Feature Journal – Saugeen Bluffs

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Feature Journal – August 3, 2016

I’m a man for planning, many people know this about me.

I like to know when things are happening, how things are happening, and my brain doesn’t deal well with uncertainty.  It doesn’t mean I’m not adaptive, as a reporter I think I’m pretty damn good at rolling with it when things go up in flames (literally sometimes).

Basically, if there’s something that CAN be planned, I’ll plan it out. If it’s some uncertainly that can’t be controlled, I don’t worry about it. Come what may, as the saying goes.

So this past weekend I got the chance to take some more time away from the office. It’s something I’m doing more often lately, and I’m actually very happy about it. A few stories I’m working through have taken a back seat, but lately my brain has been in that state where I know I need to take things easy and just take a little time for me.

Well, not only was it the August long weekend, a chance for everyone to escape work for an extra day, which generally isn’t an extra day, because most people I know get so cataclysmically drunk to celebrate the long weekend, that they actually lose that extra day because they’re stuck in bed the next day nursing the consequences of their intrepid consumption.

Not only was it the long weekend, it also happened to be the weekend of the annual Wittnebel family camping trip. It’s not a family camping trip in that the whole gang packs up in the car to spend a couple nights in the forest with graham crackers and marshmallows (though there are some of those). It’s a chance for pieces of my family that aren’t always around to come together and be one for a little while.

Both sides of my family grow exponentially the more you flow down through the family tree. My parents have tons of siblings apiece, which means many uncles, and therefore many aunts and therefore many cousins. With such a large contingent, some are spread across the globe to as far as Danmark in the east and Calgary in the west.  Southern Ontario is home to the largest portion of the family, and acting as an anchor point, those from far away lands come to us (generally once every summer for those in Alberta and once every other year for those overseas).

The camping trip is a chance for all of us to forget there is such a long distance separating us for most of the year and act like a real family. It’s nothing surreal that happens, it’s just stuff simply things like fetching a beer for an uncle or laughing over a game of cards that you take for granted with those who you can do it with every other day of the year.

Now, I want to get back to the planning, because that’s how I wanted to start off this story.

The original plan for the camping trip had been to go to my much-visited MacGregor Point Provincial Park. It’s close, it’s beautiful, and has lots of campsites.

However, as you can see, this story is not titled, Feature Journal – MacGregor Point, is it?

Well, when the family got down there, it being the long weekend and all, the place was full because there had been little planning and no booking. Thankfully, I was at work and arrived later when the problem was already solved.

The answer, Saugeen Bluffs.

“Family and horse camping?”

My words could barely be heard through the sound of my tires spraying gravel. My brother threw his cigarette out the window and only shook his head.

The two of us had been driving for nearly three hours together. My ass had been planted in that seat for more than five after making the trek from Oshawa to Kitchener to pick him up and then heading to the campground.

Liam mumbled incoherently. I could tell from the sharpness of some of the words that he was cursing and was not very optimistic about the location my dad had picked out as a backup for our trip.

I cursed him slightly myself for not having tried to book a site ahead of time online (something that it legitimately only a few clicks away), but brushed it off, trying to keep my new-found love for optimism in the forefront of my mind.

You see, private campgrounds and conservation areas, the alternatives to camping at provincial parks (which are, for the most part, well maintained and clean) are hit and miss.

I’ve had my fair share of incidents with these campgrounds to be skeptical, but decided I would see the place before casting my judgement.

Passing the main office, my car jolted and bumped its way down a steep hill into a deep river valley. I couldn’t see the river through the trees, as they blocked out any remaining light lingering in the sky above, but I knew it was there.

We passed a series of trailers, all of them surrounded with elaborate decks and other modern amenities that signalled people called these places a lot more than just campsites, but something more akin to “home”.

I raised my eyebrows in the darkness, but when we pulled up at the sites, spotting my dad’s truck with kayaks riding akimbo on top, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the place was anything other than a provincial park.

Oh, and the horse camping bit? Apparently, people take their horses to camp…I was just as surprised as you are.

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The few beers I drank at the fire the night before were still kicking around my stomach when I woke the next morning. I wrote briefly in my journal to the soundtrack of my brothers’ snores, then evacuated the tent, which was dank and soggy.

Slipping into my Blunstones, I went in the search of breakfast and a cup of coffee.

Saturday was spent in the kayaks. With seven of us in the group and only two kayaks, it meant a general rotation of dropping off a pair at one water access point, then driving down a few kilometres to pick them up.

It was definitely a highlight of the trip. I didn’t want to risk the small amount of rapids there were with my phone or camera on board, so sadly, I have no photos, but I did spend a lot of the time drifting in the current and watching the trees and the river.

Common Loons gave startled cries and their distinctive low eater exit, wings pumping across the surface before going airborne. Kingfishers flitted and dashed in the trees above me, and the soft hissing of the river over thousands of rocks was almost hypnotic. I’d occasionally awake from this trance to divert the kayak around a particularly large rock, or shout in surprise as it jolted down a particular unseen hump in the river.

When it came time to pull the kayak from the water, I had a few minutes to wait with my cousin before our lift arrived to take us back. The access point was beneath a massive bridge, the thick concrete legs rising from the water like the entryway to some ancient castle. The river flowed unheeded through it’s legs. White stones where the shallow water didn’t cover, stood out in the water like gooseflesh on a tanned arm.

My sweaty feet sighed with relief as they plodded into the cool water. Almost immediately a school of minnows took to inspecting my feet and nibbling at the ends. Staring at their jabbing inquiries I remembered reading something about how people pay to have this done as some kind of spa treatment. I laughed to myself and let them be, it didn’t hurt anyway.

It was during the last night that I started to realize just how long we’d been having these annual camping trips.

Some of my fondest family memories are from these trips. Smoking cigarettes with my cousin on a massive outcropping of rock as the sun went down over a lake in Killbear National Park…building innukshuks at Inverhuron…or my late-uncles traditional naming ceremony (something that would take more than the short remainder of this post to explain, perhaps another time).

It’s not only because it’s the summer, and you’re camping, for any child, the opportunity to build fond memories in such an environment is almost a given.

Now that I’m older, I realize just how important those trips were for me and my family. Those cousins I barely ever saw quickly went from strangers with some of the same blood as me, to best friends. Without those trips, uncles may have only remained titles for my dad’s brothers, and not the great people that I’ve learned they actually are. The same goes for my own immediate family, back when I lived at home as a kid, those trips were a chance for something new, and now that I’m older and don’t see them as much, the chance to spend a weekend with them is a gift.

After discussions, we came to the conclusion that 2017 will mark the 20th anniversary of the camping trip.

I imagine it won’t be held at Saugeen Bluffs, but wherever it ends up, it’s going to be a big one.

I better get planning.

Thanks for reading,

J.J.W.