Best Day of His Life

I was thinking about camping the other day, because in this part of the country, booking a campsite starts next week. It seems crazy to think about summer camping in the dead of winter, in one of the coldest capital cities in the world. But if you don’t book in February, the good sites disappear. Canadians like their camping.

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As I was looking at the calendar, dreaming of warmer days, I was reminded of our last camping (mis)adventure. You’re going to read this story and think—yet again—that I create these situations for myself just to have something to write about. I really don’t. I’m just that awesome. Or that ridiculous. (Depends who you ask.)

So there we were, early September, when it gets dark a lot earlier than in July or August. Issue number one. And our hatchback is really too small to cram four people plus everything else that we need for three nights of camping. Issue number two. And in this area of the country, summer thunder storms are common and sudden and brutal. Issue number three.

You can already tell this is going to be good, right?

Our brilliant plan was for my husband to come home early on Friday, and then we would pack up “quickly” and be off on our three-hour drive to get to our campsite. This was Labour Day weekend and we were actually supposed to go camping two weeks prior, but our plans got derailed due to work. So I was left with

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In true Schmidt style, we ran into delays right away. My husband wasn’t as early as he wanted, the packing wasn’t as quick as we wanted, and by the time we hit the road it was past 5pm. We checked the forecast and it called for “severe thunder storms”. My husband asked if maybe we should cancel. I told him to pack the tarps. Two hours into the drive, I asked my husband if he remembered said tarps. He did not. (I may have then gone on a rant about the camping checklist.)

We arrived at the campsite in the dark, with two sleeping children stuffed between pillows and water jugs and coolers, and a supply of brand new tarps from the corner store (we now have enough tarps in our basement to start a small shop). When the woman at the entrance looked at our reservation with her huge flashlight, she smiled and said: “Oh, Hardwood Hills! We’ve got us some hardcore campers here.”

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My husband looked at me in horror—the car was silent but I could hear his thoughts echoing: what have you done? I looked at my small sleeping children in the back, smothered in camping gear. Did we look like hardcore campers? I tried to remember where the site was that I booked. I hadn’t been paying much attention, to be honest. I just saw "available" and clicked "book it". What had I done?

The woman pleasantly gave us directions to our site, which according to her was “only” twenty minutes down this gravel road, and then we’d have to park our car and walk in. Our hearts sank in unison. My husband took a deep breath.

“A walk-in? You booked us into a walk-in site?”

“Maybe it will only be a few metres walk. It’s fine. Let’s go see.”

“Let’s go home.”

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But I am not a quitter. (Though I've been told I need to learn when to fold 'em.)

We drove down an ominous-looking, pot-holed gravel road until we finally found the number corresponding with our site. Except all we saw was a parking lot and an outhouse. We got out and saw a smaller sign with an arrow pointing down a single-track path into the trees. Into the woods. Into the dark, dark woods. I couldn’t look my husband in the eye.

What could we do? We couldn’t leave the kids sleeping in the car and set up the site, as we had planned. We had to bring everything, kids, tent, supplies, all at the same time. And without a tent, where would we put them? My husband stoicly loaded the tent onto his back and picked up my unconscious daughter, while I piled my arms with supplies and woke my 6-year-old with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

“We’re here, baby! It’s so exciting! We get to go down this path and find our campsite!”

He looked at me all bleary-eyed and confused, then got out of the car and stared at the dark forest in front of him. As soon as we got into the trail, he started to cry—utterly terrified. To make matters worse, the trail was not well marked so we couldn’t tell where we were going. At all. We came to an unmarked fork in the path and just guessed which way to go. Of course we guessed wrong and had to turn around, shining our flashlights into the dark, silent forest. And then we had to turn around again. Then we lost the trail. Another turnaround, headlamps dancing all over the forest floor.

“Rachel, maybe we just need to—“

“No.” I said firmly. “We’ve come this far. We’re staying.” (Again, forgetting everything I had learned in economics about sunk costs.)

“We’re LOST!” My son started to wail. "We're lost, we're lost, we're lost!!!!" If there were other campers enjoying the wooded tranquility, we had effectively ruined it for them.

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We continued on the narrow trail, seeing only small, sparkling campfires far away at other sites. We were definitely lost, but repeatedly telling my son we were not lost. Another wrong turn, then another. More sobbing. I was beginning to envision sleeping on the forest floor and being mauled by raccoons and bears, when we finally found it. But my son would still not stop crying. My husband started a fire, we set up my still-unconscious daughter on her cot, and we began to set up our tent, our son bawling the entire time that bears were going to eat him, that he wanted to go home RIGHT NOW.

Another withering look from my husband and then: “He is never going to want to go camping again.”

Was that true, had I scarred my child for life?

And that's when we discovered the broken tent pole. I wish I were making that up. But even my husband was committed now. There was no way we were returning to the path. We might not find the car again even if we wanted to. So with some duct tape and creativity, we got the tent up. Sort of.

When we finally got into the tent and had both kids snuggled in, I gave my son a kiss goodnight, and despite his tear-streaked face, he grinned at me.

“Mom,” he said. “That was the best day of my entire life.”

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