Sunday, September 25, 2011


A few weeks ago I decided to introduce Betsy and Henry to canoe camping. Betsy had a little experience camping, but nothing quite as rigorous as what I had in mind. My experience is not terribly broad, but does include a week-long epic trek in Algonquin a few years ago.

We first got our feet wet (figuratively, not literally, thankful) by borrowing a friend's sweet 1950's era Peterborough Canoe on Toronto Island. It's a sweet canoe: wood-and-canvas--tracks and handles beautifully. Smooth and much quieter than a fibreglass tub. We took it out for two trips with Henry. Paddling around in the quiet waters of the channels, Betsy in the bow and Henry napping between us, was like something out of a Victorian Romance. But my favourite memory was when we tied up under the shade of a tree and a three of us took a nap, gently rocking as the boats went in and out of the QCYC marina. This was an important proof of concept. It gave us confidence that Henry would do well in a canoe and not try to crawl out.
Betsy, Henry, and I at Toronto Island on a day trip.
Henry slept well under his improvised sun-shade

So I went ahead and planned a "real" trip. I chose Massasauga Park because it's close enough to Toronto that we could leave after church on a Sunday and get into a back-country campsite before sunset. I borrowed a friend's canoe--a tripping monster that has seen the watersheds of three oceans! We borrowed some other gear and bought a few things. (Many thanks to Dave and Keith for the loans.) Betsy's parents gave us a tent and some ground pads. Gear-wise, here are some recommendations for those of you thinking of camping with your little ones...

A Five Gallon Plastic Bucket
We used this from dirty diaper storage (and other trash, too). It's airtight and cheap and you don't have to worry about cross-contamination. Plus, it makes a very handy stool for sitting on. I found that it bit nicely in the space behind the stern seat of the canoe.

Platypus Gravityworks Water Filter
When I went on my trip to Algonquin our group used an MSR MiniWorks EX Water Filter. It screws onto a standard Nalgene bottle and then you hand-pump water through the ceramic filter to fill the bottle. It was a real chore, to be honest. But the Platypus Gravity fed system is pure awesomeness! You fill up the "dirty" bag with four litres of water and then let it drain through a filter cartridge into a "clean" bag. In about 2.5 minutes, presto, you have clean water! With this system it was easy to have more than enough water in camp our whole trip.

MSR DragonFly Stove
We borrowed one of these camp stoves from an experienced tripper-friend. This is far easier to cook on than an open-fire, and much kinder of the environment, too, when you think about the impact of gathering wood around well-used sites. It can deliver 8700 BTU, which will bring a litre of water to boil in less than four minutes! Coupled with one of these coffee makers, it made mornings far more civilized! Oh, and the flame can be turned down to a bare flicker, which means you could simmer as easy as kiss-my-hand.

Seal Pup Elite Knife
I've always found a multi-purpose camping knife to be handy gear on the trail, and this sweet knife got plenty of use preparing kindling, cutting food, opening wood bags, etc. It might not be essential gear, but it is surprisingly useful. For example, for dinner the first night we had campfire-grilled steak. The "camping" utensils we had were useless at cutting it. This bad boy carved through the meat like butter. It's extremely comfortable in the hand, and so sharp that I could shave off arm hair straight out of the box.

Child-Sized Sleeping Bag
One of our biggest questions heading out was how Henry would sleep in the tent. We were out for two-nights, and on both occasions he did quite well. He did move around a lot, which I suspect he does in bed at home, too. So even we started out with Betsy in the middle and Henry on one side, half way through the night Betsy and I would switch places to put me in the middle with Henry to my right. I'd leave my bag mostly unzipped so I could get to Henry and he could get to me. Sometimes he managed to sleep in or on this adorable sleeping bag. Other times, when it seemed especially cool, I simply pulled him in and spooned him for a few hours. He liked that. When he got too warm (he was wearing two layers just-in-case), he'd simply crawl away from me into the corner of the tent.

I brought along two maglight flashlights, storm-proof matches, a length of rope, a compass, and other odds and ends. One thing I forgot to bring in all my careful list-making and planning was toilet paper. Luckily I had brought along extra baby wipes, so they substituted just fine.

Just like at home, one person needs to watch the boy while the other does anything require concerted effort, like setting up camp or cooking. Henry was thrilled to find so many sticks to play with and new things to point at. "Mah? Mah?" he kept saying at each new thing, looking back at us to see if we saw the bird, or tree, or cliff, too.

We ate well. Here's the menu:

Day 1 - Supper
Potatoes a Gratin
A pre-made toddler meal (I think it was ravioli with red sauce)
A Tretra-Pak of red wine
Popcorn for dessert

Day 2 - Breakfast
Mexican-style eggs (basically just scrambled eggs on tortillas with salsa and cheese)
Milk for Henry

Day 2 - Lunch
Beef tacos (with taco meat I made the day before we left)
Applesauce and other goodies for Henry

Day 2 - Supper
Pasta with meat sauce and cheese (using dehydrated beef I made a few days before)
Red wine
Milk and other goodies for Henry
Popcorn for dessert

Day 3 - Breakfast
Oatmeal with brown sugar and milk for everyone

I was quite proud of my menu planning. Opening up the cheese in the morning and then using it up across three meal works quite well. So did pre-measuring the butter I would need and the coffee for each morning's brew. Probably the best meal was the first night. Few things in this planet can match the experience of eating campfire grilled steak with red wine after a few hours of paddling. Loons in the background and the most purple sunset you've even seen complete the picture.

Speaking of pictures, here are a few... the pictures from the trip!

By the third day Betsy, Henry, and I had really found our rhythm and felt as though we could easily have handled a longer trip. As we paddled back to the boat ramp at Pete's Place we felt strong and fast through the water. Henry spent part of that last paddle peaking over the gunwales and part of it sleeping on a blanket between dry packs and Betsy's seat. We got to Pete's place with plenty of time to spare, so we deliberately hung out in the middle of the lake taking pictures and messing around.

I grew up as a country kid, exploring the wheat fields and rail road tracks of Kansas. I have a lot of wander-lust in me, and getting out into the woods reminded me of that part of myself. I felt so alive, so in touch with myself and comfortable with the challenges in front of me. I'm really a different person in the field, and I had forgotten that. I like who I am when I'm preaching or presiding and I like who I am when I'm sailing, but this back-woods Tay that used to sleep on the chicken shed and walk for hours down a creak bed has rarely gotten to shine this last few years. I'm hoping that as Henry grows up I can introduce him to the pleasures of waking up with the previous-nights smoke still in your hair, or the satisfaction of building a fire from a small, still smouldering ash from that day-old blaze. I love the way my muscles ache after a long paddle or how my soft my sleeping bag can feel. It's even more rewarding to share these experiences with my family, which is one more pleasant surprise of fatherhood.


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