A Canadian Coming of Age
“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known”
-Sigurd F. Olson-
The Canadian. A non-specific phrase in its own right, but at North Star Camp for Boys, a phrase loaded with connotations of all caliber. At camp, talk of the Canadian points specifically to the many facets of one thing—it is the epic journey, a bildungsroman, a rite of passage unambiguously for the boys of North Star. Steeped in over 50 years of tradition, this outdoor trip to the wilderness of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park proves itself as an experience of a lifetime.
They have been looking up to the Canadian trip since they were first year campers—with apprehension, fear, wonder, amazement, longing. They have heard various tales and rumors about this trip from their friends, older brothers, or even their fathers who have completed the trip long before them. Successive cohorts of campers go on the trip and make their return, detailing the experience with tall tales and exaggerated truths. Each year spent at camp, the young boys see the Canadian trip getting closer and closer.
The Canadian is the culmination of North Star’s progressive outdoor tripping program. Every year at camp, the campers take a longer and more difficult outdoor trip. The youngest campers begin with an overnight canoe trip on a nearby docile river. River trips then become progressively longer and more technical as the campers mature developmentally. The year before their Canadian, campers trade in their canoes for packs and go on a hiking trip the length of five days and four nights. The following year, the Canadian trip more than doubles the amount of nights spent in the wilderness. Such an extensive experience is the Canadian that of an entire summer spent at camp, activities directly and indirectly related to the trip take up a quarter of the summer.
The mere thought of spending that much time out in the Quetico Wilderness proves intimidating to some of the boys. The mental and physical endurance required to complete the trip is much higher than any trip these boys have yet completed. Some doubt their abilities to complete the trip. Still, generation after generation of North Star campers handily complete the journey. It is a coming of age for all who undertake it. Though they are becoming young men, they are still a group of children; at only 14 or 15 year old, this is their last summer at camp as campers. The Canadian is the final transformational process in which these boys become men; a more tactile transformation than the symbolic coming of age of their Bar Mitzvahs only a couple years earlier. The transformation of the boys on the Canadian is one that they’ve earned through their hard work and endurance on the journey.
The Canadian, in a way, is a process of giving tangible hardship and practical challenge to a group of campers who face reduced adversity in their normal lives. Most campers attending North Star live in wealthy suburbs and come from privileged families who can afford to send their children to such a camp. North Star itself is not an outdoor camp either—it is a traditional residential summer camp with a tripping program only as one small component. Although every cabin group goes on an outdoor trip each summer, most campers do not come for the trips themselves. Though some boys love the trips, others can’t wait for them to be over.
The Canadian, though always shrouded in mystique, was never anything more than the campers could handle. In fact, the challenge of Canada was substantially less than what it’s made to be. The gestalt of the journey may seem intimidating beforehand, but in reality the pilgrimage consists of nothing more than small obstacles to be overcome in the here and now. Looking back, the group of campers who I led should be proud of what they accomplished. Over the course of 9 days of wilderness travel, my camper group canoed over 105 miles and portaged the entire outfit over 7 miles in 22 separate portages. We faced variable weather, changing from intensely sunny and hot, to shivering cold and wet. Thunderstorms had us seeking emergency shelter off the lakes multiple times, and after storms on the second night soaked most of our gear, everything stayed damp with periodic rain and storms the remainder of the trip. We found strong headwinds could delay forward progress despite everyone’s strongest paddling, or a long muddy portage could take over three hours to complete and leave us pitching camp after 9 at night. Some nights dinner was freeze-dried lasagna unintentionally prepared as a soup, or our rations were reduced because of mice foraging in the food packs. My group even experienced an emergency seaplane evacuation of one of the campers on the second day.
The boys on my trip were thrown a lot of adversity, but the way they handled it was most indicative of their maturity. Though there was much to grumble about, there was little complaining out of sheer desire to complain. The tasks that needed doing were done, eventually with less prodding from me as the guide. Most importantly, a general good attitude was maintained throughout the duration of the trip. My camper group proved to me what maturing men they could be, and what they could handle in the circumstances. As well, the camper who was seaplane evacuated returned later to the group and finished the trip strong.
As an outsider to North Star’s 72 summers of tradition, I had to quickly learn the sheer importance of a trip like the Canadian. At pre-camp training, many of this year’s Counselors-in-Training (who were campers last year) said that their most proud accomplishment was completing the Canadian. At a Friday night ceremony with the entire camp staff later, when everyone was called to share a sentimental object, many more camper veterans brought objects associated with their Canadian journey. Even the camp’s program director, a North Star veteran of 30+ years, brought the souvenir of his first Canadian—a Loony Dollar—that he has kept tucked in his wallet since his first Canadian experience in the early 90’s. As a newcomer to North Star and as a first-year trip leader, I was honored to have the pleasure of being a guide for such a pivotal trip. As a guide, mine would be the responsibility of leading these boys safely through the wilderness and ensuring that they get the most out of their Canadian experience.
As much as the Canadian is a coming of age for the campers, the trip was a coming of age of my own. This Canadian trip was my induction into outdoor guiding, the first trip I ever led as a professional guide. Every trip experience before had been recreational and informal, either taken by myself or with my friends. For the first time, I was the officially responsible party for the safety and well-being of 12 children and two young adult counselors. I was tasked with making the trip a success and making sure the campers got the most out of their experience. Overall, my trip was an unqualified success. I surprised myself at how I could lead others in the wilderness just as much as the campers surprised themselves by completing their Canadian.