(This 757th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 2, 2005.)
This summer I proved to myself that you can teach an old dog -- me -- new tricks.
When I was planning my Lake Huron tour by scooter, I came across an email message touting the use of hammocks for camping. Intrigued, I followed up on the recommendation, visited the website of Hennessy Hammocks, www.hennessyhammock.com, and read the information and reviews there. This sounded like an interesting alternative to sleeping on the ground.
I checked among friends. Did they use hammocks? The only answers were about backyard experiences. "They give me a backache," was one response. "My kids dump me out," was another. Despite this lack of useful firsthand response, I decided to try this camping mode and purchased an Expedition model hammock through the internet.
It arrived shortly before my departure date and I only had a chance to set it up once. I found a couple of suitable trees and followed the set-up instructions. Remarkably, I was able to do so easily and in about ten minutes had the hammock up and secured. The website had suggested three minutes for this task: it took me that long just to interpret the instructions.
The hammock looked great. It was like a cocoon, the bed covered over with mosquito netting and that assembly draped under a canvas fly to protect me from rain and dew. One problem, however: I couldn't see how to get into it. Finally I found a velcro-covered slit in the canvas. To climb in I simply pulled this apart and sat down on the hammock. As soon as I pulled up my legs, the slit closed itself and I was effectively sealed in until I reversed the steps to get out.
The hammock came down as easily as it went up and fit back neatly into its stuff bag. Even with the four metal stakes I later added, this sackfull weighs under four pounds.
Off I went on my trip.
Near the end of my first day riding up the Michigan shore of Lake Huron, I began to watch for unposted wooded areas along the highway. Happily I had plenty of choice and at dusk I turned down a lane away from the lake into a woodlot.
Within a hundred yards I came to a partial clearing with plenty of trees to choose from. I selected two and soon had the hammock swinging between them. Every night out was similar.
My Hammock in a Pine Plantation
One of the things that had worried me about hammock sleeping was warmth. When you sleep on the ground, cold nighttime air doesn't circulate under your body, but that's not the case when you're on a cot or in a hammock. I learned that lesson the hard way. I once slept on wire bed springs in an Algonquin Park ranger's cabin and nearly froze. For that reason and despite the warm temperatures of this summer, I spent each night in a light sleeping bag with a heavy poncho spread under me.
Once I wrestled into my cocoon -- not as difficult a task as I had expected -- I found myself a part of the forest. I could look out through the netting by the dim light of moon and stars.
On that first evening my hammock was oriented perfectly for me to see a few Perseid meteors in the sky to the northeast. On other nights there was little to see but much to hear. On one a barred owl hooted just once, his ending "you-all" giving the forest a southern quality. On several others packs of coyotes yipped and howled nearby. I had hoped to hear wolves howling when I camped at the north end of Lake Huron, but no luck.
Those experiences didn't last long, however, for it took only minutes for me to fall asleep, to awake each morning thoroughly refreshed.
I never did get a chance to test my hammock in rain but, from the way the fly caught morning dew, I am sure it would serve that purpose equally well.
I recommend this camping mode. I'm now left with one problem, however: I still find myself looking for trees a dozen feet apart.