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When I retired, I resolved to recapture my happy memories of camping, like lying warm in a sleeping bag, muscles tired after a day of paddling or hiking, listening to the night sounds of lake and loon, wind and rain. So Canadian, so romantic, I loved camping when I was younger. All I had to do was go again and it would all be exactly the same. Right?
So later that year, I jumped at the chance to join a three-day trip into Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Provincial Park. Sure, it was June and there might be some blackflies, but what was a camping trip without bugs? They found us as we waited for the water taxi on the dock, ravenous, maddening clouds settling over our heads. I slapped on some repellent, dug a few out of my ears and still counted 16 bites along my hairline before we finally escaped in the boat.
As we churned our way toward the north end of the lake, canoes securely lashed overhead, one friend leaned in and said quietly: “Don’t tell the others, but see that island? That’s where those people were killed by a black bear in 1991.”
I remembered the grisly story, a young couple had canoed to the island, set up camp, and were then attacked and killed by a black bear. My chest tightened a little and there it was, something else I had forgotten, the low-level bear anxiety that had always accompanied me on camping trips. Those wonderful sounds of lake and loon, wind and rain? I’d forgotten how alarming they could be when you’re lying in the dark with only a flimsy nylon tent between you and a furry hulk with big teeth, long claws and an appetite.
The water taxi left us at the perfect campsite – a rocky point with ample room for our four tents. There was lots of lifting, bending and toting of our gear from the shoreline to the cooking area, the eight of us overturned the canoes and identified suitable tree branches to secure our food from bears. We hilariously struggled to throw a line of rope over these branches to hang the food barrels, then pitched the tents, blew up sleeping pads and gathered wood. I didn’t remember all this hard work. Or maybe it wasn’t such hard work 20 years ago.
The revelations kept coming that weekend and I was struck by what a sly and slippery thing my memory was. I crawled into my tent that first night, tired and looking forward to lying quietly and finally, finally listening to all those wild, romantic night sounds. Surely that was still the same. My head hit the pillow and a rush of blood surged toward my head. I was lying on a slope and the only sound I could hear was blood pounding in my ears. Resigned, I sighed, and turned onto my side only to have my sleeping bag slide off my sleeping pad, leaving me on the cold tent floor. I wiggled back onto the pad, and slid off again a few minutes later. The slip and slide of nylon and my murmured curses were the only night sounds now. After a few hours I added another one: Tent zippers opening and closing as the women in our group, all of a certain age, responded to nature’s call every few hours.
About 4 a.m., it got cold, really cold. June in Canada cold. Another thing my memory had skipped over. My feet were freezing, the tip of my nose was numb and I wondered for a minute if it could be frostbite. I scrambled around in the dark, feeling for every item of clothing I had, and put it on – including the tuque and gloves.
The next morning, I awoke curled in a fetal position on the cold floor of the tent. My tentmate was sitting up, her eyelids swollen shut with angry red bug bites covering her face. Tears welled in her eyes when I gently asked how she was.
But then we emerged to breakfast. We sat around the snapping orange flames of the morning campfire, watching a grey, otherworldly mist rise off the lake. The canoes, overturned on the shore, glistened with morning dew. We talked about how we had slept, or not slept, who had the most bug bites, and made plans for the day. Loons called to each other across the water and our collective spirits rose and lightened. We agreed we all looked ridiculous in our bug hats. The laughter and breakfast sandwiches, the fresh-baked carrot muffins and French-press coffee and strong, black tea made all things possible. Maybe we’d even have a wildlife sighting or two.
We spent our days on the water, exploring the lake, watching for moose, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Then the only sounds were the dip of our paddles into the glassy water, the wind in the pine trees.
My memory did not fail me when it came to food. Everything tastes amazing when you’re camping. And my friends and I brought a collective 240 years of cooking experience to the table. If Michelin rated camp food, we would get a resounding three stars, “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” We dined on Moroccan stew with quinoa, Thai curry with rice, sweet potato chili with pasta, chocolate cake and oatmeal cookies. A box of white wine was kept cool in the lake and a box of red wine waited on the picnic table.
After dinner and dishes, we settled in a circle of camp chairs in the dining tent, sipping wine. Protected from the bugs, we watched the sun set across the lake; our laughter, our talk and the occasional silences among us made a new soundscape of memories for me. I felt a little sunburned, a little itchy and a little sore but also content. Maybe camping wasn’t exactly as I remembered it, but I still loved it. I wasn’t the only one. As I reached for more wine, someone piped up, “So, are we all in for next year?”
Linda Jones lives in Chelsea, Que.