The last trip of summer

Summer looks long from the June end. One plans projects, picnics, vacations, family visits, special events, camping trips to unknown places or back to beloved spots. Whatever one's summer specialties may be, the latchstring is always out for that season.

In our family a variation of Parkinson's Law operates: summer plans expand to exceed the time available. Blink, dash, and gasp; summer has come, and already we are packing for the last camping trip of the season.

We (along with many others) cherish northern Wisconsin's litany of lakes: Trout, Plum, Firefly, Little John, Crystal, and a hundred others. Our special favorite is Big Muskellunge. No summer feels right without touching that particular base for the lovely lift it gives our spirits. Frequently it is the final expedition of the summer, which makes it doubly exciting. Everyone's senses are raw-edged trying to lay away memories to warm Wisconsin's long winter.

On the drive north, close-to-home landscape merits little notice. We already know how the corn is doing and where construction is under way. The closer we get to our destination, the more each roadside detail calls forth comment. The same maple syrup signs tempt taste buds. Leaping-trout signs and motel come-hither signs seem unchanged even by a new coat of paint. The cornfields are a sorry contrast to the vivid Dane County green.

At last the woods embrace us; the long, green lane to the lakes; gravel road, gate ajar for our arrival, and the summer wrap-up has begun.

First: Cruise around the campground to find the best available site. There it is - level, grassy, and within ripplesound of the lake. When the wind works up, we will slide into sleep to a wave lullaby with an aspen accompaniment.

Next: Pitch the tents, hunt wood, lay the fire. All the while we savor the warm woods wind, the occasional epithet of a blue jay, the hopeful whisking-by of a chipmunk checking up on us for future reference.

Meals are deliberately simple. No unnecessary frills detract from the fun of being out of our usual context. If it can't be done over an open fire, leave it home. Even eating gets minimal attention, for the forest encircles us, and the lake is but a wind's whisper away. A lick and a promise are all the dishes get, and we are off to hike, wade, swim, or explore by canoe.

The forest has written a new chapter in its book of hours. In spring the characters were introduced, lively with youth and new clothes. By August the plot has developed, and we can tell how the story will end. Already the forest floor has begun to lay on its blanket for winter. Colors have softened; some have begun to fade. We are just in time for the last bloom. Seed signs are everywhere.

The lake, however, has not yet gotten its cue. Pleasant temperatures tempt us morning, noon, and evening. At night it becomes a drawing board for the moon and stars.

Around the fire there is time to relax, to watch sparks dash up to meet their star sisters, to sing a song or two, to watch our children steeping in the ingredients that make adult memories.

With a sudden unfamiliar sound, an owl questions our invasion of its nighttime realm. What instinct guides our torch to the very right branch? There the hooter sits, peering indignantly at us for a rare moment before drifting away in velvet flight to more private quarters.

Like the end of summer comes Sunday afternoon; too soon.

Roll sleeping bags. Brush the tent, dry and roll it. Pack and check to be sure no one will know that we were here except for the new layer of ash in the fireplace, cool now with its glow stored for the winter nights to come.

It's time to go: a last look at the lake, a last curl of toes round a clutch of sand, a last leaf floated off to be returned by friendly waves to our feet.

Our backs are turned toward the lakes now, and we turn to the long, green lane. This time it leads toward home. Weariness, held at bay to prolong the joy of the woods, overcomes us one by one. Naps, for two days eschewed, now creep up and find children unprotesting. Eventually only the driver is left to muse upon last events of one more precious summer.

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