Just a few miles south of the somewhat better-known High Cliff State Park lies this lovely place called Calumet County Park, at the end of County Trunk EE on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. For the better part of ten years, from 1991 through 2000, I took my then-young family there, along with our boat and about a month’s worth of camping provisions, for a few days of rest, relaxation, and the occasional near brush with death.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved going to Calumet County Park during those years, despite the outward indications that somebody or something didn’t want us there. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, situated on the Niagara Escarpment—which means level (or soft) ground can be a little hard to come by across its 200+ acres. And Lake Winnebago, the largest inland lake in the state, was ideally suited to the Sweet 17, my Bayliner runabout that I had won in 1990 by looking in the bottom of a pop can at just the right time. This park had a small harbor with launch ramps as well as some decent camp sites, very close to the water. What’s not to love? We would soon find out the answer to that one!
Karen and I first arrived at the end of County Trunk EE on a Friday in 1991, which we affectionately referred to as 1 Year B.C. (Before Children). We pulled into the park with the Sweet 17, trailered behind our trustworthy (ha!) 1980 AMC Eagle 4WD sedan. Ah, those were the days! You could say we lived on love, mainly because it was the only thing we could afford back then. It was getting late on the day as we arrived—I no longer recall why we arrived so late at a destination that was only four hours from home—and immediately fell in love with our new surroundings, at least until we discovered the spider population (Karen has always been deathly afraid of spiders, especially big ones). The sun was shining (for the last time until the end of that weekend) as we set up camp. We dined on hot dogs and beans, spent hours sitting by our campfire, made the most of our private tent accommodations, and fell asleep.
By Saturday morning, a steady rain had set up over the region. There would be no boating that day, no frolicking in the lake, either. Instead we talked, read books, and otherwise amused ourselves within the cozy confines of our tent. Sometime during that afternoon, our dear friends the Tabors arrived to check in on us (remember this was before the days when everybody had cell phones). They had known in advance where we would be staying and, having camped with us once before—when we ended an area-wide drought by bringing down torrential rainstorms and at least one confirmed tornado—they also knew it would be raining. After they arrived, we laughed about the weather conditions for a bit and then sought out the confines of the Fish Tale Inn, a bar and supper club (then) located on EE, just outside of the park.
I still remember the four of us hanging out at the Fish Tale that afternoon, having no place better to go, sipping beers and solving the problems of the world. There was a huge sturgeon mounted over the inside of the doorway. It was a monster, easily twice as long as the doorway was wide. Beneath it was a placard, providing details of the sturgeon’s prehistoric origins. My eyes were drawn to that until I noticed two raccoons, very much alive, peering into the Fish Tale from two ground-level windows that were at or above eye level inside the place, which had been built into a hillside. They were just walking along the hillside, like nobody’s business, and stopped to check out the humans on display inside the bar. Apparently I was the only one who noticed them, as everybody else in the establishment seemed oblivious to our furry observers. Sadly the Fish Tale is no more, but it was a rather interesting place in which to hang out on a rainy Saturday afternoon, at least for those two young couples, back in the day.
Eventually our friends departed and we were left to fend for ourselves. The firewood we had purchased had become quite damp, but this did not deter me. While Karen retired into our tent for a nap, I set about figuring out how to get a fire going. I arranged some soggy wood into our sunken fire ring and then set about looking for something dry to help get the fire started. The Kleenex went quickly. The few pieces of dry news paper and advertisements went almost as fast. Still no fire. I looked around for something else that would burn. Just before giving up hope, I smiled faintly as my eyes settled on a nearly full can of Coleman cooking fuel.
I doused the wet firewood soundly with the white gas, oblivious to the heavier-than-air vapors that were filling the fire pit the whole time. Fortunately for me, I struck a match from a yard or two away and tossed it into the fire pit. I never saw that match land. Instead, I saw this blue flash erupt and spread horizontally across the top of the fire pit.
I felt a wave of energy pass through the ground beneath my feet as the atmosphere compressed my head to a point where I could feel the insides of my ears touching each other. Then… silence. If there had been birds singing and squirrels chattering before then, they weren’t doing so any more. A meek voice called out from within our tent, “Hun…? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I stammered, “I’m fine.” I vaguely felt around my lower forehead to see if I still had any eyebrows left, then added, “I got the fire going.” And that much was true. The fire raged on for hours and we enjoyed another simple campfire meal, undisturbed by mosquitoes or wildlife of any kind.
The following day, on our last day at camp, the sun rose and there was no more rain. For the first time during that trip—for the first time ever—we launched the Sweet 17 and took her out of the harbor and out onto Lake Winnebago. The water was like glass and there was little or no other marine traffic on the lake that morning. It was glorious. It was also bait, set to convince us to come back. And we did, with our children, foolish mortals that we were.
The years that followed were a combination of the best and worst vacation moments of our lives.
One of my fondest memories involves Nat King Cole and pancakes. I had this portable radio that I always took along when we went camping and there was only one station that I could get clearly from Cal County Park. It was an oldies station that played the likes of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, etc. On one amazingly calm, sunny morning, I was frying bacon over hot coals and flipping pancakes on the camp stove, while Nat King Cole sang Unforgettable. I can still recall every bit of what that morning was like. My view of the lake, the smell of the forest intermingling with the aromas of my food cooking, the sound of that song playing on an otherwise quiet morning, everything. It was awesome.
We did not come back in 1992, the year our Teresa was born, or 1993, when John was born, but we made up for lost time in 1994, when we returned to Cal County Park with our new family. This was the year I sliced open my right-hand pinky with a brand new (and very sharp) Swiss Army Knife, while setting up camp. This was also the year we were treated to record cold temperatures. Karen checked on our son in the middle of the night and began heaping all of our bath and beach towels into his portable crib, because she had discovered the boy was turning blue.
The following year brought record high temperatures, when Karen sought urgent relief for our kids by tossing them into Lake Winnebago. It was then that we discovered how much water a standard disposable diaper is capable of holding. This is also the year that our young son potty-trained himself, having decided, after having had his epiphany in Lake Winnebago, that he no longer wished to wear diapers. And true to his word, he never had to again. As we drove toward Appleton on Saturday afternoon, seeking relief from the extreme heat, a news report came on over the radio detailing local livestock losses due to the extreme heat. Our Teresa became very upset at the news of cows dying from heat exhaustion. We eventually tried to interject humor into the issue by adding wisecracks about chickens exploding. For some reason this seemed funny at the time. But we were punished for our mirth by picking a Burger King at which to have lunch, only to discover that their air conditioning had broken down.
You would think this next experience might have scared us off for good, but no. Another set of friends of ours, the Shermans, and some friends of theirs, joined us at Cal County Park, and believe me, we all had the time of our lives. Things went well enough by day. We frolicked in the sun, we cooked over our open fire. We fished from the shores of lake Winnebago, where I caught a fairly impressive (and very angry) walleye. Then the storms rolled in.
We had settled in for the night, but the storm continued to build. Sometime during that night, I was awakened from a sound sleep by my loving wife, who had grown concerned because the once-vertical walls of our tent were being bent horizontally by winds of extraordinary magnitude.
“Look!” By this time the walls of our tent were bending horizontally toward my face and our entire world was being lit up by continuous lightning in strobe-like fashion. We were literally in the storm.
“Should we stay put or get out?”
“Let’s get in the car,” I reasoned. I didn’t think the tent would hold out much longer. We gathered everything together and woke the kids up.
Teresa woke up in a flash and then helped her brother wake up by screaming into his face, “John, get up now! We’re gonna’ die!!!!” I guess she didn’t want him to miss it. My son played his part perfectly, first opening his eyes and then screaming for all he was worth.
After a moment of frantically searching for our car keys, only to discover they were already in my hand, we lined up and prepared to exit. As soon as I unzipped our tent, the storm took it. As we drove toward the main (read: the only) park building, the storm sheared our tent pegs clean off at ground level and flattened our tent, our battery-powered lantern still glowing from within.
We arrived at the park office, we saw the maintenance garage doors were open. Turns out they had been opened for us. We parked facing the lake, gathered our kids in a handful of beach towels and headed up toward the building. From somewhere behind me, lightning struck the lake with a blinding flash followed by an immediate explosion of thunder. With my daughter wrapped in my arms, I ran for all I was worth. Even more amazing,Karen was right behind me, with John bundled into her arms.
The following Sunday morning, as we prepared to head for home, I discovered some tee shirts at the camp store proclaiming, “Experience nature’s peace.” Laughing hysterically, I bought two of them, one for Karen and one for myself. Amazingly enough, those who were friends of ours upon arrival, remained friends of ours, even after this experience.
You would think that would be it, but we are slow learners. We cae back, one more time. The year was 2000, Teresa was eight years old, John was six, the weather was uncharacteristically perfect, and we had been caught well off of our guard. Sometime that Saturday afternoon, Karen and the kids had decided to go down to the lake. I was doing something at the campsite, intending to join them shortly, but I never got the chance.
I remember Karen running toward me, cradling Teresa, who had been screaming in pain. She had slipped on a moss-covered rock and smashed her front teeth onto the same rock. I took John with me and got supplies out of our first aid kit for the girls. Long story short, one of my daughter’s adult teeth had been damaged in the fall. We called our family dentist, packed everything up and headed back to Illinois, never to return.
There is more to the story. Calumet County Park is more than just a campground, situated on the Niagara Escarpment. The land also includes a number of effigy mounds, Indian burial grounds, up on the escarpment. Does that play into this story? I don’t know.
I haven’t gone back since summer of 2000. I have often thought about taking a motorcycle trip back to the park. But dare I do so? I welcome your thoughts.
Until next time…