Still Camping

Some in their 80s still putting up tents in the wilderness

By Carol Radin

This is home for the O’Connors in Limekiln State Park in the Adirondacks.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” said George Bernard Shaw.

One of the ways that some people play young and stay young all summer is to go camping, be it in tents, RVs, cabins or even disbursed campsites on state forest land.

Here five campers describe the places — all different, all fun — that they take their inner child.

The Best Vacation

Sylvia and Dennis O’Connor of Manlius have been camping together since their 20s. Now 81, Dennis recalls many wonderful summer vacations crossing the country and setting up tents with their four children.

Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, Wyoming’s Yellowstone and the Monument Valley National Park in the southwest were “absolutely spectacular,” according to Sylvia. They once did a four-week expedition to Saskatchewan, Canada, in a 1994 extended Astro Chevy Van with room for six. By far, though, Dennis’s most memorable experience was when they drove, and drove, and drove while looking for a campground in White Sands National Monument. When it got dark, they decided to just plop down where they were. The next morning, they were awe-struck: fine white sand rippled in all directions, for miles, nothing else. “It was the most magical place I’ve ever camped,” Dennis says.

Now that their children are adults, Dennis and Sylvia are back to camping on their own. Among Dennis’s favorite places are the Adirondacks’ Lime Kiln State Park, Eighth Lake and Cranberry Lake, where life is simple, the views are great and “you can sit outside at night and watch the lake,“ Dennis says. Occasionally, the O’Connors bring their canoe. They are active hikers who will do trails of two or three miles up hill and down at Bald Mountain, Blue Lake Mountain and Bear Mountain.

Dennis and Sylvia always pack their fiddles, too, and their duets after dinner attract a gathering of other campers. Once out west at the Colorado National Monument, they were playing tunes when another camper happened by to chat — turned out she was a member of the Syracuse Symphony.

As lovers of music, the O’Connors also camp for a weekend every year at the annual Old Songs Festival in Altamont, west of Albany, a gathering of musicians who can reserve campsites for the three-day event of performances.

Immersion Camping Around a Theme

Dennis O’Connor at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly the campground they were looking for, but it was amazing.

Just as an experience like the Old Songs Festival gives like-minded campers a theme around which to gather, Luana Impellizzeri probably would never have considered camping had she not found her theme: a week going medieval. For the past 20 years, Impellizzeri, 81, has been completely hooked on a medieval-style encampment known as the Pennsic, in Slippery Rock, in western Pennsylvania. Pennsic simulates a Middle Ages experience, complete with long dresses and tunics, canvas tents, torches and tournaments. Thousands of campers take history classes and workshops on activities like archery, needlework and mead-making.

Impellizzeri got interested through her son, who is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. She has even managed to get her grandchildren involved, teaching them to make period tunics just like Grandma’s!

“I camp with the same group from Ohio,” Impellizzeri says. She follows the medieval lifestyle for the week she is there, though with some modern-day variations. Yes, there are showers. And for living arrangements: “I use a nylon tent rather than canvas, because it’s lighter, but it does look like an English cottage. I’ve got a cot, fold-up table, and rugs.” For cooking, she will cook over open fire, but dinner is modern-day burgers and such. “I do cheat with a propane stove because I need my coffee in the morning, thank you very much!” And, for an anachronism within an anachronism, where there are kids, there must be toasted marshmallows!

Impellizzeri, who is retired from Syracuse University, where she worked in Byrd Library and in dining services, has always been a history buff and enjoys folk crafts like knitting and crocheting, needlework and sewing. Though she usually stays at Pennsic only one week, she can appreciate each week for its differences: The first week is Peace Week and the second is War Week. During War Week, battalions of campers take to the field with wooden swords and rattan poles—No contact, of course. Impellizzeri’s grandson has had a stint as a water boy for the performing combatants.

Aside from the chance to immerse herself in playing history and bonding with other enthusiasts, Luana remarks, “I like being unplugged for a week. And not being responsible for anything on the outside.”

Roughing It and Easing Up

Sylvia O’Connor cooks while an unexpected dinner guest happens by at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Bonnie Carr, 81, is a young camper if ever there was one. “I like to play,” she says, plain and simple. A lifelong Syracuse resident, she has sailed, hiked and camped in the lush regions of Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks since she was 17, and she isn’t stopping yet. “I’ve tried just about everything!” she says. Though her style has changed, from tent to RV to rented cabin, she definitely takes her inner child wherever she goes.

One of Carr’s favorite spots is Stillwater Reservoir, state land northeast of Lowville. “It’s wild land,” she says with relish. “You have to drive six, eight miles off the main road and take your own boat to campsites.” It is roughing it, so packing provisions must be as economical as possible. After a few decades of that, Carr bought herself an RV. “It was an expense I thought I deserved,” she says. “I was a school bus driver for 16 years, so I had no problem driving it and maintaining it.” Although that precluded areas like Stillwater, Carr’s new favorite campground is the place where she now meets her daughter, who drives from the mid-Hudson area to meet Carr each summer, Promised Land State Park in Pennsylvania just north of the Poconos. “It’s wonderful. All natural trails. Swimming in the lake.” It is also more manageable, because they reserve a cabin. Carr sold her RV in 2018.

Roughing It Solo

A gathering at Pennsic, where Luana Impellizzeri immerses herself in history. This year, Pennsic 50 will be held in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, from July 28 to Aug. 13.

Last—and least in terms of amenities—is the solo camping preferred by Larry Martin, 58. Now that his three children are adults and his wife is more inclined to the creature comforts, Martin does hammock-camping by himself when he wants to get away. As a Syracuse resident, he has only to go as far as Morgan Hill State Forest south of Syracuse or to Finger Lakes State Forest.

Martin’s hammock sounds as good as a bed. It’s off the ground, away from moisture and dirt. “It’s a Bridge Hammock,” he explains, “with a straight spreader bar at the head and the foot, so it doesn’t fold up like a taco, and it has a sewn-in bug net.” Meals are usually packages of dehydrated food that expand in boiled water. “You can get just about anything dehydrated — dehydrated chili, dehydrated lasagna, beef stroganoff, eggs, oatmeal…. And I’ve got my coffee.”

For a weekend at a time, he explores the hiking trails. Though this is more wilderness camping, also known as disbursed camping, the state forest areas are not without rules, and Martin in particular, a retired deputy sheriff, is more aware than most of following rules. “There are trail signs. And there are some rangers.” Once he actually called a ranger to inquire about why a particular trail sign was marked closed.

What does Martin like about camping alone off site in the woods? “The solitude,” he says without hesitation, and the sky. “You can see every star up there.” He also likes the heightened sense of being in nature. “You can hear these strange sounds in the middle of the night, animal sounds, movement, branches…. Some people get anxious when they hear noises in the forest at night, but you have to realize it’s just other creatures out there existing like you and I do. Also, they’re probably making the same sounds during the day, but you don’t notice because you’re making noise yourself.”

The Voices of Experience

For a week each summer, Luana Impellizzeri camps medieval-style at Pennsic, also called Pennsic War, in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. She makes all of her own clothes for the event.

Having devoted decades to the outdoors, these campers are aware of making adjustments as they’ve gotten older.

First, make setting up camp easier. “I’ve gotten spoiled,” says Bonnie Carr, who is now all for staying in RVs and cabins. The O’Connors still enjoy tents, but resort to some new basics: a lightweight nylon tent, high enough to stand up in, with good LED lighting for the interior. “Ditch the sleeping bags,” Sylvia O’Connor says. “You are not going to want to shift around in this narrow little thing.” She and Dennis bring 3 ½ inch inflatable mats, wrap them in flannel sheets, and sleep under a comforter. “And bring your own pillows!” Dennis adds.

Grills are usually provided at organized campgrounds, but the O’Connors have a propane camp stove. It is a far cry from Dennis’s memory of lighting a campfire with buffalo chips in Yellowstone Park. Buffalo chips are—yup, you guessed it!

Safety is always important, and even more so as they get older. Bonnie Carr, who once did an outdoor education practicum at Raquette Lake as part of her Recreation and Leisure Education degree from Cortland State, is emphatic about this. “People need to be aware of their physical limitations as they get older. You are no longer the best distance hiker or climber. And altitude might be more of a factor as you get older.” Everyone should prepare for potential accidents and have a reliable means of contacting emergency responders. “But remember,” Carr adds, “that your electronic devices might not always work in wooded or mountain areas.”

Martin puts it this way, “Limit your challenges.” Camp close to home, if need be. He also likes to remember that not long ago people had no electronic devices and they made do.

Once you’ve covered the essentials, enjoy playing. Campers can give in to spontaneity any old way they want to. “Remember not to do too much,” Dennis O’Connor says. “If we see something we want to do, we stop and do it. What’s the rush?”