Camping on the Shenandoah

Six ne’er do wells from Sixth Company in the woods

There were several days between the end of final exams and the start of June Week for the Class of ’63 at the U.S. Naval Academy. First Classmen were allowed to take a few days leave during this lull in activity, and a bunch of us ne’er-do-wells from the Sixth Company decided that we would go camping. One of us…Bill Hughes...knew of an island in the Shenandoah River where we could settle in for a few days. My memories of this event are a little hazy, but I do remember it, and I’m relying on Bill and his store of photographs to craft this tale.

The participants were Bill Hughes, Walt Walters, Bo Kearns, Chuck Maclin, Clyde VanArsdall and yours truly. Actually only Bill, Chuck, Clyde and I were in Sixth Company. Walt and Bo had been transferred to Eighth Company during the big shuffle at the end of Second Class year, but since they had spent three years with us, they continued to pull liberty with us. And they continue to caucus with the Sixth at reunions.

I had been a Boy Scout, would become a field Marine, and after that became a scout leader and an avid backpacker. I know how to take care of myself in the woods. As I think back on this camping trip I am amazed that we survived the first night and am hesitant to admit that I participated at all. Unfortunately there is surviving photographic evidence of this event which documents my presence. I suspect that the other five share my trepidation at the memory of this trip alongside the other great memories we have of early June 1963 when we pinned on those gold bars and saw USNA receding in the rear view mirror.

We headed west out of the D.C. metropolitan area on Virginia State Route 7 toward Winchester. When we got to the river we turned onto a dirt road that paralleled the Shenandoah and drove several miles until we found the island. We parked our vehicles and tried to figure out a way to get from the river bank to the island, a distance of probably about 50 yards. The river was fairly shallow but we didn’t really want to get wet to start this misbegotten adventure. We scouted around and finally located a flat bottomed boat tied up nearby. We commandeered the scow and ferried ourselves and supplies to the island. Legend has it that I then stripped naked, poled the boat back to the shore, tied it up, and swam back to the island. Why we didn’t just leave it on the island for future trips across I don’t know since we had "borrowed" it in the first place.



Chuck, Clyde and Walt underway before graduation


Our supplies consisted of one dull axe, one knife, Midshipman rain gear for tents, ten pounds of bacon, twenty boxes of Triskets, 20 pounds of potatoes, coffee, toilet paper, paper towels and five cases of Carlings Black Label. We ran out of beer on the third day and had to make a trip to Berryville, Virginia for emergency resupply. We did a little field engineering and built a nice shelf for storage. I can’t remember how, or even if, we kept the beer cold…probably stowed it in the river. In retrospect I’m surprised that a raccoon or some other critter didn’t run off with our bacon and potatoes.



Supply stash


On the first day we did some work getting our camp site prepared, as you can see in these photos, but after that I can’t recall much of what we did other than sit around and drink beer, and cook when meal times rolled around. I don’t think there were any fist fights or other skullduggery over the three days. My memory fails me. As the pictures show, Clyde and Bo spent a lot of time in the sack and the rest of us…just sat around. Bill climbed a tree to take some of the pictures.



Clyde and Bo in Z-land. Chuck, Dirck and Walt working on the Black Label.


Walt and Dirck diminishing the beer supply. Clyde continues in Z-land. Note the dish drain used as a grill on the fire.


On the third day we were visited by the farmer who owned the Island and the boat. This guy was a real Neanderthal…right out of "Deliverance". He had an accent that none of us could understand and sounded like he had flunked out of first grade. But he didn’t object to us staying on the island as long as we didn't mess with his crops (cotton or beans or both, as I recall). I don’t think he knew we had commandeered his boat.

We weren’t real environmentally friendly during this adventure. It wasn’t in vogue back then. We chopped down a number of small trees to build our supply shelf and to support our lean-too. This was no small accomplishment considering how dull our axe was. We washed our dishes in the river…a definite no-no for contemporary campers and backpackers. I think we smashed all the empty beer cans and hauled out our trash. I can think of no other reason to smash the cans. I’m pretty sure we left the island in pretty good shape when we departed in spite of our environmental laxity.



Bo and Clyde awake and on mess duty


Dirck and Walt smashing beer cans


These last two pictures give a good overall view of the camp site and show what a bunch of amateurs we were, and incidentally, how we provided a distinct Naval Academy flavor to the place.

Robinson Crusoe lives!





So now you know how several Sixth Company stalwarts spent their time between our last USNA final exams and June Week. As I look back on it I guess it was as good a way to spend the time as anything else would have been, and we would have consumed the five cases of Carlings no matter where we were. Might as well do it where you don’t have to shave and take a shower like we did every day we lived in Bancroft Hall. And as I look at these pictures and compare our young faces to what I see whenever the Sixth Company gathers today, we might have decided to camp on the river because all this happened almost fifty years ago. Today we’d probably get swept down the Shenandoah trying to pole the boat from the bank to the island. That’s why we let youngsters fight our wars.


Semper Fi,

  Dirck Praeger sends