#8 – canoe/camp/portage in Algonquin Park, and important reflections

I’ve been hearing a lot, over the past few months, about the experiences of close friends who met and bonded at summer camp.  When I was younger, I spent a few summers at YMCA Camp Wanakita, conveniently located on the lake of my family’s cottage.  I remember anxiously looking forward to the day when I would be old enough to be a counselor there, but for some reason when that summer finally came, other things (saving up for university, for example) seemed more important, and so I spent the summer cleaning hotel rooms instead.  True story.  At the time, I was pleased with my decision.  I felt as though I was ready to move on to more adult things, and that summer camp was something I had outgrown.  Today, thinking back on that decision gives me pangs of regret.

I have had a decent amount of camping experience, and my share of weeks away at day camp, but still I feel jealous of the kind of bonds that are built over long, repeated summers with the same people – spending months at a time doing everything together, and then parting in August only to see each other again the following June.

In part, it was desire for that kind of bonding experience that motivated my desire to go camping in Algonquin this summer; though I couldn’t replicate the duration and repetition of those earlier experiences, at least I could hope to recreate the immersive aspect over the short-term.  Furthermore, though I’ve been camping many times, I’ve never been to Algonquin, and that seemed like a huge oversight.  After all, it seems like the kind of place that every legitimate camper should have visited at least once.  A group of my close friends and I tried to organize a big 6-person trip, but it became a big logistically problematic, especially given that many of them are very busy with comprehensive exams and other graduate school requirements, so the end of the summer was drawing near and it looked as though it wasn’t going to happen.

Realizing how disappointed I was, and sharing in my desire to go camping this summer, a close friend suggested we make the trek – just the two of us – to canoe and portage in Algonquin.  We planned a route, booked sites, and assembled our gear, before taking off for 4 days alone together in the wilderness.

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What follows will seem like a digression, but in fact touches upon the very heart of the purpose of this summer list – namely, personal growth.  I’ve drafted this post several times, and each time changed my mind about how to write it.  At first, it was going to be a description of our trip, complete with pictures, a GIF of the tent-building, our pack list & menu, etc.  Then it was going to be an explanation.

In the end, I’ve decided that it needs to be an apology.  I’ll explain.

Though I hate to admit it, I am still very much a child.  On better days, this childishness manifests itself in the form of emphatic wonder, profound awe, and carefree abandon.  On bad days, it bursts forth as obstinacy and cold, hard selfishness.  There are times when I’m upset (not angry – upset) when I can’t seem to will myself to feel better, to feel good, even if I know that the way I’m feeling is completely unreasonable and even hurtful to others.  At the worst times, this feeling of upset transforms into resentment – a deep-wounding, insidious feeling that tarnishes everything it touches, and that lingers far longer than any negative feeling should.

I was recently presented with an opportunity that called upon me to be caring, compassionate, and supportive.  Something unexpected arose on the first day of our camping trip, that required that we turn back and make big modifications to our plan (namely, that we abandon it).  Instead of being compassionate and understanding, my selfish-childishness took over and I said things that I didn’t mean, and announced plans I had no intention of completing.  I was reluctant to adapt, and I stubbornly and selfishly held fast to my desire to get my fill of camping, to experience the kind of summer trip of which I had heard so many wonderful anecdotes.  Instead of being warm and supportive, I was bitter, cold and closed-off.  As a result, I deeply hurt one of the people closest to me, who deserved nothing short of wholehearted love, compassion, and understanding.

I am writing this not with the intention of self-flagellation,  but rather in the hopes that confronting the thing that I’ve done, and trying to work through and understand my lived-experience of it will help me learn how to avoid repeating such unjustifiable behavior.  Vague though it is, the above is intended as one more incarnation of the apology that I continue to repeat – and endeavor to prevent having to make again – to the person I so terribly abandoned.

I would like to say that this was a singular event in an otherwise virtuous life, but that would obviously be a lie.  I’ve hurt people before, and I’m sure I’ll hurt people again.  Recognition of that sad fact does nothing to alter my genuine desire to live compassionately and generously; on the contrary, it reminds me of the pressing and perpetual need to be vigilant to ward off negative childish feelings and reactions before they take expressive root.  I need to remember to be humble, to be fair, to be just, to be caring, and to be considerate.

On that note, I would like to share two pieces that emphasize similar reminders.  The first is the convocation speech given by George Saunders at Syracuse University for the class of 2013 (with thanks to my friend H, from whom I first learned of it), and the second is a compassionate response to an angry letter that has recently been all over social media.  Both emphasize the need for reflection and compassion in all of our interpersonal relations.

I would also like to add, as a final thought, that the positive moments of that camping trip – which easily form the majority, for me – easily rank as my favourite camping memories ever; in the span of less than 24hrs, we canoed over 12km of distance, and carried gear over 2.25km of portage distance.  Brief though it may have been, we packed a lot into that trip, and easily carpe‘d the heck out of that diem.

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