Semper letteris mandate
When I was nine years old we moved from the city to the country, but it was at summer camp a few months later that I truly learned the survival techniques needed to live with nature.
Our new home was an old farmhouse situated on a lot with 100 acres of bushland and 45 acres of pasture for the large herd of sheep our landlord kept. Another five acres was reserved for the apple orchard.
In short, there was a lot of nature around.
And so, having just moved into a house on the edge of a forest, what could be more sensible than being sent to a summer camp with my cousin Tim for the first time in my life in order to experience nature?
I can’t remember the name of the camp, but it was one of those pseudo-Indian names that are apparently legally mandatory. Camp Whatchabitchenabout or something.
The people were nice enough, but the purpose behind much of the activity frequently left me puzzled; not so much for the activities themselves, but for the implication that they were somehow uniquely connected to the great outdoors. “Crafts,” for example, consisted of sewing together pre-cut wallets — something I felt could probably be done just as easily in a less natural setting. And the singalongs around a campfire were pleasant, but having come from a musical family, I knew for a fact that you could make music in the comfort of your own home, devoid of mosquitoes and other biting insects.
Still, it was a good opportunity for Tim and I to enjoy some time together. While Ted had lived with us for a year or so (or less — hard to determine time from this far removed), I only saw Tim during our regular family visits. At camp we discovered we could work well together in numerous events, such as trying to avoid going out into Nature.
But our shining moment came with the three-legged race.
At one point it was announced that the camp was going to have competitions the following day, one of which would be a three-legged race. The evening before we got together in a common room and sang such time-honoured camp songs as “The Quatermaster’s Store” (“There were beans, beans, big as submarines”), “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” and “Boom Boom, Ain’t it Great to be Crazy?” During these activities Tim and I sat on a table with our legs hanging over the edge and practiced moving them in synchronisation the way we would for the race.
This was probably the first time that Tim and I discovered we were good at practising skills together. Over the next couple of years while I lived in Wainfleet we would spend many hours in the chicken coop learning the sign language alphabet so we could communicate privately to each other when around other people. The one problem with this scheme, however, was that spelling words with our hands turned out to be somewhat more conspicuous than we’d imagined. Later, when we were teenagers living outside of Toronto we created our own language — or rather, we pretended to be speaking another language when out in public. Since it was all nonsense we couldn’t actually communicate, but it was oddly fun and got strange looks from people on buses (which was probably the main attraction of doing it in the first place).
Anyway, the point is, we worked well together and at the camp it paid off. We won the race, hands down. Nobody else was even close.
However, while winning a three-legged race was satisfying, it wasn’t particularly “Nature-y.”
The Nature Walks, on the other hand, were about nothing other than Nature. They were, in their own way, lessons on how to survive in the woods.
Each day we were taken out into the bushland surrounding Camp Watchalookinat where our guide would take us through various survival training exercises. On our first day we were led to a large body of water. On one side was a cliff approximately seven or eight thousand feet high. At the top of the cliff was a very tall tree, and on that tree a length of rope had been tied to one of its branches. The guide explained that each of us was to overcome our natural fear of heights by grabbing the end of the rope and swinging out over the lake.
Personally, I had my doubts. For one thing, heights didn’t really bother me that much, but doing stupid things far above the ground did. Furthermore, the rope looked more than a little frayed.
“That rope doesn’t look too safe,” I told the guide.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “it’s been there for years.”
Since that was pretty much my point, I found a distinct lack of reassurance in his reassurance. Excusing myself, I went to the end of the line.
The rope broke while the second kid was at his highest point above the water.
He was fished out with minimum damage.
The next day our guide took us out to show us the natural habitat of various wild creatures. We wandered through the woods as he showed us birds’ nests and such, all of which seemed quite harmless. But when we ran across a hole in the ground he got very excited and declared it to be a badger dwelling.
He explained that badgers, while not particularly rare, are remarkably elusive, and to run across one like this was most fortunate. He then gathered us around the opening as he leaned down to show us the digging marks made by their long and powerful claws.
At this point I moved to the back of the line.
The guide was a bit dismissive of my caution, saying that badgers don’t generally come out of their holes to fight, and in any event, that they were nocturnal creatures who sleep soundly in the day time.
I don’t think it was a full minute later that the creature poked its head out, sending our guide, who had been hunched down on his heels, toppling over onto his back and the rest of the kids running in numerous self-chosen directions.
Ultimately, though, nobody got hurt. And as it turns out, our guide was right — badgers really don’t tend to come out of their burrows to attack, especially in daytime.
Skunks, on the other hand, are a different matter.
Going back to Camp Wheredaheckarewe, our guide walked downwind of us, and the next day we were informed that the rest of the survival training classes would be cancelled.
I was disappointed. I’d actually been having a good time and was learning a lot.
All in all, I had a good time at camp. I really did. I discovered ketchup, which I’d never tried before, and at one point I held in my hands a comic book introducing a new superhero: a high school student who is bitten by a radioactive spider. (Traded it for the newest Superman comic, dammit.)
As for my survival training, I learned two very important lessons — when dealing with nature, stay as far away as possible; and if you have to engage, go to the end of the line.
It’s a lesson that has worked well for me all my life.
While everything else is as true as memory allows, the skunk incident did not happen. There was some kind of kerfuffle during one of our nature walks, but I can no longer remember what it was. Pretty sure it wasn’t a skunk, however.