“It’s right there,” said my friend Scott, pointing excitedly at the adjacent campsite.
I peered into the shrubbery, searching for signs of a bear. The day before, officials at Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Md., warned us that a family of four had invaded a nearby encampment. We were told that if we saw any, we should keep our distance. If they came into our camp, making a lot of noise would probably frighten them off. As a last resort, we were to gracefully retreat and wait until they had finished pawing through our belongings.
Behind me, I could hear my 3-year-old son, Zephyr, and the other three children, all 4-year-olds — Scott’s daughter Clara May, my friend Will’s daughter Lauren, and my friend Matt’s daughter Savannah — clamoring to be allowed to get closer. This was the first time any of us dads had taken our children camping, so we wanted it to go smoothly. And preferably remain bear-free.
“Where is it?” I asked again.
“Dude, it’s right there,” Scott said, this time pointing at a leaf-strewn patch of the forest floor a few feet from one of the tents. There was nary a bear in sight. What had he put in his coffee?
“What are you talking about? Where’s the bear?”
Scott looked at me like I was the one who had poured a fifth of Jack Daniels into my morning joe. “It’s a snake. Who said anything about a bear?”
Sure enough, a small, black snake was slithering across the ground. It didn’t even look like any of the venomous ones displayed in the park’s small visitors’ center. My paternal side breathed a sigh of relief, though the foolhardy part of me was a little disappointed.
The other fathers on the trip mocked me good-naturedly while our children respectfully gathered a safe distance from our visitor to ooh and aah over it. Our four families had met and become friends through the day-care center that the kids attended. Over the last three years, we dads formed a tightknit group. So when Will suggested we all take our children on what would be their inaugural camping trip, we were all in.
Cunningham was chosen for its proximity to the District — 90 minutes — and its family friendly atmosphere. We planned the excursion meticulously, dividing up meal duties and communicating at length to ensure that we had brought all the necessary equipment. Though we wanted to have a good time and impress our wives with our logistical prowess, we were most focused on showing the children the best time we could.
We had been heartened by our first day. Arriving late on a Friday afternoon in early July, we set the tents up quickly on two gravel-lined lots under a canopy of trees. Dinner went off without a hitch. A small fire was built and ignited with a single match — my two Outward Bound expeditions as a teenager were still paying dividends — to toast marshmallows for s’mores. Despite the sugar overload, the little ones had gone to bed easily and slept soundly.
With the snake-not-bear drama out of the way, we got on with our Saturday. The weather could not have been more perfect: mid-80s and low humidity. Perfect for a dip. The park is divided in two. The northern section is home to Hunting Creek Lake, a 10-minute drive away from the Manor Area, where we were encamped. Slipping on swimsuits, packing a cooler full of lunch supplies and double-checking that we had enough waterproof sunscreen, we piled into our cars and drove over.
Though it was only 11 a.m., the small strip of sand and the grassy slopes leading down to it were already patchworked with blankets and beach chairs. After claiming our own piece of property, we headed into the surprisingly warm water. For an hour, we let the kids frolic in the shallows. When they tired of splashing each other and good-naturedly wrestling for control of a rainbow-striped beach ball, we withdrew to the shoreline for a breezy picnic.
Sun-kissed and full bellied, we headed back to the other campsite for an afternoon of adventuring. Dangling the promise of some truly awe-inspiring wildlife, we walked over to the aviary by the visitors’ center. On the way, we spotted brambles dotted with ripe, rosy wine raspberries. Warning the children to avoid the thorns, we gathered handfuls of sweetly tangy berries and ate them gleefully. The children left telltale smudges on their smiling faces.
Outside the aviary, the kids marveled at the 82-pound snapping turtle living in a mesh-covered pool. They all seemed to recognize the power of its sharp, beaklike mouth, because they didn’t linger long, telling each other it was “super scary” and “not nice.” The birds were less intimidating. There was a pair of barred owls with big eyes set in white, heart-shaped faces, a peregrine falcon and a bald eagle that still managed to look majestic inside the confines of its humble cage.
Later, as darkness fell, our fire sent sparks floating upward to join the stars that were just becoming visible in the pale purple sky. We grilled corn on the cob over the embers while sizzling up hot dogs and hamburgers on the camp stove. The children were so tired from the day’s activities and full from the meal that none noticed there was no dessert on the menu.
The next morning, I was up as soon as the sun’s rays began streaming through the mosquito-netted window of our tent. I lay quietly for a moment, listening to Zephyr’s steady breathing next to me and birds tweeting in the trees above. As I made a move to rise, I felt soreness in my back from sleeping on the hard-packed dirt for two nights in a row. Note to self: Admit you’re in your 40s and buy an air mattress for the next expedition.
Everyone was up not long afterward, so the dads began preparing breakfast, as well as plenty of strong coffee. It was a sweet scene: The kids perched in camp chairs, eating while chattering away about their escapades. Too bad it was already over.
There was one last treat, ice cream at the nearby Gateway Market, which houses a scoop shop and a grocery store, and sells by-the-pound candy. Kids and adults alike scarfed down cones at one of the outdoor picnic tables, racing to eat the treats before they melted. Between bites, everyone agreed that we should go camping again, the sooner the better.
Finally, it was time to go. Hands and faces were wiped off; there was one last run to the bathroom. The kids cheerily hugged each other while the fathers shared congratulations on a job well done. Not a single bear attack!
Pulling out of the parking lot, I aimed the car homeward, keeping the radio off to mimic the stillness of the woods for a little longer.
“What was your favorite part of the trip,” I asked once we were a few miles down the road.
Silence. I peered into the rearview mirror. Zephyr, with a small smile, was already asleep.
Martell is a writer based in Washington and the author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” On Twitter: @nevinmartell.
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14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd., Thurmont
The Manor Area of the park has 23 basic campsites and eight with electrical hookups, and is open April through October. The campground is located about a 1.5-hour drive from Washington, D.C.
Costs $21.49 to $61.75 per night. Book online at reservations.dnr.state.md.us.