Backcountry Camping: You Always Remember Your First Time
By Tierney Angus – “Man Camping. It’s not a gender thing, it’s a state of mind and lack of planning thing.” I think it also requires a healthy consumption of malted barley beverages, a taste for everything bacon, and an ability to laugh and persevere, even when things go horribly wrong. One of my most prized possessions is my Canpanion: A cup holder that clips on the gunnel of my canoe and holds a tall-boy perfectly. That said, I’m also a Lady-Camper: I’m obsessive about crafting lists and my toiletry kit contains enough goodies to open a day spa.
My first backcountry experience was a memorable one, and for all the wrong reasons. No one would guess today from my carefully curated Instagram feed that I’m actually quite new to the canoeing and camping scene. I didn’t grow up camping. I didn’t even sleep in a tent until I was 24 years old, and only at the urging of my partner, Andrew. He grew up canoeing, kayaking, camping, and cottaging. I spent my summers performing musicals in a dark theatre with other poorly-adjusted nerds.
The Unhappy Adventure
We purchased a tent and took it on a few trial outings to campgrounds in 2012. Andrew figured I was ready for The Backcountry, so we borrowed a canoe from The Complete Paddler, where he worked at the time, and set off to Bon Echo Provincial Park. I was so woefully inept that I even had difficulty making the reservation with Ontario Parks over the phone. They asked if I would be canoeing or hiking, and I said, “both?”. Andrew shook his head. The correct answer was canoeing, and I managed to reserve a site on Joeperry Lake.
We didn’t own a water filter, and so I suggested we bring one of those giant 10L water jugs with a spout. Andrew laughed uncontrollably. I didn’t understand what was so funny, and I was a bit hurt to be openly mocked, but we stopped off at his cousin’s place on our way across the city to borrow an MSR pump filter. Ok, so while canoeing around an enormous fresh water supply, one brings a filter and not a water jug. Cool. Makes sense.
We arrived at the access point sometime in the middle of the afternoon, and we “portaged” our gear down to the water from the parking lot. Portaged is in quotations because really we just carried armfuls of crap down to the lake, over multiple trips, with no organization whatsoever.
Bugs, Bogs and Beavers
Our only map was in one of those park newsletters, printed in grey on recycled newsprint so the water is indistinguishable from the land. We set out on what looked like the shortest and most direct route to our campsite. No one told us that this route dried up every summer. Before long, we were stuck in the mud.
Andrew stepped out of the canoe into thigh-deep swamp ooze, while I tried to gracefully lily-dip through the muck. Suddenly, my paddle hit something incredibly solid. With a loud slap, an irritated beaver splashed me with pond scum. I had been hoping for wildlife encounters, but I hadn’t meant to bean the wildlife over the head with a paddle.
After slogging through the mud and battling bristly beavers, we pulled ashore at our reserved campsite. We set up our tent, drank many beers, and ate a horrible dinner consisting of hot dogs and baked beans. The mosquitoes were horrendous. I’ve always been a mosquito magnet, but with no bug jacket, and nowhere to escape the torture, the bugs were almost unbearable. There was a fire ban in place, so we couldn’t even banish them with campfire smoke. I’m mildly allergic to mosquito bites, and I was soon decorated with quarter-sized lumps all over my body. To deter the bugs, I sprayed an obscene amount of Deep Woods DEET repellant, and the overflow spray melted a good portion of my Nalgene bottle.
The next day we went for a picnic excursion to a beach on the other side of the lake. We packed a healthy supply of beer and paddled the long way around the lake to avoid the extremely angry beaver. We swam from the beach until Andrew noticed fifty tiny leeches trapped in his leg hair and between his toes. I laughed cruelly while he danced around pinching leeches and screaming.
On our way back to our campsite, we pumped water into our Nalgenes with the borrowed filter. This was really difficult. The filter was clogged, and pumping required an excessive amount of force. Much grimacing and clenching. I thought this was normal.
I tripped getting out of the canoe at our campsite, landing hard on my knee and bleeding profusely. The mosquitoes immediately sensed I was a tasty treat and flocked to me in droves. They thwarted every attempt to banish them with Deep Woods, and I inhaled and gagged on quite a lot of poison . We ate the same disgusting dinner as the night before, and then went to bed itchy and miserable.
Puking and Crying
We both woke up feeling rather ill sometime in the middle of the night. To this day, we are unsure what caused our sickness: The dirty water pump, poisoning due to DEET inhalation, infected bug bites or undercooked and poorly refrigerated hot dogs. Whatever the cause, we were both up all night puking out of both tent vestibules in a choreographed display of synchronized vomiting.
The barfing might also have been due to my motto of the trip, “Beer is safer than water!” but I will never admit it and you can never prove it.
Around five a.m. we decided enough was enough. We packed up our gear, and paddled the long way around to the access point. This felt like a lifetime, but was probably only about an hour of extremely slow paddling.
Camping Is Awesome
Why did I fall in love with backcountry canoeing? Our first trip was a comically tragic disaster, which propelled me to want to camp better. I wanted to learn to live comfortably in the woods and out of a pack. I wanted to see more wildlife, and not smack it in the face.
I’ve learned a lot since then. I plan a bigger, longer, more intense trip each year. We paddled and portaged 250km during a 17-day canoe trip through the Temagami wilderness last August. We have our own canoe named “The Happy Adventure” after Farley Mowat’s Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. It has (thankfully) not lived up to its namesake. Camping gear now threatens to fill our tiny apartment and bury us alive. I’m glad that Andrew pushed me to take that first step into the wilderness. Backcountry camping has given me so much, even though it took away my stomach lining and my dignity in the beginning.
And I haven’t eaten a hot dog since.
About the Author:
Tierney Angus is a journalism student, canoeing enthusiast, Friends of Temagami board member and backcountry blogger. She spends every opportunity outside, exploring Ontario’s wild places. She is a horribly pretentious beer snob and eats an obscene amount of bacon. Tierney still uses the same three-season tent she barfed out of 5 years ago. If you liked this story, check out her backcountry blog at thehappyadventure.com or follow her on Instagram @tear_knee and @friendsoftemagami.
[Photos by Andrew Bell]