 10 feet downstream to a place where they could pull themselves out, then do it all over again.

My kids, who make up for a lack of swimming skills with confidence, jumped in before I had a chance to investigate. By the time I made my way to them, my 8-year-old daughter was already a near expert at the feat. My 6-year-old son was wisely more hesitant — he asked me to help him.

I stood in the river, cold water up to my chest, and caught him as he was carried down. I realized my footing was not entirely secure just about the time he realized the water was very fast and over his head. I managed to stabilize myself and we both looked downstream, watching the water continue uncaringly along.

We looked at each other and I asked him what he would do if I hadn’t been able to catch him. His eyes grew wide and he asked me to help him to the bank, where he played happily in the shallower water for the rest of the day. My daughter also played in the shallow water, though much less happily. Once again, doing my job as a mom made me mean and uncaring. Oh well.

A couple weeks later I took a friend to the same river while my kids were on a trip with their dad. My friend and I sat in the middle, in lawn chairs, letting the water pick up our feet as we relaxed for the afternoon. It was so peaceful and the water was so refreshing, I could see why my daughter was annoyed at me for interrupting her swimming.

When I was younger my family and I went camping along the Minam River, about an hour northeast of La Grande. This was great! At that point I was able to rely on adults to prepare the food, build the fire, choose the campground and drive us to the starting point so we could float down the Minam with inner-tubes. Oh yes, and set limits and keep us safe. Thank you, responsible adults, for keeping me alive.

My younger brothers, Daniel and Hayden, and I rode down that river time after time for probably three days. It was so peaceful to bob along as part of the cold water, I would love to go and do that again.

Of course, as with any camping trip, there was a lot more to keep us happy. A campfire complete with marshmallows and scary stories. Hiking, sleeping in tents, eating my dad’s delicious camping food (which, for him, is like regular food, only cooked on a camp stove). Listening to owls hoot in the night, being awakened by mourning doves and other birds, seeing deer and mountain goats.

I didn’t always have the best of luck with camping. My parents love to tell the story of taking me backpacking when I was 3. Apparently I didn’t really love the idea of carrying a backpack — even though it only held marshmallows. Nor did I like the idea of having to walk and walk and walk. My dad says I would trail behind them, staying consistently about 10 feet behind. When they would stop to wait for me, I would stop too. I do not remember subjecting my parents to this frustration, but my mom hates camping to this day. Could this be why?

There is another story everyone loves to tell, the story of the time we went camping and forgot my shoes. I was about 7 years old and I remember never wearing shoes. I still don’t — who needs them in the summer, right? But this day no one noticed my unshod feet, so when I jumped out of the van at the camp site there were some pretty annoyed adults. I never really figured out why they minded. What did it matter if my filthy feet brought a little dirt into the tent? Or if I stepped on a thorn? Or a bee? I think I remember my dad having to drive to the nearest town for a pair of shoes for me.

When my children were 2 and 4 I bought backpacks so we could carry them on hikes. My dad, my brothers Christian and Daniel and I took turns carrying them as we hiked around the Wallowas. The kids were very heavy, but being able to take them on beautiful hikes was worth it. To this day both children love camping.

Last year, as we were camping at the Oregon Coast, my son woke up one morning and told me he wanted to just live like this, camping in a tent, forever. For as much as he dislikes bathing, I can imagine he would probably love it!

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native and mom to two small children. She can be reached at


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