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Maxed Out: The Search for Spring

'Before I moved to Canada, I thought I made pretty passable campfires...'

I’m not given to much nostalgia. I don’t have a treasure trove of old pictures, letters, baseball cards kicking around. I moved a lot prior to living in Whistler and I never took much in the way of roots with me.

I don’t believe the good ol’ days were that good. I had fun, for sure, but with a decade knocking around the halls of “higher learning,” I put in my time living the life of an impoverished—and indebted—student, often wondering whether I’d be reduced to moving some contraband to meet next month’s rent.

My feet were itchy and I liked moving. Long road trips were a way of life. Long camping trips, too. Before settling into Smilin’ Dog Manor for summers, the months between Whistler or Blackcomb closing and opening were spent travelling and breaking down in Mello Yello, my 1983 VW Westfailya.

It’s long gone. But I recently found myself a bit wistful for the long summers of aimless travel.

Until I ran across this account of one such trip to escape the endless rains of spring. You remember rainy springs? Before smoky springs?

This particular Search for Spring—late 1990s—turned out to be the Journey of Many Shivers. A week of pre-departure sunshine lulled me into making unwise wardrobe choices, long on shorts, T-shirts and sunscreen; short on fleece, down, and large animal skins.

The travel theme for this vacation became 50 Ways to Warm Your Lover, 48 having to do with overcoming the body’s initial shock when it comes into contact with the ice-cold nylon interior of an otherwise toasty sleeping bag.

That left the two most effective methods: fire and hot springs. Hot springs never seem as handy as they should be. And you can’t stay in them all night, though I’ve tried.

So fire it was. Most people have a primordial attraction and fascination with fire. Especially in Canada, where long stretches of cold weather and an abundance of forests conspired to produce the best damn fire builders in the known universe. Yeah, Baby, We’re No. 1!

Before I moved to Canada, I thought I made pretty passable campfires, though I preferred not to. Sparks always seemed to find my rainfly, my clothes, my beard, my beer. Being a wind magnet, I was in the path of smoke regardless of where I sat. If I chose not to sit, in a pointless attempt to outfox the smoke, my motion created a sufficient vortex to ensure smoke would engulf me in a permanent spiral. After a couple of days, I both felt and smelled like a kipper.

Knowing the importance of warmth to survival, however, I dutifully learned to carefully collect dry tinder—needles, moss, fine twigs, last Sunday’s New York Times, if one was handy—sort sticks from small to large, and patiently bring the entire mess to fiery life with only a single match... and half a quart of stove fuel. Lacking stove fuel, I found it more efficient to just swallow the burning match, wash it down with a large scotch and crawl into my ice-cold sleeping bag until morning.

On rare occasions where lots of dry wood and a desire for fire came together in time and space, I managed to put together some pretty great fires. Campfire myth is Natives (generic North American First Nations people) build small fires, stand close to them and get warm, while White Men (generic North American Males) build big fires they have to stand so far away from only one side feels warmth. In those pre-deposit days, I built fires hot enough to vaporize aluminum beer cans, light joints held three feet away, and reduce the hair on my forearms to a fine, white ash.

But I was humbled when I moved to Canada. Canadians know fire. I camped near a Canadian Guy on one trip who was, I swear, forging steel in his campfire. Sleep that night came to the rhythmic ringing of his hammer straightening, I believe, the rear axle of his Land Rover. His fire still burned early the next morning.

At a lake outside Kamloops, I camped on the shores of what would have been a perfect trout lake had all the trout not been preoccupied making new trout in a ritual orgy of sex and depravity. The Forest Service had kindly created a “primitive” campground at this particular lake. It consisted of a couple of pit toilets and circular, metal fire rings way too small to ever hold a campfire created by a Real Canadian Male. Judging by the many telltale rock rings and scorched, circular patches of earth, either no one paid much attention to the established fire pits or this lake is frequently visited by aliens practicing crop circles.

There were several “camps” at this lake of mind-boggling proportions. It looked as though whole extended families, possibly rural villages, had encamped, maybe for the entire summer. One of these, the Camp of Many Dwellings, contained the following structures: a large fifth-wheel house trailer; a motorhome; two pop-up trailer tents; one pick-up camper of teetering proportions; two enormous walled tents; two sizable dome tents; and three well-hung tarps shading an area not much smaller than a football field.

Several picnic tables had been arranged as food-preparation surfaces. There were two elevated lanterns attached to 20-pound propane tanks, two four-burner stoves, a generator, a small chest freezer, an air compressor to inflate a half dozen belly boats, coolers too numerous to count, a large wooden structure that was either a hope chest or a coffin, a sun shower complete with shower stall, and enough lawn chairs to hold a good sized concert audience. The camp was ringed and protected by a veritable used-car lot full of pickups and SUVs.

All of the above didn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary. Camping is sufficiently flexible to embrace this collection as well as no-trace backpacking. What did strike me as unusual was the three cords of wood cut, split and stacked high between several spindly birch trees. There was more wood at this camp than I’d burned in the last several winters combined, and more, I thought, than anyone could possibly burn in the 14-day stay limit requested by the Forest Service.

Needless to say, well after the sun set in the west—this is a presumption on my part since I never saw the damn thing—the woods to the east glowed long into the night as flames danced and leapt into the lower branches of trees surrounding the Camp of Many Dwellings.

The experience was instrumental in my decision a few years later to buy a cottage.