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Chris Fordney: Guests join trip to park

The people up at Shenandoah National Park are encouraging everyone to go camping this summer, so we took them up on it.

We did not take advantage of the park's current program to help new campers learn the basics because we have been camping many times.

So many times, in fact, that we got cocky the last time and did not stake down our tent because the weather looked clear when we arrived at Loft Mountain Campground in the park.

Then a storm blew up and we were so absorbed with getting our dinner and ourselves into the car that we forgot about the tent -- until we saw it paragliding across the campsite before making a fatal landing in the still-glowing fire.

That trip ended early and abruptly, but we were happy to discover that camping gear has become cheaper. We found a decent tent for $80 at Gander Mountain and made sure it had its full complement of stakes. So even if you sink a couple hundred bucks into camping gear, it will pay for itself after a few nights of saving money on motel bills.

This time we stayed at Big Meadows, where the sites are $20 per night and the rangers are very friendly and helpful -- even alerting us that a year-old black bear had been hanging around the campsite we had chosen. His brother was acting as a host in another part of the campground, the ranger said.

But our only dinner companions were a couple of deer and their fawns that lingered in the woods surrounding our campsite. You're not supposed to feed wildlife, so we didn't share our camping fare -- foil pouches filled with sliced kielbasa, potatoes, squash, carrots and onions steamed in their own juices over the fire until done.

But that attracted another guest as we sat in the dark next to the fire.

"There's something there," Cindy said.

I shined my flashlight into the trees.

"No, right there," she said.

I pointed the flashlight down and into the face of a medium-sized skunk that blinked back at me from less than two feet away.

What do you do at a time like that?

1) Turn off the flashlight and pretend you didn't see what you just saw. 2) Find a Web site about what to do (uh-oh, no Internet). 3) Text your best friend about what to do (uh-oh, no service). 4) Shine the light on the skunk until he wanders off, which is what we did.

Then it was time to get into the tent and not come out until the next morning, no matter how much sniffing, scratching, pawing or other rustlings we might hear.

The advantage to Big Meadows is that it's in a fairly level area and one of the nicest parts of the park, with a relatively open space good for spotting wildlife yet well supplied with services. You can go for a walk or even a bike ride -- the meadows have a dirt road that's open for bikes -- without having to hike downhill like in so many areas of the park.

In the evening, the traffic dies down on the Skyline Drive and you can comfortably bike to the Tanner's Ridge overlook to watch the sun set over the mountains.

And no visit to Big Meadows is complete without a hike to the shady and cool Dark Hollow Falls.

See you up there next time.

Contact Chris Fordney at cfordney@nvdaily.com

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