Friday, June 27, 2014

Summer Camp



I wasn't always someone who went camping or hiking. In fact, if you'd asked me ten years ago, I would have raised a quizzical eyebrow at you and suggested a walk at the arboretum, or a city park instead, with a definite destination for coffee and buns and maybe a bookstore in sight.

It wasn't that I didn't love being outdoors, I did; walking endless miles (so long as they were within city limits), exploring forests and rivers, enjoyed foraging for mushrooms an berries in the suburban woods and escaping to the solitude of the Finnish summer isles, but for much of my life, I preferred cities. The glow of lights, the possibilities and excitement of them, the sound of something always happening, even if it was in the distance and I was safely tucked away in my room, most likely reading. I was also definitely not "the outdoorsy-type" and most of my childhood memories with camping, wilderness and hiking have the distinct tinge of hilarious-in-hindsight misery to them.


The idea of being uncomfortable on purpose was completely lost on me in my teens and early twenties. I don't know if it's a common hippie-kid experience, but giving up hot running water and indoor plumbing for a lark seemed fairly stupid to me. Having escaped a life in cold water, unreliable wood heat and outhouses, I was never eager to re-create it for an adventure.

Had I lived somewhere where nature experiences were scarce, I might have sought them out more, no matter the potential discomfort, but in Finland nature is always right there, waiting for you on your stoop, just lurking right in your backyard, trying to push in from the edge of town. If you want to go to the woods, you can do so very easily, because the woods are everywhere. The landscapes have an unassuming beauty, but they're also pretty monotonous; thousands of lakes, endless forests, mostly thick and dark evergreens. It wasn't until my early twenties, when I first laid eyes on a truly primeval forest that I discovered that I'd basically grown up in what's possibly world's largest forestry experiment: an entire country of second -and third-growth forest.



Living in a small town surrounded by an army of trees as far as the eye can see and lakes seemingly blocking every exit, I dreamt only of big cities, of Paris and Hong Kong and Tokyo and Buenos Aires, anywhere with an underground and loud sirens and strangers. The last thing I wanted, was to go somewhere even more backwatered than where I already was. Cities seemed wild to me, unpredictable, mysterious, full of native flora and fauna to observe. The actual wild places, seemed boring by comparison. At sixteen I moved out of home to live in the biggest city Finland had to offer, at nineteen, to the biggest city in Western Europe.

And while I often yarned for wilder places and sought them out in the English countryside, in Scottish highlands, in the Finnish berry patches, I would have described myself as an urban person, someone only interested in nature as a concept, something to conserve, something to look at, something I knew I wanted to exist in the world, but not necessarily spend a lot of time wading through, muddied and mosquito bitten.

So what happened? Well, for one thing, America happened. The moment I set my sights on the mountain vistas, 1000-year-old trees and misty beaches of the Pacific Northwest, the wilderness downtown was never enough again. It was here that I saw my first mountain, my first truly open ocean,   experienced real awe over a landscape, instead the mild delight I was used to, looking over a Finnish lake view.


And, more importantly, this guy happened too. Charlie grew up going camping and got into hiking in his twenties. At that time he spent a lot of his time outside and before moving to the country, getting out in the wilder lands was a big escape for him. When I met him, one of the first things we did together was to go on a tip to the North Cascades. A Washington native, he has spent his whole life accumulating knowledge of this bio-region and going out in the mountains and woods with him was really eye-opening for me. He really loved those places. And he really knew them. They were like a part of him, his psyche, something that I had never really considered before.

Up until that point my love of nature was very abstract, the way it often is for us city-dwellers: I knew nature was important, good, beautiful, all these adjectives, but it also made me feel like I didn't exactly belong.  Our first real camping trip together, I suddenly understood how it feels to be at home outside. Not just outside of your house, out of the city,  but out of your "normal" life. How when we have the opportunity to worry only about fire and food and staying warm, we connect with this part of ourselves that gets pushed back behind all of our modern conveniences and worries. How being hungry and cold and uncomfortable clears your head.  How being in nature, makes you a part of it and how this is the perfect introduction and conduit to meditation, because eventually, without distractions beyond the movement of the sun and the tides and the occasional bird, or deer, you stop thinking and just start being.

These days, I'm often the one demanding that we back up our rucksacks with trailmix and beans, our big, impractical sleeping bags, our thinnest notebooks and drudge out somewhere for days and days of unwashed glory and damp socks.

I now think of camping and hiking as going home to ourselves, of recalibrating our compasses to figure out where our true north lies.

What's your take on camping, wilderness and voluntary inconvenience?

ps. If you're on the fence about camping my last installment of this year's Solstice campout will be on Camping Hacks! Or if you're a master hiker-camper-packer-tracker, share your own.

10 comments:

  1. Beautiful and thoughtful words, fellow camper. The closer we get to nature, be it trees and ocean or high desert and mesas, the closer we get to ourselves. Wilderness, bugs, storms.....bring it on. The call of nature is a powerful one, and we are the lucky ones to hear it. : )

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  2. How odd is it. Coming from a rural, yet densely populated region I loved the finnish outdoors so much. I dreamt to stay forever, the year I lived there.
    But the older I get (not even thirty), the more I love the parts I come from. It's a pity that we have no original forests left here, in Europe. But we have splendid nature and a lot to discover. We love little tours in the Alps but also just here, were we are. It's the little things that we enjoy on camping trips. With our baby girl we love to go camping. We've been camping in wild places in South Africa but camping here, with her, it's as much fun. Three weeks ago we spent our wedding night under the stars cuddled in our sleeping bags, just by the creek...
    Thanks for your beautiful words!

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  3. How odd is it. Coming from a rural, yet densely populated region I loved the finnish outdoors so much. I dreamt to stay forever, the year I lived there.
    But the older I get (not even thirty), the more I love the parts I come from. It's a pity that we have no original forests left here, in Europe. But we have splendid nature and a lot to discover. We love little tours in the Alps but also just here, were we are. It's the little things that we enjoy on camping trips. With our baby girl we love to go camping. We've been camping in wild places in South Africa but camping here, with her, it's as much fun. Three weeks ago we spent our wedding night under the stars cuddled in our sleeping bags, just by the creek...
    Thanks for your beautiful words!

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  4. Aika samanlaiset mietteet retkeilystä ja tuollaisiin maisemiin tekisi nyt kovastikin mieli.
    Partioon en kuulunut (ei kun taisin mä käydä kerran) ja kaikki vapaa meni pienenä mökkeillessä. Vasta myöhemmin eräillyt enemmän. Nyt pienien lasten kanssa ollaan oltu ihan vain 1 tai 2 yötä esim.repovedellä.ja enemmän vain päiväseltään.

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  5. I grew up in a family that often went camping---but it was car camping. My husband introduced me to backwoods, ultra-light trekking, mostly on the Pacific Crest Trail and it's offshoot trails: sometimes on no trail at all. The first time I did one of these trips I cried---it was SO uncomfortable! But...I keep going back and doing it, year after year, because I can't get the feeling I get out there anywhere else. And now, much like you, I am the one who demands we go on these trips, ha ha!!

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  6. Oh Camping. I grew up in the suburbs and didn't see anything else until I was about 13. My only adventures consisted of going camping, and I had a strange mix of feelings about it at the time. Being used to the luxuries of suburbia, it was quite an adjustment the first few times and I found myself completely miserable while camping but somehow looking back on the trips with great fondness and eagerness to get back out there. At one point in my teens I even got into winter camping, which here in Canada is best described as a mild form of insanity.

    Now that I'm older I really don't think I could hack winter camping, but I still seek the outdoors constantly...along with all of the unpleasantness and inconveniences it is still the best place to be. It reminds me a lot of "Into the Forest" where in the end the girls realize that the forest is truely where they belong, where they will be taken care of; not in the house they've been struggling to tame and keep together.

    It is a hard feeling to describe isn't it? Some places really just let you experience the loveliness of being.

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  7. I did a lot of camping as a child, with my parents. But mostly to camp grounds that were reasonably well-equipped and not very often in the big wilderness (not that Ireland has very much 'big' wilderness, tiny Island that we are). I remember it as mildly uncomfortable. And wet. And cold. But I look back on it with fond nostalgia now and I'm even planning a short camping trip with my little girls this Summer. I could sure use your hacks!!

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  8. I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Inspiring Blogger Award: http://twinfamily.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/acceptance-speech/
    If you want to, I'd love to read your participation but please don't feel obligated. It's basically just a gesture of my appreciation of your blog and a way of saying: "Thank you for blogging." :)

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  9. what a gorgeous trip! i'm so glad you and charley had a good time and were able to reconnect in such pretty surroundings.

    i have always loved camping. i wish we went more but with all the kids it's far from simple. i've always wanted to go on a several day backpacking trip. maybe when everyone is older we can :)

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  10. Can you make this into a travel companion book Please :)

    Thank you Milla, sending some LOVE your way xoxo

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