Recently I spent some time camping in south eastern Queensland, Australia in a rented $150,000 motorhome. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. The thing is, it all went exactly as planned. It was not only predictable, it was predicted – by me — that I would not enjoy it. Yet, I did it, clinging to the hope that I had grown or changed or learned to enjoy certain things despite a pretty good inkling that I wouldn’t enjoy them.
Let me say from the get-go that I am not a big fan of camping. It is not for lack of trying. Like sailing, camping strikes me as one of those naturally peaceful things every one of us victims of the post-industrial age should enjoy. Over the years, each time the emotional wounds of a previous foray healed, I’ve made another attempt to enjoy another form of camping.
It is no coincidence that my first camping experience was one that involved sailing. In fact, it was my idea. I was about twelve years old, vacationing with some subset of my family in a borrowed cabin on Maine‘s Mount Desert Island. The remote seaside cabin came with a dock and a small sailboat. Inside, a framed nautical chart of the surrounding waters had me mesmerised – I always loved maps.
“Hey, Dad, what’s on Hardwood Island?” I asked.
He studied the chart, which gave no indication of any house, road or other man-made edifice of any kind. “From all appearances, nothing.”
“Why don’t we sail over there tomorrow and camp out for a night?” I pestered, eagerly.
My father was not much of a camper. In fact, to that point he had never taken me – or anybody else I can remember – camping. But he did love sailing. As the father of eight, many things had been out of his control for some time, but sailing may have been the only time he felt in control. Despite the spectre of camping, he didn’t take much convincing.
My father, my brother and I packed sleeping bags, several cans of Dinty Moore’s Beef Stew, water, matches, and the makings of an impromptu lean-to (we had no tent). We set sail mid-morning for an overnight excursion to the mysterious Hardwood Island, about six kilometres across Blue Hill Bay.
Six kilometres may not seem like much of a voyage, but we were traveling in a Turnabout, a sailboat a bit less than ten feet long and a bit more than five feet wide. It is not a speedy conveyance in the best of circumstances. It didn’t help that we were becalmed in a dearth of wind. We drifted most of the day, in the right direction thanks to a favourable tide, the rigging slapping about in the ocean swell.
As we approached Hardwood Island, we realised the tide was carrying us out to sea. We took turns on the bow of the stout craft using the lone paddle, frantically paddling towards its shore. The pilgrims could not have been any more relieved to arrive at Plymouth Rock than I was to reach the beach. We secured the boat high and dry on the beach, packed up our limited gear, and set off into the woods to find a suitable campsite.
It took hours to get nowhere. Hardwood Island was no national park. Tightly packed with hardwood trees, as its name implied, there was no trace of a trail or track to follow. The forest floor consisted entirely of swamp and thorny thickets. This was my first exposure to the deep woods of Maine in its true, natural state. It is an awful and terrifying place. After a slog of about perhaps a mile, we were bloodied, muddied, and soaked. My father, always more comfortable near the water than in the woods, ordered our retreat.
It was with some delight, then, that we found the beach again, wide and flat, soft and sandy. For a moment we considered getting back in the boat to go home. But by then it was late afternoon, there still was almost no wind, and the tidal currents that had brought us now promised to deliver us to Greenland should we choose to ride them again. It seemed we had little choice but to camp on the beach. We pitched the lean-to high on the beach at the forest’s edge, lit a fire, and enjoyed a can of Dinty Moore’s Beef Stew, insofar as that is possible. Then it started to rain.
Luckily, the wind stayed calm, so the lean-to sent the rain fro. We unrolled our sleeping bags, cosily cramming ourselves as far as possible under the lean-to. Not for the first time I was thankful that my father went nowhere without a battery operated transistor radio. He tuned in the Red Sox, who had just started an afternoon game on the west coast. These were the Red Sox of my youth, when they had fitting nicknames like “Cementhead” and “Spaceman”. Little did I appreciate the years of torture this form of fandom had in store for me. As for that game, I don’t know whether they won or lost, because the battery died going into the top of the eleventh inning. I do recall, then as now, being a Red Sox fan was painful.
We tried to get some sleep in the grey and darkening late summer sunset.
Some hours later I awoke to find my father standing beside the lean-to in the black of night. The rain had stopped, and he had re-lit the fire – but for some reason he had moved it. Gradually it dawned on me that the reason he had moved it was because the tide had come in, and the former location of the fire was now under water. The Turnabout was now bobbing about in the shallow surf, making a “whump whump whump” noise that had awoken me. My father was tugging on a line which I soon realised was attached to the boat. I arose to help him drag it in, on to the narrow stretch of sand that remained.
“We may need to move camp.” Dad calculated. “All indications were that we set up well above the high water mark, but if you look down the beach, all those indications have washed away. We appear to have an abnormally high tide here.”
With the boat re-secured, my father and I sat on the beach watching the tide. We were silent, except for a giggle now and again when a wave would wash close to ending my brother’s undisturbed sleep with a rude awakening. After about an hour, the threat had passed, and we both went back to sleep.
At dawn I awoke again, this time surprised to see my father talking to a bearded man in a floppy hat a few hundred meters down the beach. I couldn’t hear them, but they pointed across the water and into the woods, as downeasters do. To me, the bearded guy’s gesticulations seemed to say “You don’t belong here!” and “This is private property.” and “Get out!” I read my Dad’s responses as “How was I to know?” and “What’s the big deal?” and “We can’t get out of this hell hole fast enough, so get off my back.” The conversation concluded and they parted.
Guessing that we had been instructed to douse the fire, I hastily chucked in another can of Dinty Moore’s to warm it for breakfast. My father returned, shaking his head.
“Who was that? Where did he come from?” I asked.
“He said his name was Thoreaux, but I think he was pulling my leg. Apparently there’s a weather station out here he checks. We’re not supposed to be here.”
We rousted my near-comatose brother, and dragged the boat down the wide-again beach. Back on board, a pleasant south-westerly breeze came up just as the tide turned in our favour. We were back at the cabin in a quarter the time it took us to get out there.
It would be some years before I would feel the need to camp again.
Epilogue: Here is the Google Earth satellite shot of current day Hardwood Island where we had camped on the beach. Now there are several large houses with sprawling lawns, sheds, a pier — and a huge wasteland of rotting hardwood in the denuded back yard. Progress!