By Kai Ellis
I worked at a camp last summer, and I love it there. I’ve made a number of good friends, and I really enjoy hanging out with the kids. My favourite thing about camp has to be canoe tripping. At my camp, we usually do canoe trips on rivers–the big advantage of rivers over lakes being the existence of rapids, and an overall lower amount of portaging. Rapids really help to spice up the trip as you take a break from paddling and go on what is essentially a roller-coaster ride, and portaging sucks as you have to deal with bugs, badly maintained trails and mud, all while carrying a heavy canoe or pack. Now you might be asking yourself, “why is this called ‘The Worst Day of my Life’? All the stuff you described sounds great, and you admitted you love tripping!” The answer to that question is, I was working with PJs.
PJs, or Prep-Juniors, are the youngest kids at my camp, ranging from 6-11 years of age. We don’t take PJs on river trips, as rapids are considered too dangerous for kids of this age. Instead PJs go on a lake trip by the name of “The Looper.” This is a 3-day, 2-night trip that runs in a loop. It has only 3 tiny portages (1 per day), consisting of a 10 metre, a 100 metre and a 250 metre. The days are all only about 6 km of paddling (roughly 3 hours, because little kids are slow), so you reach a campsite by noon. Overall, the Looper is a fantastic introduction to canoeing, and is a very popular trip. The problem we had was that all the campsites on the regular Looper route were full. Thus with no Looper available, I, two Leaders in training (LITs), the other staff member, and a cabin of PJ boys were ordered to go on a different trip, a trip no one from our camp had ever gone on before!
And so we set off on a beautiful August morning. The sun was shining, we had a head wind, and the kids had started to sing. After looking at the map, we determined we had a 20Km day ahead of us (3.33 times longer than the average Looper day) and 6 portages (6 times more than average). Things were looking up! We paddled a few kilometres before the first portage: a small 300 M downhill. Staff and LITs carried canoes, and kids carried packs, and despite complaining from the kids, we were through in less than half an hour.
The first half of the day followed this pattern: paddle a fair distance, portage a short amount, repeat. Eventually we came to our first challenging portage: a 900-meter. The kids complained once again, and we complained about the kids complaining. To be honest, the portage was not too bad. It was flat and well maintained and we blazed through in an hour. Right as we got to the end of the 900-metre, storm clouds started to gather. I sighed as the rain began to fall. Only two more portages, I supposed.
By the end of the second-to-last portage, the rain had soaked through our jackets, and we were all shivering and cold. It was 5:00 and everyone was burnt out, the staff were wondering what the hell administration was thinking putting PJs on this trip, and the kids were complaining as they were cold and tired. No matter. We only had one portage left, a 325-metre and a 500-metre paddle after that. The day was almost done.
We arrived at the final portage to find nothing. There was no trail, just a mountain of gravel slanted towards a chasm, along with a little sign pointing up the hill. We were gobsmacked. How the hell were we supposed to climb a wet gravel hill with canoes and packs on our backs, let alone have the kids climb this hill? The other staff member and I left the kids with the LITs and went up the hill to see what was up at the top. As it turned out, at the top was a pretty nice path, so we decided to go ahead with the portage. We went down and told the kids to climb up to the top. The LITs and staff would carry all the gear up to the top of the gravel, and the kids would take it from there to the end of the portage. Climbing gravel with a canoe was hell. I’m pretty sure I nearly died twice as my feet almost slipped out from under me, which would have sent me sliding down towards the chasm below. 10 trips later and we had all the gear at the top of the hill, and the kids were taking it along the path towards the end of the portage. The only casualty of the climb had been one of the yokes of the canoe (the yoke is what you use to hold the canoe on your back). This unfortunately meant we now had one canoe that could only be carried tandem. We dragged everything to the end of the portage and sat down, content that the hardest part of the day was over.
Something was off about the bay at the end of the portage. Looking around, it finally hit me. There was no water! A beaver had made a dam at the end of the bay and had drained the water level down to a couple of centimetres. Mother nature wasn’t done yet. After an LIT/Staff conference, we decided to spilt the work. The staff would drag the canoes through the mud too the end of the bay, and the LITs would carry the packs and campers over what was essentially a 12 foot vertical dirt wall to get to the end of the bay.
So we set off for the thousandth time that day, the other staff member and I dragging a canoe each through knee-deep mud, while leeches licked at our toes. 20 minutes and two trips later, and we finally reached the end of the bay. 4 canoes had been dragged what felt like a mile, and all of our gear had been heaved over the mountain. It was 8:00 and almost dark, but the day was pretty much over. Then lightening hit.
The number one rule on trip is do not go on the water after lightening. You become the highest point in the area if you are on the water, and thus your chance of getting hit increases exponentially. This meant that we were grounded. We pulled the boats out of the water and retreated into the forest. The storm went for another half an hour. Camp policy is to wait 30 min after the last strike, but we were so done with the day at this point, we only waited 10. After a brief and panicked paddle, we finally arrived at our campsite. We set up the tents and unpacked the dinner gear. It was 8:45 when we broke out the food and started on dinner, only to discover our stove didn’t work.
And so we sat in our tents at 9:15 eating tortillas, carrots, and Chips Ahoy brand cookies. The rain had finally stopped and our clothes were drying outside. Most of the kids had dozed off already, but we had to satellite phone camp in order to get a new stove delivered to us. It was 10:00 when I fell asleep, after a 16-hour day from hell.
While this day was almost certainly the worst I’ve been through in a while, it was certainly memorable. As one of my friends said on the bus home, “That could have gone better. Ah well, the bad times make awesome stories.”