Much Ado About Some Dead Wood in Wisconsin

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I saw the grave look on the campground owner’s face. He was standing with his arms folded across his chest as we drove up the path toward our campsite and as we inched closer toward him, he held up a hand, indicating that he wanted us to stop.

We had checked into a campground in Baraboo, Wisconsin the previous night and the owner made mention of a laundry list of rules. As my wife lowered the window, I wracked my brain trying to figure out how we’d managed to ruin this guy’s day. Did we put our trash in the wrong receptacle? Had someone complained that my kids made too much noise on the playground earlier that morning? I had no idea.

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked, reading the man’s grave expression like a book.

He exhaled deeply before replying, “I need to talk to you about something. I tried calling your on your cellphone but you didn’t answer.”

By this point the curiosity was killing me, and he pulled out a sheet of paper with a long list of rules, all in CAPS.

“Look at rule number three,” he said, thrusting the paper into our car. “You bought one bundle of firewood from me last night but I see you took some more from behind your site. I told you last night, you’re not allowed to gather firewood on the grounds.”

We had gotten lost the evening before trying to find the campground check-in at nearby Devil’s Lake State Park and by the time we found it, there were no sites left. So plan B was another campground in the area but it was almost dark by the time we arrived, so we were eager to set up our tent before darkness fell. As we went over the man’s list of rules, I had heard him say something about firewood, but thought he was referring to live firewood, as opposed to dead branches on the ground.

I explained that my sons, ages 3 and 5, like to gather sticks when we go camping and asked what the harm was in gathering dead wood.

“Well, you might know the difference between live and dead wood, but after some people get a 12 pack in them, they don’t understand, so I just ban them both,” he said.

It seemed like an odd rule to me, but I didn’t object to the rule itself- just the way he acted as though we’d perpetrated the Crime of the Century. My eyes scanned the piece of paper he gave us and noticed it said that gathering live or dead wood firewood “will result in immediate eviction!” Was he about to kick us out?

Apparently not, but before he’d let us go, he threw in one more implausible dig.

“You’re the only ones that have broken that rule all summer long,” he said, as we were about to pull away.

We assured him it wouldn’t happen again and drove off, feeling very much like school kids whom the principal had admonished. Back at our site, we noticed that our warden had actually taken the time to remove all of the sticks my sons had gathered from the forest. My five-year-old son, Leo, who had gathered most of it and was really proud of his pile, was irate.

“Hey, he even took my Smores stick that I left over by the tent!” he exclaimed. “That guy’s an ass!”

One thing I’ve noticed in my three plus decades of travel is that the owners of low-cost accommodation options- cheap motels, campgrounds, hostels and the like- tend to have a lot more rules than very nice places. When you check into the Westin, they don’t hand you a list of a dozen rules written in ALL CAPS with lots of exclamation points, DO THEY?

I suppose there’s an assumption that the more you spend, the less likely you are to be a rule-breaking hooligan, though I’m not sure if that’s really true.

This campground, which charges $29 per tent site cash or $31, if you want to use a credit card, has a long list of rules. Devil’s Lake State Park charges $17 per tent site and has a very short list of rules. Perhaps that’s why Devil’s Lake was sold out but this place had plenty of space when we rolled in on the last Friday night in September.

On our second evening at the campground a young couple driving a huge pickup truck arrived to occupy the site across from ours. They were blaring country music; a violation of rule #1 and the guy was dragging huge, dead trees into his site and then whacking them against other trees to break them down to size. Every 10 minutes or so, we’d hear a huge THWACK that would rise above the jangly country ditties coming out of their old school boom box.

I half considered calling the warden, just to let him know that we weren’t the only deadwood scofflaws of the year, but thought better of it as the man across from us could very well have been armed to the teeth for all I knew.

After spending an otherwise great weekend enjoying Devil’s Lake State Park and Baraboo’s old school downtown, we packed up our gear to leave on Sunday morning. Leo and I went to the registration desk to check out and, as we were about to leave, I couldn’t resist asking what they did with the sticks we’d gathered.

“Oh, we put them in the back of our pickup truck and we’ll use them for our fire,” the owner’s wife said.

She then went on a lengthy diatribe about the evils of gathering dead firewood from campsites.

“But people have been gathering firewood to burn for thousands of years,” I protested. “It’s natural.”

At this point, the man himself came out and picked up the debate.

“Slavery was legal for thousands of years too, does that make it right?”

So all of the sudden, my five year old son and I stood at the desk, feeling like a couple of slave masters, all because we’d gathered some dead wood from the forest. I couldn’t help but mention that our neighbors had also perpetrated the heinous deadwood gathering crime but the warden turned it back around on us, insisting that it was our responsibility to have called and tattled on them.

Eventually, I’d had enough and walked out. My son Leo, who’d been silent, waited until we’d left their office to speak his mind.

“He shouldn’t have taken my Smores stick,” he said. “That just wasn’t right.”