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By Jerry Mellem
From the July/August 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
I am not sure what month it was, but it was late spring 1964. We lived in Davenport, and my father borrowed a pop-up camper from a friend. That Friday night, he loaded Mom and us five kids in the car and pulled the camper to Backbone State Park’s Six Pines Campground, the only campground there at that time. There was a hand pump for water and an outhouse.
Dad went fishing several times that weekend, but never alone. All of us kids had learned and loved to fish. My oldest sister and I were the two who usually went. Although we both knew how to fish, this was a different type of angling. Trout fishing took different knots, a different way of baiting the hook, learning how to “sneak” up on the trout and a great deal of patience. This was the first of several times that summer we would enjoy camping and fishing.
The first few times I felt a little bit sorry for Mom, because Dad and I would go fishing and she was cleaning up from or preparing the next meal. But this was short lived—after a few trips, my two older sisters and I got pulled into meal preps and dishes, too.
After the first summer, Dad decided to buy a pop-up camper so we no longer had to borrow one, and we camped more often. Oh the memories we created. One of my sisters never wore shoes at home, and camping one weekend, she forgot hers. Dad and Mom had no sympathy, and she spent the weekend barefoot. The walk to the outhouse across a gravel road and through knee high grass was surely painful. I am sure it was no fun. Another time that same sister watched a bumblebee fly into the camper. She was petrified and screamed. I was able to get it out without getting stung or killing it.
Over the years, all three sisters have been thrown in the lake, as well as many grandkids, nephews and nieces. Of course my two brothers and I went in as well, because that was the only way to get others in. One of my brothers and I would take our watches off to forget about the time. We only knew what day it was because we had to go back to work or school the following Monday. We often missed meals and sometimes still do because we prefer to fish and enjoy the country.
In recent years, floods caused water levels to rise above the bridge, relegating us to campground activities. If we are unable go fishing, family games of Skip-Bo, Scrabble, cribbage, euchre and countless others, were an adequate substitute. Hours upon hours have been spent relaxing in the sun reading a book or by a fire in the evenings. Often a guitar was brought and songs sung around the campfire—with of course, the ritual s’mores.
Trout meals are frequent, and it makes no difference which meal as it’s hard to beat fresh trout for breakfast. One brother makes a fantastic potato soup—a couple hour process—but well worth it. A few years ago, with bellies full, a few cooked trout found their way into leftovers, turning the soup into the next day’s trout bisque. A three-star Michelin-rated restaurant chef has never tasted better leftovers.
One weekend my brother and brother-in-law were fishing a catch-and-release stream. They both caught several nice brown trout and released them as required. They returned to Richmond Springs and my brother-in-law caught a brood stock brown. My brother placed himself between my brother-in-law and the stream, told him that the precious and tasty brown trout had to be returned there as well. Grumbling, he unhooked the trout and went to return it. My brother stayed between him and the stream, and finally told him he could keep it—that he was just teasing. My brother-in-law was not amused.
Another trip, while my dad and I were fishing, he laid his pole on the ground. I wasn’t watching where I was walking, stepped on the tip of his expensive new fly rod and broke it off below the second eyelet. He wasn’t happy with me at all and told me to walk up or down stream and fish there. He had bought a rod with two top sections though, so he changed the sections and continued to fish with his new rod. As we left the stream that afternoon, he put his pole in the back of the station wagon and promptly closed the door on the second section, breaking it in half. The words he used are not repeatable.
One Friday, when I was 13 or 14, in the furthest hole downstream under a huge rock, I spotted a 19-inch trout. I told my father I was going to catch it if it took all weekend. I spent Friday evening until after dark waiting, catching nothing. Saturday, daybreak saw me back at the same hole. I knew the fish was there, because once in a while it would come out of the undercut rock and swim around. Dad came around about noon, but I refused to go to lunch. He gave me a stick of beef jerky.
Early afternoon saw a smaller trout drift into the hole from upstream. It was hungry, picked up my bait and shook it. The “pool owner” trout came out of nowhere, swam around twice and hit the smaller trout broadside. The trout floated to the surface and into the downstream rapids. Not one to pass up a trout, I picked it up and put it on my stringer.
Later that afternoon, the monster trout came out of the overhang and played with my nightcrawler. I waited. He shook it several times, spitting it out each time. I was patient. Finally I saw him eat it. I set the hook and the fight was on. Dad had a 4-pound leader on the fly rod, and I knew I had to be careful or I would break the line and would not have another chance. The sun sparkled off the water as the line zipped back and forth from one side of the pool to the other. The trout tried every tactic it knew, and I tried to keep it from going back into the undercut in the rock. If it did, the line would be cut and my patience would be in vain.
Finally the old monster tired, and I eased it into the downstream rapids. I lifted it from the water onto the bank. I was so excited, I grabbed it and took off for the road. I had no idea where my father was fishing but I had to find him. A short while later, Dad and Mom drove up. They were coming to take me back to the campground for supper whether I wanted to go or not. Years later I remembered that I left the nightcrawlers, my small tackle box and the other trout by the stream. Our next camping trip I visited that hole. The ever-shifting landscape had changed. Leaves and other debris had filled the area, and the hole was vacant. I felt a twinge of remorse, but remembered the excitement, and how delicious my patience had tasted over an open fire.
I cannot tell you how many times we have gone to the stream just to come back to the campground with fewer nightcrawlers and no trout. We have used about every bait available—nightcrawlers, salmon eggs of almost every color, miniature marshmallows, artificial baits, cheese, corn and lures. We have caught trout on almost all of it. A special “never miss” bait is . . . you think I am really going to tell?
Dad has always been the friendly type, and always visited with other campers in the campgrounds. Most people are from Iowa, but there are families from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and several other states. He would talk about the weather, crops, fishing, family, jobs, etc. Once in a while he would even invite others over for a meal. At home, Dad made breakfast almost every Saturday, so he had the skill to cook breakfast while camping. He would cook bacon, eggs, pancakes, trout and toast. Dad could cook toast over a two-burner stove without burning it—an admirable feat. A half-century and numerous camping trips later, I still can’t do it like he did. I cheat with an electrical site and plug-in a toaster.
Dad loved the outdoors so much, and he passed that on to all of his kids. He taught us to be observant rather than just looking. When he saw something worth looking at, he took the time and patience to show us and teach us what he knew. That could be anything from recognizing poison ivy to watching and waiting for a chipmunk to move so we could see it.
Backbone is a great place to teach the art of observation. Rarely over the years have we not seen some part of nature that gave us a sense of beauty. There is scenery, watching the changes of the park and stream over the years and the adding of the new campgrounds. And then there is the wildlife—deer, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks, snakes and more. We have seen such a variety of birds, identified their calls, and read about their habitat and eating habits.
Our camping continued until 1968, when we moved from Iowa to Wisconsin. For about 10 years our park visits and camping were uncommon. Siblings and I completed schools, married and went different ways. None left the upper Midwest, but none lived closer than 100 miles from the park. Many years ago my oldest sister finally declared the first week in August as family Backbone week. Some of the family could not make it, but the week was a success. My folks again were camping and fishing there. There was now a modern campsite with electricity and pressurized water that did not have to be hand pumped. There were still a few outhouses, plus modern facilities like flush toilets and showers.
The park is always so nice and the staff friendly. Even after rough weather, the park is maintained and in good order. Year after year we have enjoyed our family week at Backbone, and many years there have been additional weeks and weekends as well. Sometimes just one family camped and sometimes we were there just for a picnic.
We have celebrated anniversaries and birthdays sometimes early or late, but Backbone was and is the best place to celebrate. The year I turned 50, the family offered to give me a huge party at the park. I joked “I would not show up.” But I tricked them, arriving disguised as an old, old man. No one recognized me until I was a few feet away.
Over the last years, our reunion week has shifted from August to May. May 2015 we celebrated 51 years from when we started camping at Backbone. Mom and Dad are still with us. Dad is 92 and mostly blind. In 2014, he enjoyed the park very much, but last year declined the visit. Mom, who is 89, has arthritis and difficulty getting around, but said the week in the campground this year “did her wonders.”
As we children grow older, now 66, 64, 62, 57, 53 and 48, we see the results of what my folks started so many years ago. Many of our adult children now join us and make it a part of their life, too. Our kids are starting to bring their children and even some great grandkids are learning to camp and enjoy the park beauty. The generations continue to learn to respect natural areas, and the beauty and awe of the park. What a wonderful legacy my folks are leaving.
Next year, find us camping in the second or third week of May again. Not all of the family may make it, but you can be sure those who can will be there. It will be very comforting if either of my folks are there too. They both say Backbone is one place they never tire of.
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