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The Incident at Fort Richardson State Park … and other tales of first-time family camping

There’s no better way to spend a day than duck hunting and stalking redfish on the Central Coast.

By Barbara Rodriguez

The blowtorch gave me pause. The packing list for our camping trip was extensive. I was schooled in obsessive planning by my father, but while my list included things Dad never dreamed of (a French coffee press), there was nothing close to a blowtorch. That was my husband’s contribution.

He mentioned it as he dropped off to sleep the night before we were to leave for Fort Richardson State Park and Historic Site. I stared at the ceiling for a while. I wasn’t at all secure with Jurgen’s notion of campfire protocol. I had seen him light our deck on fire with a hibachi. But, nervous as I was, I’d dictated so much of the trip’s logistics that I didn’t feel like scotching his contribution. This was to be our family’s first camping trip together. Elliott, our 6-year-old, was beside himself with glee. He packed a newly purchased pup tent, compass, flashlight and a lantern that chirps like a cricket.

Camping offers unparalleled insight into personality traits that come into play in a relationship, traits such as preparedness and the ability to deal with disaster. Although Jurgen and I had never shared a tent, we had survived a year in a fifth-floor walk-up, cold-water flat in Berlin, an urban equivalent of camping out.

I’ll tell you now that within an hour of our arrival at the state park, paramedics were called in. Incredibly, the blowtorch was not involved.

The North Texas weather was gorgeous last May when we arrived at Fort Richardson, a 454-acre park with a rolling-prairie beauty all out of proportion to its size. Adjacent to U.S. Hwy. 281 and minutes outside the city limits of Jacksboro, the park gates herald a wonderland abloom with just about every wildflower known to Jack County.

It was the Onderdonk-worthy landscape, edged in stands of frilly mesquite and ablur with Indian paintbrush and huisache daisies that first won our hearts, but the accessibility was a close second. Not even an hour from our front door in Fort Worth, the tidy park, studded with rock outcroppings and manicured just enough to allow for a civilized edge around the bathhouses and playground was, in the words of a boy who has crossed the Alps, “the prettiest place I’ve ever been.— There was also plenty to see and do in a weekend, including a 9-mile hike-and-bike trail that extends beyond the park borders to Lake Jacksboro, two nature trails and a restored cavalry fort. The tent sites appealed, but as the temperature was to drop into the 30s, we opted for a bit more comfort. I was delighted to see our screened shelter was the most far flung, that it abutted a trickling creek and offered a view void of other humans or structures.

But back to what we now refer to as “The Incident.—

We had scarcely unpacked before Elliott was pleading to go fishing. And why not, when this newest of adventures was so accessible? Just steps behind the ranger’s station, Quarry Lake is stocked with trout in the winter and periodically with bass and catfish. The ranks of dead trees standing in the reservoir looked to be an ideal bass retreat. As we rigged up, I calculated the years of fishing time my dad lost when he put aside his pole to deal with a child’s tangled line. I fought Elliott for control of his rod just long enough to bait it. I would have preferred to give him a minnow and bobber, but we hadn’t stopped for bait, so I deferred to his wish for one of the “fish attractors— that came with his new rod. The neon worms seemed ideal for his tendency to fish the meadow with each wicked backswing. Perhaps he’d catch an armadillo.

Jurgen, who had fished before without success or bitterness, dedicated his engineer’s mind to rigging a jointed top-water lure with a double set of treble hooks. I had just picked up a silver spoon when his first cast zipped through the dead trees and landed in the open mouth of a bass. The fish hit the lure with an explosion I thought was exclusive to fishing shows. Elliott and I froze as he reeled in a 17-inch-long, wide-mouth lunker. We hadn’t even brought a stringer! We quickly made do with a length of cord. Meanwhile Elliott shouted, “What a beauty!— so compulsively that three seasoned fishermen edged over to see what was up. One asked so hopefully if we were leaving that I felt determined to stay put all night.

This was Jurgen’s day. He cast once more and pulled in what could have been the twin to the first bass. Then things turned ugly.

Jurgen, who before this day had never handled a live fish larger than Nemo, reached for the fish’s backside. When the fish bucked, Jurgen juggled him a moment then grabbed hard for the jaw — and plunged the rear treble hook into his thumb. Deep into his thumb. It felt like minutes before it occurred to me that the least I could do was remove the fish from the other end of the lure and give Jurgen room to inspect the damage. With the fish stringered and Elliott removed from the brink of the reservoir, I dared to take a look. There was no way the hook was coming out the way it went in.

The ranger’s station was only 40 feet away; surely there was some newfangled tool or insider’s tip that would allow for removing the hook with painless ease. Jurgen went for help while I assured him we’d keep his place warm. My heart wasn’t in fishing, but pride made me keep one wary eye on the trio of fishermen still casting away on the other side of the reservoir. It couldn’t be as bad as it looked.

After 15 minutes of hard waiting, Elliott and I left our fishing for good and plodded to the ranger’s station. Inside, two park workers and manager Randy Ferris were staring at Jurgen’s thumb. Someone said, “We have all the know-how, but no tools.— Then there was a round of, “Yep, if only we had the right tool.— This was repeated several times with slight variations until Jurgen was the waxy white of a fish belly. A cold sweat was beading his brow. “What is the right tool?— I asked, a bit too shrilly.

It was clear to everyone but me that a pair of diagonal wirecutters could clip off the other hooks to make way for the inevitable. “He’ll have to push it through,— the man sitting at Jurgen’s knee like a shoe salesman said. “Doing it yourself is key,— he said. “It won’t hurt any more than it already does.—

“Can’t we take him to an emergency clinic?— I said. This got Jurgen’s attention; I saw him begin calculating deductibles. “I can call the paramedics or you can drive to the hospital,— Randy Ferris said calmly.

“Call the paramedics.— I said, now slightly hysterical. Thankfully, Elliott was sitting outside in a tree, in his own world of denial.

“I can do this,— Jurgen said, “If I control it, I can do it.— At that moment a workman suddenly returned with wirecutters. “Close your eyes,— the first man said. As the clipped hooks flew over my head, I understood his warning. Jurgen was now free of the lure and had only the one hook to maneuver. The manager kindly moved behind him to a catcher position. All the men looked on in admiration.

I knew I owed Jurgen one for sticking by me during childbirth, but I couldn’t watch. In four quick steps (easy for me to say) he pushed the hook almost through, cut the skin open with a new razor blade, shimmied out and clipped off the barb and then pulled the hook back out — just as the paramedics pulled up, lights flashing. Everyone in the room took a deep collective breath.

“Thank you for doing that,— the paramedic said. “I’ve done it and it’s what has to be done, but it’s just a whole lot better if it’s you and not me.— He cleaned the wound, bandaged it, and after lots of back slapping, we stood at the reservoir, blinking in the sunlight.

This is when I would have said, “Let’s go home.— Not Jurgen. He never once blamed me, asked if we were having fun yet or in any way played the martyr. All cards I would have played. Maybe all at once. But no, Jurgen was even game for more fishing. All he asked of me was that he have his bass and eat it too. Fair enough, I thought. We fished a few more minutes, waved at the trio across the way (so intent upon watching us leave that they failed to notice a submerged bobber until it was too late), then drove into town to pick up some hydrogen peroxide. On the way, Jurgen pulled over to admire a cottontail and show Elliott some cactus flowers.

Did I mention resilience and esprit d’corps as traits camping might test? I had never been more sure I’d married the right man.

Back at camp we cleaned the fish, and in a moment of optimistic idiocy Elliott will forever remember, I entrusted him with a small Swiss army knife. Remembering the patience with which my mother had taught me, I set him off in a fervor of scaling that resulted in an equal number of scales on fish and child. (I smoked the fish in a grill basket over mesquite chips, good hot or cold.)

But what about the blowtorch, you want to know. It was used with less success than the more traditional methods of laying a fire, especially since Jurgen didn’t clear out the old, wet ashes before adding the new fuel. But he had fires raging within minutes. I know the torch was used, but I just got busy doing other things, so that when the ranger showed up to arrest him I would not be called an accessory.

By nightfall, we were full of fish and content in a new way. We sat by the fire and read in the gloaming until Elliott, who’d been playing creekside, said quietly, “Mom and Dad, you’ll want to see this.— He was almost snout-to-snout with two whitetails. One doe snorted, but did not bolt away. “Oh, are we lucky,— Elliott whispered.

Soon after, the exhausted boy requested to go to bed, zipped himself into his tent and called out his goodnights. But an hour later I looked in and found him wide awake, eyes round. I told him about the stars we’d been watching.

He joined us outside and sat in my lap as I told him the stories my dad told me of learning to navigate by the stars. We kicked up the campfire and grew drowsy together. We had weathered a calamity, shared a campfire, eaten by firelight, told tales and viewed planets we’d never seen from our home lawn. We’d each claimed a shooting star of our own. In less than 24 hours we had become a family that loves to camp. The family in which I had been a child and the family in which I am the mother became, for the first time, the same one.

Elliott’s Highlights

For the next two days, the creek beside our campsite became Elliott’s outpost. Filled with broad-backed stones and little more than ankle deep, the gurgling water held a deep fascination. Elliott lost himself there for hours at a time, becoming a sort of feral but lovable creature, like Tarzan’s Boy. When the evening chill came on, I had to beg him to put on shoes and a shirt.

What most intrigued him was the notion of a hike that would have him disappearing down a trail into nature. We set out just after lunch on Saturday. Though the Lost Creek trail was our goal, when we overshot the trailhead we opted for the wilder Rumbling Spring path that paralleled the groomed trail along the opposite side of the creek.

A cocky roadrunner, shocking in his size and aplomb, was the first of many wildlife encounters. There were beetles of every size and hue, spiders, waterbugs and birds that needed identification. When we traced Lost Creek to its gargling spring, Elliott insisted it wasn’t a lost creek at all. We had found it, hadn’t we? Up and under cliffs, in and out of small caves, and suddenly my son became The Crocodile Hunter. He narrated every turn in the path, addressed every bud and blossom with his observations, began every sentence with “You know what I think?— His final conclusion was that every wildflower sprouts from the bones of a Native American killed in battle.

He loved making the big decisions about our route, cliffside or creekside, tall grass or short. There were moments when it was easy to forget we were minutes from a state highway and less than an hour from the Metroplex. Toward the end of our journey, Elliott took my hand and gently explained the advent of bubonic plague. The only time I gained the upper hand in explication was when I introduced him to the aerodynamic grass spears that as children we had called Indian Needles. To his great amusement I spent the next two days bristling with them.

At the end of the weekend I solicited a final comment from the grubby, glowing boy: “It was great — well, not the disaster with the fish attractor, but everything else. You know, Daddy is the best fisherman in the world. He caught two — by the mouth!—

“And me,— I dared ask. “How do I rate as a camp mom?—

“You! You are the best Indian needle catcher ever.—

Getting There

Fort Richardson State Park and Historic Site is half a mile south of Jacksboro on U.S. Hwy. 281 (60 miles west of Fort Worth). Facilities at the park include a park store (with firewood), restrooms, showers, 11 screened shelters (with electricity and water) and 42 other sites (a mix of tent sites and camper/RV sites) that include picnic tables, grills, fire rings, water and electricity. There are picnic sites, horseshoe pits, a volleyball court, trailer dump station and a playground with a pavilion that can be reserved. The Lost Creek Reservoir State Trailway runs from the park to Lost Creek Reservoir and is open for biking, hiking and equestrian use. A swimming beach outside the park is accessible via the Trailway and is open seasonally. Camping fees vary. The park is open daily and the office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information about the park call (940) 567-3506 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us>. To make reservations call (512) 389-8900 or go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest> and click on Make Park Reservations.

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