For this divorced dad, camping is more about reconnection than recreation.

The Werst and Jones families (the writer is on the left) at play on the beach at Beal’s Point.

The Werst and Jones families (the writer is on the left) at play on the beach at Beal’s Point.

Photo By Steven T. Jones

We spend our summers camping, my daughters and I, usually around bodies of water.

There are few simple pleasures more exquisite than washing off the sweat, dirt, bug spray and miscellaneous camping grime like a dip in the cool waters of an exotic locale. It feels baptismal, like washing away some earthly sin and being reborn in nature.

Whether we’re on the ocean at the Manresa State Beach or Montana de Oro State Park; on a lake like Folsom, Tahoe or Lopez; or along a river like the American or the Tuolumne, water is usually an essential ingredient of our camping experience.

And camping has become an essential ingredient in my relationship with my children—Breanna, 11, and Cicely, 7—big, beautiful, blond-haired girls with warm hearts and creative minds. It is one of just a few activities that all three of us enjoy in roughly equal measure, an intimate and adventurous reconnection that helps us erase time and distance.

You see, I’m one of those weekend dads, an unfortunately part-time version of the real thing. Since my ex-wife and I divorced more than four years ago and she moved to Modesto, I’ve been forced to compress my relationship with my children into a series of mostly two- and three-day spurts every two weeks.

We play in the parks, visit friends and relatives, go to the swap meet or the movies, play games, cook together or just hang out and talk. But when the weather gets hot and the days get long, camping is how we all want to spend our limited time together.

Only with me have they ever camped. It’s our thing. Their mother values stability and security, so I try to show them the other side of life, and to instill in them a sense of adventure, of being able to find comfort in uncomfortable surroundings and of appreciation for nature.

This year, our camping season began on the first weekend in May with a trip to the Beal’s Point Campground on Folsom Lake, a fun and picturesque spot that offers many campsites with more seclusion than can be found in most of California’s tightly packed state campgrounds.

It’s like a natural oasis in the middle of Sacramento’s sprawl of pavement, with sloping hillsides covered with oak and pine trees, a canopy that leaves many campsites completely shaded, while others enjoy full sun and stately perches on their own hills. A narrow road meanders through the site, twisting off into a few low-traffic cul-de-sacs heavy with children at play.

Both hiking and biking trails cut through the campground, connecting campers to the beaches of Beal’s Point and to other spots along Folsom Lake and the American River. Because, if the truth be told, our affinity for water is as much about the water’s edge as it is the wet stuff.

With my trusty beach chair as a throne, I preside over the collection of various shells, sticks, stones and other found objects that catch my daughters’ ever-probing eyes, as well as the construction of sometimes elaborate sand structures (shovels, buckets and other sand toys are as essential to our camping supplies as the tent or lantern). Pleasing me with discoveries and creativity is part of the ritual, and I always try to generate the enthusiasm needed to uphold my end of the bargain.

Cicely Jones and Ethan Werst love boating on Folsom Lake.

Photo By Steven T. Jones

On the beach, I can be on the same level with my daughters, playing together in the sand, exploring the coastline hand-in-hand-in-hand with a sense of wide-eyed wonderment, splashing in the water then huddling together in our towels to warm up. While Cicely conducts her intensive and never-ending explorations, Breanna and I toss the Frisbee like a couple of practiced professionals, even doing trick throws and catches that always delight the other beachgoers, and make us feel like the masters of our domain.

Usually when we camp it’s just the three of us, and that’s generally how we like it. Everyone gets the attention they want and deserve, and spontaneity rules our decision-making process. Should we hike, climb trees or start making dinner? We do whatever strikes our collective fancy.

But at Beal’s Point for our camp season opener, we were joined by some friends from Cameron Park: Mike and Kristina Werst, and their 3-year-old son Ethan. It was a great group, and one that intends to camp together much this summer. Cicely loved not being the baby of the bunch. You could see the pride in her face when she looked down at her young friend—earthbound and envious—from 10 feet up a tree. I swear, she must be part monkey.

In addition to their valued company, the other thing the Wersts brought to our camping equation was a ski boat which they have docked on Lake Folsom. My daughters howled as we zoomed across the water, and smiled back proudly at me as I water-skied. The beaches we found were all ours, and the girls explored them with the zeal of a conquering army.

By the end of the weekend, we were red-faced and spent, yet more energized than exhausted, the kind of tired you feel after aggressively pursuing some kind of life-affirming venture. Packing up the tent, I became excited for the next time I’d take it out, for the next time I’d be camping with my girls.

As you read this, perhaps my daughters and I are camping across the lake at the Peninsula Campground (a gorgeous spot I placed on our camping schedule when I saw it on a recent mountain bike ride on the Salmon Falls Trail) or upriver at the Auburn State Recreation Area.

In June, we have a week of camping in Yosemite, an annual trek we do, and we might try to sneak in a weekend up at Rock City on Mount Diablo. But July will bring with it a camping first for this campfire-seasoned trio: backpacking.

Finally, after years of enduring reservation fees, sometimes noisy neighbors, lack of seclusion and the other nuisances often associated with staying in established California campgrounds, we’re going mobile.

With seven years on this planet and an adventurous spirit, Cicely is ready to strap on a pack (albeit a token pack, with most of her gear in mine) and hike a few miles away from civilization. No longer will the Raley’s be just a few miles down the road in case we run out of beer and bug spray (yes, this is what Mike and I drove to pick up one evening during our Beal’s Point trip—and we were back in less than 20 minutes).

No, now we’ll be doing real camping, getting away from it all, forced to live on only what we can carry. Camping the way it should be. I envision us starting with some easy jaunts, a few miles in and out over a long weekend.

Then, as Cicely matures and starts carrying her own weight, we’ll graduate into treks five or six miles in, like the Sykes Hot Springs in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. And, I see us on week-long treks along the Pacific Crest Trail or through Carson Pass, just a trio of happy nomads living off the land.

Yet my little mental bubble bursts when I start doing the math. Once Cicely hits Breanna’s current age and starts developing the athleticism she’ll need for these trips, Breanna will be well into adolescence.

Will she still appreciate the simple camping pleasures we enjoy today: exploring the campsite, climbing trees and rocks, capturing bugs, savoring a meal cooked outdoors, staring into the campfire, cooking marshmallows, lying in our sleeping bags for hours, cocooned in our tent, talking about everything and nothing?

Maybe not. Childhood can seem as fleeting as a campfire, burning hot and bright in its prime, but ultimately turning into just embers and memories. So I savor these days, these glorious summer weekends spent outdoors with my children.