Saturday, June 30, 2012


“Sumer Is Icumen In.” So starts one of the oldest songs in the English language, a medieval round that simply means, Summer Has Arrived. And sorry Christmas, but summer is really the most wonderful time of the year.

I remember the final days of school each June, sitting in classrooms that baked in the heat, counting the minutes until the day was over. Back then the June heat was such that you could barely focus on schoolwork. I can only imagine how today’s kids must suffer now that the sweltering summer temperatures seem to start in May.

A few years back an Ontario PC government floated the idea of year-round schools, never giving any consideration to the fact that most of these buildings have no air conditioning. Thankfully, for this and many other reasons, that idea was a non-starter. I would hate to imagine anyone enduring a childhood bereft of the magic of summer vacation.

Not only was summer the most miraculous of times, it truly seemed endless – at least at the beginning. The 2 months stretching out before us offered a series of endless possibilities. We could sleep in (although what kid would ever do that), spend mornings down by the lake, or wander through the woods at the top of our street – as long as you were careful to avoid the mythical farmer and his rock salt shotgun.

For me the highlight of summer was always the family camping trip. As we were a family of seven, no doubt it was the most affordable kind of vacation we could take. My parents were not prone to leaving the kids behind and going somewhere on their own, most likely because they anticipated the kind of havoc 5 boys could create in their absence.

So we’d pack up the big 8-cylinder Pontiac, hook up our tent trailer and head off on an adventure. We travelled around Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the northern U.S. on those trips. We loved the woods and the mountains, although I recall my mother saying that the only time she was ever warm was the year we went to the beach at Atlantic City.

Campgrounds back then were always a gamble. Without the benefit of the internet one never knew what to expect upon arrival. You might bask in the splendour of the most glorious U.S. National Park or end up at a private place in Cape Breton run by a fellow (and here I speak from experience) who was usually drunk by breakfast. Some locations were idyllic, while others we took to referring to as, “Cow Pasture Camping.”

One Quebec campground had a converted chicken coop for a washroom. Only after our stay did we discover that the provincial government had long since condemned the site and deemed the water there unfit for either drinking or swimming.

We usually split our time between enjoying the outdoors and visiting various attractions, some noticeably better than others. Of course sometimes the cheaper attractions were the most enjoyable. One of my favourites was an absurd place in northern New England called “Mystery Crater.” It claimed to be the landing spot of a mysterious meteor that left behind strange forces that caused all manner of unusual events to occur.

Most of these “mysterious” happenings were obviously accomplished through tricks and optical illusion, plus we never really did see any crater. The final insult came as we were leaving and discovered they’d stuck a bumper sticker on our car, apparently with some sort of non-removable super glue. In spite of many valiant efforts it was still there when my folks sold the car a few years later.

Ontario’s African Lion Safari allows visitors to drive through an actual game reserve full of exotic animals that roam free. This might be a fun experience in today’s vehicles, but back then many cars did not yet have the luxury of air conditioning. I recall feeling like I was going to pass out, while witnessing the sight of baboons snapping off our car’s antenna and displaying their backsides to us through the windshield. To be fair, perhaps the heat stroke has clouded my memory.

The end of each afternoon found us back at camp, preparing dinner then enjoying the evening’s fire. I can’t count how many nights we sat around those campfires, revelling in (or choking on) the fragrant smoke of our crackling fire. I learned the basics of campfire building back then: how to stack the wood, the proper use of kindling, and that no matter where you sit the smoke will always blow in your face.

Then those dark nights sleeping in the tent trailer, hoping you wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night for a trip outside. The strange noises in the night that caused me to tell my mom there was a bear in the tent, which thankfully turned out to be my dad snoring. Waking up to the absolute peace and quiet of the woods – all part of those magical summer trips.

Unfortunately the allure of camping has lessened a bit for me in recent years. In Oregon I found myself wrapping plastic bags around my feet to avoid succumbing to hypothermia in the night; a trip through Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains alternated between freezing temperatures and torrential rain; and did I mention the tornado?

So this summer I’m leaning towards enjoying the outdoors from the relative comfort of a cottage. I know it’s not quite the same experience, but I’m certain it will be preferable when the inevitable tsunami hits.