Canada Series: The Send Off

“Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
that turn into rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowded with pines,
Lies deep water, wild Temagami…” — Archibald Lampman

Canada’s wilderness would become a new playground for us, but right now, Eva and I hopped on a bus and listened to the kids in the back row sing Sweet Emotion. They wore light blue Levi’s and everyone had long hair.

As we traveled deeper into Canada, the authority of home stretched and broke. At the gas station, Eva and I ate Reeses for lunch. When we reached water, the duffels were on our backs and we climbed onto a flotilla of speed boats. I could only stare.

Nature here was not the same nature at home. Lake Temagami did not suggest a bottom and it required the same respect I gave the ocean. Loons floated on its depth with an unguarded air of confidence and their telltale call made me burst out laughing. Pines surrounded us on both sides and fought against each other for space, leaning over the lake. As we stepped onto the dock at the base camp, ten hours later from LaGuardia, I carried my own duffle and walked passed rows of red dented canoes, knowing we were soon leaving. The base camp would not be home. The lake was.

When all the boats were emptied there was an instant, live-wire energy at the base camp that I badly wanted to be part of. Older kids strode around wearing ratty T-shirts with cool sayings, greeting each other, their wavy hair uncombed. Some carried acoustic guitars by the neck. They went barefoot and knew how to start a fire. I showed up with carefully combed wings and for all my tomboy ways, a can of Aqua Net, so this was all new to me. I watched these kids, admiring their hippie bravura. But when my cousin and I had to pitch our first tent in the freezing rain, the romance wore fast.

Our first tough endeavor was the swim test. If you didn’t pass the swim test, you didn’t go camping. The flanneled camp director did have a few rules and that was one. So Eva and I put on our suits the next morning and stood shivering by the lake’s soggy, pine-needled edge. There was a gray storm chewing at horizon level. We got in silver rowboats that had water inside, making me colder, and they dropped us off at the wooden platform out in the black lake and were told to swim back.

We were the last ones to start the test. Eva and I stood and watched as the other kids in our group crossed the lake with swim team crawl strokes. Until just that moment, I didn’t realize I was such a terrible swimmer. I was always an ocean girl, and you don’t really swim in the ocean, do you? You hop, you laugh, you play a nice game called Martha Washington with your sisters that makes your hair look like a giant curl around your face. You wear seaweed. But these kids came from somewhere serious that had chlorine. The two counselors nudged my cousin and me, so we took turns climbing down the platform ladder.

When my foot reached for another rung and found only lake, I became a whoosh of fear, wondering what swam beneath. At Rock Hill Girl Scout Camp the counselors told Eva and me about fresh water sharks and that memory came back in detail. I did a frantic crawl stroke that got me ten feet until I switched gears for the doggie paddle. I forget who came in last. I think it was me. The counselors were gone when we emerged from the lake.

With no golden plastic trophies, Eva and I walked back to base camp shaking and teeth chattering with arms crossed, too frozen to talk. This was when we pitched a tent for the first time. Since it was now pouring rain, and the chlorine kids were warm and dry in their tents, Eva and I had no time to pretend it was hard. We were told to pitch a tent so we stuck poles in poles, learning as we went. Our counselor saw us struggling and gave us a hand. Afterward, Eva and I hid inside the tent as the rain beat on the top, shivering together as we yanked off our suits and put on dry clothes, sweaters. Shivering is actually exhausting. I couldn’t believe how far I was from home. This was camping? With wings deflated, staying at the base camp was looking more inviting.

But the next morning we were off. After a warm breakfast of hot cereal, Eva and I got in our dented red canoe with our blue duffle bags between us and the rolled-up tent that we couldn’t quite get back in the bag. The sun was awake and the loons called us out. The flanneled camp director stood over us on the dock and gave our canoe a hard push.

book cover 3

Next Up: Portage, on Aug. 21

9 thoughts on “Canada Series: The Send Off

  1. Such great memories….I miss loons so much! I grew up in Toronto and spent every summer, ages 8 to 16, in northern Ontario at three different summer camps, all of which involved the sort of hide-toughening activities you remember here!


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