As much as it pains this ruggedly handsome 40-year-old buck to admit, the vast majority of my ruggedness is skin deep. I might possess the hulking build and plaid shirt collection of a lumberjack, but when it comes to the great outdoors—to paraphrase my father—I’m a bit of a pussy.
Two weeks ago, however, I finally accepted his yearly invitation to go on a three-day, two-night camping trip with him, my brother and my six-year-old nephew. Three generations of Kissinger men, in various stages of decline, embarking on a treacherous journey torn from the pages of a Farley Mowat novel or episode of Two and a Half Men. It had been 25 years since I last camped with my father, and after a quarter century of avoidance I felt I was finally ready to return to the wild.
Unlike his streetwise, city slicking, car sharing, community newspaper employed son, my father regularly communes with nature. Not only does he live his retired life according to the seasons, foraging for mushrooms, wild asparagus, clams and oysters, he has killed things so he can eat them—moose, elk, deer, pheasants and oceans of fish.
Not surprisingly, camping trips dominated my childhood, even after my parents split up. Each summer, my father, brother, sister and our limping dog, Lady, who had a pin in one of her hind legs from chasing a neighbour’s dirt bike too closely, would cram into our family’s green 1968 International Harvester Travelall resembling a giant slug on wheels and embark on long, mosquito-infested journeys into Vancouver Island’s heart of darkness. Sometimes we’d take our cousins who lived on a farm, and in return they would bring large jars of cream for us to shake into butter while we drove for hours down bumpy logging roads to some obscure campsite where the fishing was rumoured to be good.
But making our own dairy products was a poor substitute for videogames and I grew increasingly disenchanted with the camping experience. Not only was I prone to seasickness, I found fishing horribly boring. So when everyone would go out in my dad’s leaky aluminum boat, I’d spend hours in the green metallic slug reading. When I was 15, I took a stand and refused to go camping, claiming I needed a summer job. My father relented, but insisted I apply for two jobs a day and keep detailed records of all the businesses I applied to. That summer I spent a glorious week and a half living on my own, hanging out with friends and writing down the names of fake businesses where I pretended to apply.
That was the beginning of my long-running standoff with family camping trips. But last month I decided to face my charcoal-scented demons. It wouldn’t be easy. My Conservation Office brother and his fishing-obsessed son had inherited my father’s passion for the outdoors, which further rendered my extensive knowledge of Baltimore’s illegal drug trade as depicted in The Wire inconsequential. Plus I would have to share a three-hour drive and a tent with my manatee-sized father.
As it turned out, the drive was pleasant, with my father only swearing at the uselessness of traffic flaggers once. We discussed a wide range of topics including Fleetwood Mac, the diminishing egg production of his backyard chickens, the premier, whom he likes to call “Crispy” Clark, and how in 1964 he once “ate his way through a bear” and would never do that again.
After turning off the highway between Campbell River and Sayward, we drove 15 kilometres down a dusty logging road and arrived at Eve River, the site of one of my last family campouts. Luckily, my brother had convinced my father to stay further down the road at the more scenic and civilian-friendly Naka Creek since the Eve River campsite was little more than a gravel parking lot once reserved for logging equipment. Still, my father insisted on stopping at the Eve to get the lowdown on the fishing situation. I overheard him tell another grizzled fly fisherman, “We’re camping at Naka Creek this time around… my oldest wants to stay somewhere pretty.” As he said this, I tried to conceal the man-purse hanging off my shoulder.
Once settled into our own campsite, we were visited by the camp host who swore with every fourth word and for no particular reason told us how he once caught fish through a toilet seat in a sh**house over a dock and that grandsons are better because “you can’t teach your granddaughter to piss her name in the f***ing snow.”
When it came to fishing, which was the real purpose of the trip, I found myself regressing back to my teenage self, sitting on the shore reading a book. But I had other responsibilities, too, namely looking after my six-year-old nephew. Although he acts a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main in his fixation with catching and bonking fish, he’s still too small for hip-waders. And on the second day of fishing, he was the one who asked to stay back in the truck so he could play games on his dad’s iPhone and show me videos of him dancing to LMFAO songs and practicing kung fu moves.
In the end, my return to family camping confirmed a few things: I will never be a fisherman, Lucky Lager is still a terrible beer, I don’t think I’ll ever eat my way through bear, my dad really wants a CD of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and despite the boredom and envy of watching family members recreate scenes from A River Runs Through It, I can now appreciate a couple of nights breathing forest air and listening to my father snore two feet away from me. If only I had brought a jar of cream to churn into butter, my journey would have come full circle.
Michael Kissinger has been writing about his impending midlife crisis since turning 40 in February.