Every family has its traditions, and every holiday its peculiarities of celebration. In my family, the one recurring tradition is that a vacation, a holiday or any time at all is a perfect time to go camping.
This penchant for the great outdoors hasn't always sat well with my three brothers and me. Nothing quite says Happy Birthday like a cake baked on a slant because your dad misread the trailer level in the dark, or the lack of friends with whom to celebrate your big day.
Looking back now, on the cusp of full adulthood, I better see the value of those excursions. On those trips I learned something important about family and the traditions that unite us.
When the reservation service for a campground opens up on a highly anticipated date, true zealots are waiting by their phones and computer screens to pounce on their favourite campsites.
My mother is often one of those people waiting for that day, armed with her tea-stained campground maps and scraps of paper with favourite site numbers marked. The payoff is worth that early-morning rendezvous with your computer: the idyllic moment when you first wake up on your beloved campsite, inhale the scent of nature and hear the sound of virtually nothing at all. This moment will be revisited with secret pleasure on subsequent mornings full of the work, the coffee and the schedules of everyday life.
Our favourite family spot for fall camping is Rock Lake in the rightfully famous Algonquin Park. From the prized corner campsite, if you get the angle just right, the front window of the trailer can take in the whole vista of the lake stretching out before it. And if you get the timing perfect, that view is a sight to behold.
The trees on the slopes surrounding the lake break into the most beautiful display of fall colours I have ever seen. The reflection of the forest spreads like a fiery watercolour over the surface of the lake, punctuated only by a few aimless canoes. The colours range from burnt sienna through deep cherry red and on to pumpkin and turmeric.
It always seemed to me that the show was on the one hand the last fireworks of summer, a celebration of the hot and humid days that came before, and on the other a defiance of the approaching winter with a final burst of living beauty.
The ideal situation was when we managed to snag the spot on the weekend of Thanksgiving. There's something so much more poetic about contemplating blessings while surrounded by nature as well as family.
Other years, we celebrated Thanksgiving at different campgrounds with our extended family - cousins, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers all with their RVs, trailers or tents on neighbouring campsites.
I know purists will condemn our use of trailers, but it doesn't feel like too much of a luxury when you're all crowded under the awning to avoid a sudden dusting of snow.
We'd cook the turkey beforehand and heat everything up on the day of the holiday, but sometimes the food was cold before it hit your plate. If we could, we'd pick up pumpkins from a farm on the way up to the park and carve them together on the picnic tables, numb fingers grasping knives. There's never a lack of decorations for the harvest table in such surroundings.
My siblings and I never let on to our parents how much we enjoyed those chilly weekends away, how privileged we felt to experience these truly Canadian landscapes. We complained about the quality of the hot chocolate, grumbled when our father assigned us jobs, smirked when our mother gushed over our surroundings. As we began to outgrow our trailer, we complained about having to wait for breakfast because the brother sleeping on the folded-down kitchen table hadn't woken up yet.
But looking back now, I have to say that some of my favourite childhood memories involve waking up all squished together, hearing the call of the loon in the darkness and eating cold mashed potatoes under a heat lamp. These were the times when I felt most part of a family unit, most Canadian, and sometimes most thankful for both.
We haven't all gone camping at Thanksgiving in a couple of years now: some of the older generation are beginning to value the comforts of home more, and some of the younger generation can't make it back from university. This year we're having Thanksgiving at my parents' house with much of both sides of the family, inside a warm home at a proper table.
We'll still have a fire, but this time it will be in the woodstove and mainly for show. The food will be hot and the company will be good, the basic ingredients for a true Thanksgiving celebration.
Just don't tell my mother that part of me is wishing we were huddled together behind a tarp, running to the outhouse with our flashlights and marvelling at the beauty our country has to offer. We were, and are, blessed indeed.
Caitlin Wolfe lives in Montreal.
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