Ranger Jayson May comes to Campsite 69 bearing a large box. Out comes one animal skin, then another, then another. Soon the picnic table is filled with skins for the third- and fourth-graders of Girl Scout Troop 1124 to investigate.
All of the skins are from animals that live in and around Pedernales Falls State Park — deer, bobcat, raccoon, rabbit, fox and more. Most were former roadkill May found and preserved. Some could be worn like a puppet or wrapped around like a cape.
The girls are mesmerized. This is right up their alley and they ask question after question. A few are concerned that a bobcat might have been tracking them the night before, but alas, it was a raccoon that left its tracks and tried to get into the s’mores’ leftovers.
Before long, May is sharing animal skulls with the girls as well as tales about what it’s like to be a ranger.
Pedernales Falls is a perfect training ground for Troop 1124’s future rangers. Only a 45-minute drive from South Austin, this park between Dripping Springs and Johnson City is a great place for campers of all skill levels.
When we pulled up to the campsite, a Boy Scout troop was filling up its water bottles before heading out to the primitive camping areas by Wolf Mountain.
That troop was much older than our troop and the boys had worked up to primitive camping. Troop 1124 is not there yet. As kindergarten and first-graders, they slept in tents in my backyard. The next year they moved to a grandparent’s six acres near Dripping Springs. The year after they went to McKinney Falls State Park.
This trip to Pedernales Falls would be their most adventurous yet. The girls planned it all themselves, from what they would eat to what they would do. This is the first year they actively put up the tents, instead of standing around and watching the adults.
They built the campfire using Vaseline-coated cotton balls and wood purchased from the campground host. They cooked their hot dogs over the fire and set up an assembly line of condiments. They roasted marshmallows for dessert and offered everything from traditional chocolate bars and graham crackers to M&M’s and chocolate chip cookies to build a unique sugar-laden dessert.
They performed skits by the fire, each which told a lesson in friendship to earn a badge, and they sang campfire songs. They learned the proper way to put out a fire.
They then fell asleep in tents, each with two or three girls and an adult.
Earlier that day, they had led a hike down to the Pedernales Falls and soaked their feet in the water downstream. May reminded them that actually swimming around the base of the falls is dangerous and he’s had to pull out plenty of people from those waters. He was glad they had chosen a much calmer, not-very-deep spot to go hunting for shells and dip their toes.
After a calm night (well, calm once the girls stopped giggling and scaring one another with ghost stories), they woke up with the sun the next morning. They prepared breakfast of cereal, fruit and bacon (heated on a camping stove by an adult). After cleaning up both campsites to leave no trace, they headed for a hike down to the Twin Falls. Well-marked, this hike was less-populated than the hike to Pedernales Falls, and it paid off with the feel of nature all around them and a more intimate view of unexpected waterfalls.
Alas, it was time to go and they headed back to Austin, sacked out in the cars their adult chaperones drove. Next year, they want to go camping for two nights and much farther from Austin. And next year, they will be even one step closer to primitive camping. For now, they still like well-planned campsites with nearby bathrooms that include running water and the thought that there is nature around them, just not the kind that could eat them.