The New York City Parks Department's takes green-starved city dwellers on outdoor adventures for free through its Urban Park Rangers program. All you have to do is register online, and hope you get selected via the random lottery. I tried my luck and got chosen for not one, but two excursions. First up: a trip to the northernmost tip of Manhattan to camp in Inwood Hill Park.
6:51 p.m.: Thanks to the MTA, I'm nearly an hour late, so I'm feeling like a pretty big jerk, even though Sergeant Sunny Carro, the leader of this camping expedition, assured me it was okay. I meet up with M., my (somewhat reluctant, but generally positive) outdoor adventure companion, outside Inwood Hill Park, and we head in, looking for the group. The sun is going down, and the park looks lovely. We enter on West 218th Street near where the Harlem River meets Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The Big C Rock stands across the water. The Parks Department bills this activity as "Family Camping" and everything that's been written about it is about how awesome it is for family bonding. Since we're a young, childless couple, we're a tad nervous that the group is going to be all breeders and babies, and we'll be the weird young childless couple.
6:53 p.m.: We walk down the peninsula and see the group on an alcove to the south. A lot of tents are set up, and some people are sitting in a circle eating their dinners. Several children run around. A touch of panic hits.
7:01 p.m.: We're greeted by a chalkboard sign cheerily proclaiming "Family Camping!" and a friendly park ranger who is, at the very most, 20 years old. We hurriedly claim a tentthe Parks Department provides tents, you just need to bring beddingand make a beeline for an empty corner spot at the edge of camp near the water, far away from the circle of diners.
7:08 p.m.: Neither of us has set up a tent in years, but this small green Coleman is a far cry from the bulky, metal-poled, 40-piece tents of our parents that ruined trips before they even began. This thing has just three, very bendy poles and two canvas parts. A monkey could put it together. It's up in 10 minutes.
7:21 p.m.: Set up our sleeping bags (borrowed from friends) and find ways to busy ourselves, delaying the inevitable: we need to go join the circle for dinner.
7:35 p.m.: We give in, and join the group with our picnic dinner. We take a seat next to two park rangers, who tell us that Inwood Hill Park has the only natural woods left in New York City. We'll be hiking through them later. This is only the second camp out of the season, and this is the first campout for several of the four younger rangers. Sgt. Sunny says that 140 people entered the lottery for this trip; 25 were allowed to come.
7:45 p.m.: As expected, all of the other campers are families. There are two mom-and-son pairs, both boys are about 6 years old, and it's obvious that they've become fast friends. There's one dad and daughter (mom comes later), one set of parents with a toddler, and another set of parents with a very quiet son (also about 6 years old) and a super tiny baby with the biggest eyes and most hair I've ever seen on a baby. We're told there will be games, "so we can all get to know each other." Uh, what now?
7:52 p.m.: A rowdy group of neighborhood teenagers are having a party (it is a Friday night) on the other side of a walkway from the camping group, and it's not exactly family-friendly. Lots of cursing and dancing that is not PG. One of the moms says, "Earmuffs!"
7:54 p.m.: Ah! We're not the last people to arrive. Two women and two teens walk into camp.
7:57 p.m.: Bathroom break before the night's activities begin. Because of construction, the only toilets are port-o-potties. At least there's toilet paper?
8:03 p.m.: We take a walk to the edge of the peninsula. Neither of us has ever been to this park before and a return trip is unlikely, so we want to see as much as we can. The sun is behind the cliffs, and aside from the partying teens, the peninsula is quite peaceful.
8:11 p.m.: Head back to camp, go to the tent for sweatshirts. The rangers
warn announce that the games will start soon.
8:15 p.m.: PANIC. IT'S TIME FOR GAMES.
8:18 p.m.: They start with a name game. Each person must say his or her name and an animal that starts with the same letter, but before you say your name, you must repeat everyone's name and animal who came before you.
8:28 p.m.: Thankfully, we're near the beginning. I go with jaguar, M. calls himself meerkat.
8:37 p.m.: Last person is one of the moms. She doesn't even try, just pompously says, "I've just been doing work this whole time, I really have no idea," and dismisses the kind ranger's words of encouragement. Way to set a good example for the kids.
8:40 p.m.: Name game is over, here's our menagerie for the night: Sgt. Sunny is Snail, and Bear, Narwhal, Squirrel, and Alligator are her rangers. Iguana is the mom of Elephant, one of the young boys. Hyena and Rhino are the parents of Rabbit, a curious boy about two or three who keeps wandering away from camp. Camel and Ape are the parents of the other Rabbit, a pig-tailed girl about five-years-old. Anteater and Scorpion are the parents of Ant (the quiet boy) and the tiny baby. Jackal and Aardvark, both teenagers, who arrived late with Moose (the second woman who came with them doesn't play). Bat is a chatty older woman by herself. Tiger, the woman who cried "earmuffs" during dinner and refused to play the name game, is the mom of Lion, the other young boy.
8:54 p.m.: Games over! We survived. Dare I say we even had a little bit of fun?
8:59 p.m.: As we're getting ready for the night hike, Tiger tells us we're the youngest people here and we should know about Cree flashlights. Huh?
9:05 p.m.: The group is getting more comfortable with each other. Lion and Elephant are running around. Lion rips out one of our tent stakes. Bat starts asking Ranger Squirrel, a young woman with a dark ponytail and glasses, about raccoons having rabies. Some of the parents start quizzing the rangers about the hike. "It gets a little rough, we go up pretty high," says Ranger Narwhal. She points to the cliffs across the creek. "We're scaling that forest, heading to an overlook to see the Palisades." Nevertheless, two strollers depart camp for the hike. Scorpion Dad is wearing a headlamp.
9:11 p.m.: As we walk, Tiger starts talking to us, incredulous that we, two young people, would opt to spend our Friday night doing this. "Did you expect to be the only kid-less people? I never would have done this when I was your age." Translation: "Why are you not at a bar? That's where I'd be if I was you. Hell, that's where I want to be." Tells us she grew up out west and lavishes praise on the parks department for offering these activities. She's very proud of herself for bringing her son along.
9:16 p.m.: We stop at a salt marsh. Narwhal tells the group it's the last natural salt marsh in Manhattan. The Henry Hudson Bridge glows in the background. Narwhal says we should all be quiet and not turn on our flashlights. She wants to see some bats and possibly a flying squirrel.
9:23 p.m.: Lion and Elephant promptly turn on their flashlights to light up a historic plaque. It marks where the Lenape Indians sold the park land to the city. We start walking into the woods, and it's getting pretty dark. Bat won't stop talking about the dark.
9:34 p.m.: Starting to get pretty steep. Hyena Mom and Rhino Dad bulldoze up the path with baby Rabbit's stroller. The kid is unfazed. Lion and Elephant keep turning on their flashlights. Bat will not stop talking. We keep climbing.
9:45 p.m.: We reach the overlook. If you ignore the traffic from the Henry Hudson Highway below, you can almost imagine that you're not in the city. Almost. Bat asks what river this is and if Brooklyn is on the other side.
9:50 p.m.: A few moment of quiet (save for some local kids sitting out on the ledge), and then Narwhal says it's time to go back for a campfire and s'mores. Lion and Elephant freak out.
10:06 p.m.: Despite his stroller bottoming out along the path, Rabbit is fast asleep.
10:10 p.m.: Stop to get sticks for roasting marshmallows. Lion declares he needs a triple-pronged device. Bat still yammering on. M. says, "I do not want to find myself alone with her."
10:25 p.m.: Arrive back at camp, Sgt. Sunny has a fire going and s'more fixings ready. No critters were spotted on the hike, but there's a coyote waiting for us at camp. For approximately 1 second, I thought it might be real (how do you spell gullible?). Bat is over the moon about it and whips out her camera.
10:27 p.m.: M. and I head to our tent. It should be pointed out that while this is "family camping" and city parks do not allow alcoholic beverages, the rangers do not police what you bring into your tent. So one could, hypothetically, bring a flask or a bottle of wine, and, hypothetically, enjoy a drink in their tent.
10:38 p.m.: We head over to the fire. Sgt. Sunny gives us each two marshmallows, and we happily enjoy our s'mores. Sunny says she's been doing this for eight years now. I ask if they ever get childless people like us. She says they do, and adds that a group that didn't show up tonight was all adults. M. looks jealous.
10:40 p.m.: Elephant and his mom Iguana show up for s'mores, but Sgt. Sunny is out of marshmallows. Now we are the childless people who stole the last marshmallows from a six-year-old.
10:48 p.m.: As we're talking to Sunny, Bat comes over. Oh no no no. We're stuck. She pulls out her camera and shows us the 27 photos she just took of the fake coyote. She pretended to ride it like a horse. Her grandkids will love this.
10:54 p.m.: Escape the never-ending conversation by saying we want to check out the telescope. Supposedly Saturn and Mars are visible, but everything looks the same to me. Bat follows and uses a pair of binoculars to look at the stars. She doesn't understand why all of the stars are shaking wildly. Sunny kindly explains that's just her hands shaking.
11:18 p.m.: Brush our teeth with a water bottle. Just because we're camping doesn't mean we can't have good hygiene, though I saw no evidence that anyone else here bothered to brush their teeth.
11:44 p.m.: Tents do not provide ample sound dampening. It's loud. The ground is very hard. But we're canoeing in Marine Park tomorrow, so we better try to get some rest. M. and I agree that it's not that cold in the tent, and we should have brought blankets so we could just sleep on top of the sleeping bags and have more padding.
1:27 a.m.: Wake up because it's cold. I get all the way in my sleeping bag. I see that M. has done the same. Jackal, one of the late-arriving teens, is hanging out with the rangers at the campfire. He is loud.
4:01 a.m.: Wake up to Jackal's voice. He is still holding court at the campfire. I somehow manage to fall back asleep.
4:45 a.m.: ALL OF THE BIRDS IN THE WHOLE WORLD ARE OUTSIDE AND MAKING NOISE. I have never heard so many birds at once. M. is snoring.
5:10 a.m.: Wake up, again, in a panic, thinking we missed our 7 a.m. departure deadline. It is a lot brighter in a park at 5 a.m. than it is in our apartment.
5:30 a.m.: Can't fall back asleep, but I don't want to leave my warm, hard bed, even though my hip bones are grinding in the ground.
5:43 a.m.: Bat. Still. Talking. Nonstop.
5:45 a.m.: M. is still snoring. I hear a ranger say, "There are tiny fuzzy little goose babies over there." I consider getting up to look.
6:00 a.m.: I can't wait anymore. I get up to go to the bathroom. Nothing like a port-o-potty trip first thing in the morning.
6:02 a.m.: The fact that the rising sun looks beautiful over the park makes the port-o-potty trip more bearable.
6:30 a.m.: M. finally gets up. We eat bananas and look at the paths made by the bajillions of birds on the creek. We pack up our things in order to take down our tent. Taking it down is just as easy as setting it up, except for now it's dew-covered and we need to hang it over the fence to dry.
6:51 a.m.: Moose, the mother of the teens, barely talked to anyone the whole evening, but as she's leaving with her family, she says goodbye to everyone, calling us each by our animal.
6:53 a.m.: We say our goodbyes, and thank Sunny for the fun. She gives us badges as souvenirs. We survived. Now for the hour and a half subway ride home so we can trek 22 miles south to Marine Park for a canoe trip.
· Outdoors Week 2014 [Curbed]
· Urban Park Rangers [official]