It was one of our best moments of all time. We had tied six canoes together and, with a strong tailwind and sails tied to our paddles, we sailed across a wide open lake, lounging and joking in the sun instead of paddling.
By this point, our “camping gang” had been at it for years, meeting each Labor Day weekend for a four-day pilgrimage to the woods.
It started nearly 30 years ago, when my father and three other fathers, who knew each other as Beaver leaders, decided to take their children canoeing on North Tea Lake in Algonquin Park. No mothers.
The kids barely paddled, somehow we were both sunburnt and had rain in the hours it took to get to our campsite and the hired canoes were constantly on the verge of capsizing despite the weight of all our food and our equipment.
But the hard work bonded the dads, and the kids befriended hilarious jokes—the height of comedy was when someone slipped off a rickety picnic bench—and it soon became an annual tradition.
Younger siblings joined us, and for years 14 of us met at the end of each summer to find the perfect patch of wilderness in Algonquin, Temagami and Killarney Provincial Parks.
We weren’t exactly experienced campers. We made several trips on each portage, and a child always seemed to carry a single sleeping bag or grill wrapped in a plastic bag, while the fathers stumbled by with canoes on their shoulders.
We loved finding a campsite, pitching the tents, making a fire to warm up some Hamburger Helper (pre-made and packed in Ziploc bags for our first evening meal) and parking ourselves there until it was time to paddle back to the cars.
Others broke camp every day and went to the next spot, but we got comfortable. We waved to passing canoeists in a downpour, happily ate peanut butter from a jar and played Euchre in our tents.
Our day trips always seemed to lead to chaos – a child left behind, a misjudged circular route that was hastily broken off to get back to the site before dark, an endless walk up a hill with no water to drink (we gave the fathers the fault of this, of course) – and we sang ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ loud and bad around the fire at night.
We were actually kind of a nightmare.
And it was the best.
We laughed endlessly (and a few hospital trips) and enjoyed the time we spent in nature.
I loved waking up to the quiet tranquility of the forest, the taste of instant oatmeal from a plastic bowl and diving into a crystal clear lake about to lose its summer heat.
We eventually grew up, went to school, had part-time jobs, boyfriends and girlfriends. We no longer go canoeing on Labor Day weekend, but the memories of that time keep our group together.
We still meet for holiday parties, flock to each other’s weddings and revel in the birth of the next generation of camping children.
We are also there in the sadder times, we come together to remember our once and forever leader, Hawkeye (his nickname of the Beaver leader who stuck with him) when he died too young.
Those bonds were forged outdoors, in the woods and on the water, away from the world.
It’s the kind of experience everyone should enjoy, which is why The Star’s Fresh Air Fund works every year to send underprivileged and special needs children to camp.
I hope this year you will consider helping the Fresh Air Fund reach its goal of raising $650,000 to send more than 25,000 children to day and night camps.
Everyone deserves a chance to be a little bad at camping.
If you’ve been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, email FreshAirFund@thestar.ca or call 416-869-4847.
With your donation, the Fresh Air Fund can help send underprivileged children and children with special needs to the camp. These children will have the opportunity to participate in a camp experience that they will cherish for a lifetime.
How to donate?
By check: Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh, Air Fund, One Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1E6
With credit card: Visa, MasterCard or AMEX. Call 416.869.4847
Online: For direct donations, please use our secure form at thestar.com/freshairfund.
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