Little River State Park

Little River State Park

Location: Little River Road, five miles off of Route 100 in Waterbury

Type: Overnight camping and day-use area

Camping: 81 tent/RV sites, 20 lean-tos, and five cabins. Campground is divided into “A” and “B” sections.

Things to do: There’s no shortage of activities at Little River! Hours of hiking and exploring on the History Hike, swimming at two spots along the Reservoir, kayak and canoe rentals. Waterbury also offers lots of fun – restaurants, award-winning beer, Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, and a quirky flea market.

Amenities: Bathrooms, warm showers, nice swimming areas, ice and firewood for sale. There is a general store about 10 minutes away in Waterbury, that has a liquor aisle inside, but oddly no actual camping supplies.

Our campsite at Little River State Park this year - tent site 27 on the 'A' side.

Our campsite at Little River State Park this year – tent site 27 on the ‘A’ side.

Little River State Park is one of Vermont’s most popular camping sites and it’s no surprise why – this park offers a sense of being far away from civilization and is built around the town’s reservoir, constructed in 1938 after a series of deadly floods.

History seeps into everything at Little River, from the massive hike through the dilapidated homes of the town’s founding families to the Nature Center, displaying an impressive array of animal skulls and bones during our visit in July 2015.

The Park claimed this was a moose skull, but I still think it's evidence that aliens visited Waterbury in the early 1800s.

The Park claimed this was a moose skull, but I still think it’s evidence that aliens visited Waterbury in the early 1800s.

But the draw for most campers is access to the Waterbury Reservoir, a warm and pristine body of water created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to control floodwaters from the nearby Little River and Winooski River. The reservoir is 850 acres of great swimming and exploring.

During this year’s group camping trip (“Big Trouble in Little River”), I kayaked across to the opposite shore on the reservoir with several friends. It was actually my first time on a solo kayak and I rather liked it; once you find your balance, they are faster and easier to maneuver than tandem kayaks.

The opposite shore is the wild side of Little River. Here we found a series of remote campsites – the “unofficial” sites that were for many years off the books and favorites of locals. Summer squatters and trash problems prompted the state to step in and maintain the sites, despite a report that urged Vermont to shut down the sites for safety reasons.


The view from the remote campsite along the Waterbury Reservoir.

The view from the remote campsite along the Waterbury Reservoir.

Waterbury’s 35 remote campsites can only be accessed through a long hike in the woods or paddling across the reservoir. They are bare bones – there was a fire ring and a downed log to sit on. I didn’t see any signs of running water or bathroom facilities. We did find a grilling fork duck-taped to a long stick. I’m sure it’s super-useful for cooking on an open fire while remote camping, but it looked like a crude and ancient murder weapon.

The remote site we found has a better view and access to the water than any of the official sites at Little River. Remote camping along the Waterbury Reservoir is definitely on my to-do list next year.

The Waterbury Reservoir.

The Waterbury Reservoir.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of the Waterbury Reservoir and forget that Little River State Park also offers some of the most interesting hikes in Vermont. The History Hike, a series of trails through the Mount Mansfield State Forest ranging in time from 90 minutes to five hours, is a time machine; it’s not unusual to find old farm foundations, collapsed wells, or rusting 1800s-era tools along the path.

One of the centerpieces of the History Hike is the Ricker Family Cemetery on the popular Dalley Loop trail. This graveyard dates back to the early 1800s and is the final resting place for some of Waterbury’s first families. White cedar, symbolically a tree of life, surrounds the cemetery, guarding it from a forest full of maples and birches.

I’ve visited the Ricker Family Cemetery twice before, but on this camping trip I decided to do something different – I signed up for the park’s advertised “Owl Prowl and Night Ghost Hike.”

Ranger Brian impressed the crowd by showing up with a scythe – a vintage garden tool that is the tool of choice for the Grim Reaper – in the back of his car. For two hours he led us by headlamp up the trails, pointing out interesting plants, fungi, or evidence of animal life.

The Ricker Family Cemetery. Scary, but likely not haunted.

The Ricker Family Cemetery. Scary, but likely not haunted.

It was past sunset by the time we made it to the Ricker cemetery and Ranger Brian entertained with owl hoots and a local ghost story. He placed two historic photographs of Ricker family members next to their graves. I imagined the ghosts of these grizzled old settlers staring down at us with confusion and amusement.

I saw nothing spooky in the cemetery that night, but I did gain a new appreciation for the fortitude of Waterbury’s original settlers, who made a living for themselves in the wooded hills of the town.

Or, tried to, anyway, until the rising river water and rocky terrain drove them away.






Little Rascals

When I was 17, a bunch of us were able to escape camp counselor duty one evening and drove past the Canadian border to wander around the streets of Quebec only to wind up in the waning post-midnight hours along the shores of Lake Willoughby. 

Exhausted, energized from all we’d seen, and dreading the day’s regiment of duties, we settled around a smoky fire passing around our bottle of cheap wine. We had broken into a package of Oreos, but abandoned them as we tucked into our sandy sleeping bags for what dreams we could capture.

This memory I still carry with me: stirring to the overhead chatter of animals, hazy in my understanding of my surroundings, and watching as one by one, the Oreo cookies were taken by deft furry paws. Squirrels scrambled from limb to limb, predacious and intent on the vellum-wrapped package at the center of our circle. Within minutes of our waking, we’d found the cookies completely gone, and the rodents that had eaten them berserk from the sugar they’d consumed.

I remember this every time I encounter a “Do Not Feed The Animals” notice. Those squirrels did not need any sugar, surely. They did not intend to wake me and my compatriots with their adrenaline-fueled activity. But that morning they were as rowdy as the children we’d taken a break from, as cute and precious, as cumbersome and hard to ignore. We roused one another, dumped our gear into the trunk, and drove back to base camp without much conversation.

My lesson from this was to never pack Oreos on a camping trip. Instead I pack the hippie version, Newman-Os, which provides just the right amount of chocolate cookie flavor and not too much of the sugar. Best of all, the animals tend not to go for the stuff.

Newman-Os, not quite a sugary as Oreos.

Of course, I have not learned my lesson entirely. Lately, this is what I have discovered that camp critters love to shove into their mouths:

1. M&Ms. Especially the peanut/peanut butter flavored ones. Especially if they happen to be loose in your makeup bag on top of the picnic table. Believe me, camp animals have figured out zippers!

2. Sunflower seeds. They may not like them, but they will try their best to get a taste of them. Hard plastic containers are no match for jaws of determined beasts. If they’ve left any seeds behind, it’s probably because they don’t like the flavor.
No sunflowers for you!

No sunflowers for you!

3. Snickerdoodles. Especially if they’re homemade and especially if you have brought them for the group to share, and you happen to leave them by the fire as you drunkenly and regrettably crawl into your tent without them.

What are you to do when the critters just waddle up to you and do their squeaky best to part you from your bread crumbs? Muster up your best Snow White/Tarzan/Beastman and remind them what happens to Mogwais after midnight.
The cuteness!!

The cuteness!!

No Pie For You

My most harrowing camp story does not involve bears or bugs or bad weather. Instead, it was a surreal journey in search of dessert that brought me to a small town general store where black is white, up is down, and pies are not for sale.

This was July 2014 and there were 10 of us camping out at Ricker Pond State Park in Groton, Vt. The weather was perfect all week and we had hiked and swam and paddled ourselves sore and happy. The culmination of the trip was a birthday celebration for my good friend Colin Tedford.

All parties need sweets, but we had nothing aside from marshmallows and other typical camp snacks. I volunteered to drive into town and find something appropriate to bring back for a birthday party at a campground.


That’s Colin in the lower right-hand corner. He likes to draw comics and you can read his work here:

I found a general store about 10 miles away. Inside was a single, untouched blueberry pie wrapped in plastic. It was baked that morning and smelled of dough, sugar, and berries.

“How much for that pie?” I asked, taking out my wallet.

The teenager behind the deli counter didn’t know. She called over the manager.

“We can’t sell you the pie,” said the manager.

I thought I misheard him.

“You can’t sell me the pie?” I repeated back to him.

“No. We only sell pies by the slice.”

Was I going crazy? Instantly, I began questioning the entire basis of capitalism and the free market. Isn’t this how it works? They have a product and I buy that product with money. Have I been doing it wrong all these years? What has happening here?

“I’ll buy all the slices,” I suggested. “I’ll just take it as it is.”

“We can’t do that.”

“You can’t sell me all the pie slices?”

“No,” the manager said, calmly, as if this is something he explains to dumb customers everyday. “If I sold you this pie, I would need to make another one.”

“You … would need to make another pie,” I repeated, hoping the words would make sense the second time.

“In case someone else came in and wanted a slice of pie,” he explained.

“You couldn’t tell them you were sold out of pie?” I suggested, knowing it was a fruitless argument.

“No, we can’t do that,” the manager sighed. “And we’re not making more pies until tomorrow.”

I just want to buy that pie, I explained again.

Dead eyes stared back.

The scene of the failed pie purchase.

The scene of the failed pie purchase.

Dazed, I wandered outside. I looked back at the general store: An OPEN flag flapped in the light breeze, a large sign explained that hunting licenses were sold there, there were stacks of firewood for sale.

What world was this, I wondered, where there were pies for sale but you cannot buy them?

The corporate chain supermarket 45 minutes away had a whole aisle of cakes and pies and pastries. I picked out a chocolate cake and a package of birthday candles. We presented the cake at sunset after dinner. The birthday candles flickered in the woods like tiny campfires.

I told my pie story as we handed out slices of cake. Everyone laughed. And then we ate cake and forgot that pie was ever even an option.