Hello my friends. I would apologize for my absence but doubtless you’ve become accustomed to it by now, so let’s forgo that nonsense and get right into it.
Hard as it might be to believe, I do spend some time away from my ubiquitous computer screen – sometimes, I even venture into the Great Outdoors (whose existence I’ve heard rumour of on the World Wide Web). Not often, but sometimes. Thankfully, I’ve recently secured myself a Lady Friend who is skilled in the ways of the woods (we’ll pause here so my unattached female readers can mourn my removal from the meat market), and she’s taken it upon herself to rouse me from my pseudo-intellectual torpor and drag me kicking and screaming from the comforts of modern technology into the vast, uncaring wilderness of Central Ontario.
Put plainly, she took me camping.
Now, I have to give my Lady Friend a great deal of credit – even though she’s quite comfortable disappearing for weeks at a time into the wild with nought but a backpack and her trusty survival kit, she’s aware that I’m an urbanite (read: soft, effete, easily frightened by things without motors or LED screens) so she decided to ease me into the whole camping thing by planning the trip around my frail, Torontocentric sensibilities; what she derisively calls “car camping” which is exactly what it sounds like. It kind of detracts from the sense of adventure when you know you can hop into the Hyundai and high-tail it out of there if the going gets rough, I guess, but it gave me an unprecedented sense of safety to know that I could leap headlong into the backseat if a bear showed up (that is, until I learned bears can open doors, but that’s a story for another time).
My Lady Friend’s patience throughout our expedition was nothing short of legendary, and despite the frequent eye-rolling, long-suffering sighs, and straight-up frustrated screaming of orders like I was dating Helga: She Wolf Of The SS (which I’m sure I richly deserved), she did her very best to educate me about life outside the comfortable, pre-packaged civilization I call home. And, as has become the custom for Alex James On The Road posts, I will pass the learning experience onto you. Without further ado, I give you Camping Tips From A Guy Who Knows Fuck All About Camping.
Dress Warm So You Don’t Die
“Pack warm clothes” was the first directive I received when we started planning our trip, and I figured I had it nailed down: to the point that I casually dismissed her advice with a nose-in-the-air “I think I know how to dress, dear.” In standard form, Murphy took this opportunity to cram that city-boy arrogance right down my throat with a great big plunger and a shit-eating grin. Summer in this city usually ranges from Uncomfortably Cool If You’re Wearing Shorts to Oh My God I Can’t Breathe It’s So Hot, so my conception of “warm clothes” is in line with that spectrum. I’m not usually susceptible to temperature changes between 15 and 30 degrees Celsius, so I figured I could fulfil the warm clothes requirement with a hoodie and a pair of jeans. Makes sense, right? I even went so far as to pack a toque just in case it got really cold at night (because even I know enough to know you lose most of your body heat through your head), but I figured I was overcompensating. Ha-fucking-ha.
The first day we arrived, Mother Nature decided to punish my hubris with temperatures hovering comfortably around ten degrees, accompanied by a non-stop downpour that soaked through my laughable yuppie camping outfit in moments. In the time it took us to put up the tent (a task best suited to mathematicians who are also grizzled lumberjacks in my opinion) and a square tarp, I had lost all feeling in my hands up to my elbows, was shivering uncontrollably and bore an uncanny resemblance to a drowned rat. My Lady Friend, decked out in waterproof outerwear, long johns and hiking shoes, was understandably short on sympathy, taking great delight in making me eat my words and repeating “I told you so” over and over again. By midday, I was huddled in the tent, draped in the thermal blankets she had the foresight to pack (because she knew full well I wouldn’t get around my bullshit male ego and actually do what she said), wearing three pairs of socks and all the “warm clothing” I brought (including the toque), trying to conserve body heat by not moving a muscle, and generally being an absolutely miserable camping partner. Take heed friends: summer in the woods is very different than summer in the insulated smog of the city. Long underwear, hats, gloves, and most especially as much waterproof gear you can get your hands on are the order of the day. Hypothermia is a very real danger, even while car-camping, so don’t fuck around.
Eat Food So You Don’t Die
I pride myself on my ability to survive long periods of time without eating. I’m not anorexic or anything; I just consider it a weakness to be one of those people who pass out and get ill if they go two hours without stuffing their gullet with human-fuel. It’s for the same reason I take my coffee black: that way if you’re lacking what you need, you can get by (at least for a while). As it turns out, this so-called survival mechanism only works if you’re basically sedentary ninety percent of the time: if you never drive, you don’t need to put gas in your car, but the moment you need to go somewhere, you’re going to find out right quick that no petroleum equals a long walk.
I never realized just how sedentary I am on a day-to-day basis until my Lady Friend convinced me to join her on her daily hikes – and we’re not talking casual jaunts down a wooded trail either: the terrain we were covering was deemed “difficult” by the Ministry of Natural Resources, and with good reason. It turns out hand-and-footing it up sheer inclines of seventy-plus degrees, desperately clinging to lichen-covered roots and slippery rocks in an effort to not tumble to your death takes a lot out of you, and the body demands sustenance to keep up the pace.
Point of reference: after climbing two thousand feet up what I can only call the goddamn Madderhorn, my Lady Friend foisted a peanut-butter sandwich on me, refusing to let me leave the rock outcropping until I’d choked it down. The last thing I wanted to do at that point was eat (the horsefly convention that gathered on my hat and neck were doing enough eating for both of us) because I genuinely thought I was going to sick up if I tried to ingest anything other than my rapidly-depleting water supply, but I was glad of the protein I gleaned from the snack when we had to shimmy all the way back down Nature’s rain pipe to return to the main trail (for reference, going down is way harder than going up). Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to run out of gas when you’re standing on a rapidly-disintegrating patch of soil with nothing but friendly jagged-ass rocks and pointy trees to greet you if you should fall. Oh, and by the way: everything tastes better if you’re hungry enough. At times I would have picked partially-digested blueberries out of a pile of bear shit and gleefully chowed down just to keep from falling over. And speaking of bears…
Respect The Bears So You Don’t Die
My Lady Friend tells me bears are majestic, remarkable creatures that embody what she loves most about the great outdoors. She has what I might once have called an unhealthy obsession with the lumbering beasties, but the cornerstone of her love for Yogi and friends is a very healthy respect for their ability to kill your ass if you don’t give them a proper berth.
Contrary to my belief system, which revolves mostly around the idea that Nature is a malevolent entity just waiting for me to bugger up so it can dispatch some kind of alarming monster to devour me, bears aren’t actually the hairy killing machines I once took them to be. The vast majority of bear-related deaths in this country stem from stupid people being antagonistic or just plain careless on their turf. Why you’d deign to be antagonistic to a creature with enormous teeth and claws is a bit beyond me, but if there’s one thing I have in spades it’s an unending capacity to expect the worst of people. Frankly if you decide to piss off a bear, you deserve to be eaten, but since being eaten is decidedly not the way I intend to go out, my Lady Friend’s bear safety regulations were the one set of rules to which I paid especially careful attention.
Now, because we were car camping we had it a little easier than my Lady Friend would have had she been doing the Ranger Rick routine with just a backpack – rather than putting our food in a tree (highly recommended for those of you without cars) we just had to throw it in the trunk, but food preparation was, to put it lightly, something of a trial. As a city dweller I’m used to making my food and cleaning up afterwards, and the only thing I have occasion to worry about is ensuring my garbage leaves the apartment with enough regularity to avoid inviting cockroaches and other creepy-crawlies into my home.
In the woods, not so much. I don’t have enough digits to count the number of times my Lady Friend had to gently remind me to keep all the food in one spot and to ensure nothing got spilled on the picnic table or on the ground. Apparently bears are curious creatures, and it doesn’t take much to pique that curiosity – a few drops of chicken fat or cookie crumbs or whatever is enough to invite a very large carnivorous mammal to visit when you’re fast asleep inside the woefully insufficient protection of your tent. And for those of you who figure the solitude of the woods is a great place to engage in what one Northern writer likes to call “hanky panky” – think again. Bears are into that too, the big perverts. The lesson here? Cleanliness is next to Godliness – and also next to Not Getting Eaten.
Hike With Care So You Don’t Die
I can’t stress this enough my friends: I am singularly not an outdoorsy person. In fact, I’m not athletically inclined in the least, as I’ve said on many prior occasions. I’m okay with that; until the inevitable fall of human civilization I’m quite comfortable existing – and indeed thriving – in a civilized, urban environment where my skills on the page provide me with enough food and whiskey to get up and do it all over again. I’ve just never cared much to stress my body with anything other than toxins, I guess, so it was with no small dose of trepidation that I joined my Lady Friend on her aforementioned hiking adventures. I figured I’d do okay – I might not be in the best shape in the world, but if I can’t go for a walk without perishing of exposure or falling off a cliff, maybe I ought to invest in a helmet just for my day-to-day commute.
Funny thing about urban commutes: it’s remarkably difficult to get lost. Sure, if you’re unfamiliar with the city you might get turned around a bit, or miss a subway stop or something, but generally speaking some Samaritan will be happy to put you back on the right path – and if not, all the streets are pretty much designed on a grid: north, south, east, west. Oh, and there’s that big tower you may have seen in tourism brochures that give you a pretty good idea where “south” is (unless you happen to be south of the tower, in which case it’s north – not rocket science).
Well, it turns out that unless you happen to be able to spot the differences between one tree and the next, or take particular note of a specific rock formation, or just have some kind of X-Men-esque internal compass that gives you precise bearings on exactly where you are at any given time, travelling in the woods is somewhat more complicated. Oh, I know the hardcore Survivorman types out there are going to snigger at me for it, because it’s not like I was out in the back country or anything, but when you’re used to clearly-delineated signs and roads you don’t have to climb, it’s a bit of a trip to have to keep an eye out for tiny plastic indicators to determine which sort-of-trail is the one that leads back to the campsite rather than off a cliff or into a beaver dam or something. Throw in the unstable terrain littered with roots and slick rocks and potholes, and the ever-present possibility of the local wildlife taking exception to your presence, and you pretty much need six eyes to keep track of everything. I suppose the same could be said of an urban environment, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a totally different world: bears don’t have car horns, roots are not marked with caution tape, and the trail is not delineated by neon lights. Have a care, travellers, or you’ll end up going in circles until something dreadful inevitably happens to you. And it will.
Learn To Love The Bugs So…Well, You Get The Idea
The woods are serene. I’m not kidding, and I’m not being glib – there’s something about being in the middle of nowhere with nobody around that really clears your head and puts your life into perspective. That serenity can be broken, in my opinion, by only one minor (or major) annoyance, and that annoyance buzzes in your ears like all the bad hangovers you’ve ever had coming back en masse – I refer of course to the insect population of the serene wilderness.
I’ll go on record right now with this thoroughly overreaching statement: I fucking hate bugs. I’m not scared of them or anything, and I know they’re absolutely necessary to the ecosystem and everything else, but they are irritating almost beyond my capacity to describe if you can’t get away from them – and when you’re in the middle of a forest, sweating like a priest in a playground, you can’t. Apart from leaves and mud, they’re the most ubiquitous part of any outdoor adventure. Now, apparently we were pretty lucky – the blackflies were conspicuous in their absence from our forays into the wild, but they were more than compensated for by the prevalence of mosquitoes and giant fuckoff horseflies that genuinely seemed to enjoy feasting on my exposed flesh any time I let my guard down for five seconds to drink some water or adjust my backpack. They damn near drove me off the cliff I was sitting on at the top of the Madderhorn – anything to get away from that incessant buzzing.
Here’s the truth, friends: you’re going to get bit. There’s no way around it. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the little buggers I massacred; their buddies were always waiting to take up the torch and continue the assault on my senses with their nasty stingers and their infuriating little wings. By the time I got back from this trip, my exposed skin looked like War and Peace written in Braille, and I was hearing high-pitched buzzing in my sleep. You’d best get used to the idea if you’re going to spend any time at all in the woods, so here’s the trick: just let it happen. Waving your arms around like a crazy person only attracts more of them, and bug spray just makes you smell like bug spray – it does next to nothing to deter the onslaught. It stops bothering you after a while, I promise: eventually you get used to being itchy, just like you get used to not bathing for days on end to the point where the smell of your own ass doesn’t even register anymore. The only way to beat the woods, I have discovered, is to surrender to them. Resistance is futile.
What Did We Learn?
This is by no means a comprehensive list: even after my five-day sojourn into the wilderness I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to learn. My Lady Friend tells me she learns something new each time she ventures into the Great Outdoors, and I believe her – the sky is quite literally the limit when you open yourself to new experiences. In all seriousness, I find myself deeply moved by my very brief experience – for one thing, I have a new-found ability to Not Get Mad about everything (but fear not! For your sakes I still will). At the end of the day I’ll just say this: I urge each and every one of you to separate yourself from your Blackberry or your iPad or whatever and go see what’s out there. It’s good for the soul, even the shriveled black cinder mine resembles. And if you follow these basic rules, you might even live to tell the tale: if I did, you can too. Happy trails, dear readers.