The dark green bus bade farewell to the rest stop, the last drop of humanity its cargo would see for a week, and roared back onto Canadian highway 17. The thirty thirteen-year-old children attempted to relax their muscles as they pushed their shoulders back into the aluminum frames draped with sandpaper as much as they were permitted. Among them, I forced my knees into the seat in front of me until the combination of the sharp squeaking in his ears and the hard bone on his back caused the boy in front of me to overload my eardrums. “Would you stop that?” he screeched. “Sorry,” I responded sarcastically, “You’re not the only one struggling.” Thirteen straight hours on a miniscule camp bus that drove up the spine of Ontario not only caused the cabin of the vehicle to flood with repulsive stenches of Hot Cheetos and adolescent body odor, but caused people to turn against each other. Just after passing two “Beware of Falling Rocks” signs, every person on the bus turned their heads to see a red station wagon across the median beside a cliff of half brown, half green boulders. A massive, furry, brown grizzly bear stood on its hind legs as it attempted to solve the perplexus that was the car door. “Whoa!” a boy towards the front of the bus exclaimed. “I hope none attack us,” said another, finishing with a chuckle. My heart pounding, I sighed anxiously as the creature left my field of vision. Little did I know of the imminent success of the bear.
The bus pulled into Agree Outpost Camp with just a few hours of sunlight remaining. Agree, home to tens of campers on a six-week stay, was a whole hour from the nearest town, Wawa, and its residents and we were likely the only people for miles. The desolation caused my stomach to drop a thousand feet. I thought of all of the things that could go wrong on our four-day canoe trip--guided only by naïve trippers and counselors under the age of twenty--and how far we were from help. Nevertheless, we would depart the next day in our trip of ten campers, two counselors, and our tripper, Jared.
My slumber slowly shattered at about 6:00 a.m., my back pounding with pain after sleeping on the plywood floor, my hearing diminished after listening to the roar of the generator all night, and my nose irritated after inhaling the abhorrent excess fumes of burning gas lights on the ceiling. I stepped outside where I met my trip group eating breakfast: cereal with powdered milk. I collected my portion and sat on a spiky, hard log, the most comfortable seat at camp. In the center of the circle of pine wood and groggy cereal eaters stood Jared. “Alright everyone,” he announced with an excess of authority, “we are going to canoe many miles every day until we arrive at our next campsite. It may take us from dusk to dawn, or it may take us four hours. That is up to you.”
My hand flew up into the air like a warning shot.
“How far is each day’s paddle specifically?” I asked.
“Seven tripper units.”
At camp, seven tripper units is all any counselor or tripper would say if asked what time it was or the distance between two things simply to mess with the campers. I rolled my eyes at Jared so that it would seem obvious that I was incensed by his response, but Jared acted as if I did not exist, looking in the other direction. “Are there any questions?” Jared asked as if to deny the fact that I already asked a question. After no other hands rose, Jared yelled at the top of his lungs, “To the bus!” After just meeting him, I abominated that seventeen-year-old.
After a ten minute ride down a few miles of highway 17, the bus pulled over. We exited the vehicle and collected our hundreds of pounds of food, tents, canoes, paddles, and other supplies. The bus then left us on the side of the highway at the edge of our starting point that crossed under the pavement: Knife Creek. Without hesitation, we launched our canoes into the calm, murky stream. We paddled with all our might for four hours until we arrived at our first, and last campsite. Already exhausted, my trip mates and I set up camp, started a fire, made dinner, and went to our tents. None of us knew how much rest would be required for the next day.
I awoke with chills inside a drowned sleeping bag. The undulating sheets of rain outside mixed with the bitter cold air was enough to drive someone insane. After eating a short breakfast of dry oatmeal and hot chocolate powder, the group, dressed in their rain gear, launched their canoes into the glacial water. The harsh paddle caused five minutes to feel like millennia. After only twenty minutes of paddling, we reached our first portage. At that point, no one possessed the required amount of energy to tote hundreds of pounds of supplies half a mile. Nevertheless, the group persevered, as they knew the only way to escape the wilderness was to haul the canoes around the rapids. We all pulled up onto shore, treaded out of the canoes, letting our feet sink into the saturated mud, and collected the supplies. “This is going to be very difficult,” I overheard a fellow camper say. “No kidding,” I responded with an excess of sarcasm. “Okay, who wants to carry the pots and pans?” Jared asked, somehow with much enthusiasm. “I’ll take it,” my mouth released involuntarily. I took the bag and heaved it onto my shoulders. The sound of the impacts of raindrops on my jacket put my mind in a trance as I broke trail.
Suddenly, my stupor broke twenty minutes later to sounds of panic. Confused, I analyzed my surroundings. To my left, Jared and the counselors were huddled around a girl, still and blue-lipped, sitting at the stump of a tree; she was obviously hypothermic. Immediately, all of my previous thoughts about things going wrong on this trip conquered my mind. The nearest medical help was an hour away by car, and our only means of transportation was canoe. Jared, who seemed terrified himself, immediately ordered us to head back to the campsite as he lifted the girl into his canoe--one of only two left at the start of the portage path--and began paddling against the current. One counselor, just as she started back towards our supplies at the other end of the portage, told us to start launching canoes. My two canoe mates and I, still startled by what had happened to the poor girl, hopped in a boat and drove it out into the river with all our mights. One of my canoe mates, a girl, softly uttered, “I’m cold.” By her complexion, I knew she was borderline hypothermic. Immediately, I ordered, “Start paddling! We’re heading back!”
After the longest twenty minutes of my life, we arrived back at our original campsite, our colleagues not far behind us. Without hesitation, we erected our tents, changed out of our wet clothes, and warmed up in our sleeping bags. Luckily, the hypothermic girls warmed up within a few hours. Nonetheless, at this point, every camper and counselor feared for their safety and desired nothing more than to head back to Agree. The only person stopping us was Jared. Whenever any of us--even the counselors--asked for permission to paddle back to the curb of highway 17, Jared answered, “We will see in the morning.” After deciding there was no way he would loosen up that day, we all went to bed.
Once again, I awoke soaking wet and shivering. I did not even bother to change my clothes; every single pair I owned laid saturated in a tree branch attempting to engulf the slightest bit of sunlight. Jared poked his head inside of my tent just as I was about to exit, nearly concussing me, and said with confidence, “Come get breakfast. We are going to our next campsite.”
While Jared cooked breakfast, the counselors, the other campers, and I gathered at the other end of the campsite, where Jared could never hear us. “I am literally fearing for my life,” one camper commented. “Jared is a nuisance,” another added. “He is,” the counselors agreed in unison as an a capella duet. “I have an idea! Let’s stand on those rocks near the water and protest,” suggested one of the previously hypothermic girls. “What if we get in trouble though?” the other hypothermic girl inquired, “I really want to go to Kennedy.” Going to Camp Kennedy was all I wanted to do the next summer, too. It was said to be the experience of a lifetime by former campers. “I am sure that, if you are scared for your safety, none of you will be reprimanded, let alone barred from attending Camp Kennedy,” one of the counselors answered confidently. We all engaged in chanting, Everyone agreed with that, so we proceeded to chant “PADDLE US HOME!” reiterating without an end. This quickly grabbed Jared’s attention, who watched us with a surprised look on his face. After about thirty minutes of chanting, Jared opened up the many layers of waterproof bags that contained his satellite telephone. He sat there talking to Agree, pausing every now and then, for some reason, to photograph us with his battery-powered camera. After he finished his conversation, he announced in a defeated tone, “Pack up. We are going back.” We all cheered and high-fived ad nauseam. We were going to be safe!
We arrived back at the intersection of Knife Creek and highway 17 with joy in our eyes. That was, until, we saw the director of Agree, Jeff, standing arms folded on the curb in front of the green bus, which now seemed larger than ever. “You insolent people have no respect, do you?” Jeff asked harshly, not expecting an answer. He continued, “You ignored the authority of your tripper and just decided to do whatever you wanted. Don’t think that the heads of camp don’t know about this. If you all think that you are going to get into Camp Kennedy next year, you are wrong. If you all think that you are going to get into the western or Alaska trips, you are wrong. Get on the bus!” My jaw dropped as my eyes became as damp as the conditions outside. As I boarded the bus, I glanced at Jared, who wore a smirk of accomplishment.
I applied for Camp Kennedy that October, praying that the results of the unreasonable actions of our tripper would be overlooked. The phone call I received two weeks later yielded my undesirable fate. I realized that the second I set foot on those slippery rocks on the edge of Knife Creek, my camp career crumbled. The boy on the bus’ prayers remained ungranted: we were attacked by the largest grizzly bear there was, Jared, never to be rehabilitated.