End Camp

Steve McGann

Years ago, a friend called me saying that he wanted to take me out to dinner for my birthday. He told me to pick the place. After thinking for a day or two I called him back and said I wanted to camp at Hyalite and have him cook me a steak over the campfire. Though it was late November, he agreed and said if I drove my pickup camper, he would bring everything else. It was a dry year and when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, there was no snow yet on the ground. We went for a quick hike and then picked a site at Hood Creek campground overlooking the reservoir. We had no neighbors. Things went fine until the early five o’clock darkness. The fire we had built did not provide much warmth against the sudden cold. We cooked the steaks and potatoes and retreated to the camper to eat. The rest of the night we remained inside but for quick trips out to view the splash of stars. In the morning as we made coffee on the camper stove, we noticed that the reservoir had iced up overnight. The wind howling, the day raw, we left for home. Less than a twenty-four-hour trip but a great End Camp.

End Camp is just that: the last overnight outing of the year. It could be a hunting trip, a backpack, or just a quick drive to the mountains to burn a steak. The truth is, though I dreamed up the idea probably twenty-five years ago, most of the time the occasion passed unremarked and was only later realized. Or perhaps not at all. So, the end camp happened but was not intentional. Maybe the date was even in September and I simply did not get out again. But when there was a planned last trip it was always in late October or November, I doubt December.

I did not grow up camping. I grew up in Illinois, a land of cities and towns, corn and soybean fields. When the glaciers of the last ice age receded, they left some of the richest dirt in the world behind in Illinois. The land is so valuable that farmers forgo fences and plow and plant right up to the blacktop roads. My uncle owned a farm pond with a little cottage, and we called it The Lake and slept in cots on the screened in front porch. On the far shore, the corn stalks crowded the cattails into the water. Camping. In the Midwest. When I became aware of the wider world, I went all in for a five-week backpacking trip into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. In August, above the treeline, there was rain and wind, sleet and wind, and snow and wind. I was enchanted for life.

If there is an End Camp, by definition there must be a First Camp. For us, once we moved to Montana, this was Memorial Day weekend. This was normally car camping with lots of people, vehicles, coolers, and dogs. The weather pattern was always the same. Setting up camp in the dark and rain/snow on Friday night. Standing around camp in the rain/snow all day Saturday.

Hiking a bit in the rain/sun on Sunday. And driving home on a beautiful Monday. Later on, when we had kids, this did not work out well. Cold mornings and games and naps in the tent or van all day usually led to an early retreat home. Still, I remember those days, Ruth and I and our boys in camp, rather than the days at work or the days of chores around the house.

My first official End Camp was in the mid-nineties. After a week of unremembered work and a Saturday morning of the same with chores, I drove to Hyalite in the late afternoon. Hyalite has been the location for many of these late season trips. It is close to town and normally uncrowded by November. As I remember this initial time was pretty minimalist. Me, a lawn chair, and a campfire. There was a view of the reservoir and the peaks beyond. There was a warm coat and some quiet reflection. The genesis of this idea which incorporated our ever present calendar. Probably a sense of completion of the year’s seasons that comes with late autumn wind.

Since then, End Camp, like many of my outings, has usually been a solitary thing. But for a number of years in the 2000s it was a partnership. My friend Bob owned property along Wolf Creek north of Helena. In the season, I would drive up from Bozeman on a Friday after work. As I turned in through the gate and crossed the pasture. I was guided by a big fire he had built at the camp along the creek. He handed me a cold one and we stood as the fire subsided and caught up with ourselves. We slept in an old trailer above the creek. In the morning we hunted up the mountain.

Hunting was another thing I did not grow up with but after moving to Montana was taught by friends who had. I was never any good at it but grew to love the rituals and the comradeship, especially being outside in the Fall with an end of the year sense of purpose.
Up early on Saturday, we spent the morning walking up and down the coulees on Bob’s property and on a couple of his neighbors’. Sometimes we got lucky, most times came away with just these stories. After lunch we rested at camp, maybe on top of a sleeping bag in the sun for a nap. In the afternoon. we took the pickup and cruised on dirt roads in the National Forest. Technically, we were still hunting, but mostly just driving and listening to the football game on the radio. We stopped up on ridges for the view and to let the dog run. In the evening we returned to camp to cook over the fire.

Later, Bob built a house on a bench above the creek. When just the basement was built and we slept on the concrete floor, it was still camping. When the house was complete and we stood warm at the picture window looking out at the peaks of the Little Belts, when we watched the football game on TV, when we ate meals at the dining room table, it was not End Camp. But the hunting and the friendship were exactly the same. I am sure that the weather was not always perfect during those trips. But I only remember perfect. Hemingway said it; “Best of all he loved the fall… and above the hills the high blue windless skies…”

There are a couple of things to remember about fall camping. Writing them out may help me to remember them though I doubt it. There is a corner of our deck just outside the back door with great solar heat. Stepping out, facing south in the sunlight. it is sometimes as much as twenty degrees warmer than anywhere else, surely much warmer than in the mountains. Even when it is known to be false it feels good. Well, that is not so bad. It is Montana and even in midsummer there are a couple of coats and maybe a down vest in the pickup. The other thing is Daylight Savings. These years that artificial concept lasts into November but is still worth consideration. It is cold and then it is dark early and colder.

A couple of years ago feeling the need for an official End Camp, I drove up Hyalite as normal. I ignored both of the above-mentioned precepts and a third just as vital, snow. Standing on my warm deck, I gazed out at still green grass. At Hyalite, the view was out over a foot of snow. I bootpacked through a couple of miles of trail not bothering to think about skis. Throwing a pair into the truck had been way past my mental fantasies. Warm and excited from the exercise, I found a camp back near the road, gathered wood and started a little blaze. Gradually, then suddenly, it was dark. And cold. Freezing. Sitting in the lawn chair was not an option. I had to stand and turn myself like a rotisserie chicken before the fire. Soon I was done and crawled into the truck and into the sleeping bag with all clothes on. Brilliant sunlight, but no warmth, woke me many hours later. After tidying up the firepit I drove to town to a coffee shop. The great outdoorsman End Camps again.

To qualify, and contradict myself, there is no last trip. There is the trip that has ended, the trip you are on, and the one yet to come. But the calendar that both binds us and organizes us is circular and each year rolls around to Fall.

It is nearly that time of year now, Hemingway’s words continue; “...the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams…” So after this reminiscing, perhaps it is time to make some gear lists and some preparations. Or, I could simply charge off into the hills and make some more stories.

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