The Surprise

I was the girl who could climb trees and outrun boys. Dusk made me invincible, as if I were running faster than I actually was, so I loved to play games like Manhunt when the light was fading and I could tear across a stranger’s lawn or an empty golf course. So, in Canada, when we were presented with a long ladder up an old-time fire tower that was taller than the treeline, I thought, Great!

I waited on line to jump onto the ladder. The people in front of me were so slow. I just wanted to get up there! To see. I always wanted to see, to look. Finally I got on and as we climbed the three-story ladder, I looked down. Nothing but grassy dirt and our nervous counselor. The higher I climbed, the more the tower swayed like a skinny pine tree in the wind, gently, but moving back and forth. There was no backing on the ladder to catch us if somebody missed a rung. On the top was a small cabin. Some of the rungs were either rusted or broken off.

When I got to the cabin and stood looking out over the trees, I sensed how the wind felt different up high, making me step a few feet away from the railing. As I blinked into the start of dusk, this difference held me rapt as I finally noticed how vulnerable I was. Up here, nothing impeded the wind, and it seemed to reign as it pushed around the tops of the pine trees. As if a mask had been peeled off, this was the true wind. I peeked over the railing with new eyes. The extreme height dictated good behavior in the small cabin, but two boys started to joke in a pushing manner so I left and climbed back down, holding on tight, aware that I would never be here again.

As we waited for the others, Eva and I went for a paddle by ourselves. We got into the canoe and paddled slowly because we didn’t have to keep up with the group. It was nice to just hang out, and Eva and I enjoyed being in the canoe talking and relaxing, the sound of our dipping oars in the lake. I looked up and examined bright pink clouds, surprised at their perfect fluffy shapes. I pressed my “mind camera” to remember this, knowing it was something special. Then Eva wanted to go across the lake so we paddled toward the tall reeds on the opposite bank, but when we turned the corner of those tall reeds, we got a huge surprise.

Eva reached for her camera, her oar clambering against the canoe. I stopped paddling, mouth dropping open, in awe of the enormous brown animal before us with horns as big as you can imagine. Not ten feet away was a giant moose.

I think with Eva’s camera snapping and the two of us exclaiming whatever we exclaimed, the moose ran. We stood in the canoe, balancing and grabbing onto the useless reeds as we watched the animal run into the woods. All we wanted during this trip, Eva and I, was to see a moose. Not realizing how rare that sighting would actually be, we decided this is what we wanted. Everywhere we paddled, we looked for our moose. That we actually saw a moose and didn’t get trampled by it is still a mystery. But it brought me back to how I felt at the beginning of the trip, to the notion that wishes can come true, and to expect that.

Moose in Velvet feeding in the wilderness

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