by Dan White
American recreational camping history has its share of legendary popularizers, including John Muir (1838-1914), who found raptures in the High Sierra, and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) known as the “camping president,” who built up his strength and overcame early childhood health ailments by stomping and camping through the woods. During his presidency, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.
But some of the people who helped transform or popularize pleasure camping in America have fallen into obscurity; chances are you’ve never even heard of these innovators unless you are a history-minded camping nerd like me. It’s time to give these American originals their due. Here are three campers who helped refine and popularize pleasure camping at a time when this pastime was still considered a fringe activity.
Kate Field (1838-1896)
More than a century before Cheryl Strayed, Kate Field championed wilderness adventures for women at a time when men dominated recreational camping.
Field was an ardent fan of the Boston-based minister and bestselling camping guidebook author William H. H. Murray, another great popularizer of camping who has fallen into obscurity these days. Murray’s influential 1869 bestseller, Adventures In The Wilderness, encouraged women as well as men to recover from nervous exhaustion in the cities by heading into Northeastern forests such as the Adirondacks of upstate New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
After Field penned articles defending Murray’s entreaties to female campers, she faced the fierce ridicule of a popular writer and sportsman named Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wanted to keep the woods male and aristocratic. As far as he was concerned, the Adirondack forests belonged, exclusively, to well-heeled sportsmen. Everyone else was a mere interloper.
“And now the wilds. . .have been invaded by Miss Kate Field,” Thorpe sneered in a newspaper column. “She brings some of the rude things to be seen in that wilderness, softened by her womanly imagination, into the lecture room, and ventilates them before audiences composed of people the majority of whom have no more taste for Nature than a rosebud has for a hurricane.”
And yet Field persisted. “Let there be tents!” she cried. “Helter skelter, off with silks, kid gloves, and linen.” As a biographer later reported, “Field plunged into the woods, traveling from Plattsburgh to Lower Saranac Lake to Raquette Lake. She fished, hunted, searched for birch bark to make into dainty boxes, climbed mountains, sang merry songs and sat by the fire at night.”
At a time when men like Thorpe tried to block women from the woods, Field set a brave example. “They talk about a woman’s sphere as though it had a limit,” she wrote. “There’s not a place in earth or heaven. There’s not a task to mankind given. . .without a women in it.”
Field did more than make grand statements about camping. She also tested out her philosophies in the woods by lighting out on a three-week camping trip with several other women in the Adirondacks in 1869. “To come into the Wilderness and not camp out would be to me as unnatural as to bathe in a diver’s water-proof suit,” she said.
Mitchell Sabattis (1823-1906)
Mitchell Sabattis was the ultimate wilderness camping guide of the late 19th century Adirondack woods, one of the places where camping for fun’s sake first took hold in this country.
In the post-Civil War United States, thousands of Americans, unnerved by rapid industrialization and the growth of cities, tried to create a fantasy version of the American frontier experience by flocking to the woods.
In the course of early human history, “camping”–in an adaptive and survivalist context–was all there was. But Sabattis, a fearsomely skilled survivalist, was one of the first to take painstakingly acquired outdoor living skills and use them as part of a recreational campout. Sabattis offered his services as an unsurpassed wildlife stalker, hunter and camping guide to a series of well-heeled clients.
His “eyes were clear and keen as those of a goshawk,” according to one of his many admirers. “From his childhood, Sabattis has followed hunting, fishing and guiding, and he knows more about wild life in the Adirondacks, and has killed more bears and panthers there, than any man living,” wrote a reporter from the Plattsburgh Sentinel in the summer of 1890.
Sabattis was part of the so-called golden era of late 19th century Adirondack guides who helped make camping more accessible to city slickers who longed to see the wilderness close up but were terrified of creatures, rock fall, exposure, or just getting lost in the woods. In the process, he and his cohorts helped increase the popularity of camping in the Northeast.
Wilderness guides earned meager wages for doing almost all the work out in the woods. They handled all the way-finding, skinned and chopped down trees to build instant “shanties” to shelter the clients, built the fires, shot the deer (or lined up the shots for clumsy clients) and entertained the campers with stories around the fire.
The well-off campers, known as “sports,” would return back home to their smoking parlors and city jobs, brimming with stories about their wild nights out in the forest, even though the hard work of the guides, and their use of sturdy, flat-bottomed guide boats, allowed these campers to bring every comfort from home, including elegant suits to wear at supper, and fine bottles of whiskey to nip around the campfire.
There was something deeply patronizing, about the relationship between sport and guide. The ‘sports’ often treated the guides as unintelligent rustic “primitives” whose presence in the campouts made the experience more ‘authentic,’ giving them something to brag about when they returned home to their parlors and law offices.
Sabattis was considered even more “authentic” than other local guides because he was from the Abenaki tribe. Recreational camping in America has always had a fraught relationship with Native American culture and tradition. Native Americans faced persecution and mass expulsion from their homelands to clear the way for new national parks, even while late 19th century white American campers bowdlerized, simplified and glommed together a hodgepodge of traditions and adaptions of various tribes across the country.
At the same time, Native Americans were cast, patronizingly, as “primitivists” or examples of “the primitive authentic.” White campers liberally borrowed from Native American iconography in the early Scouting movement.
Sabattis had to endure the condescension of rich clients–some accounts of him describe him as a sort of idiot savant, or even characterize him in an animalistic sort of way–but his talent was unsurpassed; everyone who came in contact with him was in awe of his survival techniques.
He could follow the blood trails of deer through a dimly lit copse of trees or grease his gun with animal fat. These days, Sabattis-style woodcraft skills are making a big resurgence in the camping world, thanks to the popularity of survival skills workshops across the country.
Horace Kephart (1862-1931)
Horace Kephart proved that a man could be witty, well-read and urbane and still be a woodcraft grandmaster, a quiet stalker through the forest, a fearsome axe-man and a crack-shot. Kephart, now known as the “Dean of American Camping,” tried to balance his need to be a “gentleman and a scholar” against the feeling of rapture that he got while nailing “an eight-inch bull’s eye at 200 yards, off hand.” He also showed that camp-craft can have a restoring, healing quality for dedicated campers.
Though he was killed in a car crash in 1931, he’s still a cult figure in the woodcraft camping movement, and his books are still in print. This has much to do with the fact that Kephart was a fine writer and not just a master of camping technique. His classic work, The Book of Camping and Woodcraft (1906) is more than just exhaustive. It is also engaging and sometimes hilarious. And you may find it impossible to read the famous intro of this classic book without gearing up and throwing your kit into the back of your pick-up truck:
“To many a city man there comes a time when the great town wearies him. He hates its sights and smells and clangor. Every duty is a task and every caller is a bore. There come visions of green fields and far-rolling hills, of tall forests and cool, swift flowing streams. . .To be free, unbeholden, irresponsible for the nonce! Free to go or come at one’s own sweet will, to tarry where he lists, to do this, or do that, or do nothing, as the humor veers; and for the hours, “It shall be what o’clock I say it is!”
Reeling from alcoholism and depression, and retreating from a successful career as a librarian in Saint Louis, Missouri, he found renewal, and a second life, in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where he finished the camping masterwork that remains in print to this day.
Kephart embodied a kind of camping that relied heavily on survival skills that can only be learned through hard-won experience and through one-on-one apprenticeships in the forest. He emphasized that all camping books, including his own, were merely starting points. You had to go out and do it; there was no substitute for experience.
In this sense, Kephart and his like-minded woodcrafters gave American campers an exciting alternative to the guided camping tradition; instead of paying someone to do all the work for you, you figured out how to do it yourself. That same DIY ethos infused the Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910, and the Girl Scouts of America, founded in 1912.
Read an excerpt of Under the Stars here.
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Dan White is the author of The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail, an NCIBA bestseller and Los Angeles Times “Discovery” selection. He has taught composition at Columbia University and San Jose State. He is the contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader and received his MFA from Columbia University. He lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife and daughter.