Mistakes & Lessons at Cascade River State Park

Not every adventure goes according to plan. Here are the lessons we learned camping at Cascade River State Park. An adventure full of mistakes is an adventure full of lessons.

Sometimes plans go awry. Even with meticulous planning and an abundance of camping experience, plans can still go… awry. Good stories never come from everything going according to plan. Lessons aren’t learned that way, either. So take a gander at this mess and learn a bit from our mistakes. Perhaps your next trip will run a bit smoother because of it.

The camping trip was all planned out for Scott, Sandy, Killian, and myself. On our first night we would stay at Cascade River State Park. A hike-in site would ensure solitude in the popular park. We’d pack up camp in the morning and explore a bit before heading to the BWCA for a second night of camping and to tackle Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota. That’s not entirely what happened.


Original Plan: I would spend Friday morning packing up the Pathfinder and getting things ready to leave while Scott went to work. At 10:30am I would do my short list of dog walks for the day and be back by noon. Scott would leave work early and be ready to roll by 1:00pm.

What Actually Happened: On Thursday, the air conditioner in my vehicle went out. We brought it to the auto shop and asked if they could fix it in a hurry. They said it would be done by noon on Friday.

Perfect, that still gave me an hour to get things loaded before we hit the road. No worries. I’d have to bike to my dog walks, but that was okay. 1:00pm comes and no phone call to say the Pathfinder is done. I give them a call to see how it’s going. I’m told that the part was supposed to arrive over an hour before I called and still hadn’t shown up. It was after 3pm by the time it was ready to be picked up. We got on the road at 3:45pm. This was going to be close, we were now racing daylight.

Arriving at the Park

Original Plan: We’d stop in at the park office for a look around, grab a map, park approved firewood, and perhaps a souvenir or two. I do like to chat with Park Rangers a bit before heading out to a campsite. They are a great resource for recent happenings in the parks and on trails.

What Actually Happened: We hauled a** and pulled into the park at 8:55pm, precisely sunset. The park office was already closed for the day. No stopping to get a map or even venturing toward the office to see if maps were left by the bulletin boards, as is the case at some parks. Nope, I pulled up the map that I had saved on my phone and called it good.

Hiking in the Dark

Original Plan: We were to arrive at the park with a good 3 hours of sunlight. Ample time to get loaded up with gear and have a leisurely mile and a half hike with a 10 year old and a 2 year old. Stopping to see the sights and enjoy the woods. Plenty of time to set up camp and have taco rice for dinner and s’mores. Taking in the last glimpses of sunset over the vast expanses of forest beneath Lookout Mountain.

What Actually Happened: Scott and I exchanged concerned looks. Not because of the risk of coming across moose, bears or wolves along our way in the dark, unfamiliar, foreboding forest. No, it was the daunting task of hiking with a now crabby and tired 2 year old and his equally crabby, tired, and slightly frightened 10 year old sister. Yikes.

Having been in a flustered hurry while packing earlier in the day, I seemed to have overlooked packing any headlamps or flashlights… a very unfortunate mistake on my park. Thankfully, our daughter keeps a flashlight in her daypack. Scott used his phone to light his way at the front of the line, while simultaneously looking at my phone for the map. I was using Sandy’s flashlight at the rear of the group to make sure we didn’t lose any kids or the dog.

Killian was not afraid. Being 2, he was naïve to the dangers of the forest and very into the “Going on a Bear Hunt” song that his grandma had taught him. Wildly convenient! Once he got moving on the trail, he was in his own little world of adventure. He did not stop talking the entire hike. This was actually comforting to his sister, Sandy. We assured her that no animal would want to come anywhere near that nonstop chatterbox.

Arriving at Camp

Original Plan: We were supposed to arrive at camp with hours of daylight to spare. The kids would have a chance the check out their new surroundings and explore.

What Actually Happened: As darkness fell, we kept checking our map and scooting along a quickly as a toddler can go. Based on the map indications, the campsite should have been at a little turn off of the main trail. But we only saw one, questionable turn off. We checked around for indications of a campsite. There was a small remanence of a past campfire with a circle of rocks and a small clearing where a tent had been placed. Our options were to push the now exhausted children to hike further in hopes of finding the actual campsite or make due with our location right there. We set up camp.

Camp Setup

Original Plan: Getting to the campsite would be a great accomplishment for our two young hikers. The fearless adventurers would assist in setting up the tent and unrolling their sleeping bags. Setting up camp is always a great experience with the kids and gives them a change to use all of the cool gear and learn new skills.

What Actually Happened: Deciding to stay in this little clearing meant having to make due with the conditions set before us. With no daylight left and very little artificial light given, I set to work setting up the tent. I can move fairly quickly in this endeavor when needed. It was needed. Sandy helped with some parts of the tent setup, the parts that were most in the light of the flashlight. Killian huddled closely to his dad, who was holding flashlight and phone up high, trying to provide the most light possible. We accomplished our set up and quickly threw our sleeping gear inside.

Bear Proofing

Original Plan: After camp set up, we would sit down to have a delicious meal of taco rice. Once dishes were cleaned and stowed away, we’d be able to make a quick little fire to roast our s’mores and gaze up at the stars from our great overlook destination. The bear box provided would make quick work of storing our food pack. The box was located on the side of the lean-to shelter at the campsite.

What Actually Happened: With camp set up complete, it was time to hide our food pack. Problem is, no campsite means no bear box. We always pack rope on a camping trip, we’d need it the following night in the BWCA. The trouble was spotting a tree good for hanging a food pack in the dark. We found a tree that would suffice, it was over a small gorge. We were thankful that we weren’t new to the whole concept of hanging packs from trees.

Sleep Tight

Original Plan: I had packed cards and a book for the kids to entertain them before bed. Killian had a “Goodnight Minnesota” book, it would be the perfect read in the Northwoods. Our favorite card games to play are while camping are Go Fish, Crazy 8’s, and the classic Old Maid. I was looking forward to fooling Sandy into being the Old Maid. Following our competitive festivities and story telling, we’d cozy into our sleeping bags and get our dog settled with her blanket.

What Actually Happened: We did not play games. We did not read stories. It was straight to bed. We got the very tired kids into their pajamas and sleeping bags. We had planned this trip for the middle of July, the hottest month of the year. The kids stayed plenty warm. Scott and I stayed plenty warm. Xena, the Great Dane, did not stay warm.

I was hoping that because it was July and we had brought her warm blankets, she would be toasty warm. Not the case this weekend. She found herself wrapped in not only her blanket, but my sleeping bag as well. I also curled up around her to keep her warm with my body heat. I wasn’t cold at all, but she was shivering before I snuggled up to her. After readjusting her sleeping arrangements with snuggles, my good old girl slept like a baby.

Morning Surprise

Original Plan: I’d rise early to catch a peaceful sunrise at the overlook and have a few quiet moments before the kids burst out of the tent with youthful energy. We’d have a simple break of oatmeal and enjoy our hot cocoa and coffee. Xena would eat up her kibble and maybe a jerky snack or two. Packing up camp would be a snap as we usually pack pretty light and have a good system down.

What Actually Happened: Something stinks….. bad. Xena stretched in her cozy spot and the smell became more putrid.

Side note: Xena was 8 years old on this trip last summer. With her age, she has developed mild fecal incontinence. This means that occasionally a little nugget will fall out without her knowledge. We were aware of this problem, but it’s not too frequent and is usually quite easy to clean up.

Miss Xena had indeed made a mess on her blanket and my sleeping bag. This was not a simple clean up. The mess in question was smashed into both items. This two night trip had now been knocked down to a single night trip. I was not going to sleep in a soiled sleeping bag, no thanks.

We fetched to food pack to prepare breakfast for the kids and Xena. While they ate and had their hot cocoa, I tore down camp. This is usually a group effort. With a stinky Xena mess on our hands, I didn’t want it ending up on their hands. This was a job for mom only.

Xena decided that burying her breakfast in the dirt was better than eating. I spent a great deal of time picking kibble out of the dirt; leave no trace. By the time I was able to eat breakfast it was cold. Excellent… Not.

Hiking Out

Original Plan: The hike out was supposed to get us motivated for the day of exploring ahead. Seeing the trail we had concurred the night before in a new light of a bright sunny morning. Checking out the waterfalls once more as we meandered back to the Pathfinder.

What Actually Happened: We started our hike out by hiking farther in. The motivation was to see where this illusive campsite really was. To our dismay, it was a scant quarter mile farther down the trail. But it ran right next to a huge drop, hence the name Lookout Mountain. It was indeed a great overlook. The cliff stood over an astounding view that would have certainly looked breathtaking at sunrise… had we actually been there to see it. We checked out the camp, it was a nice little area.

Now that we had seen what could have been, we were ready to venture back to our starting point. It was a brand new hike, even though we had traversed the same path ten hours earlier. It the morning sun, we were able to see all that we had missed in the dark. Killian was a great little hiker, once we got moving. Sandy was most pleased when we stopped to play at a bridge and creek. She is fascinated by water of any kind.

We spent some time gazing at the falls on our way back. We hadn’t taken any time to appreciate them the night before while rushing to get as far as we could before total darkness. They were wonderful. I highly recommend getting a glimpse of these beauties when visiting the far North Shore.

Eagle Mountain

Original Plan: We would grab a map quickly at the Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte and head to the trail head. We would hike in to one of the two campsites available on the way to Eagle Mountain. This is inside of the Boundary Waters, a permit is required, we had such permit and hoped for the campsite on Whale Lake. Being that we would be staying at a campsite for the night, we would only be doing half of the 7 mile hike that day. Three and half miles would be no problem for the kids.

We would leave our gear and hang our food pack at the campsite and hike the rest of the way to the peak of Eagle Mountain. The break of dropping off gear would give the kids a break from hiking and a chance to play by the lake on a hot summer afternoon. The hike back to the campsite after reaching the peak of Eagle Mountain would be short as it’s fairly close.

What Actually Happened: We picked up our map from Sawtooth Outfitter and made our way to the trail head. The parking area was surprisingly full. I hadn’t packed the child carrier. The original three and a half miles was not going to be an issue for our littlest hiker. After Xena’s incident, we were not staying the night. Our hike was just doubled. No carrier was now a problem.

Killian was a trooper for fair distance in. His energy began to fade and his lack of sleep caught up to him. It was dad to the rescue. Scott carried Killian on his shoulders on and off for a great deal of the trail. Killian’s legs would get sore after a while from having his legs pressing into his dad’s shoulders. Then he’d walk for a while until he was tired. Sandy was amazing! She carried on with no problem, such a great hiker.

While we had to modify our plan for Eagle Mountain, it was a great hike. I would highly recommend it for every Minnesota hiker! Be sure to bring a child carrier for the little ones, though, even if you think you don’t need it. Hiking Eagle Mountain was a great experience.

Saturday Night Dinner

Original Plan: Return to camp on Whale Lake from the hike to Eagle Mountain and enjoy another camp dinner with a fire and watch the kids play by the rocky shore. Have a s’more or two before hanging the food pack for the night.

What Actually Happened: After our longer than planned hike to Eagle Mountain, we were starving. Of course we had brought snacks, but sometimes snacks are not enough. We headed toward Grand Marais in search of a place to grab dinner. This was a great alternative to camp dinner; My Sister’s Place. This restaurant hit the spot and they even had blueberry milkshakes. It was delicious. After our delicious dinner we headed straight for home.

Lessons Learned

Every camping trip should teach an adventurer something new. If you’ve learned everything there is to know about camping and the great outdoors, good for you. The rest of us will learn as we go and strive to take a little something out of each trip. Or in this case, a lot of somethings. Here are the lessons we learned from this disastrous, yet memorable, camping trip.

  • Ensure the vehicle intended for the trip is in working conditions well before the journey. We already knew this from our Accidental Trip to Tettigouche State Park several years ago, but I guess we needed a reminder.
  • Have a printed map prior to arriving at your destination.
  • Pack the damn flashlights.
  • Camp at designated campsites.
  • Always pack rope (we had this one down).
  • Bring cleaning supplies when traveling with a senior dog.
  • Bring a jacket if that senior dog might get cold (it was July! How was she cold?!)
  • Always pack the child carrier, even if you think you won’t need it.

The biggest one:

  • When the camping trip doesn’t go according to plan, that doesn’t make it a bad trip. Despite all of the weird events and misfortunate circumstances that occurred; we had a great trip. Our Cascade River/Eagle Mountain experience wasn’t what we expected but it certainly made some lasting memories.

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