6:00 PM EDT, August 22, 2012
The campfire was in a metal pit, under a great, wide roof. The tents were pitched on a well-tended lawn, with help from people who work for an outdoors store. Bears were a threat only if someone had forgotten to lock an enclosure door.
And dinner was something you grabbed from tables, instead of trying to cook yourself in the uneven heat of a fire.
It was, nonetheless, family camping, an overnight amid the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo, more than 50 people who braved unfamiliar bedding and lack of cable to get a taste of the out of doors.
"That's why we do it, because they make it so easy," said Jenny Jessup, whose family recently moved from the city to Glen Ellyn. The pharmaceutical rep was with daughter Jade, 7, and some friends and their kids, all of them seeming to lap up the mixture of orienteering games, hunts for nocturnal animals and, of course, the ritual cooking of s'mores and the turning of marshmallows into blazing little fireballs.
"I'll do this every year that my kids want to come back," said Jessup, 44. "They supply the tent and help you set it up. This is camping for city kids."
Jade, meanwhile, said she liked that "you just get to see all kinds of animals," plus the movie that is shown after the evening programs to help campers wind down.
She went away and then quickly came back, her flashlight directly in the reporter's face: "There's one more thing I like," she said. "Catching lightning bugs."
The Friday night sleepover was one of the more dramatic examples of the ways Chicago's cultural institutions turn normally dead hours into exotic experiences that can enrich patrons and the institutions themselves.
Shedd Aquarium (Spooky Seas Family Sleepover), Field Museum (Dozin' with the Dinos), Adler Planetarium (Astro-Overnights), Brookfield Zoo (Sleepover Safaris) and Museum of Science and Industry (Snoozeum) are among the others in the area that provide such cultural slumber parties, mostly geared to families with elementary school-age children. Costs are generally about $60 a person, more for nonmembers, and reservations are required.
"Part of the zoo's mission is to connect people to nature," said Jaclyn Peterson, manager of public programs for Lincoln Park zoo. "The overall goal is to give families an easy but authentic camping experience."
Ahem. Authentic camping, especially car camping, involves stuffing roughly two aisles worth of gear from REI into a minivan, heading to Indiana or Wisconsin, unstuffing it, restuffing what you haven't lost or damaged, then driving back maybe 48 hours later, hopefully not having endured mosquito or rain onslaughts in the interim. Somewhere in between there is the struggle to erect a tent and to sleep while coated in pesticide, cinders and lemonade.
But, OK, we'll grant that the key element of real camping — tent sleeping — exists in what the zoo offers, not to mention the satisfaction of sleeping on some of the city's most expensive real estate.
Known as Sleep Under the Skyscrapers, this is the program's third year, and Friday's was the fourth and last campout of the summer, co-sponsored by REI, which provides tents. (The program moves indoors in the fall and winter for sleepovers in the reptile and ape houses.)
The event saw cool, comfortable weather and, according to reports afterward, relative restraint from the white-cheeked gibbons housed near the impromptu campground on the South Lawn. They have been known to wake campers as early as 5 a.m. but this time held off until about an hour later.
The monkeys "sounded like a very loud car alarm that unfortunately would not turn off!" Jessup said in a post-event email. "Jade is already making plans for next year's campout!"
Tom and Judy Comfort, of Lakeview, brought son Peter, 8, for "my first campout ever," the boy said. For him, noted his father, "this is Yosemite."
"I'll show you our tent," added Tom, who, like his wife, is a business consultant. "That's a $9.99 number we got at Costco."
Lisa Faust is a zoo employee — vice president of conservation and science — but was mostly there as an aunt. She brought her nephew George Lefebvre, 6, recently moved to Chicago from Brooklyn, N.Y., for what was not only his first campout but also his first night away from his parents.
As George looked for snow leopards and red pandas, noting whether they were active or inactive at this time of night, Faust said she hoped it would instill the taste for more camping, maybe even backpacking.
"These kind of programs, especially in the city, are so cool," she said. "Kids — all of us — are so disconnected from the natural world."
Sleep Under the Skyscrapers
When: Ongoing; next event, Nov. 9
Where: Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive
Tickets: $70 ($60 for members); more information at 312-742-2000 and lpzoo.org
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