A photographer and his family take an (almost) perfect staycation on Jordan Lake

Click photo to expand and view slideshow.

words & photography by Joshua Steadman

A few weeks ago, the team at WALTER asked me to take photos of my family camping and fishing. I’ll preface the following by mentioning that we are not a family that camps much. But my wife Carla, daughter Olive, 12, and sons Vaughn, 10, and Townes, 7, were game. That’s how, on a fine Friday afternoon in early August, I found myself at Great Outdoor Provision Co., a local retailer that knows how to access wild places, talking canoes and hammocks with staffers Bittu Ali and John Millsaps, who set me up with enough rented gear to get going.

We chose to have our outdoor staycation at Jordan Lake. It was the easiest for us to get to and had the most open water; a must, since I had planned to meet up with my friend Rob Barton for some fishing on the second day. We opted for the primitive campsites at New Hope Overlook: hot dogs cooked over a campfire, roasted marshmallow and chocolate s’mores were essential bargaining chips for convincing my family this was a good idea.

After parking, we took a short hike through the available campsites, picking one with the best view of the water, and what we thought was a good, flat, hard-packed dirt area close to the fire pit. We then set up our two tents with efficiency (we’d practiced at the house), and started a fire right away. Well, not right away, but after ten to fifteen minutes of burning through a few sheafs of paper, twigs and, finally, paper napkins while trying to ignite the small pile of wood sold to us at the park office (you’re not allowed to gather wood or bring your own, but you can buy some at the entrance for a nominal fee). But it was close enough to “right away” that it really gave us hope for an epic camping weekend. It was a memorable one, as you’ll see.

While I portaged the surprisingly heavy two-person canoe to the campsite by myself (looking up the definition for “portage” should give you a great idea of what that looked like), my wife and kids set up sleeping bags in the tents, explored the lake edge, and took a few photos of their own. Pretty soon, golden hour had come and gone and we decided to singe some hot dogs, consume them with gusto (everyone was starving) and retire to our tents. The girls went into one, and boys into the other.
The drizzle began when we were getting into our tents. As we arranged ourselves and talked about the day, I had a smile on my face. What could be better than this? Time with my family and a bit of a photo essay to knock out in the morning. It was going to be a great weekend.

The drizzle changed to a steady rain. I assured my youngest that all was fine; we just had to stay away from the edges. “Touching the sides of the tent lets the moisture in,” I said with confidence, and, looking back, a great deal of self-importance. We closed the top flap we’d opened earlier in anticipation of a cool breeze. The steady rain began to get heavier. It got really loud in the tent. We could no longer shout over to the girls’ tent and laugh about the day. “It’s cool,” I said. “This should ease off soon.” We all moved to the center of the tent. Then the rain actually slacked off. It got quieter. We all relaxed a bit. No problem. And then: With a big whoosh of sound, the big, wet hand of Mother Nature squashed our little campsite. A bucket was upended on us. A river of rain fell from the sky.

Inside our tent, the sound was deafening. Everything was wet. Townes eventually got so close he was lying on top of me. At one point, there were tears (no, they were not mine). Vaughn eventually climbed on top of me, too. It was some kind of odd-looking Dad/sons sandwich, and none of us cared about anything other than trying to keep our arms and legs out of the increasingly large puddles forming next to our sleeping bags. After about twenty minutes, we’d had enough. The rain won.
I called my wife’s cell phone. The girls’ tent was five feet away, but the rain was too loud to hear anything. “We’ve got to leave,” I shouted. I didn’t know if she heard me. I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear anything other than occasional yelps from the boys, and the hard-driving rain. I grabbed my camera bag, the boys put on shoes, and, half-dressed, we started fast-walking back to the car. It was pitch-black (of course), and the path back to the lot was full of water. We stepped in most of the puddles we found. Finally we made it back to our truck, and fortunately, it was only about 9 p.m., so the campsite gates weren’t closed yet. We were able to get out. Everyone was soggy, but also really happy to be home, and we all fell asleep, hard.

The next morning, if you can believe it, we went back. The site was a wreck, and everything we’d brought was wet, but we were still game. We upended the tents to dry them out, and took turns paddling around in the canoe and hanging around at the edge of the lake. I snapped one golden moment of Olive and Townes in the hammock. (Thirty seconds later, he pushed her out.) We had one near-disaster with the kids paddling the wrong direction in the canoe, a dropped paddle and a few loud shrieks, but we managed to get them back to shore.

Rob met up with us that morning, and we spent a few hours fishing. The kids had a blast! It turns out Rob is much more into fishing than I realized—he has a bass boat with a trolling motor and participates in fishing competitions. He’s even won a few. He also knew a lot about Jordan Lake and gave us history lessons about the area. There’s a whole town underneath the water, including railroad tracks, roads and homes, all flooded to create the lake. Rob knew where to look for fish and showed the kids exactly what to do: how to bait the the line, cast, how to look for the little dip in the line when a fish takes the bait. It felt like each of them caught a fish every time they put their poles in the water.

At the end of the second day, we packed up the campsite and headed out. Everyone was tired, but happy. The kids were proud of the fish they caught. Carla and I were proud of their bravery in the face of a real disaster. It was amazing how, even though we were only about thirty minutes from home, we felt like we were in a different world. Around here, you don’t have to go far to escape the routine.  Although after that weekend, the kids have been acting a little more grateful for the routine.