Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In The Woods

When August comes around I reminisce, much like I get an urge to take a class or watch the new season of This Old House. Thirty years ago this month I went on my first real camping trip. I still get shivers when I recall the experience. While this is hardly noteworthy, it should be pointed out that I was nearly 33 years old as a first timer. I never got the chance to camp in boy scouts or cub scouts. Frankly, my experience in that realm ended quickly. The den mother quit after my first cub scout meeting. No reason, just bad timing, but I do recall the delicious chocolate cupcake we had as a snack.

And yes, I slept in a tent with college friends over a weekend in Florida at John Pennekamp State Park, but that was in order to save money. It was also the weekend I had the worst case of influenza in my life. It redefined “the runs.” All I remember is lying in a tent with a 104 degree fever, gazing up into the eyes of one of my friends’ angelic girlfriend as she wiped my forehead with a cool damp cloth. That weekend I learned that camping sucks, and that some people are genuinely caring.

But the trip recounted here was a family event. Four of my wife’s siblings, one brother-in-law and my father-in-law. We headed to an outfitter in the Canadian boundary waters to be equipped with tents, food and canoes. Oh yeah. It was a canoe trip. What could possibly go wrong?

We had the misfortune (great way to start a sentence) of scheduling our trip following several weeks of rain that left campgrounds soggy, lake levels high, mosquitoes dancing in the moonlight, and whatever you call those areas between campgrounds where you have to carry your canoe, under water. The word for that task is portage. That’s pronounced poor tahj. I think it’s important to at least get the word right.

The first paddle was quite pleasant. We balanced our backpacks in the center of our canoe and glided across a small lake to the island where we would make our first camp. Now, camping dork that I am, I had proudly brought with me an early version of the multi-tool. It was a knife I bought as a souvenir in San Francisco when I was 12 over the protests of my mother. It had a knife, fork, spoon, can opener, well, you get it. It had a faux wood carved handle and weighed about two pounds. It had been in the garage for 18 years.

So, we grounded the canoe on the bank with the scritching sound of sand and gravel under the metal hull and prepared to disembark. By this I mean, my wife jumped out of the unbalanced vessel causing it to dump me into the drink, my knife sinking to the bottom of the lake. Granted, the bottom was a foot away, so my precious was quickly recovered. But I was soaking wet. This was great practice for the rest of the trip. It was our driest day. It was also great marital practice. We were newlyweds.

The first night of camping is a novelty. Locating high ground, setting up your tent for the first time, igniting damp kindling, hanging out damp clothes, realizing that Mom is not along to do the cooking, and getting generally grumpy with a group of people where emotions need not be hidden for long. And the next day, you get to portage.

Did I mention mosquitoes? Boundary water mosquitoes? Honestly, I’m not sure why we needed to carry our canoes. They could have lofted them. They were in sufficient numbers and of Jurassic proportions. For your information, OFF does not phase mosquitoes in the wild. You need concentrated napalm (DEET) that can’t be purchased at Dick’s sporting goods, no matter what they say. When you have an inverted canoe over your head, resting on your shoulders, and you’re trudging through thigh-deep mud, it’s hard to swat a bug. We were not in tears. Family requires that you cry only when everyone else does.

I’m not sure when I asked about the location of the bathrooms, but it got a good laugh. Pretty much everyone made an arm motion like half of the Y in the song YMCA in the direction of the forest. I had been peeing regularly without a problem, but at this point I asked, “Yeah, but what about the, um, other?”

That resulted in the other half of the Y that pointed to a shovel and toilet paper.

“No way. I’ll hold it,” I said.

“For a week?” someone responded.

For the record, I made it until Wednesday. And that’s when, relieved as I haven’t been since, I learned about another camping truism. Things roll down hill. Park yourself facing away from a down slope or in a flat area, not on a scenic overlook with a nice view of the lake. Duh.

I have camped many times since, with our kids, as a leader (imagine that) at my son's boy scout summer camp and with great friends on group sites. We have been evacuated due to midnight storms in the Wisconsin Dells, sweltered under deafening tree frogs in Hannibal, MO and ate more S'Mores than is probably healthy. But the Boundary Water trip in 1987 stands out because it was the first and most difficult. And it's also the kind of experience that makes for great stories and unforgettable memories.

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