When I was a teenager, before Gortex and compression sacks, when yellow rope was de rigueur and bungee cords were something your father used to wrap around a car battery, any hint of a camping trip or overnight excursion got my stomach fluttering and sent me into a flurry of planning and list making that rivalled any Boy Scout.
Problem was, back in the day, I was always coming up against an annoying little detail: girls simply didn’t go alone on camping trips with boys. But on one occasion, that didn’t stop me from pestering my parents until they weakened.
Around 1975 or so, my High School boyfriend and I, and our friend Cal*, successfully campaigned to go camping together at Oliphant Lake, a reservoir with a dam north of Goldstream River on Vancouver Island. Cal had been there before. He wasn’t a poet but he was well read, and when Cal described the thick mist that hung over the water in the morning we were convinced that Oliphant Lake was, without a doubt, the seventh Wonder of the World. Or at the very least, something from Arthurian Legend. We had to experience it for ourselves.
We weren’t the kind of kids who would disappear and just go off and do what we wanted. Our parents, or someone else’s parents, usually knew what we were up to — which frankly wasn’t much. Of course, camping overnight at a secluded lake was just ducky (sorry!) with the boys’ parents, but it was difficult to get mine to agree with a scheme like this. It took hours of persuasion: It’s not my fault I was born a girl. Why do boys always get to do what they want? No, I don’t know any girls who like to camp, and so forth. When they finally agreed, I was ecstatic. My mother broke first.
It’s going to rain, you need to take a second pair of jeans, she insisted. Take more jeans! But I wasn’t listening. Against my mother’s advice, I didn’t pack any spares. Instead, I used the extra space for important stuff like marshmallows and graham crackers. Some Boy Scout.
It rained cats and Dobermans that day. My father dropped us off at a gravel parking area next to the trail that led down to the lake. We assured him we would meet him at the very same spot at 1:00 the following afternoon. Then we disappeared into the bush.
I was soaked through before we even got to the lake. My wet jeans were chafing and weighed a ton, so Cal let me borrow a pair of his shorts. I changed into them on the trail and wore them for the rest of the trip. (In the years to come my mother and I would laughingly refer to this as the Turning Point. When I finally acknowledged the fact that yes, she was always right. Remember Cal’s shorts, she’d say happily, whenever it seemed that I wasn’t listening to her advice.)
We were setting up the tent when I realized there was condensation under the crystal in my watch. It had stopped and the boys had left their watches at home. Then Cal started to scream and pound on the ground sheet. He was crushing a beetle under his flashlight, its broken back and thin black legs were splayed out like road kill. It never had a chance.
We were always rolling our eyes at Cal, thinking he was too dramatic, that he overreacted to everything. Neither of us realized, however, that Cal’s imagination just might have saved us from a nasty situation when two men arrived at our campsite later that afternoon.
We heard their voices before they came out of the trail. We had no way of knowing if these guys coming to our little clearing in the woods were okay or not.
I was in the tent at the time and Cal motioned for me to stay where I was. He casually slipped our small hatchet in to me through the fly and quickly pulled the zipper shut. I complied, instantly understanding that he wanted both me and the axe out of sight. Through the mesh window I could see that the men were in their early twenties and both of them were carrying rifles. Air rifles, probably, but I didn’t know for sure. They exchanged a few words with Cal and my boyfriend. And then I heard the pop of the guns being fired as our visitors started to take pot shots at the dam across the lake.
The boys handled it well. They carried on with what they were doing, coolly unrolling the dingy, assembling the air pump, casually answering questions. I’m not sure exactly what Cal told the men, but it was something about fathers returning to the campsite soon. Eventually they left. Thanks to Cal’s quick thinking, my compliance, and a little savvy, we may well have diffused something before it occurred.
We were 15 years old. Two men with rifles had just come to our campsite. We had to spend the night and the next morning alone, but were completely unfazed by the experience. Even Cal was unruffled. Somehow we managed to figure out what time it was. We chopped fire wood, prepared two meals and got to see the mist rising from the lake.
We were half an hour late when we emerged from the trail to meet my father. If I could reach out far enough, I swear I’d be able to touch his face, my memory of him that day is so clear. As clear as the mountain lake I paddled around on when the rain stopped.
He’d been there since noon. There was a little pile of cigarette butts on the ground by the car where he’d been pacing and waiting. He said that he’d decided to give us another five minutes and then start hiking in.
I remember shrugging my shoulders at him. We were just three teenaged kids shoving our jumble of stuff into the trunk, getting into the car, not looking back.
We didn’t mention the guys with rifles. To quote Collette, These are things one doesn’t tell. These stories aren’t for parents.**
** From The Cat, by Collette
“Funny Mother” atrogrl @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.