Stolen Lunch

The food was heavy on the back, light in stomach.

We were ten 13-year-olds and two counselors aged 16 and 17. We were without cell phone, RN on duty, sunscreen, supervision. We were alone, canoeing across miles of deep Canadian lakes.

I was the girl with the appetite of a man. I was always hungry, and I always looked forward to lunch: Triscuits with peanut butter and jelly carefully divvied out, a small chocolate bar, a piece of cheese. Dinner came from the cans, and we learned to crave Dinty Moore Beef Stew as if it were from home.

After two weeks of our wilderness camp, I started to take swipes of peanut butter when nobody was looking. I remember being never fully fed and begging internally for more, a few more pieces of meat this time? Such disappointment to get more potatoes! We traveled with a tub of margarine, minus refrigeration, not something you’d do today but back then I’m sure they considered the coolness in the Canadian woods refrigeration enough. We got a lump of it in our hot cereal every morning and I watched as the lumps got smaller as the month progressed. After scarfing down my own bowl, my eyes would travel to Eva’s.

Poor Eva to have such a hungry cousin. Luckily for me, Eva didn’t like oatmeal or any kind of hot cereal so she would take a few bites and give me hers. She still gives me food like that. At Cape Cod last summer, she offered me her chicken salad, practically forcing it upon me (“No! Here! Take it!”), and I had to smile.

Early in the trip Eva stole a candy bar for me from the stash out of sheer love and older cousin duty, a duty she took on quietly. Because she was a smart tomboy, nobody saw, and she handed me the candy bar privately.

It turned into quite a scene.

We watched together as the counselors realized the candy was missing. They kept counting and recounting the stash. When they realized the problem, they called the group around for a serious discussion and spoke in concerned voices about how important it was to be careful with our food supply, as we had just enough for the fourteen of us. Eyes accused two boys, and Eva and I stood there, allowing it.

Well, this made me feel so terrible that I never ate it but chucked it far into the woods. This was one of the few times Eva has been mad at me. She could not believe I didn’t eat it and frankly, she still can’t. She remains incredulous, possibly because it took her so much to steal it. In fact, at a recent dinner out with our men we told the story for the first time in, yikes, 30 years, and her voice still showed that incredulous spark as she was speaking. I felt bad again and apologized for not eating it (then we dug into our jumbo shrimp).

But as life mysteriously shows us, that early experience of the stolen lunch made us all work more cohesively as a group, bringing in a new level of serious. This was the woods, baby. We depended on the canoes, the cans, the map and each other. After two weeks, we were expected to be at a certain point to receive our next shipment of food from a sea plane that would land on the lake. Can you imagine? Sending a bunch of teenagers into the woods with only just enough food and then hoping they show up to get the rest from a sea plane? But that was the plan. And wouldn’t you know, we showed up right on time. Everybody had to play by the rules.

As it turned out, we ran out of food only for the very last night of camping, eating cold waxed beans from an industrial-sized can and dry orange Tang with our fingers.

Cooking in a hike in the cauldron hanging over the fire

Portaging: The Can Sack

“Because the activities involved in canoeing
activate hearty appetites, don’t skimp on food supplies.”

– Temagami Canoe Routes

I had it in my head that the can sack was 100 pounds. It could have been 500 pounds, but regardless, when we got to the edge of a lake, somebody’s back had to transport it over land to the next lake.

The can sack was a large, long, Army-green duffle with two straps that you fitted over your shoulders. We had a couple of heroes who took it on several times. I was never a hero, though I did carry it once.

It was a bright and cool day, the air without heat but spiced with pine sap. As we pulled up to the edge of a lake, we yanked the packs and tents and duffles off the canoes, piling them on a dry area. The sack looked at me, and I decided to try it.

Sixteen-year-old “Boomer,” mature in his role as counselor, raised it onto my back. (I never learned Boomer’s first name.) I was seriously surprised at how heavy the pack was and realized quickly that I couldn’t walk upright. So I walked stooped over with nature above me and watched where my feet were being placed on the skinny path that had exposed roots, stones, hills, as the other campers passed me by. I have no idea how long this portage was. Most were under a mile but long enough so that you couldn’t see the other lake from where you started and had some walking to do.

Eventually, no one was on the path with me. After the silence became obvious, I knew they were finished and waiting. Alone on the path, peering up from my stooped position, I could see sky through the trees ahead, telling me the new lake was getting close. But the straps were digging into my shoulders and they really hurt.

I stopped to try and adjust them off the raw spots. I stood there and tried to shift the straps but they didn’t budge. The sack was just too heavy. I leaned forward more, trying to give myself room to loosen them, but as I leaned forward, the noisy rush of cans went over my head and onto the dirt in front of me.

My fanny was in the air, my head between my legs. I listened, heard nothing. No loons, no cousin, no counselors.

Now, I was once a girl who asked for advice. The girl who asked not just one person, usually my mother, but several people, taking polls. What should I do? What do you think I should do? With no one to ask, or even offer help, I seriously didn’t know what to do.

Getting conscious of the time, and embarrassed about my situation, I tried several ideas but the straps were adjusted tightly, so it was hard to slip them off my shoulders and start over. I just had to push through this and make it a physical stunt. Bending my body, moving, sliding, doing some sort of freewheeling yoga, it hurt like hell and caused bruises I would admire later that evening, my knees and I got that can sack onto my back again and merely continued on to meet the others by the lake. They were resting, waiting for me. Since we were all expected to do our job, no one had even thought to check on me. In fact, they were happy for the rest. They knew I would eventually get there and I did. A week later I carried a canoe on my shoulders during another portage. That was it for me and heavy lifting.

The following summer, when I asked to go back to Canada, I already knew the trip was meant for only once. It was an expensive camp and I’m the oldest of five, so I got a newspaper route and carried those, also rolling up my beach towel with 12 cents for the orange ade at the pool. The summer after that I got a job for great money at the Ardsley DPW, painting fences and ripping up weeds and deadheading public geraniums with other kids my age, hiding out in Macy Park when the heat was too much. On the weekends my neighborhood friends and I did a lot of walking to the village for pizza, taking the shortcut alongside the stream but no longer bothering to sit on the big rock. I guess because kids think about what they see and what they do, I eventually stopped talking about Canada. I moved on as life carried me grade to grade, and the lessons I learned in the woods quietly stayed put without fanfare or me noticing.

Canoe bow on lake

Big, Blue Duffel: Intro to the Canada Series

(circa 1980)

An original life is unexplored territory.
You don’t get there by taking a taxi—
You get there by carrying a canoe
. –Alan Alda

The Canada series starts in LaGuardia airport in New York, with my mother running after the camp director, yelling at his flanneled back, “Make sure my daughter takes her medicine!”

Did he nod? He had a plane to catch.

Those were different days, when kids ran out the front door saying, “Bye!” Or if they explained their whereabouts at all, just hopped on a bike and pedaled away.

Now my cousin and I hopped on a plane with our blue, camp-sanctioned duffel bags and headed to the great outdoors. Eva’s duffel bag was stretched tight at the zipper, full of Noxema, a big hand mirror, Sassoon jeans, little luxuries and functionalities but no snacks. The snacks would have come in handy, cousin. Me, I packed Jordache jeans, a brush, socks and underwear, a new bottle of pink Tickle deoderant that would barely break its seal, a notebook and pen.

I was so excited.

We were camping, heading into the woods. Not backdoor woods, but Canadian woods full of bears and blueberries and real tents and cooking over a fire and if the wood was wet, oh well! Eat crackers! The Canada I knew from the globe in the corner of the library at school would soon display an uncharted view of nature, including the decadence of uncountable shooting stars that would draw across the night sky above our sleeping bags. And it would make us strong. I didn’t know that then, of course, being 13 and half-wondering if I would ever be able to plug in my curling iron.

We would be gone for the month of July. It was my uncle’s idea. Eva would be in the front of our canoe, I would be in the back. Together, with our group of ten 13-year-olds and two counselors whom we considered ancient but were a mere 16 and 17, we paddled over 300 miles around Ontario’s lake regions, portaged over 20 miles, taking turns carrying the canoes themselves and the dreaded sack of cans that gave us bruise stripes on both shoulders. We were tough by the end, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: Eva and I stole food, swam naked, swung a few punches, climbed a firetower so tall it swayed in the wind, ate chicken from a can and sucked on the bones, came nose to nose with a mother moose, jumped off a cliff, saw my first naked penis (several actually), slept under stars so vast that God was watching us sleep, saw the end of a giant rainbow, slid down mossy rocks on our bare feet laughing into the black lake. All without a cell phone. Or a registered RN on duty. Or special water bottles (we leaned over the canoes to drink from the lakes with our hands). Or supervision, for that matter. This was camp!

We were children set loose in the Canadian wilderness, trusted to look after ourselves. Just to be super clear, there were no music lessons with a guitar somewhere along the way, no water shoes, no arts and crafts projects, no adult. I don’t remember seeing a first-aid kit, but I can’t say I looked for it either, even when I twisted my ankle. I think it was Eva who brought along the Bandaids and nursed me back to health. I think I shampooed once. I say all this to set the stage. We did have Coppertone SPF 4 until it ran out, and a campfire every morning and night because we needed it to cook, to eat.

I sound like the old man who walked a mile to the one-room schoolhouse in the snow. I get you, old man! Since life now is so different, life then seems so unique! And since this eye-rolling Girl Scout begrudgingly sewed sit-upons out of used tablecloths while the boy scouts went camping, the heavy wish in my heart was now here before me, laid out like a prize, which taught me this: I should believe that wishes, even unspoken ones, come true. What a beautiful thing to come across at 13. How I would depend on this later.
Girl canoeing
Next up: Canada Series, The Send Off