It never ceases to amaze me that hearing can be so selective in a family environment! For example, one April evening back in the seventies, during an otherwise uneventful dinner, I casually mentioned that a chap I worked with was taking his kids on a camping trip. At that moment there was the usual verbal chaos at the table, normal when one is eating in the company of two active sons aged nine and seven and a charming wife who is vainly trying to orchestrate some manner of order into the proceedings. But suddenly there was dead silence; all talk had ceased and everyone’s eyes were focussed intently on me. Now if I had been discussing my day at work or upcoming family chores, I could just as easily have been lecturing on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for all the recognition my family would have given me.

My older son Dan immediately piped up, “When can we go, Dad? You promised us!” Leif quickly capitalized on his brother's remarks and chimed in, “Yeah, all the other guys’ Dads take them camping,” a remark obviously aimed squarely at my suitability for fatherhood. No doubt due to my memory’s discriminating nature (only good things), I didn’t remember promising anything related to camping. I did recall though, regaling them with my experiences and capabilities in this regard and just may have hinted that I was almost a modern day coureur de bois. In fact, the total extent of my camping experience consisted of a partial night out in my backyard in Winnipeg under a makeshift blanket tent when I was about seven or eight. This event was quickly terminated when the mosquitoes threatened to suck me dry and the flashlight batteries died.

Not to be outdone, my dear wife added thoughtfully “Why don’t you take them camping when school’s out? I have to study for my university political science and history exams, and it’s much easier without you three underfoot.” You will note that this remark cleverly excluded Judy from being a member of this proposed expedition and placed the onus fully on me to act as trail boss and victualler. Nevertheless I was trapped, totally and thoroughly, with no hope of respite unless I admitted my shortcomings, revealing thereby the fact that I had slightly exaggerated my experience in wood lore. My credibility was in serious jeopardy.

But foolish pride overcame honesty. I just didn’t want to admit to my family that I was a klutz where the outdoors was concerned and had lied about my expertise. So in my inimitable fashion, I agreed to this outing, all the time praying that I could somehow find a way to become an instant Daniel Boone. The next few weeks leading up to “the big event” I spent in secretly hounding all the camping stores and pestering my friends to glean whatever information I could to help me survive, but all the while trying desperately not to reveal the fact I was a novice (though I'm sure this was patently obvious). The boys had been given a so-called three man tent for Christmas and after a quick trial, I concluded that it would be just big enough for the three of us - a decision I would live to regret!

As far as my family was concerned, I was simply buying all the needed equipment such as a stove, lantern, sleeping bags, cooler, etc. This was basically true, but I come from the old school where “more is better.” The result was that I purchased enough camping paraphernalia and food stuffs to outfit an expedition to deepest Africa! My wife patiently observed that there did seem to be rather a lot of kit for a man and two boys on a one week camping trip to a provincial park, but I assured her it was all of prime necessity to ensure our well-being.

I haven't mentioned that my cooking ability was on a par with my camping experience-just about nil. Anything more exotic than toast, bacon and eggs and I was out of my culinary depth. But not to worry. I had bought a quantity of army surplus K rations. After all, if soldiers survived on them, we should be able to as well. Also, the salesman stated that they required minimum preparation (immerse in boiling water) and came in a variety of “flavours” sufficient to acquiesce my finicky offsprings’ appetites.

In late June, on a warm day that proffered no foreboding of the events to come, the “Stephanson Camping Expedition and Male Bonding Marathon” lurched out of the family driveway, bound for the wilds of Pinery Provincial Park. I say lurched because the car was stuffed with our supposed necessities to the extent that I had been forced to buy a roof rack to handle the overflow! Needless to say, the car had all the road handling characteristics of an inebriated turtle.

In due course and without any exceptional incidents (except when a lawn chair blew off the roof rack), we arrived at Pinery Provincial Park, near Sarnia. The park ranger, who looked amazingly like Smokey the Bear, allotted us a site and cautioned us about the campground rules (about 300!). Navigating from the map he gave us, we headed off toward our temporary home. After about an hour, I had finally come to the conclusion that according to my interpretation of the map, our campsite was located inside a comfort station. Fortunately some kindly park regulars were able to provide directions which I could understand and within minutes, we found our site.

It was idyllically located. Nestled snugly amongst the towering pines, cedars and junipers, the overall effect was not only pleasing to the eye but also the nose as the evergreens added a deliciously spicy aroma to the crystal clear air. Through the trees, the shimmering blue water of Lake Huron could be seen, framed by the towering sand dunes . At that moment, I felt at one with nature and regretted that I had missed all this for so many years. I would soon rue such sentiments.

My poetic musing was quickly shattered when my fellow fun seekers started to make “hungry” noises. I brokered a deal that once the camp was set up, we would eat. After some negotiations (for one, the food had been “first in” so would logically have to be “last out”), we began to unload the car. Things proceeded amazingly smoothly with the exception of the tent. It seems that while we had the tent, according to Leif the pegs were resting serenely and safely back home on the kitchen table. Using my wits and a bit of good old Canadian ingenuity, I manufactured tent pegs out of some coat hangers sufficient to peg out the base of the tent (Yes, we did bring a little of everything). By locating the tent lengthwise between two adjacent trees, I was able to secure the top corner ridge ropes horizontally to the trees, thus avoiding the requirement for two extra tent pegs and the inconvenience of a sloping rope interfering with the entrance to our minute bedroom. I privately revelled in my inventiveness while getting the camp stove going for our evening banquet (beans, franks and toast). Our first meal was a success and I was feeling just a little smug. There wasn't as much to this camping business as I had been led to believe!

While my sons amused themselves by running up and down the sand dunes, I organized the firewood for our first campfire. They returned from their adventures just as the final rays of light disappeared and darkness blanketed the park. I lit the paper, kindling and logs and was gratified by the ensuing blaze. However, this was short lived as the fire quickly fizzled out. Either the logs were wet or they were just too big to ignite. I suddenly had a brilliant idea. A goodly dousing with stove fuel should do the trick (I had not read the large warning on the fuel can).

The explosion was truly eye-catching, so much so that it burned off my eyebrows! My sons were transfixed, not believing what had occurred. Finally one of them blurted out in a rather mechanical voice, “I don’t think you should have done that, Dad.” I agreed (obviously) and suggested that it was a good lesson for them to learn for future camp outs, thus hopefully directing their thoughts away from my stupidity. Meanwhile, the fire had regained some semblance of normality and a quick check of the surrounding area revealed no collateral damage. My pleasantly weary sons snuggled up in front of the flickering fire and imagined they saw all kinds of things in it’s glowing canyons and caves. For myself, I rationalized “Hey, one mistake’s not bad! We all learned a valuable lesson.” Of course it was a dangerous lesson that I shouldn’t have had to learn at all.

Later, as the fire waned, we were attracted to the myriad of stars above us, a sight of an intensity never seen in the city where the background luminosity effectively cancels their comparatively weak glow. No words were said, nor were any necessary. Each of us was wrapped up in his own thoughts. For me, this was yet another visible example of God’s handiwork.

It was getting late and I suggested that bed was in order. There were no arguments. Two tired and happy young lads climbed into their sleeping bags, soon to be followed by a not-quite-so-young but contented Dad. All in all, things had gone well. I now had started to appreciate camping’s appeal. I drank the last of my coffee and then made sure the fire was out. I’d had enough of flames and certainly didn’t want any more self-inflicted surprises this day! It was a tight fit getting into the tent and sleeping bag, but once settled, I had an overwhelming sense of well being and quickly fell asleep.

I was jolted from my slumber by a cacophony somewhat akin to a harried cook scrounging through a cutlery drawer. There were also other disconcerting noises, all of which had contributed to my rude awakening. Grabbing my flashlight and peering out of the tent, I was witness to a sight somewhat analogous to the great train robbery as staged in a menagerie! There was a family of raccoons (appropriately masked) creating havoc with all the provisions which I had thoughtfully left out in the mistaken belief that provincial campgrounds had special protection from midnight marauders. On all fours and bellowing an ancient Viking battle cry, I charged out of the tent and headlong into the tree that I had so cleverly used as the anchor for the front tent rope. I can assure you that the stars I saw at that moment rivalled anything celestial we had seen earlier in the evening! By this time my sons were awake and were giving me a play-by-play account of the invasion.

“Dad, a raccoon is eating a hole in the cooler!”

“Look at that fat one. He’s running off with our bread!”

“The breakfast cereal is all over everywhere, and one’s inside the garbage bag!”

“Do something quick Dad, they have the bacon!”

I staggered to my feet and charged the scene of this heinous crime, only to trip over a root, fall flat and knock the wind out of my already abused body. It is hard to shout when you can’t expel air so I proceeded to gasp threateningly. Evidently this was all that was required to disperse the intruders, or more logically, the raccoons had decided that they had achieved their goal. In any case, the villains with their booty ambled off into the night without a backward glance.

The next hour, once I regained my faculties, was spent loading the remaining foodstuffs into the car, and picking up all our dishes and cutlery which the furry thieves had flagrantly scattered all around the camp table to be mixed in with the contents of the now shredded plastic garbage bag.

“Why hadn’t I been advised of this obvious hazard?”, I muttered to myself. A little voice in the only part of my head that didn’t ache replied sarcastically, “Aren’t you the camping guru, the Timber Tom of the over thirties set?” I obviously didn’t have much basis for argument considering my earlier claims of woodcraft perfection.

We again bedded down, and in no time the boys were asleep. I was still angrily cursing my stupidity when the sky opened up. It was raining so hard that a fine mist permeated the nylon tent fabric. To my dismay, this was not the only effect. As I was squeezed against the sloped side of our minuscule abode, the contact with my shoulder provided an instant aqueduct for the water which proceeded to flow down my chest and into the nether regions of my sleeping bag. I had now reached the pinnacle of discomfort. That did it! In the morning, back to the real world !

I must have finally fallen asleep, as the next thing I heard were the sounds of boyish laughter. I sat up and was instantly reminded of my episode with “the things that went bump in the night”. I carefully ran my hand over the ache and discovered only a slight bump on my forehead, but certainly nothing life-threatening. Sunlight was streaming through the thin nylon tent fabric and I could hear birds and insects going about their early morning business. I could also detect the delicious aroma of coffee. Pushing aside the tent flap and gingerly crawling out, being ever so careful to avoid the “Giant Tent Peg” which I had tried to run through the night before, I emerged into nature’s living room.

My sons were at the picnic table and had set up the camp stove. The cause of their laughter was the antics of a chipmunk which was frantically trying to retrieve a peanut from the bottom of an empty jar by hanging from the lip by its feet. I couldn’t help laughing myself and this attracted my sons’ attention.

“We thought you might sleep in Dad, so Danny got some breakfast for us,” Leif explained. “We’ve been feeding the chipmunk peanuts. He’s really hungry!”

“I made some coffee for you, Dad. Hope that was OK. Kinda figured you’d like some when you got up,” Danny added. “We had cereal and juice but could ya make some scrambled eggs?”

“Bacon too, huh Dad?” questioned Leif hopefully, holding up the savaged remains of a package of bacon.

I poured myself a coffee and after a few sips of Dan’s potent brew (extensive boiling increases potency but not necessarily flavour) was going to announce our imminent return to civilization and a breakfast of Egg Mc Muffins. But, I could see the kids were having fun and perhaps breakfast á la Dad wouldn’t hurt. On checking it was evident that the masked bandits hadn’t really taken too much; their crime mainly involved disorder with only bread and part of the bacon on the missing list, and the corn flakes being liberally spiced with assorted forest debris.

While the eggs were cooking, I sat back and surveyed my surroundings. It seemed as though each tree was staging its own soap opera. In one, there was a vicious discourse taking place between a blue jay and a rather irate squirrel. In another, a family squabble had erupted amongst some small birds of unknown species, hitherto known as LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). Meanwhile, Leif announced that he had a “jar of chipmunk,” having put the lid on the now desperate striped nut-eater who had gained the nut, but lost his freedom in the process. I quickly vetoed this potential souvenir, suggesting that suffocation was imminent as the chipmunk wasn't wearing a SCUBA outfit. In the background, an orchestra consisting of the drone of cicadas and the screech of gulls was reinforced by the staccato drumbeat of a woodpecker obviously trained at the “Rolling Stones” school of music. I marvelled to myself that this was like being in a three-ring circus, and I had the best seat in the house!

In due course, the eggs were served, dishes cleaned and the camp put in order (nothing for the masked marauders to grab - I was learning fast). I intended to announce our impending return to civilization but the boys preempted me with the suggestion that a hike to the lake for a swim was in order. Well, it was a hot day, and we did have a lake at our convenience, so...

By the time we returned, tired, hungry but happy, it was really too late to break camp. Anyway, I’d paid for a full week! After a “gourmet” meal of army ration packs, we stared alternately at the fire and the stars to the accompaniment of nature’s night sounds then crawled into our snug sleeping bags. It was the start of the best sleep I’ve ever had, with nary a thought of civilization to mar my dreams.

The next day involved fishing; the following day, the park nature study exhibit. My plans for escape from the outback were evaporating rapidly due to a distinct lack of personal interest.

I guess by now the final outcome is blatantly obvious. Nature hooked me securely! We did not leave the park until we had to, and then with sincere regrets. By the end of the week I was paraphrasing present day beer commercials, ”It just doesn’t get any better than this!”

It has been 34 years since that first fateful camping trip. In this time, the whole family has learned to love the great outdoors to the extent that we not only tent, but also backpack and canoe as much as time and conditions permit. My sons, and the grandkids have also taken up the “Stephanson” outdoors tradition with a verve and daring that I both admire and envy.

Occasionally, just as we are breaking camp for the inevitable return to the city, the phrase “back to the real world” crosses my mind. What is the “real world?” Is it the crowded concrete jungle and stress of “civilization” (a misnomer at best)? Or, is it the idyllic setting provided so graciously by God, perhaps without knowing how we would do our damnedest to foul it up. For me, the outdoors IS the real world. All else is artificial, created by a species that didn’t know a good thing when they had it.

But alas, if you are going to retreat to nature, you have to have something to retreat from! Without civilization, would we appreciate, or in fact have time to appreciate our pristine environment, or would we be totally immersed in basic survival? And there we have it - a “Catch 22" situation. Civilization with all its technology, has given us the requisite time for recreation that our ancestors didn’t have.

Ah, but I'm becoming too philosophical. Why not just enjoy nature while I can and do my best to ensure that this treasure is protected so other fathers can discover its pleasures and pitfalls, just as I did.

Hmmm. Maybe that's what God had in mind all the time!


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