The day we started the big canoe trip, I admit that I was a bit daunted. Excited for a new adventure, sure, but nervous too. I felt confident in our counsellors, though, and for the first time for a shy, sheltered kid like me, I believed in myself and my friends. That should have been a sign that I was growing up.
All the cabins had animal names, and we were the Foxes. I had a bottom bunk, which I didn’t like, because I was less scared of heights than I was of dark enclosed spaces. The weight of the kid above me hung like a sword of Damocles and the corners of the frame were a breeding ground for spider-webs. I hated the feeling of being boxed in, but it never occurred to me to fight for the top bunk. Didn’t want to make waves, I guess. Rock the boat. Sleeping in a tent out in the wilderness would be a relief.
Going from the relative luxury of roofs, group showers, and a mess hall into the roughness of the great northern wilderness seemed liberating. We loaded our packs and provisions into the van and secured the canoes into the trailer behind it, and off we went, into the woods, the wild, the absolute nowhere. Strange to think how wise I believed our counsellors to be, how we trusted them to guide us and keep us from harm, when they were only half the age that I am now.
The van dropped us at the edge of a lake and the driver helped us to unload. We loaded our giant packs into the boats and said goodbye to the driver, very much aware that he took any chance of turning back with him as he left. We arranged ourselves into the canoes, with those who could steer taking stern, and me randomly placed in the middle. The smell of pine and petrichor met us where the water met rock, damp needles giving way to flat smooth stones that begged for skipping. The lake spread before us, edged on all sides by trees tall as buildings and rocks that invited jumping. It would be up to us to find our way through.
We pushed our way into the clear, cool water and began our trip.
Wearing watches was banned by our counsellors, and they refused to answer our requests for the time. It was infuriating not to know how long we’d been paddling, how close it was to lunch time, which television shows we’d be missing if we were back home. But you get used to it. You watch the sun, you eat when you’re hungry, and you sleep when you’re dead tired. Civilization was like a hazy dream of a past life, and we were living in the present. Even the camp from which we’d come seemed like another era.
Paddling canoes all day long, carrying our packs during portage, wearing our swimsuits under our t-shirts and cut-offs in preparation for the inevitable dunk that never came- it was all so exhausting. The packs in our boats were heavy, and the sun on our backs was hot. I would wrap bandanas around my hands to prevent blistering, though I’m not sure it helped. Soon, I stopped feeling the thick mixture of sunscreen and bug spray on my skin mingling with my own sweat. All we felt was the fresh air, the sunshine, the silence broken only by the distant cry of a hawk, and the regular splish-splash of our paddles dipping into water. At first, we’d point out to each other the loons, herons, and beavers we’d see, but those soon became commonplace. We were comfortably quiet with each other, and before long, we even stopped asking about the time.
Every evening we’d pull onto a different rocky beach, a small docking place on some lonely island cropping out into the lake, a dot on the map if we were lucky. We were surrounded by vastness, the sky clear and massive above us, with no signs of human life among the conifers and blueberry hillsides. Our counsellors seemed to know where we were going. After all, we were not the first, and there was often a campfire site waiting for us, hopefully tended well by the previous users. Campsites are like virgins, I’ve heard it said as an adult- always leave them in better condition than you found them in. Our four canoes of campers would reunite on shore to set up the tents and take a swim before dinner. It would often be the first words we’d spoken since breakfast.
My best friend in the cabin was Taylor, who seemed so much more cool and mature than the rest of us. I’m not sure why we clicked, but I’d managed to come out of my shell somewhat that summer. Something about summer camp, about being around kids who don’t know you, gives you a fresh chance to make new friends. Taylor had an interesting life and was probably the first person I’d met who’d been raised by a single mom. The other campers were supportive and curious, but our questions often went unanswered, so like we did with the time of day, we soon stopped asking. Our whole cabin got along well, us Foxes, with few fights and even less back-talking. I wasn’t always in the same canoe as Taylor, since we usually just piled into whichever was closest, as we did with the tents. We were all friends, and no one was excluded. It seems to me now that a certain maturity was settling in, and it was time to put away petty childishness. You’ll never have friends again like the friends you had in summer camp. Things always change.
We knew that we were to perform a song together about our experience at the end-of-summer assembly back at camp, and we knew that when it came time to write it, we’d work together well. In the back of my mind I was already trying to find rhymes for “mosquito,” undoubtedly the greatest foe we would encounter. Unless there was a bear. Secretly, I hoped there would be, so we could handle the situation with courage and cleverness. What a verse that would make. But we never met a bear, or any venomous snakes, and the weather was calm and cooperative. Under the watchful gaze of our counsellors, fear was strangely absent from our wilderness experience, right up until we unexpectedly hit a patch of rapids in the river.
They weren’t on the map but were in front of our bows before we could turn away. One of our boats managed to avoid them in the nick of time, but the rest of us were left to churn about in waters that had suddenly turned against us. Violent waves were thrusting and throwing themselves at our little canoes, not built for this, and it didn’t take us long to abandon paddling and just hold on. As we were rocked about, I was scared and readying myself to be thrown into the cold water, the sharp rocks, and I had no idea what would happen. In the calmer waters that somehow ran mockingly alongside us, an old man and a boy chuckled at our expense from their sturdy fishing boat. What a sight we must have made as we clung desperately to life, gripping the metal edges of the canoes, knuckles white as we were tossed and flung about in the frothy river, sprayed by waves crashing against rock and boat alike. How could it be that, as unprepared as we were, we didn’t tip?
Perhaps this life-or-death experience was not as dangerous as I remember, but still, we prided ourselves on coming out on the other end with courage, dignity, and a surprising amount of dryness. The fisherman and his grandson might disagree, but we were exhilarated. We had conquered the river. The experience bonded the Foxes, as we were now more than mere campers- we were survivors.
That night, still laughing over the apparent navigational error that had led to our unexpected white-water thrill ride, we attempted to make macaroni and cheese for dinner. I suppose our counsellors thought that would work- mac n’ cheese is non-perishable, after all, as long as you don’t get it wet- but it did not. Whether it was the water, the lack of dairy to add, or something else, the dish became so salty that to consume it would become another death-defying adventure, and we’d had enough for the day. We resigned ourselves to bed without supper, despite the hunger in our bellies. That’s when the grandfather fisherman from the rapid river drove his boat up to our campsite with his grandson, who distributed plates of potatoes and the fish he had caught earlier, now grilled. I don’t know how he tracked us or how he knew that we’d be hungry, but to this day I am grateful that he did. At the end of the summer, this kind old fisherman would receive a dedicated verse in our song.
Taylor was hesitant to accept the free dinner. Accepting food from strangers is exactly the sort of thing you’re told never to do as a child. Some of the other Foxes whispered the word “spoilsport”, though given what had happened to Taylor’s mother, I could understand the caution. Still, we’d earned that meal after the day we’d had, and going to bed hungry before another full day of paddling and portaging didn’t seem much healthier. Besides, and I mean no exaggeration at all, it was the best fish I’d ever had.
I slept well that night, Taylor beside me, awake, reminding us that it’s unwise to accept gifts from strange men, especially ones you swallow. Not for the first time, I wondered what it would be like to only have one parent, one who had experienced such hardship, horrors that you were a direct product of. I didn’t understand. It was an abstract thought, and one it didn’t occur to me to worry about. Why would I? It was summer, and I was only a child. At that point, I was still a child.
Eventually, our trip began to near its end. The time was the position of the sun, and we ate what we had left without complaining. We’d become used to the outdoors. The bug bites were a part of us now. We’d developed new muscles and callouses from paddling and portaging, and had adapted to sleeping on the ground and shitting in the woods. One or two of the Foxes had had to delve into the counsellor’s tampon supply, but no one was weird about it. We were dirty, but we felt clean. We were alive, and stronger than we’d ever been. We watched the sun set every night, our timepiece, filling the sky with clear blues receding into burning pink. We no longer missed television, or showers, or beds, or toilets. Nature was ours. We belonged here. You always assume that the day you can drive a car or drink a beer are the days that you’ll finally feel like a grown-up. The truth is that you never do, because you never realize the moment that you change. It sneaks up on you, and the only vision that can see it is hindsight. In the moment, it is the world that changes around you. Something happens, and suddenly everything is different. You never see it coming.
One day, we were relaxing in the evening after setting up camp. We were close to the pick-up point, and it was time to begin our song. We’d save the bulk of the writing for the van ride back, but we felt safe in assuming that we’d already accumulated whatever experiences would make the cut. Then, as we gazed out upon the water quietly lapping its soft waves against our rocks, a boat came around the bend and into our view.
It was a motorboat with two men inside. We were by the water, where the rocks slope into the bay, and these men saw us. They were maybe in their twenties or thirties, but I don’t remember exactly what they looked like. We’d never seen them before. Strangers. Their boat contained equipment, though they weren’t fishing. They took notice of us. They looked, and they began to holler. What did they see? What did they want? We couldn’t make out what they were saying. Were they like grandpa fisherman, just out to offer us a homecooked meal? I didn’t think so. We didn’t know to feel threatened. Except for Taylor. Taylor was tense, I could sense it. It was strange, being in their view. I didn’t know how to feel. They kept shouting, but it didn’t seem like they were trying to communicate. They pointed at us as we had pointed at beavers. I thought perhaps they’d been out hunting. Soon, I recognized their tone. I’d heard it from bullies. They were laughing at us. It wasn’t a kind laugh. They had come to our little island to laugh at us, and we weren’t even in on the joke. We backed away from the shore as they came closer. They called to us, called us names, closer, aiming for our quiet rocks. They looked at us like we had looked at grandpa’s fish. I got a better look at the equipment in their boat, and it included guns. One of them reached for his.
The setting sun glinted off the steel and my eyes widened. He pulled the trigger.
We ran into the tents, a bang and a splash echoing into the empty woods behind us. We could not stop them from coming onto shore, and the tents would not protect us, but we didn’t know what else to do. Helpless, I told myself they couldn’t hurt us. We were the Foxes, we’d survived the rapids and the salty pasta and the sun and insects and the whole woods. The woods, the woods that we didn’t know, that we couldn’t navigate, the woods where we’d never be found.
Taylor was crying. It sounded like a prayer, and I was afraid. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but Taylor, always savvy, always more experienced, knew exactly what to be afraid of.
“Please don’t rape us,” she cried, she pleaded. “They’ll rape us, they’ll rape us, don’t rape us, please don’t rape us.” In her terrified eyes I saw her mother’s story, the knowledge that I didn’t yet have, the inevitability of what was about to happen.
But it didn’t. The men had scared us, had their laugh, and had driven off. Were those even real guns?
They didn’t make it into our song. We never reported the incident. Never even spoke about it. In the van back to camp I didn’t know how to comfort my friend, and I was ashamed. I would live with that shame forever. I now knew what to be afraid of. I now knew what I was.
Taylor and I lost touch after the summer. She moved on like none of it had happened, and I wondered if she even remembered. I wonder if I am truly alone in my recollection, or if we were all just faking it. But I suppose that’s what growing up is, and looking back, that was the day it happened.
That was the day I became a woman.