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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

They say you should scare yourself at least once a day, something I try to keep in mind regularly, but had let slip. Last summer, with my neck tight from worry and too much time at the computer, I knew I needed to take off into the woods.

My husband wasn’t available but I really wanted to see the Perseids meteor showers. I decided to go camping on my own, which I’d never done before. It was time to try something new, and maybe a little scary, anyway.

Our camping equipment was pretty well packed up from our last trip, so I decided to go for it. And I figured I could put the tent up on my own. After throwing the sleeping bag and a few things to eat into the car, I was on my way. I was a little nervous about being alone but put that feeling aside for the time being. I’d only ever seen one woman camping solo before, but she’d had a dog with her for protection.

I could feel my neck muscles unwinding on the sunny drive to a provincial park in eastern Ontario. When I reached the check-in booth, I asked the young attendant if she thought I’d be all right camping alone. She looked at me, puzzled, not quite understanding the question.

“I mean, safe from being attacked?”

“Sure,” she said, nonchalantly. I’m not sure what I expected her to say, but her answer was somewhat reassuring.

I could see the dark clouds rolling in, and heard thunder rumbling in the distance. Not a great start to my adventure, I thought. The one thing I don’t like is camping in the rain. By the time I reached my campsite it was pouring, so I read in the car for an hour and looked around to see who my neighbours were – an older couple across the road and a family with small children down the hill. I was relieved that they didn’t look like axe murderers.

Once the rain stopped, I found a level spot for the tent. Putting it up turned out to be a straightforward, idiot-proof process. This won’t be so bad after all, I thought.

After supper, I got the fire started easily. I had brought a stack of newspapers that I hadn’t gotten around to reading: articles about the current state of affairs; speculation about the coming months; book and film reviews. I read each one before throwing it into the flames until it got too dark to see the words. It was a surprisingly satisfying exercise, especially if the article was irritating in its viewpoint.

Looking up, I couldn’t see much of the sky through the dense tree canopy but thought I’d wake up later to brave the woods and find a clearing to see if I could catch a glimpse of the meteor shower. Once I zipped myself into the tent, I realized how much more room there was with just one person. I laid out the Therm-a-Rest and the extra foam mattress I’d brought for added comfort in the centre. I loved that I could spread out and throw my clothes all over with no one to complain about the mess. Solo camping certainly has its benefits.

Falling asleep quickly, I was awakened a few hours later by some rustling noises outside the tent. It sounded too large and loud to be a squirrel or a chipmunk. I realized I’d forgotten to bring my Swiss army knife into the tent and my heart pounded as I waited to see if whatever it was might tear through the flimsy tent. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it went away but I lay awake, nervous, and wondering if it would return.

I didn’t think I should go out to look at the stars after all. As I lay there, though, I heard wolves howling in the distance and a barred owl calling “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” and was somewhat glad I was awake to hear this little slice of nature.

The next morning, my neighbours talked about how a bear had visited in the night and knocked over some of their chairs and small tables, likely smelling the fish they’d caught earlier. Good thing the bear hadn’t done any more damage than that.

I revelled in making an easy one-person breakfast and then do nothing but sip my coffee and stare at the ancient maple tree where a chipmunk was running in and out of his tiny hole at the base of the trunk. Loons called from the lake and an Eastern Wood-Pewee tweeted in the distance every few minutes. (The only reason I remember its name is that it’s named for the call it sings.)

While I was disappointed at not seeing the shooting stars, the time away provided me with the deep relaxation I needed. I’m a lot more confident about camping by myself now too. Bear or no bear.

Joanne Culley lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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