Sunday, September 16, 2012

Camping with Dad

My father passed away on Thursday. He was 87, lived a good life and, as deaths go, his wasn’t too bad. Regardless of your beliefs in an afterlife, of this I am sure you will agree: as we remember our ancestors in stories, they yet live with us. So here is a story of Dad and me.

I was a boy scout and I belonged to a camping troop. We camped one weekend every month of the year except during the summer when we spent two weeks at Camp Massawepie in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. I liked camping a lot—the more remote the better.

Dad had a bad back, so hiking was not something he was able to do, but he did enjoy canoeing. Our family owned a log cabin on Chandos Lake, Ont. where we spent two or three weeks each summer. It was rustic—no electricity (or hydro as the Canadians would call it), cooking over a wood stove. A few hours north exists a canoeist’s paradise: Algonquin Provincial Park. Unlike most parks with miles of hiking trails, Algonquin’s trails were the myriad lakes connected by portages. Dad and I made several outings over the years.

Our canoe was a monster designed for family outings—much larger (and heavier) than necessary for just two of us, but we made do with what we had. I was the bowman; Dad took the stern. Back then I could still kneel in a canoe for hours at a time, and we could cover many miles a day. When the wind was against us we would have to huddle next to the shore to reach our destination. We chose times with good long-term forecasts, but even the best laid plans didn’t always work quite as expected.

With a little planning you could canoe multiple lakes in Algonquin with just a few short portages. If you were willing to do just one long portage, you could often find yourself the only canoe on a lake. That was what Dad and I preferred to do, although on one trip Dad threw his back out on our first long portage, and we had to beat a painful retreat.

We shared a two-man tent. If the weather was good, we’d set up the fly to keep the dew off our gear. If it rained, we crammed everything inside the tent. Our duties were clear: Dad would collect firewood, I would do the cooking (what little skills I had from scouting far surpassed Dad’s) and clean-up. Once dinner was complete, we played card games using a set of miniature cards and a small cribbage board for scoring.

Dad’s snores assured us that we would not be disturbed by any wildlife during the night. If I could get to sleep first, I wasn’t bothered since I was physically tired from the exercise. However, I was often awake first in the morning, and the snoring meant I would not get back to sleep.

Once we were away from people, wildlife viewing opportunities increased. A distant log became a black bear swimming across the lake. When he reached shore, he shook off great sheets of water, much as a dog would, and then bounded up a 30-degree slope with no more effort than I would need for a Sunday walk. A beaver scared the bejesus out of us when it surfaced and slapped its tail on the water right behind us. Apparently we had stayed too long looking at its lodge, and it wanted us gone. Other fond memories: Osprey fishing for dinner, belted kingfishers leading the way down an outlet, raucous rattles announcing our presence to all the other animals so they could hide before we turned the next bend.

The individual memories are too many to enumerate, so I’ll just relate one more. One evening we camped on an island in a distant interior lake. We had not seen anyone else for more than a day. A dense fog built up overnight, leaving the lake shrouded as the Mists of Avalon. I awoke early and could not get back to sleep because Dad was snoring loudly. A solitary loon was making his “rain call”—that’s the haunting call you often hear in wilderness scenes in movies (even those set in the Amazon which is not exactly loon habitat). Often loons continue to make that call until they are answered by a mate. They have other calls when they are disturbed or frightened. From somewhere in the fog the loon continued calling.

I sat on the shore and watched the day unfold as the sun crept over the eastern hills. The fog did not diminish in the sun’s heat, and I wondered how we were going to find our way home. Our schedule was a bit flexible, but… Then in a manner of seconds, the fog bank lifted three feet off the water. If I stood, my head was in the clouds (something I have been accused of more than once). I waited for the fog to dissipate, but it didn’t and then fifteen, maybe twenty feet in front of me up popped the loon. It tilted its head and gave its call, which echoed around the lake, bouncing from shore to shore, seemingly trapped by the fog.

Normally I let Dad sleep as long as he liked, but this time I woke him up so that together we could listen to the loon and watch it fish in the window under the fog bank. Many minutes later we heard an answering call; a second loon flew in, splashing down in what must have been an instrument landing. It swam to the first loon and together they dove after fish. Soon the fog bank began to disappear.

Earlier this week, I took my last camping trip with my father. It was a different wilderness experience. Rather than sleep in a hotel, I pulled a blanket over me and slept on the cushioned bench in his hospice room, sharing one last night with him. Although his breathing during the day had been ragged, that night it smoothed out. I fell asleep to the rhythm of his respiration, awoke every time a nurse came in to check on him and fell back to sleep to his steady breathing.

And in my waking hours I remembered our camping trips and the fog and the loons and the snoring I will no longer hear.

Night, Dad.

~ Jim
Simultaneously published at Writers Who Kill

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story and a great tribute to your father and the relationship you had. Thanks for sharing such a painful and poignant moment.