I don’t camp well. I don’t think I would even glamp well. Which is why it is so surprising that I accept our friend Tom’s invitation to go camping. I guess I figure if we don’t go with him, our three kids may never go—this is in part because the only person less fond of camping than I is my husband, Peter. The closest we’ve come is the blanket fort we made in our living room when the kids were really young—proof that we’re familiar with the concept of roughing it. Since we are about to move into a new home, Peter volunteers to stay home and pack up the rest of the house while we are gone.
When I was a kid, my family went car camping, where we slept in tents, by a lake with a buoy line around the shallow area, near a building that housed proper toilets and showers, along with my favourite camping tradition—the tuck shop. Subsequently, I have become a bit of a Ritz-Carlton Diva, but since this would be a great opportunity for Satchel, Tanner and Cole (ages fifteen, eleven, and nine, respectively) to experience the great outdoors, and since Tom is the ultimate host, we decide to attend this party, held in Mother Nature’s living room—pre-pandemic.
We arrive in Muskoka and converge on Tom’s cottage for the first night, where we meet our fellow campers, Tom’s friend, Collin, and his eight-year old son, Ben, who are also experienced outdoorsmen. Tom’s 12-foot long dining room table is crowded with food for the trip, a first aid pack, cooking gear, and tents, along with all the incredible tools and gadgets for surviving in the wild. Looking at all that gear, it’s hard to imagine that Tom, Collin and Ben will be out for five days, while my boys and I will pack as much fun as we can into two days and one night of camping, which is all we can fit in before our move.
After a swim in Lake Rosseau and a hearty dinner, we gather around for The Talk. Tom teaches us how to be safe out there in the wild, which includes a mini course titled, “What To Do If We Encounter a Bear, 101.” My littlest adventurers freeze at the mention of bears. They give me a look that says, “We did not sign up for bears.” Tom assures us that the most likely place we would see a bear would from the car, inside the provincial park, and it would probably only be a black bear. But we are urbanites and have no bear prejudices—black, brown, polar, grizzly—we are equally terrified of them all. Understandably, the topic comes up again at bedtime. “We don’t want to meet any bears,” they say. “We want to go home.” It’s hard to convince them that we won’t see any bears when we were just told what to do if we see a bear, which means, there are definitely bears out there.
They give me a look that says, “We did not sign up for bears”
Early the following morning, in two cars, under grey skies, we wind our way through beautiful northern Ontario, until there are no more stores or burger joints, only signs for camping, hiking, and boating. Finally, we turn into the entrance for Killarney Provincial Park. Not three minutes later, right in front of us, crossing the road like he owns it, is a black bear. I react quickly: “Isn’t it a good thing we got that bear sighting out of the way? Now we can relax about the whole bear thing, right kids?” They remain un-amused.
After picking up our two rented canoes, we load them up with our gear. The food pack alone weighs in at around 175 pounds. Add the tents, camping gear, and seven human beings and you can imagine that our canoes are quite low in the water. Using my rudimentary calculations, our two vessels are hauling well over a thousand pounds of camp-bound stuff, some of it reluctant.
Tom assesses our individual weights (including optimistic ballpark assessments by some of us) as well as our paddling strengths, and loads us accordingly. Then we push off into the lake and begin our paddle toward what I think will be our campsite. This is my first misconception; we actually paddle to our first portage, then, carry all that stuff, over multiple trips, including the canoes, through the forest, only to load it all up again and paddle to our second portage, so that we can reach our third lake and seek out a settlement.
After a reconnaissance paddle around the lake, Tom chooses our site and the tents go up. The lake is quiet and the large rocks surrounding it are smooth and heated by the sun, ready for heat-seeking salamanders like myself to collapse onto and relax. Sadly, my hot rock fantasy melts away when camp director Tom announces, “Looks great everyone! Still enough daylight to go for a hike!”
Really? We pile back into our canoes and paddle to the trailhead.
The hike turns out to be unexpectedly steep and takes us up to a peak in the park, from which we can see for miles. It is a breathtaking sight, particularly for those of us who can still breathe comfortably after the challenging climb to the summit. (I toyed with playing my princess card halfway up, but being part of this boys’ club means holding my own or hearing about it for eternity. No divas on this trip.)
By the time we land back at our campsite, it’s almost dark, with only time enough for a quick swim to wash off the sweat and bug spray before starting dinner. The two men work efficiently, starting a fire, and cooking up bean burritos, while delegating smaller jobs to the rest of us. With dinner come the uninvited mosquitoes, who sense a feast of their own, and drive us quickly into our tents for the night.
Satchel falls asleep immediately. Tanner and Cole however, have a different idea. They are sitting up, hugging their knees tightly, rocking back and forth, and waiting for the bear to attack. I pull them close, one under each arm, and hold them until they fall asleep, at which point I spend the next few hours preparing a plan for what to do when the bear attacks.
I spend the next few hours preparing a plan for what to do when the bear attacks
Then I watch the shadows of daddy long legs crawling across the tent, hoping they won’t appear in my recurring spider dream. I hear the raccoons rummaging through the pots and pans hanging on the trees, looking for scraps. As a grand finale, the monsoon hits. And it rains and rains, like God is pouring a heaven-sized bucket of water directly onto our tent. Everyone’s sleep is restless, and each time any child twitches in the tent I bolt up, making sure they are all okay and discovering that each fresh look around shows our four bodies in the shape of a different letter of the alphabet.
In the morning, it takes a while to set up a tarp and make breakfast, as the deluge continues. Unfortunately, a full day of enjoying our surroundings is looking more like a hostage situation, as we wait for a reprieve in the weather to make our escape. Tom, Collin and Ben also watch the skies, wondering if the forecast, which calls for rain for the next four days, will be accurate. We keep ourselves busy at camp, packing up our tent and sleeping bags, cleaning up after breakfast, and wondering if we will ever get back out on the water.
By late morning, I can’t find Tanner, and go for a scout around our campsite. I discover him standing in front of the “treasure chest”—a wooden box, covered by a lid, which is our designated lavatory. Together, we consider his dilemma in silence. Using a long stick, I lean in and hoist up the lid. There is a hole cut out of the top, out of which we see spiders crawling, while a cyclone of flies spin in and out. The grisly content of the box has grown dangerously close to the opening, indicating that the relocation of the box is long past due. We both throw up a little in our mouths.
“This is it, buddy. Shall I wait for you over there?” I say encouragingly.
He continues to stare for a moment, trying to draw some courage from deep inside, then says, “It’s okay. I can wait.” Which he does for the next eight hours. We can never un-see this image and I feel a loss of innocence for both of us. I put “plumbing” on my list of things to hug when we get back to civilization.
Around midday, the rain slows briefly and we, along with our gear and accumulated garbage, are swiftly loaded into our canoe, while the others chaperone us in the other canoe, towards what I think will be our original boat launch. This is where another of my misconceptions occurs; Tom, Collin, and Ben help us get over the first portage, then wish us luck on the rest of the journey home.
Excuse me? We are heading back the rest of the way without our seasoned guides?
As we sit in our canoe, clearly confused at our abandonment, the boys and I watch our “friends” wave from the portage point, then disappear into the forest. I had not anticipated that we would be on our own, so far away from civilization, in a canoe, loaded to the hilt, in wind, drizzle, and choppy water, with no cell service. As we paddle through whitecaps, up-wind the whole way, I make everyone check their life jackets and constantly examine our surroundings, always aware of the closest shoreline in case we dump. It’s eerie, and every awful, tragic, Titanic thought crosses my mind as I downplay my concerns to the kids—even though a capsizing feels way more real than a bear attack ever did.
We make our way through another portage and an hour later, with tired and sore muscles, we gratefully touch land and climb aboard our minivan for the last leg of our journey—a five-hour drive home. The kids immediately fall asleep while I reflect on our adventure; treasure chest notwithstanding, we survived and proved to our city-slicker selves that we are resilient and adaptable—for a 24-hour shift anyway.
Camping has officially been checked off my family adventure list. Next time, kids, you’re on your own…okay, probably on your own…I guess it depends on the forecast…and the bear situation…and the number of portages… and the lavatory…and if I can play my Princess Card at any time, without consequence.
Then again, I just saw a Groupon for the Ritz-Carlton… ◆