Category Archives: camping

(Near) Winter Camping at Sprague Brook Park

  At the end of November of 2013, my son and I took our two dogs to do some near-winter camping at Sprague Brook Park in the south of Erie County.  We had never been to Sprague Brook, but it was suggested to us as a place that had ‘winter camping’.  It turns out that that means that the small loop of power campsites is open until November 31st, but the bigger loops of unpowered sites is already closed.  I was actually happy that the site would have power, since the bus doesn’t have a heating system.  I had thought that I would bring two small 1500W space heaters, which I figured would keep the bus warm.
Such a nice glow …
  I had just had the almost 3ft by 9inch plastic ‘School Bus’ signs removed and replaced with glass to let more light in, so it really changed how the bus was for driving (I was able to see the light above the intersection through the new window!  Conversely, the new windows provided a way to get the sun in your eyes …)  I also pulled out a couple of light fixtures to let us see in the evenings.  The first of these is a nice brass fixture that is reminiscent of a gas lamp that a previous owner put a little push-switch on.

  I put this up on the wall in the ‘cabin’ area so we could see to eat and read in the facing bench seats.  I had some nice 40 watt amber bulbs, so I put them in and it gave the ‘cabin’ area a nice cozy glow.

The other fixture was a carriage lamp that I put up near the bunk, as our son likes to have a night-light.  I didn’t want anything really bright, since I dislike light while I’m trying to sleep, so I settled on a little 3 watt ‘flicker-flame’ bulb.  It seemed like it wouldn’t give much light, but at night when you’re trying to sleep, or get around, it gave off more than enough.
And you can just make it out despite the
fluorescents in the garage …
  We stocked up with firewood, a large, old, several gallon coffee tote full of very hot water, several gallons of drinking water, eggs, bacon, venison, bread, butter, onions, potatoes, coffee, hot cocoa, and some other sundries along with our sleeping bags, a cot (only one of the bunks was done), and warm hiking clothes.  Even with all that, we stopped by the EnglishPork Pie Company on our way to the site so that we would have some warm food in us while we set everything up. 
  The trip was nice.  It started out on four lane & six lane highways, then to four lane roads, and then to nice winding two lane roads through small towns and over streams along water-worn cliff-side that showed the geology of the Devonian period.  But it was slower going, some slower traffic and stop lights holding us back a bit.   The pies turned out to be a good idea, as it got dark just as we got to the park, and it was a slow process of backing up and checking behind the bus, then adjusting the bus and backing it some more, and checking and adjusting again.
The bus, in situ, with the moon, just after parking …

  But our campsite was right across the loop from the washrooms and, it turned out, we were the only campers there that night.  We set up the extension cord to the 20 amp outlet and plugged in the heaters and the lights, though when both the heaters kicked on, the flicker-flame bulb wouldn’t light, but that wasn’t a big deal, as there were streetlights around the campsites.  These probably wouldn’t have been so bright when there were lots of leaves on the trees, but in November, they spread a lot of light around.  Luckily, our campsite was in amongst a good stand of white pines which tried to help.
  As the evening wore on, though, the heat that the engine gave us for the bus interior was wearing away, and even with the two space heaters, it was chilly.  The dogs really didn’t care, however, and were happy out on the lines that I tied to a nearby tree, as well as being in the bus.  Our husky decided that the bunk was for him.  The only downside of having the dogs was the accordion-style bus door, which can make it a bit more awkward to clip the lines on or off their collars, but we work it out, and get a fire started.
And this is what warm looked like in the morning.
  But our son breaks out a surprise that my wife sent – some candy.  We use the bread, some chocolate, and Mary Janes to make some tasty Toastite sandwiches, and we do some setting up and reading before bed.  Given how cold it is, I give our son my mummy bag (good down to 0 F when I got it years ago) and he opts to stay on the (for the moment novel) cot, and crawl into his sleeping bag on the bunk still in my clothes.  Luckily, this means I got the husky for extra warmth.
And here’s the bus at the site in the light …
  The morning was chill and quiet.  The temperature went down below freezing overnight, and in the light I discovered that the side door that I ran the extension cord through was kept slightly ajar by the cord, so there was a source of cold.  Of course, the bus is lacking a whole bunch of insulation at the moment, so it is easy to get cold.  Rerouting the cord in the light is a whole lot easier, and I got the cord through the back door.

  Looking out from our campsite, we can see that we’re on one of many terraces cut by the stream over time.  After we get dressed, we take the dogs for a walk down to the bottom of the valley, watching some deer make their way quietly off to the east and away from our noise.  Upon reaching Sprague Brook itself, we were a bit surprised at how small it was, but it was a fast-flowing stream with rocks of many different colors amidst sandy shoals, and the banks showed the past streambeds that had fallen into disuse when the stream’s erosion had undercut trees that had fallen and diverted the flow.  But, of course, this was still before breakfast, so, our curiosity sated, we walked back up to the bus.

  We started a fire and while it was getting to where I can cook on it, our son discovered a playground that was just at the edge of the campsites, so he goes and plays for a bit.  I got some coffee, hot chocolate, bacon, eggs, & potatoes cooked up for breakfast, and after eating, cleaned up and decided to go for a nice hike.  I ended up with both dogs on their leads, one on each hand, which actually balanced me out.  As we walked along the south side of the lip of the stream’s valley, we made some good time, and found another playground.  And another and another.
  The first leg of our five mile hike took us past four additional playgrounds before we got to the downstream bridge across Sprague Brook, and after crossing the bridge, we found another two.  The dogs and I weren’t as interested in these, but my son was, so each provided a delay to our hike, but not a really bad one.  The day was overcast and cool, but not too windy, so it was a great day for hiking.

A selection of the trails available.  Our site was in
that lower right loop.

  The trails at Sprague Brook were numerous, including an 8 mile loop along both banks of the stream, but we only hiked up to more direct way to the ‘overlook’ in hopes that we could see the bus which was essentially just across the valley, but we couldn’t.  There were just too many trees.  But our hike back was a bit more circuitous, following the lip of the valley to some interesting places where the roots of trees were the only things holding up the ground and making quite a drop.

The high point of our trip – altitude-wise.

Our son with the Brook  on one of the overhangs …

  We hiked about 5 linear miles and up and down some 600 feet (250 down, then 350 up and 350 down and 250 up), and got back none too soon, as it started a cold misty rain just as we got back to the campsite area, but it stopped again after 20 minutes or so.  The dogs loved the hike and were totally energetic for almost all of it, but they crashed when we got back to the bus, and just slept for hours.  We got another fire going and set up our dinner of bacon, venison, Phineas & Ferb mac & cheese, and potatoes & onions, topped off with candy-filled Toas tites for dessert.  (We earned it.)
  We read and stayed warm up in the cabin area, then, as getting ready for bed, I realized that the two heaters drew so much electricity from the 20 amp outlet that one of them wasn’t heating, just basically being a fan.  After that, I turned off the one that was putting out less heat, and we just had the one heater.  We slept in our clothes again, trying to keep our heads inside our sleeping bags, as the air was very chill. (Not surprising as the temperature got into the low 20’s (Fahrenheit) overnight.)

And lots and lots of terrain …
  When we got up in the morning, it was dreary.  We didn’t have enough wood for a breakfast fire, and our camp-stove ran out of gas, so we had cereal.  We took one more hike down to the stream, which was festooned with icicles on branches and sticks near its banks.  After that, we tiredly policed up our campsite and made our way in the bus out of the campsite and back home.   The trip was fine, and it was nice to get the bus up to temperature and get the bus comfortably warm.  Unpacking took a bit, but we learned a lot (like that we needed to bring more firewood and that I need to get the 30 AMP hookup working!).  Most of all though, our son (and the dogs) loved it and couldn’t wait to go again.

A Warm Reception

  So after finishing the first bunk, we gave the bus a test.  My wife and I got invited to a multi-day wedding reception for a couple of our friends on another friend’s land out near Franklinville, NY.  The trip was only about an hour away, but it wound along the 400 expressway and then up into the edges of the Alleghany mountains on Route 16.  The weather was great, and the bus ran nicely.  When up to speed, I could take most all of the hills along the route in fifth gear, but we still ended up slowing some people down because I wouldn’t speed (much to the relief of my wife).
  For this trip, I brought an inverter and wired up a 12-volt outlet so that we could blow up a queen-sized air mattress while the bus was still idling and cooling off the turbo fan.  And the fan did get warm.  The land we were headed for was on a small 1 ½ lane road that I missed while we were looking for it.  Luckily, it was a nice, clear day, and there were plenty of places that farm, gravel, or other trucks and vehicles had packed down and could be used to turn around.  So we did. And we got on the road and drove happily along it.
  Having never been to this location before, we weren’t sure if the barn at the bottom of the hill just off the road was the one that we were supposed to park at or not, and so we drove up and set the air brakes half-way up a fairly steep incline where the reception was actually at.  After several hellos and a brief confirmation, we found that the barn (now behind us) at the bottom of the hill was, in fact, the right place, so again we were going to have to turn the bus around.  And, I’d have to get it going on the hill.
  Now, I learned how to drive on standard (manual) transmission vehicles, and I grew up in the mountains, but this was to be the first time that I had to put the bus with its diesel engine to the test in this environment. But it was surprisingly easy.  The very low gearing of first gear (that I routinely complain about because of the fact that I have to use it to get the bus moving, but then have to shift out of almost immediately as its top speed is 5 mph) was awesome for getting the bus moving, even if I couldn’t get it above 15 mph getting up the hill.   But, of course, just on the other side of the hill was, well, the other side of the hill going down.  Luckily here near the top, there was an intersecting road with a wide mouth at an angle that allowed for me to bring the bus along on it, back up a little, and then get the bus turned around. 
  Getting back to the barn was then easy, though I did find out that the seemingly big (to me) 7.1 L T444E engine, even with the low gearing, wasn’t enough to hold the bus back (in fourth, which I thought would do it, but I probably should have been in third).  Now, toward the end of making the bus stop for the parking space at the bottom of the hill, I used the brakes, which did slow the bus, but I now know that I didn’t use the “stab” braking that I should have, instead using steady pressure that would have, on a longer, steeper hill, likely overheated my brakes.  (Stab braking is a hard use of the brakes to below the ‘critical’ speed you need to stay below, and then a full release until you’re just above the ‘critical’ speed.)
  So, at the bottom of the hill, we parked the bus near the barn, secured it, set up the air mattress, and then walked back up along the road to the reception.  There, most people were camping in tents, so we were at a distance from them, but, our ‘steel tent’ was bigger.  But we brought up some camp chairs and our bocce set and had a great afternoon and evening, with DJs and live music by Penny Whiskey.
  We cooked in our ‘Toas tite‘ maker over the communal fire, and in the morning I made espresso over a camp stove and we had a half card table that fit perfectly between the two facing bench seats, so we had our breakfast there.  We stayed until late afternoon, and made our way back home, which was also a slower trip, but because of my adherence to the speed limits.  It turns out that there was some manner of motorcycle rally, and we were stuck in the ‘parade’ behind it.  Otherwise, the trip home was uneventful and fine. 

  We did realize that the narrow hallway along the bus was going to take some getting used to.  We spent plenty of time getting in each other’s way realizing the thing we wanted was at the other end of the bus, past the other one of us doing something along the way.  But we worked things out and, really, more organization would certainly help.