I’ve slept on a bluff above the Strait of Georgia, and in a picturesque pasture in Homer, AK. I’ve paddled the Boundary Waters with my dad, who I credit for introducing me to the joys of camping. I’ve also had restless slumbers, spooked by animals on California’s Lost Coast, and suffered through an unplanned night huddled on a Cascadian riverbank, after a hike went awry (and a search and rescue team was beckoned). But the feeling of contentment I get from erecting a tent, stoking a fire, and staring at stars always outshines those darker memories.
So I’ve convinced my husband to camp for a night with me at Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio, San Francisco’s verdant army-base-turned-national-park. After we find our site and start to pull out our gear, about 15 friends arrive by car, bike, and foot. Some come from across town and some from just a couple city blocks away.
The first thing I notice, aside from the campground’s pristine condition – with four burly picnic benches per site, animal-proof food storage bins, and accommodating grill – is the distinct lack of squealing. This campsite, reopened in May after a 20-month renovation, is home to the Camping at the Presidio (CAP) program, which provides disadvantaged kids a chance to experience nature.
I’m all for getting children into the woods, but I’m not a fan of their early morning wake-up calls. I’d been bracing myself for a passel of little people making a racket, but it turns out there’s no CAP trip on this blustery mid-July Saturday. It’s just us and one other group: a small, subdued collection of kids and parents.
My friend Matt rolls up from a reconnaissance cycle around the camp and hands me a little pincushion of leaves and woodland detritus. It’s a hummingbird nest. He found it on the ground, just off the trail and oddly close to a rotting raccoon carcass, he explains.
I’m about to investigate when a guy carting a kayak in a beefy pickup pulls up and asks about the sites and how to go about claiming one. He’s tired, I suppose, from a long day on the water and looks ready to plop down anywhere.
I explain that the sites are reserved in advance and that they’re very pricey for a single person ($100 per night, though with a capacity of 30 people per site, it’s kind of a steal). What if he just walked off into the surrounding woods and pitched his tent, he asks. The forested area isn’t that deep, I explain, and suggest he find a quiet place to park and crash out in his rig (yeah, I say “rig” to sound outdoorsy). A while later, a park cop stops by to check on our reservation, and I’m glad the kayaker hasn’t poached a campsite. He probably would've been discovered.
When night descends and the fog moves in closer, we prepare the assemblage of foods we’ve all brought. Later, as the grill grows cold, and the remaining bratwurst and Tofurkey sausages are claimed, we kindle the twigs in the fire pit. We also arm ourselves with down jackets and hats, but no one seems put out by the chill. Complaining about fog in the Presidio is like complaining about water in the SF Bay. Plus, the mist blankets the campsite, making it feel cozy. I’m also hoping it insulates the many voices emanating from our group, which continues to grow in size even after the sun sets.
As I walk past the now-blazing campfire on my way to the latrine, I run into more than one person I haven’t seen in months, nor did I expect to see. They’ve arrived over the past hour or so, trickling in after receiving texts and calls from various campers. Did I mention that cell reception here is very decent? Of course it is – we’re in the freaking city. And we’re still very much attached to San Francisco through our phones – which double, by the way, as flashlights.
This is such a far cry from my beloved wilderness camping. In some ways I’m a bit annoyed by people sending texts and talking on their phones while roasting marshmallows. But on the other hand, I’m glad to see so many long-lost friends who’ve decided to make this impromptu trek into the wilds of the city. Once I take myself out of my conventional camping mind-set, I realize that there’s a pretty fun party going on here.
I drink my coffee black. For this reason, it never occurred to me to pack cream. Or sugar. And I’d told everyone who received my five million pre-trip emails that I would take care of their caffeine fix. Now people unused to sleeping on the ground are aiming their bleary eyes at me in a sideways manner. But all is not lost. There are two bags full of marshmallows left over from last night’s s’more fest, which will serve as both cream and sugar for the unpicky drinkers. For everyone else, I reason to myself, the Marina cafes are just minutes away.
But there’s one special camper I’m particularly concerned about, because this is her first time camping. Ever. I look at her with incredulous stare. How can someone reach adulthood without experiencing the joys of pitching a tent and finding their way in the dark? I feel like I’m some kind of outdoors ambassador and I want her to enjoy the experience. If she’d asked, I would have run off and gotten her a cup of joe, made to her order, at the Warming Hut on nearby Crissy Field. Luckily she’s content. And after one night in the Presidio, she’s already stoked on doing more camping.
I give myself a little mental pat on the back. My job here is done.
After breakfast, I take advantage of one of the truly unique amenities that Rob Hill offers. I’m not talking about the posh bathrooms, complete with Dyson-like jet-engine hand dryers (which I used to dry my breakfast dishes after washing them in the sink). I’m talking about an in situ art gallery.
Presidio Habitats is a series of art exhibits scattered throughout the Presidio. It’s part of a yearlong installation paying homage to the fauna that was squeezed out of the park during its centuries as an army base. The Presidio Trust is trying to save the fauna along with many of the plants in the area. History note: The US Army was the third tenant here, after the Mexican Army, which followed the Spanish Army, the first non-native inhabitants. The Spaniards evicted the native Ohlone people in the late 1700s.
I spot a beautiful Chinese vase perched high in a cypress tree that’s meant to attract the Western Screech Owl, which hasn’t been seen in the Presidio – or anywhere in San Francisco – for nearly a decade. The vase references the city’s links to the Pacific Rim, and its Chinese immigrants. Pretty. Will it bring back the Screech Owl? Hell no, says an ecologist friend who’s familiar with San Francisco birdlife. Same goes for the Where is the Hare? exhibit, which consists of large, fancy start- and finish-line banners advertising a race between the black-tailed jackrabbit and a tortoise. Like the soldiers buried in the Presidio’s National Cemetery, those owls and jackrabbits are here only as memories.
These exhibits are a conceptual rather than ecological effort, but as I stroll through them, collecting blackberries, it occurs to me that camping in the Presidio is a concept, too. Yosemite this ain’t, but Rob Hill Campground offers the opportunity to experience the city in a totally new way.
After rolling up our tents, mounting bikes, and packing cars, the group disperses into the Presidio’s hundreds of surrounding acres. Unlike most of my past camping trips, getting home won’t require forging miles of trail, driving interminable 4 x 4 roads, or endless paddling in a headwind. It’s just a crosstown commute, and voila, we’re home.
The first step to set up camp in the Presidio is to call (415) 561-5444 to make a reservation. If you want more deets before you commit, log onto the Presidio Trust site. I was able to make a reservation for about three weeks out when I called in June, but I’d suggest planning your trip a month ahead of time, especially during the warmer seasons.
The Presidio Habitats exhibits run until May 15, 2011 – and maybe longer if some of them end up housing the animals that they’re designed for.
Get dirt under your nails and impress your friends with your mad ecology knowledge by volunteering for any of the great restoration programs the Presidio Trust has on offer. You can also help with a major effort to inventory SF’s endangered flora and fauna by contacting the Wild Equity Institute.
City slickers who lack the goods needed to stay dry and warm outdoors best consult with a local gear shop, such as Sports Basement or consult with an SF gear maker, such as Alite.