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Adventures Of The Boondocking Photographer: Rock USA

I recently became an empty nester and was looking for a change in my life that would maximize my time left on this great planet. So I sold my house, bought a Ford F-350, an Arctic Fox 990 truck camper, and hit the road. This is the story of my adventures with travel, photography, and RV tips designed around living the boondocker lifestyle.

Rock USA

The focus of this boondocking adventure is traveling from Denver, Colorado to Rock USA in Wisconsin and back to Denver via northern Minnesota and Nebraska. I had a chance to stay in a variety of campgrounds in three, different states and boondock in the massive campground at Rock USA.

Rock USA is a three-day rock and roll festival held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin every July. The festival features three stages and twelve hours of music per day.

A major advantage of attending Rock USA is a large campground friendly to boondockers in tents or RVs. The festival offers a few electric sites, water and dump service, and easy access to the concert venue. If you enjoy rock and roll and the convenience of not having to leave the concert grounds everyday of the festival, then Rock USA may be for you.

Travel Tips

The goals of this boondocking adventure were to drive no more than five hours a day, attend Rock USA, and explore several Midwest states parks.

Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska do offer National Forest lands, but in all honesty I did not explore the option of boondocking for free on public lands. I was hoping to explore what these states had to offer for future trips to Wisconsin for rock and roll festivals, so I had to keep moving.

I planned my route months in advance and booked campsites on state park websites. In high tourist areas like Superior Lake, I would recommend booking campsites at least six months in advance. I booked my trip about three months in advance and found most campgrounds on Lake Superior to be booked.

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park was my first stop after leaving Denver. This state park is conveniently located right next to the interstate near Ashland, Nebraska on the east side of the state. After a semi-long day of traveling I enjoyed the easy access, but the downside is I could hear interstate traffic clearly from my campsite.

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is massive and offers several, large campgrounds and a huge variety of activities. I only stayed one night at this state park, but a boondocker could easily spend several days or a week enjoying all the attractions of this state park.

For more information about Eugene T. Mahoney State Park check out: http://outdoornebraska.gov/mahoney/

Devil’s Lake State Park

After leaving Nebraska a five-hour drive into south, central Wisconsin brought me to Devil’s Lake State Park. I stayed two days at this state park and chose it because it was within 70 miles of Rock USA.

Devil’s Lake State Park is massive and offers three campgrounds, a decent sized lake, hiking trails, and a variety of fun activities. The campground I stayed at was basically a large meadow surrounded by dense forest. The campsites were placed randomly in the meadow.

I had a lot of fun hiking the trails around Devil’s Lake. Several of the trails climb surrounding bluffs and offer great views of the surrounding landscape.

I also had a lot of fun kayaking in Devil’s Lake. My campsite was not near the lake, but there is an easy access, boat launch close to the campgrounds.

This part of Wisconsin is beautiful with dense forests, rocky hills, and plenty of lakes. I would recommend spending several days at this state park or surrounding area.

For more information about Devil’s Lake State Park check out: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/devilslake/

Rock USA

I left Devil’s Lake State Park early on a Thursday morning to arrive at the Rock USA festival as soon as the gates opened at 7 a.m. Music started at noon on Thursday and I wanted to be set up in my campsite with plenty of time to take in the first act.

When I arrive at Rock USA I was greeted to a long line of eager rockers. It took me about two hours to make my way through the line and to my 20 foot by 10 foot campsite.

Rock USA does offer electric sites, but be sure to book those early. This was my first year at Rock USA and by the time I booked by campsite all of the electric sites were taken.

Wisconsin can be very hot and humid in July and if I go back to Rock USA or Rockfest, another three-day rock festival in Wisconsin held on the same weekend, I think I would splurge and get an electric site so I could run the air conditioner without using my generator.

The campsites are occupied by a large variety of RVs and tent campers. Part of the fun of the festival is getting to know your neighbors and enjoying the experience of the festival together.

A huge advantage of camping at a festival is not being required to enter and leave the festival grounds on a daily basis. Entering and leaving a festival can take several hours depending on the size of the festival and access issues.

From my campsite to the concert stage literally took 15 minutes and most of this time was occupied by clearing security. Easy access meant I could watch a few acts and then return to my camper for food, beverage, or a break from the music.

Festival food and beverage can be expensive. Camping on site saved me a lot of money on food and beverage. I could easily grill at my campsite and had the advantage of a fridge.

Rock USA did offer a general store and carts were constantly roaming the campground with ice for sale. There were a lot of outhouses, garbage bins, and showers available.

This was my first time at Rock USA. Next summer I plan to attend Rockfest, which has been in existence longer and is more established than Rock USA and determine which one I like best. Both festivals offer basically the same bands and camping.

For more information about Rock USA check out: http://www.rockusaoshkosh.com/

Gooseberry Falls State Park

After Rock USA, I headed north to Lake Superior and Gooseberry Falls State Park. Without a doubt this state park was the highlight of my trip. Gooseberry Falls offers incredible views of waterfalls and the Lake Superior shoreline. There are also abundant, hiking trails and great, fishing opportunities.

Next time I boondock in this area I will plan more days at Gooseberry Falls and book my campsites early for this region. The north shore of Lake Superior is very popular in the summer months and booking a year in advance may be necessary to get the campsites that you want.

For more information about Gooseberry Falls State Park check out: http://www.exploreminnesota.com/things-to-do/2223/gooseberry-falls-state-park-activities

Bear Head Lake State Park

Leaving the north shore of Lake Superior I headed northwest in Minnesota to Bear Head Lake State Park. This state park features several lakes, fishing, and a great trail system.

For more information about Bear Head Lake State Park check out: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/bear_head_lake/things_to_do.html

Scenic State Park

Heading further west in Minnesota I arrived at Scenic State Park. This state park does live up to its name. The park is heavily wooded and boasts large, beautiful lakes perfect for boating or fishing. A boondocker could spend a week at either Scenic or Bear Head State Parks and have a wonderful time. The campsites are secluded by thick trees.

For more information about Scenic State Park check out: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/virtual_tour/scenic/dialup.html

Itasca State Park

Heading further west and a bit south into Minnesota I arrived at Itasca State Park. Itasca is the headwaters of the Mississippi River and huge state park filled with several campgrounds.

If you are looking for a more remote camping experience Itasca is not it. Itasca Lake is large and offers boating, fishing, and hiking opportunities.

I would recommend visiting Itasca State Park to see the headwaters of the Mississippi River for a day trip, but the large crowds would discourage me from camping there again. I would recommend Scenic or Bear Head Lake state parks for a true, Minnesota experience.

For more information about Itasca State Park check out: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/Itasca/headwaters.html

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Big Stone Lake State Park

Heading south in Minnesota I ventured to Big Stone Lake State Park. This state park has trees, although not as thick as northern Minnesota, and prairie views.

Big Stone Lake is huge and offers boating, fishing, and limited hiking opportunities. My campsite was literally 20 feet from the lake. I enjoyed hearing the lake water collide with the shore as I relaxed in the evening.

For more information about Big Stone Lake State Park check out: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/virtual_tour/big_stone_lake/dialup.html

Split Rock Creek State Park

Heading further south to the extreme southwest corner of Minnesota I arrived at Split Rock Creek State Park. The landscape surrounding this state park is agricultural fields filled with corn, trees in shelter belts, and areas of prairie.

Split Rock Creek forms a large dammed lake perfect for boating or fishing. I did see a lot of massive carp swimming in the shallows. The campground has trees for shelter and my campsite was about 20 feet from the lakeshore.

I would consider Big Stone Lake and Split Rock Creek State Parks to be over night stops. Both state parks are nice, but don’t really have the recreational opportunities available to spend multiple days.

For more information about Split Rock Creek State Park check out: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/virtual_tour/split_rock_creek/dialup.html

Bessey Recreation Complex

After leaving Minnesota I headed west across South Dakota and then south into the center of Nebraska to Bessey Recreation Complex, which is located in the Nebraska National Forest.

The Nebraska National Forest is located in the sand hills and offers a very, unique and beautiful landscape. The terrain is rolling, sand hills covered in grasses, flowers, and pine trees. A real oasis directly centered in an otherwise bleak Nebraska landscape dominated by prairie and farmland.

The Bessey Recreation Complex is a favorite for the OHV crowd, however offers a plethora of hiking trails that are nicely separated from the OHV trails.

I only spent one night at Bessey Recreation Complex, but I hope to return soon for several days of sand hills fun.

For more information about Bessey Recreation Complex check out: https://visitnebraska.com/stays/bessey-recreation-complex

Photography Tips

The highlight of my trip to Minnesota was Gooseberry Falls. One of my favorite subjects to photograph are waterfalls and Gooseberry has multiple waterfalls to photograph.

To really add a professional touch and set your photographs of waterfalls apart from the iPhone crowd, you will need to make the rushing water look milky. Not horribly hard to do, but there are some techniques that need to be observed.

One of the most important pieces of equipment you will need is a good, solid tripod. To get the milky water look you will need to shoot long exposure. The only way you can shoot long exposure photographs is to have a solid base.

The best time to shoot waterfalls or long exposure shoots is on cloudy days. On sunny days there is often too much light available when you leave the shutter open for additional microseconds.

Another essential piece of equipment you will need is a variable, neutral density (ND) filter. The variable aspect of the filter is necessary because you will need to change the darkness of the filter as the light conditions change.

You will need to focus your shot on the lightest, filter position, because most cameras struggle to focus in dark, filter positions. Use manual focusing, because auto focusing will struggle as you move to the darker, filter positions.

Be sure to use your ND filter inside the parameters of the filter. On my Tiffen ND filter there are a series of five dots. I stay within these five dots, because if I don’t the ND filter will do weird things to the shot.

Here is a run down on how to take milky water, waterfall photographs. Focus your shot on the lightest, filter setting in manual focus mode.

Next adjust your filter to a darker setting depending on the light conditions. If it is overcast, try a middle filter setting. If it is bright consider starting with the darkest, filter setting.

Consider switching your ISO to 200. You don’t want your camera to be more sensitive to light.

Next adjust your shutter speed. The shutter speed will depend on how fast the water is moving. Try 4/1 for starters and make adjustments as needed if you are not getting the results you want. If the water is looking like it would shot from an iPhone, you need to increase the amount of time the shutter is open. If the water is looking white and blown out, then you need to reduce the time your shutter is open.

Once you dial in your shutter speed to an image you are happy with, bracket the shot. Bracketing means shoot one shot with an increased shutter speed and shoot one shot with a decreased shutter speed from the shutter speed you are happy with. So basically you will shoot three shots with three, different shutter speeds.

Having three, different shots with three, different shutter speeds will give you options when editing your photos. Looking at photos in the field through your camera’s viewfinder can be very misleading. With three, different shots of the same subject you have options.

If you are not getting the results you want with shutter speed, considering moving your filter to a lighter or darker position. If adjusting the ND filter isn’t getting you the results you want, consider adjusting your F-stops.

The final adjustment you can make is exposure compensation. On a Nikon this is the +/- button normally on the top of the camera.

Remember when making adjustments, only change one thing at a time. For example, move f-stops until you are either getting your desired results or not, then move to the next option, which may be exposure compensation.

If you move exposure compensation and f-stops at the same time for example, you may be offsetting each adjustment and making the situation worse.

Long exposure photography requires a lot of trial and error. Just keep trying different options until you get the look you want. After shooting many waterfalls, you will began to develop a technique that speeds the whole adjustment process up and saves you time.

A final tool for getting milky, waterfall photographs is adjusting the whites and highlights in your editing software. I normally reduce these setting to get some structure in the water. You don’t want a completely white, blown out look. By reducing the whites you will get some structure to the water, but not too much. You don’t want the photograph to look like it was shot by an iPhone.

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RV Tips

RV manufacturers are notorious for installing crappy stereos and speakers in all models of RVs. My Arctic Fox 990 is no exception.

The Arctic Fox has four, interior speakers and two, exterior speakers. I priced the speakers and I can replace them for under $5.00/speaker. So that gives you some idea of the quality of the speakers.

The stereo that is installed in the Arctic Fox 990 is not a standard RV stereo, rather it is a car stereo. This means the only way a boondocker can switch from interior to exterior speakers is to wade through three menus and use the fader option.

I was tossing around the idea of replacing the speakers and stereo, but found the replacement costs to be anywhere between a $1,000 and $2,000 dollars depending on how nice of a system I wanted to purchase.

I just happened to be at a friend’s backyard party a couple months back and he had a Bose, Bluetooth speaker tied to his phone. He moved the speaker into his house later in the evening. When I saw him use the speaker indoors and outdoors, a light bulb went off over my head and I thought that would be a perfect solution for my camper.

After researching possible speaker options I landed on the Bose, Soundlink, Revolve, Bluetooth speaker. This speaker is just under six inches tall, just a bit over three inches wide and can be charged via my inverter. I like the small size, perfect for my truck camper, and easy to move outdoors. The speaker will work for 12 hours between charges, is water resistant, and has a deep, bass sound lacking in the speakers that came with my camper.

The Revolve provides 360 degrees of sound and can be paired with an additional speaker. For a speaker this size it sounds very good and all for $199.

For music, I already had my iTunes list downloaded to my iPhone. I have over 50 gigabytes of music ready to go.

For $199 my sound system issues are solved in my Arctic Fox 990. I will leave the factory speakers and stereo installed, but they will be collecting dust.

Conclusion

For a change in your boondocking adventures consider exploring a three-day, rock festival like Rock USA, instead of the normal, remote lake or mountain destination. Before or after the music festival be sure to check out the surrounding state parks or outdoor areas friendly to the boondocking lifestyle.

Please remember to boondock without a trace!

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