Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake

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Time for another hike…wait…that picture sure looks like I’m on a lake and wearing a life jacket. Clearly, these would be difficult hiking conditions. Lets call this one “Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake.”  When we think of family camping trips, we generally think of kids and parents, campfires and smores. On my own, I’m ill equipped for such an outing, fortunately my best friend, Ryan, happens to be married to a wonderful lady and has two kids who are pretty darn great in their own right. Add all those ingredients, a lake, a few boats and a few afternoon thunderstorms and you have the making for some classic memories.

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Heron Lake State Park is located in northern New Mexico near the town of Tierra Amarilla and just a tiny bit north of El Vado Lake State Park.  My first trip to Heron Lake was perhaps 15 years ago. People were worried about how far down the lake was at that point. The small island in the lake that sports a weather station was rumored to be much taller than normal. Paddling around in a friends cedar strip custom canoe with viking dragon head and tail made for a grand time. We felt like we were the fastest boat on the lake (which is strictly no-wake) until we saw a sailing trimaran that easily dwarfed out little boat. Other large fishing boats slowly trolled the lake using what looked like deep sea fishing tackle, and that made us nervous about what was swimming around underneath us.

This visit to Heron Lake presented us with a very different picture. The small island with the weather station has grown very large and now has several smaller islands, sandbars really, to keep it company. From our campsite, what would have been a short distance to carry our boats to the lake turned into a half mile haul. On a short trip to Heron Lake RV and Marine, which has a small general store, we were told that the lake was down by 175 feet. If you visit the store and its friendly staff, try the banana bread, its pretty good and be sure to give Hazel, the very talkative grey cat, a good scratch behind the ears.

This trip was the kind of car camping I haven’t done for awhile. The last few years the bulk of my camping has been of the sort that requires carrying everything on my back for a day or more. This was that kind of glorious car camping that makes camping with kids so much fun. We took two vehicles, both loaded with camp chairs and all of the other comforts of car camping plus a canoe and a kayak.

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Upon arriving we were able to snag a campsite with a good view of the lake and not too far from the bathrooms and potable water. Getting camp set up was a little bit of an adventure. My friend’s teenage son decided to try out his camping hammock and his daughter got to have her own tent for the first time. My friends had their own tent while I opted to make use of my camper shell set up that quickly became nick named “Chris’s Man Cave”.

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The son took a long time to get his hammock set up, mostly due to trying to find a better, faster way to set it up without damaging the trees. Kinda proud of the kid for asking all the right questions! The daughter needed some help getting her tent up which was provided by her Dad while I started puzzling out our kitchen dining fly after realizing that the tarp I brought was much smaller than I thought it was.

As is often the case, our first evening in camp consisted mostly of trying to get camp set up before dark, and to beat the storm that was closing in on us. After getting camp set up, we decided that it would be a good idea to haul the boats down near the water so we didn’t have to do it in the morning. Our first trip with the canoe was a painful one…primarily because I was wearing sandals and we hadn’t yet figured out a route to the lake that didn’t involve wading through an acre of stickers. Our second trip with kayak was much more enjoyable after changing into my boots. One of the challenges, we encountered was the lack of hard shoreline. Actually my friends daughter discovered this challenge up to her knees in the form of thick lake mud. We finally found a spot that was a little more rock than mud and positioned the boats well above where we thought any lake swell could reach them.

The next morning, the young lady of the camp arose early and huffed and sighed while saying to herself “I sure am ready for breakfast, I’ve been up for hours!” just a bit louder than she normally would. I remember opening one eye and wondering “why is this child up before the sun and not making coffee?” The obvious answer is that she is 10 and not allowed to light the stove yet….also I doubt most 10 year olds wake up thinking about coffee. After a time, the grown folks in camp did in fact wake up, stumble out of tents and trucks, make coffee and feed the children who claimed to be starving.

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After that, it was time to get out on the water! We packed up everything we’d need, checked to make sure that we had PFD’s that would actually fit everyone (the kids had grown a lot since the last time we were out!) and hauled everything down to the boats. After a quick talk about how to get into the canoe and a more detailed talk about boating safety, we were on the water and on  our way to the big island in the lake!

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After walking around the island with the kids for the morning, it was time to head back to camp for lunch before the afternoon storms rolled in. After lunch, the sky started to turn dark and the wind started to blow a lot harder than we had anticipated. We had pulled the boats up from the water, thinking that we could try to sneak in some more time on the water later in the afternoon. We talked it over, and decided that we may not have pulled the boats up far enough. Ryan and I put on our rain gear and headed out to accomplish two things. First, to pull the boats  up so they didn’t end up out in the lake, and second to just be out in the storm. Ryan and I grew up together working at a summer camp where we often would have to run out into thunderstorms to check on campers, so we get a little nostalgic when thunder starts rolling in. Ryan’s son, who did not put on rain gear, joined us. The wind had reached that point where it was fun to walk around in, but not yet quite strong enough to worry about.

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The wind was pushing the waves even higher than we’d thought it would and the back of the boats were floating where they had been high and dry before. I’ve spent a lot more time out on the water this summer and discovered that I’m actually a big fan of the lakes of New Mexico. If it weren’t for the approaching lightening, I would have stayed and watched the waves for a lot longer than I did.

IMG_1611Ryan’s son managed to find a large number of fishing lures. Side note: never ever walk around Heron Lake without some kind of shoes on! Not unless you are a fan of decorating your feet with rusty fish hooks.

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Before the storm hit us full force we made our way back to camp and waited it out in vehicles. After the rain had passed we made dinner and got a fire going so that we could have lots of coals for making cobbler in a dutch oven later. Normally, when I go camping I tend to avoid established campgrounds because I want some peace and solitude, which is often the exact opposite of what happens at a campground. This night however, was a great example of why it can occasionally be nice to camp near others. During dinner our neighbors stopped by to borrow a lighter so they could get their stove running. They were a really nice couple from Albuquerque, but their stove just wasn’t working that day. When the cobbler was ready we talked with the kids and decided that since we had waaay more cobbler than we were going to eat, that we should walk over and invite the neighbors over. They happily joined us and enjoyed a few servings of hot cobbler. It was one of those evenings that can remind you that despite the potential for noisy generators and the cry of “you ain’t campin if ya ain’t got yer music blastin!”, camping in an established campground with others can be a wonderful and memorable experience. We sat around the picnic table sharing stories and making new friends. Going camping with the family, any family, while not what many would consider a wilderness experience is still pretty wonderful. You can meet new people, help share the outdoors with kids and spend time with people who are important to you while free of the distractions that come with electrical outlets!

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