Thursday, August 15, 2013

Comfort Levels

When I was a kid, I loved to camp. I loved sleeping outdoors, the sound of the wind whispering through the leaves of the overhead trees, sometimes fooling me into thinking it was raining but making me question why there was no pattering on the tent itself.

I loved wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, cocooned like a warm hug and feeling secure. I loved eating with a gentle, fresh breeze and the songs of birds around me, and feeling like I was truly one with nature.

In the summer, when we weren't camping, I would often ask my parents to set up the tent in our back yard, where I would sleep outside, near the comfort of modern plumbing.

When Lori and I started dating, she shared that love of the great outdoors. We would often take vacations that involved setting up a tent, cooking our meals by Coleman stove, and hiking in the wilderness. Together, we amassed all the modern gadgets of camping, both for travelling with a car (we had a pump that plugged into a cigarette lighter and inflated a thick mattress in seconds) or the small, light-weight, and simple tools for interior camping.

Lori and I camped along the Saint Lawrence seaway, out to Gaspé, all over New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI, and would take annual trips to the Niagara peninsula, tent in tow.

We've hiked from Frontenac Provincial Park to Kingston, setting up our tent in remote woods and farmers' fields. We camped throughout England and Wales, and even in Korea.

When we had kids, we didn't let wee ones slow us down. We packed the kids and their diapers just as confidently as we packed our sleeping bags and mattresses, and took the kids all over the northern shores of Lake Erie and through southern Ontario. When our second child was only five months old, our eldest just two and a half, we spent a week in Algonquin Park. I hiked with one child strapped to a backpack carrier on my shoulders, the infant secured with a Baby Bjorn to my chest.

I was, in essence, a pack horse for children.

A couple of years ago, with the kids a little older (old enough to start helping out), we purchased a large, 9' x 18' tent and headed to PEI, choosing to camp, rather than rent a cottage, as we had done for the previous two years. We thought that we could save money and keep the kids interest in the outdoors going.

As per the other years that we trekked out to The Gentle Island, we packed up the kids after dinner, they in their car seats, in pajamas and with their blankets and pillows, and drove non-stop, through the night and next morning, to PEI. Because I did all the driving (I can't sleep in a moving car), by the time I reached our destination, I had only enough energy to unpack our vehicle, set up, and then sleep.

We set up our camp and I was in my sleeping bag by mid afternoon. But because I wasn't tucked away in a bedroom, the outdoor noises of the day were carried through the thin walls of the tent and the heat of the sun turned the inside into a sauna. I struggled through the rest of the day, thinking that I would sleep like a log once the sun went down.

Sleeping with young ones, who were restless after being couped in a car for more than 15 hours, was not easy. They tossed and turned, and talked, and even though we had ample sleeping space, it was difficult for me to fall asleep. And with excess fatigue, even though I was lying on a comfortable mattress, I felt every imperfection of the ground underneath the tent.

I had the worst sleep in a tent ever.

I can be a bear when I'm tired. Our first full day near Brackley Beach was tough. The kids were excited about hitting the beach and I was highly irritable. It was not one of my best moments as a parent. And by "moment," I mean "day."

I went to bed grumpy and slightly sun-burnt. And, because I was sun-burnt, sleeping in a cocoon was uncomfortable and sleeping without one was too cold.

I had the second-worst sleep in a tent ever.

After my third night in the tent, I awoke from another uncomfortable night and said, "That's it: I'm finding a B and B. Or a hotel. Anything with a proper bed. My camping days are over." We found a lovely bed-and-breakfast place just outside Summerside for that evening and an old inn in Victoria-by-the-Sea on the next night, both of which provided me with restful evenings and turned me from a bear, back to fun-loving dad. It made the rest of our vacation, whale-watching in Saint Andrews, NB, and the 400th anniversary celebrations in Québec City, quite pleasant.

Apart from the time we lost a child, but that story is for another blog post.

I never before realized that a person's love for something can be turned off like a switch. But, for as much as I always enjoyed camping in the past, both with just Lori and me or with the kids in tow, I discovered that I no longer had any inkling to pitch a tent and be one with nature. There was no resentment or bitterness in coming to this conclusion: I simply never wanted to camp again. I told myself and my family that I was in my 40s, and when I went on vacation I demanded the comfort of a bed, the quiet and security of four walls.

In the five years since I made that declaration, Lori has packed up the children and taken them camping without me. She has asked me to come along, has pleaded at times, but I calmly and firmly reply, "No, thanks, my camping days are over."

For years, long before we were married or had kids, Lori and I talked about canoeing from Kingston to Ottawa. We both loved camping and canoeing but had never combined the two. We had no idea about how long it would take and where we would stay, but those were mere details that would be worked out when we actually made a firm decision to do it.

We never did go. Never figured out a plan.

Last year, Lori reminded me of our dream of canoeing the Rideau canal system and I reminded her that my camping days, like that dream, were behind me. But Lori wouldn't give up. She said she wanted to do it and would take the girls, without me, if I remained adamant. For months, I was firm in my decision and Lori continued to research the possibility, letting me know of the details and plans.

As I wrote last month, I finally agreed to join the trek and we started training, started preparing. Last weekend, we participated in a canoe course to hone our paddling skills and learn new techniques and survival skills.

And we camped for two nights during the course.

I didn't sleep particularly well: on the first night, I was too hot and ended up abandoning my sleeping bag, only to struggle with a pillow that slid all over my mattress. On the second night, I was too cold and awoke before 5 to the sound of noisy birds.

But I will persevere, will try to regain my love for camping. I have no choice: we aren't checking into any B and Bs or inns along the waterway.

I did make one condition in my joining the trip: when we reach Ottawa, transverse the final set of locks by the Chateau Laurier, and touch our paddles in the Ottawa River, when we load our things into our van and return the canoe to the rental company, when we get home and unpack, putting all of our gear back into storage, I have the right to live the rest of my life without having to pitch a tent again. Lori and the kids are never to ask me to go camping again.

That isn't to say I'll never camp again. If the girls want to go camping and I decide I want to go along, I will ask if I can join them.

But for now, I know what I'm willing and not willing to do. I'm not far from 50 and I know what I like, know my preferred comfort levels. I still need a comfortable bed and solid walls, a proper roof over my head.

I'll no doubt have more to say after our trip. Stay tuned.

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