What I discovered from offseason camping on public lands in Kansas
From left, Allison Hullinger, Laura Mendenhall and Jessica Mounts accompanied Libby Albers on the offseason trails at Kanapolis State Park. (Submitted by Libby Albers to Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Libby Albers is assistant director of the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams.
In November of 2018, I lay in my tiny camper trailer buried under a mound of blankets, the snow-laden wind howling through the trees at Kanopolis State Park.
I checked the weather app on my phone: “16 ℉; feels like 1℉.” I was toasty, but my friend and her dog were outside in a tent. I was 99% sure she was dead. Did I mention she was also pregnant? Oh yeah, I am the worst person to camp with.
How did I end up in a freezing cold, empty campground? More importantly, how did I convince a number of other women to camp with me?
With no time to camp during the summer of 2018, I decided to test my mettle and explore Kansas’ public lands during the offseason.
I’ve always preferred the mosquito-less, tick-less, sweatless and leafy poison ivy-less times of the year. Although there are numerous privately owned all-season campgrounds, my passion is public lands. It’s a pretty small passion — Kansas ranks #49 out of the 50 states, with just 1.9% of land accessible to the public.
My offseason adventure started with a call to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, only to discover there wasn’t really a “list” of offseason resources. As the state isn’t the only caretaker of Kansas’ public lands — there are federal, county and even some city parks that are open to camping — I downloaded the “Allstays-Camp & RV” app to access the crowdsourced data on the rules and ratings of public camping areas near me.
Next step was to convince guilt (convince) friends to go with me.
I had no problem recruiting women to join in on the late September trip to Smarsh Creek Campground at Cheney State Park. We experienced awesome trail walks and mushroom discoveries. But the volume of raccoons! Holy omnivores! These brazen critters were well-oriented to campground fare after a full summer of pickings. Beyond the food scraps, they interpreted our responsibly picked-up little bags of dog poo as tasty tubes of poop-flavored yogurt.
October’s gorgeous weekend could have been taken straight from a magazine. The late fall weather was perfect, yet the federally managed campground was practically empty. We spent the weekend marveling at the fall colors, exploring an adjoining pioneer cemetery, visiting the Marion antique shops, overeating crockpot meals and laughing around the campfire.
It was the last weekend before campground staff closed the gates for the winter.
Post-October, the offseason challenge really set in: bathrooms and shower houses were now locked up and winterized, trash cans put into storage and power breakers flipped and locked at some campgrounds.
But really, who needs to shower when it’s cold? Everything smells like a campfire anyway. Campsites were carefully chosen with access to old-fashioned pit toilets. As for electricity, incredulous county park staff were happy to turn on a couple of breakers for the “crazy ladies” camping in the winter. The trails during the winter offered a glimpse of wildlife not often seen during the busy months. And, taking a turn down one deer trail led back to a secret fort built by industrious summer campers.
Not every offseason weekend was idyllic. Sometimes the only relief from the cold was breaking out Marci Penner’s “Kansas Guidebook” and touring nearby destinations.
When camping at Kanopolis State Park, our caravan of coverall-clad women escaped the wind to marvel at the history and carvings of Faris Caves. These artificially excavated caves located along the Smoky Hill River were dug out of the Dakota Sandstone with a pickaxe by Coloradan miner Charles Griffee in the 1880s.
Honestly, during the dead of winter, it was tough to get friends to camp with me. One frigid attempt ended in failure and a return home within a few hours.
The promise of a mild, early spring weekend, the discovery of a four-season shower house and nearby tourist destinations convinced me to pack up my grade school daughter for another offseason trip. I’m so glad I did. Now two years later, we both still talk about the hours we played UNO, viewing the moon through Lake Afton Observatory’s giant telescope, spotting a hot air balloon and watching ambitious kids try to swim in near-freezing lake water.
Since COVID hit this March, I’ve seen more walkers, hikers, campers, boaters and folks fishing than I thought possible. Store shelves normally filled with outdoor equipment are as empty as toilet paper aisles.
Now that the temperatures have dropped, resist packing away your tent and trailer until next spring.
Explore the offseason.
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