Once upon a time, when Sugar Bottom was young, we had the entire place to ourselves. There were great piles of firewood free for the taking. There were no designated camping areas; we could camp wherever we pleased. There were no fire pits; we could build great, roaring bonfires right on the bare ground. There were, also, no restrooms, showers, garbage cans, picnic tables, electricity or safe drinking water.
It was sometime around 1960, and we were looking for a place where our two boys and our dog could run free. We wanted to camp without other campers crowding up against us. We wanted no light poles or traffic noise. It wasn’t difficult to find a location with our requirements because hardly anyone else went camping in those days. At the time, you couldn’t even buy a tent in Iowa City. We had to have one ordered through a local sporting goods store. We got folding camp cots, sleeping bags and a cooking kit that included aluminum plates, eating utensils, a coffee pot, a skillet with detachable handle, and plastic cups, all packed neatly inside a large kettle. I wisely added long-handled barbeque utensils, a large iron frying pan and a roll of aluminum foil.
Our first camping trip was in late May on the shores of Ingham Lake in Emmet County, near my husband’s hometown of Graettinger. We set up camp on a point of land where he and his relatives had fished and picnicked for many years. Local residents were astonished to learn that “some crazy people are camping out on the point,” and drove out on Sunday afternoon to see for themselves, as if we were a sideshow attraction. We stayed there for five days. It rained intermittently the whole time we were there, but we found we really liked camping.
After that first experience, we began adding a few conveniences to our equipment; a gas lantern (which had to be accompanied by a gallon can of lantern fuel), then a compact two-burner gas stove (same can of fuel.) The wooden legs of the folding cots poked holes in the canvas tent floor, so we replaced them with foam pads which were much warmer to sleep on. A plastic dishpan for washing hands and dishes also served as a packing box for the ever-increasing odds and ends we needed to take along. I’d learned to package up macaroni, pancake mix, coffee, seasonings, etc. in recipe size amounts rather than take the bulky packages.
Our third son was born in the early 1960s and we borrowed a small camping trailer for his first camping trip. We loaded the tent and supplies inside the trailer and took off in our new, roomy station wagon for a weekend of camping with my parents and other relatives near Marshalltown. A large cardboard box made an admirable substitute for a crib, shielded our baby from chilly breezes, and was easy to move around. His nylon snowsuit kept him cozy in lieu of a baby-size sleeping bag.
It was during these years that we discovered the privacy and convenience of the developing Sugar Bottom area. The two older boys were becoming regular little fishermen, my husband wanted a boat, I still enjoyed the challenges of making do with a skillet and roll of aluminum foil, a college-age niece lived with us and became a sort of mother’s helper. Every nice weekend from May through October, you could expect to find us living outdoors. We went through mountains of hotdogs, marshmallows, little sausages, marinated steak cubes, chicken livers, even those little slipper lobster tails– anything that could be impaled on a long stick and cooked over the fire. We became experts at tracking down wood ticks before they got socked in. The kids no longer complained about the primitive bathroom facilities. I settled for clean hands and faces at mealtimes and gave up worrying about the rest of the grime. Gathering firewood on arrival at our campsite became a habit. Even the littlest boy learned to gather up twigs for tinder. Never having been a morning person, I discovered the joys of sunrise on a June morning, the sounds of waking birds, the last wisps of fog melting away, the sun turning the air to butterscotch.
Next came our own two-acre campground near the Coralville Reservoir, soon enhanced by a small cabin. We hung a sack-swing in one of the big oak trees. A small pot-bellied stove warmed the cabin on chilly mornings and extended our enjoyment of our camp into the winter. Our daughter was born and was soon striving to imitate everything her big brothers were doing. The kids discovered horses, mushrooms, mud fights in the creek, crawdads and bullfrogs, whip-poor-wills, deer and water skiing. A four-wheel drive Ford Bronco and a toboggan got us to the cabin on bright winter afternoons for sledding and hot cocoa.
The area around our cabin is now a housing development. Sugar Bottom is crowded and a far cry from what it was 50 years ago. But one thing survives. The priceless memories of all the fun we had camping.