A Washout! Misadventures At Dolly Copp Campground

A Washout! Misadventures At Dolly Copp Campground

Everytime I have ever gone camping. Everytime my family in my entire life has ever gone camping. Everytime you, reader, have ever gone camping…IT HAS RAINED. Not just sprinkled a little and put a damper on a night or two. No, the entire river rises up to eat your campsite. Your little scout tent will get stuffed into the mud, much like that car in Jurassic Park with the little kids screaming, right?

But you know, sometimes ominous weather makes things interesting. Miserable experiences are terrible at the time, but like all of 'em, you can laugh about them later. And memories are made.

Life is unpredictable and messy and fun and as long as we remember to tell the stories by the campfire, it's all worth going through. I'm reminded of a time I drove up to the Dolly Copp Campground in Pinkham Notch for a fun night of weinie-roasting, beer-swilling, fire-raging, moon-gazing, and scout-tent-snoozing. What I got, instead, was wet.

The Dolly Copp Campground is one of the largest campgrounds around, yet it's pretty secluded and rustic. The park is overlooked by the condescending mountain profile known as the Imp. If the Old Man on the Mountain was wise and silent -- Hawthorne's Great Stone Face -- then the spiritous Imp is Bacchus. “Ba-ha-a-ha-a-ha-chus,” is more like it.

Dolly Copp sports sites in fields, through birch, along the river, and on hills in pockets of spruce. It is a wonderully diverse place for anyone who wants tent-pitching options. Most of the grounds allow RVs, but some of the roads are so narrow, hilly, and windy, that no RV is getting up there.

When we got there, the Ranger Station was heavily advertised with signs about severe thunder and hail storms later that night, but I figured it would be a passing storm and then the clouds would move along. Blah-blah-blah. We went on looking for a good site, but we kept the weather in mind.

A favorite book of mine, The Best In Tent Camping: New England, called RVs “land yachts.” Yes, yes! McMansion-mobiles! I enjoy some social atmosphere when camping, but I don’t want my neighbor to have a satellite nestled in a tree branch that picks up the Nature Channel. Lafe Low, the author of the book, has this to say about the Spruce Woods area of Dolly Copp:

Spruce Woods is another great spot for tents…As soon as you turn in to this loop, you’ll feel as if you’re driving deeper into the forest. The whole area is densely wooded with fir, pine, and spruce trees, so there’s a nice sylvan atmosphere. The forest floor remains cool even on the sultriest summer day, and the sunlight filters down through the trees in fractured columns, adding a mystical air to the woods. Even if you have neighbors on both sides, you may not be able to see them. This is my favorite section of Dolly Copp.

We vetoed a good Spruce Woods site that had no tree cover, even though it felt like it was miles away from everyone. The open fields were a no-go, as well, even though the view of the Imp was unforgettable (I wonder how many kids have nightmares of that thing). We drove up a hill and entered a beautiful, quaint woods and found a site nestled in spruce and coddled by a babbling brook. I knew this was it, but we had to continue our tour of the park. After descending the hill, we tried a neighboring hill that was mostly fields — much too open for a possible storm, but good tent-friendly camping.

The Birch Lane was also picturesque, especially along the river, but much too open and public. RVs and tents mingled in fields with birches and trees that were too young and bushes that did not reach high. It felt like a backyard, honestly. In the busy part of the season, I figure it is a backyard. I think I’d enjoy a camp here late in the season when the crowds have dispersed for the year. I can imagine it being lazy and friendly.

The End Loop boasted a last tease that intrigued us. A bit too open for a day like today; it was ensconced into a mountainside. I wondered if it would buffer us against the storm, then I thought of that local tale about the Willey family. There was a terrible storm and they all ran out of their house and died in a rockslide. Legend has it the Bible was open on the table when someone checked in on them later. So, even though we saw the host of this section sitting in the sun at her site — a lovely older lady and a friendly dog (surely good camp stories and camper advice) — we settled on the high hill covered in spruce trees. It truly is the prettiest and most private site in the entire park.

If there is one thing you must do before pitching a paper-thin canvas tent on a gravel pad and spending $22 to do it, it is this. Lesson one: TAKE THE WEATHER REPORT SERIOUSLY. Not only is the weather in the mountains completely unpredictable, it is absolutely more extreme than the accurate reports can pin down. What begins as a beautiful, humid, sunny day can end as Armageddon. 

After registering with the ranger at the entrance, I immediately pitched tent. I decided to hell with this weather. It was beautiful out! I hastily borrowed a two-person tent for this trip. I didn’t think to inspect the contents. It was missing two pieces of its hind-pole! Scout tents need their A-frames. Drats! What to do, what to do!

Lesson two: INSPECT EVERYTHING. Camping is not just the leisurely enjoyment of some trees and dirt and hoots and howls and perfect little fires. It is a recreation of man vs. nature. “Recreation” sounds so pretty today, but it means man vs. nature. Shelter = survival. You can have a cell phone and you can have food, but if your tent isn’t working, you don’t have shelter. And no shelter might mean no survival. I'm certainly being hyperbolic here, since we're just talking about camping. But you probably won't have cell phone service, so you can't search for help online. And you kinda already paid for the site, so you better figure something out fast.

What to do, what to do! I sipped my beer and found a young tree and hacked it down with my pocket knife. I plugged the spruce branch into the odd-ball tent pole then tied it down. I had salvaged the tent in a way that wouldn’t cause passersby to chortle in camper contempt. I felt proud of myself that I could rig a tent with makeshift parts. I’m not proud, however, that I didn’t think to bring a tarp and some rope.

Lesson three: BRING A TARP, NO EXCEPTIONS. Trust me. Our neighbors had tarps over their tents and picnic tables, and they didn’t mind the oncoming weather a bit, from what we gathered later on our sad soaked drive out of Dolly Copp. All of my best camping memories are under tarps. That's because we were dry and happy we thought to bring a tarp.

Earlier in the day, my camping companion had purchased a scratch ticket and lost, jokingly blaming it on the Canadian penny she used. When we arrived at the campsite, I found a penny in the dirt: Canadian. Bad luck, right? If that wasn’t an omen, this was: I opened my packed of weinies only to discover they were slimy and gross. We made the best of things with some other food we brought, eaten quickly as the rain began to drip drop. Pitter patter. Eventually cold, wet teeny blobs of misery.

We picked up some gear quick and hid it in my car. The rain seemed to hold up, however. I could tell the pregnant clouds were about to break, so I ran down to the RV field to track the storm and view the Imp, while my companion waited in the safety of the car.

I studied the clouds, watched lightning strike the mountainsides, and listened to a land yacht generator hum as comfortable campers watched Netflix and/or wondered who that nut in the poncho was and why he had a compass and a camera and a huge grin on his face as he looked up at the mischievous, laughing Imp in its eerie, mythological awe. The storm was moving east, onto the Imp, itself. This was the calm before the storm. This was a Spielberg movie. The first few crashes of thunder seemed farther off but suddenly it sounded as if it has struck right on top of me. The hum of the RV and me. Me and the Imp.

I jumped in surprise as the deafening cannons roared through the Whites. Soon I was sprinting back up the hill for cover as the clouds ripped open onto me. The rain was brutal, cold, and violent. Almost hail. I don’t doubt there was hail on the Imp. It laughed; I ran! It remained stony and giddy, frozen in its menacing tirade of humor, reveling in its evil glee.

I slung myself into the dry haven of my car. I watched the fire get snuffed in my rearview mirror. My tent was sad, soaked, and lonely under that spruce tree.

I was itching to get into the tent and tough it out. My companion wasn't budging. The storm clouds weren’t either. I decided to man up and get out there! I grabbed my necessities and ran to the tent. Once inside, I felt great! Here I am winning against nature! Man builds shelter, man has food, man has light, man has beer! Keep your stinkin’ fire, nature! Ten minutes later, there was water everywhere, seeping in from the corners of the tent. Since the tent wasn’t on a perfectly level piece of ground, it flowed down all over the floor of the tent and everything in it. There would be no sleeping here tonight. The site was turning into a mudpit and it was going to get worse.

Here is the lantern I wanted to write by; this snug brown and yellow shelter we planned to call home for a night; there is the wet fire wood that lies dormant for an undisclosed time until another human enjoys its comforting embrace of flame. I know someone will love finding that abandoned firewood.

Alas, I was down! Rats! When all else fails, get a cheap motel room!

I ripped the tent up in a fury — pegs still on strings and all! — and I drove us back to North Conway. A thick fog and mystique remained. When we passed where Mt. Washington and Mt. Adams are supposed to be, this is all we saw:

We found a cute and simple hotel room; the pool and jacuzzi were real fun to take over for an hour or two. Showers, AC cranked, TV on all night. Coffee in the lobby. Use every freebie!

A rugged camping trip turned into a summer resort getaway within an hour. I am glad I had fun instead of drown in a mud puddle under the Imp’s godawful grin as the heavens burst upon the only land that dares to try and reach it.

In the hotel room, I concocted numerous camper-friendly and silly ideas: diving in the pool, blanket tents, hotel room Frisbee, and lobby microwave s’mores…but when I looked out the window, I saw that the Imp was still out there...somewhere.

In the end, I was happy to stay up all night and write in the moonlight, sip on my beer, and cherish the experience.

There is much I missed at the Dolly Copp Campground: the homestead, the graveyards that were right near our campsite, the campsite hosts and their knowledge, the rangers’ exhibits, the trails, the swimming, the chats with fellow campers, the hike up that menacing Imp. I promise I will check the weather next time. And bring a tarp.

Gondola-ing

Gondola-ing

I Heart Dolly Copp

I Heart Dolly Copp