It was finally my turn. The twenty-first day of August, and it was my turn to go on lone vigil. Twenty-four hours of isolation from the rest of humanity — and Camp Potendawa was isolated enough. Other boys had said that they had enjoyed the experience — the tranquil wilderness, time to collect their thoughts — and I had originally looked at it with the same enthusiasm, but when I awoke this morning, it was with a feeling of dread.
My mind raced over the mental checklist of things I was bringing as I went through the ritual of breakfast in the camp’s mess hall. Our table had finished eating and had begun to clear up when my counselor told me that it was my turn to go on lone vigil. “As if I’d forgotten,” I thought. I left the hall for my tent to grab my pack and then waited apprehensively at the dock for my counselor to return from the tripping hut where he was getting the few supplies I would be able to use over the next twenty-four hours out on Beaver Island. A thick fog covered the lake; ominous clouds hung on the horizon.
We climbed onto the boat that would take me to the island, and it seemed that no sooner had I sat down than we arrived. There was a wind-swept rocky shoreline, and apart from the small area cleared for a campsite, the island was densely forested and looked dark and foreboding. I stepped off the boat with my pack and supplies and watched the last human I would see for twenty-four hours disappear around the peninsula of another landmass.
When I realized I really was stuck here now, I began to contemplate the desolation of my situation. I was startled out of my thinking by the splattering on my face of a raindrop that had landed on my nose, focusing my thoughts on the current moment. Only when I did so did I realize that the current moment I’d meant had passed quite some ago, and I had been standing in that same position the entire time. What was worse, it was now raining, and my tent — which wasn’t in a waterproof bag — was becoming quite wet. There is nothing worse than being uncomfortable, and trying to fall asleep at night being wet and cold is one sure way to be uncomfortable. In order to avoid that situation that evening, I struggled in the rain to pitch the tent as fast as possible. In ten minutes I had the tent up, despite missing pegs and poles, and was inside with my pack; my spirits, however, as with my clothes, were dampened.
My next feeling was that of fatigue. Every morning we woke up about the same time as I did during the school year, but the concept of weekends seemed not to exist. As a result, I realized that I had been missing out on the sleep-ins I usually got at home. Maybe after a few hours sleep I would wake up to find both the weather and myself to be not so gloomy. To some consolation, I unrolled my sleeping bag to find that my dry bag had kept it from getting wet.
When I awoke, the brightly shining sun was high in the now clear-blue sky, and looked to be past noon. The pitter-patter of raindrops had ceased, and I was actually feeling better about the remainder of my twenty-four hours I was to spend on the island.
I set out to explore my surroundings, and to collect some firewood for cooking dinner that night. When I unzipped my tent, I found that the forest that had earlier seemed so dark and dense was in fact fairly open and welcoming. As I made my way through the forest, picking up the odd branch that didn’t seem as wet, I eventually came across a stand of trees whose canopies overlapped at the top, and the wood underneath was all much dryer. Abandoning what I had already picked up, I gathered up as much as I could carry and returned to my campsite.
My next order of business was making a fire-pit. I went down to the shore and grabbed some small sized rocks, and with them made a ring. I spent a few minutes perfecting a log cabin with my firewood — the best setup to start a fire — grabbing some birch bark to use as tinder, and even added a few more stones on top to support the grill I would be using to cook dinner. When I decided my task was complete, I looked upon my work with pride. I was confident this would light on the first match.
After I had enjoyed my meal of peanut butter and jam sandwiches, I relaxed in my tent and wrote a few letters to my friends and relatives. It gave me a chance to reflect on the things I’d accomplished at camp, and let everyone back in the city know how I was doing.
By the time I was on my fifth letter, it was growing dark and hard to see, and I realized that if I wanted dinner tonight I would have to get that fire going quickly. I left the tent for the supply box and checked on what I had left — some cold cuts, a few strips of bacon, two eggs, and pasta and sauce for dinner tonight. For equipment, a large jug of water, ziploc bag of matches, cup, plate, cutlery, grill and saucepan were all there — hardly what I’d call roughing it.
I pulled out a match and lit the fire, which caught straight away. I balanced the grill on the stones, placed the water-filled saucepan on, and my fire was so hot that it had the water boiling in no time.
I decided the sauce had been too runny. I must have left too much water when I’d added the packet of sauce mix. That, I decided, was because I couldn’t see anything. Night had come so quickly, descended like a bird of prey, and I had stopped feeding the fire so it had burned down to coals. In this open enclave, beyond the two-foot diameter of the fire and without the aid of a bright moon or streetlights, I stood, for the first time in my life, in total darkness. What was so strange was the way it made me feel both exposed and claustrophobic at the same time.
I began to feel uneasy, and I recognized the sound of waves slapping against the shore, which was strange, as the lake had been calm all day. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew up from the shore. My instinctive reaction was to turn away, so that I was facing in towards the middle of the island. As I did so, a bolt of lightning came down from the sky and struck the tree directly to my left, as a crack of thunder simultaneously blasted my ear drums, and the clouds unleashed a horrendous rainstorm, as if the one earlier had been this cloud’s baby. This all happened so suddenly that I had no time to react. My heart was pounding, and as I looked up to the tree that had just received a blow from the heavens, I saw it was falling towards me. My reactions fast with the rush of adrenaline, I dived away, and rolled into another tree, but the pain I took for that was far better than being squished. I jumped up to my feet and meant to race to my tent, but I had no idea where it was. I stumbled and fumbled my way back, threw off my shoes and rain jacket, and lay huddled in my sleeping bag, suddenly cold, wet and shivering with fear.
I nearly jumped right out of bed, confused after waking from a nightmare in a cold sweat, only knowing I had the urge to relieve myself, but then pulled the bag right back up to my head. There was no way I was leaving — it was far too cold out of the confines of this sleeping bag! I lay there, trying to hold it in, trying to make myself think that I could go back to sleep and go later, until the pain in my bladder became so strong that I could no longer contain myself. I pulled myself out of the bedroll, out of the tent, and went. I hadn’t even had time to put on my shoes. The ground was cold and wet, and I felt miserable. Not wanting to stay outside a single second longer than necessary, I jumped right back into my sleeping bag as soon as I had finished. Once again, sleep did not come easy.
When I awoke again, it was to the cawing of ravens, which apparently lived on the island. Not wanting to be disturbed from my slumber, I shouted profanities at them and wished I had a shotgun. Realizing the futility in trying to return to sleep at this point, I left the tent to warm up by the fire, and breakfast with bacon and eggs. Shivering, I went over to where I had intelligently left a supply of wood under a small square of tarpaulin to protect it from the rain, but it had been on the ground and consequently, had become damp nonetheless. I took some of the less damp pieces and threw some together in a heap. I grabbed for the ziploc bag to open it to get a match, when I noticed the bag was already open. I realized that I’d never closed it in the first place. Luckily, the matchsticks were still dry, but the tips were soggy and not lighting well.
I was down to my last match. I struck it against the zipper of my coat — the driest thing I could use — and it lit! I put it in towards the wood in the fire pit, and realized that it wasn’t set properly at all. The damp wood would not light, and I was getting to the end of the stick. It was burning the tips of my thumb and forefinger, but I forced myself to not let go. It lit a small twig; the fire had lit! It carried on towards a larger branch that would lead to the rest of the fire when it suddenly fizzled. Being fully disappointed, and with no more matches, I went back to the supply box to see if there was any other food. There were a few slices of bologna, which I despised with a passion, but my hunger could not be ignored. I rolled them up like a crepe so that I could consume it as fast as possible, and cringed as I devoured.
Giving up with the morning, I went back to the tent to try to get a few more hours’ sleep before my counselor arrived to take me back to camp. I just wanted a hot bath, to sit in warmth. What an awful way to spend twenty-four hours.
Eddie Rothschild was a 10th Grader at Martingrove Collegiate Institute in the west end of Toronto when he wrote this in December, 1999. Stories of his adult-aged exploits can be found at heartinwoodandwater.wordpress.com