Creating a lifetime of memories through camping
By Michael Roberts
The first day of the long Memorial Day weekend at Devil’s Den State Park near West Fork was the quintessential Arkansas summer’s day: warm, humid and completely beautiful—despite a threat of rain delivered by the morning’s forecast. The park was a bustling hive of activity, with families and groups setting up camp, lighting barbecue grills, splashing in Lee Creek or chasing one another around the hiking trails, basketball courts and campsites. The air was electric with people excited for the first big celebration of the summer, and the feeling was infectious.
Down in Devil’s Den campground E, Cade Collister of Fayetteville was diving right into the midst of all this hustle and bustle. Cade had arrived early to the park in order to make preparations for a family camping adventure for himself, his wife April and their five children: Aven, age 11; Sophia, age 10; Ella, age 7; Ethan, age 5 and Beckett, age 2. The Collisters are avid campers and hikers, utilizing both a space-age Cricket Camper and a large tent to camp—along with a variety of other camp accoutrements.
“We don’t always get to camp with everybody,” Cade said as he lifted the pop-up roof of his Cricket. “Usually one or another of the kids has an event or other activity going on.” Indeed, once April arrived with their brood in tow, I found out that Aven, the oldest, was due in Oklahoma the next day for a track meet. She was excited about competing in the 100- and 200-meter races and long jump events—while mom and dad were more concerned with a knee injury she’d suffered a few days before. There wasn’t much sign she was hurting, though, as she and Sophia began helping Cade set up the family’s tent.
“We usually like to stay in the tent,” Aven said, holding a tent pole in place so that Sophia can insert it. The camper is rated to sleep four adults—but, as the younger kids generally like to stay close to mom and dad, the older girls find solace in their own space.
Once the tent was erected, Cade gathered up Ethan and Ella to complete the campsite with two hammocks and the family’s Cacoon. No, that’s not a misspelling—the Cacoon is a hanging treehouse of sorts that functions as either a treetop bedroom or a play-space for the kids. Aven and Sophia immediately launched themselves into it, spinning about from the stout branch of an oak tree while Ethan and Ella detailed their favorite camping activities.
“I like finding bugs,” said Ethan, a sentiment Ella agreed with: “Especially roly-polies.” Ella was excited about a book she had just read in school that day—Homer and the Doughnut Machine, a Robert McCloskey book I recalled reading when I was her age.
Once camp was set, it was time to explore. We started by taking a walk down to the green waters of spring-fed Lee Creek for a lesson in rock-skipping. I think it must be something about being a dad that imbues a man with superpowers when it comes to skimming rocks across the surface of a given body of water—and Cade’s abilities drew appreciative squeals from the kids.
“We didn’t have iPhones when I was a kid,” Cade said with a laugh. “We had river rocks.”
Once the rock-skipping had lost its shine, we set out for the Devil’s Den Self-Guided Trail, a mile-and-a-half trek through some of the prettiest terrain in the Ozarks. I’d spotted a troop of geese with some half-grown goslings earlier in the day, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of them as Cade led the family along the trail—with April bringing up the rear and catching stragglers. It was a full-time proposition for her, as each child often stopped to point out an oddly shaped rock, poke at a random snake hole or pick some of the season’s last remaining honeysuckle.
Our hike having warmed us up, it was back to the creek—only this time it was all about the wading. Cade and the kids explored the slippery rocks looking for crawfish and minnows, finding an entire colony of mudbugs after lifting a particularly large stone. Beckett, the youngest, was the most enthusiastic about the water, flopping and splashing about with glee and abandon. It was enough to make this writer wish he were that small again.
“It’s chaos,” said April with a laugh as we watched the children playing. “But it’s a happy chaos. There’s always a point where I sit back and watch them playing and feel content.” It was proof that the outdoors in Arkansas holds something for everyone, from toddlers to adults. By the end of the day, we were all ready for a campfire and some s’mores, each with the glorious exhaustion that comes from adventuring as a family.