How to Survive a Week Camping with Kids

Our 6th annual dads-and-kids summer camping trip is off to an auspicious start. Our 8-day outing, deep in the old-growth Temagami wilderness some 5 hours north of Toronto, has only just begun.

Photography by Gary Butler

Photography by Gary Butler


A handy tip, fathers with children under 10: If you want your kids to sit still and remain calm, don’t shout at them to do so, especially when a storm is carrying off your words as quickly as you can spout them from the back of your family’s windswept, faltering canoe.

In the canoe, the kids don’t really need to remain calm so much as just sit still in order for us to get through this tough two-kilometre stretch of Lake Temagami. We’re all wearing life jackets, so with any luck, the worst that would happen is an unscheduled swim with our mostly waterproof gear. Even having the canoe capsize is unlikely, though. In rough weather they can buck like broncos but, short of rogue oceanic waves, canoes are unlikely to capsize—if you know what you’re doing.

This doesn’t mean that the kids aren’t unnerved right now and desperately in need of leadership. “Just keep your paddle in the water,” I shout to my older son, seated up front. “That’s all you have to do; hold that paddle in place.”

Good thing he’s a task-minded boy. He jams that paddle into the water like he’s putting Excalibur into stone. After a fierce 15 minutes, we round a point, intentionally hugging the shore, and arrive at our campsite only a little bit behind the other canoes. The panic long passed, both boys are brimming with can-do confidence.

My sons and I are in the company of four other canoes holding 12 other campers. There are 11 children in total, ranging from ages four to 14, and four dads who are, politely put, on the “wrong” side of 40. Variations of this group of dads—a mix of high school and university friends—have been canoe-camping together every summer since my first was three. The trips started shorter, the groups, smaller; this particular excursion stands as both the longest and biggest so far.

These used to be couples’ canoe trips. But once children arrived on the scene, the vast majority of moms opted to stay home and our annual tradition soon morphed into an all-dad outing. It’s an event that emphasizes both having quality time with dad and learning from him. With numerous years under our belts, it’s become a tradition eagerly anticipated by both generations.

“It’s like Lord of the Flies without the nasty bits”

Parents often lament the irony of not being able to notice their children growing; because they spend so much time in their company, the changes are gradual and almost imperceptible. But camping can provide immediate results in this area. There has never been a trip where I did not directly observe character growth, particularly in terms of confidence-building and social maturation. When I share post-trip vignettes with family and friends, I often liken the scene to “Lord of the Flies without the nasty bits.”

It’s easy to spot the changes in my bigger boy, not just because he’s older, but because he’s always been a serious sort. When he was eight, he helped out like never before, insisting on hauling large-for-him backpacks during portages when other kids would carry a life jacket and paddle only under duress (and threaten to complain to their mothers when we got home).

On this trip, he steps up, even more, helping to erect tents and collect firewood at all four campsites and entertaining the younger kids during chaotic mealtimes (it takes the better part of two hours to serve 15 people in this environment, and it’s impossible to do it simultaneously).

He fetches and filters litres of daily drinking and cooking water for the site, and always, everywhere, watches out for the youngest member of the group. She’s four years old and no relation, making his concern somehow more touching. There’s a beautiful photo of the two of them napping together, his arm protectively cradling her; I suspect it embarrasses him about as much it makes my heart swell.

His brother, takes care of number one, as a six-year-old should. To him and the other boys around his age, every fallen tree branch is a sword, every portage a path to giddy peril. He loves assigning and being assigned roles in choose-their-own-adventure scenarios; he’ll lead or follow with equal gusto because he just loves imagining.

The Art of the “Diaper Bomb”

He’s also the family fish, usually first in and last out of the water. On camping trips such as these, swimming is a multiple-times daily activity. He teaches the other kids a stunt that he and his brother learned during a week at a sleep-away camp with their mom: “diaper bombing,” which involves putting your legs through the armholes of a life jacket and jumping into the water.

My own improvised contribution to group swimming shenanigans becomes known as “dwarf tossing”— a reference to the Lord of the Rings films, which none of the kids have seen despite knowing the full plot and dialogue highlights thanks to schoolyard talk. Quoting Gimly, they shriek, “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” and line up in an orderly fashion to attack me in waist-high water before—defending myself—I pick them up and toss them aloft.

Play is what it’s all about. The whole point of the trip, regardless of the group’s size, is to spend unscheduled time away from the stresses, distractions and outright hassles of city life. It’s fascinating, every year, to watch a group of children of disparate ages quickly find common ground, a hive mentality that lets them circumvent typical social/age barriers and just be together.

Arguably priceless back in the “real world,” time is in abundance here. Every group brings a bunch of books, and storytelling isn’t relegated to bedtime alone. Family histories, jokes, sing-alongs, word-association games—talk comes easily. Campfire circles expand and contract organically, with conversations cross-pollinating in a way that would never happen at a large table in a restaurant.

This is not to suggest that camping’s all about the chatter. Much more so than at home, I notice my kids opt for quiet, personal moments. (Ditto for naps.)

My younger son, a budding artist, often sits at the water’s edge, dipping his toes and drawing a Group of Seven-esque backdrop behind a Pirates of the Caribbean battle. My older son runs himself ragged every day, then usually hits a breaking point and comes over to simply hang out with me for a while. This can also involve angling for candy, which each father doles out on a discretionary basis.

How to Keep Kids Safe While Camping

Mid-trip, my eldest kid asks me something that’s been on his mind: He’s been worrying about the “What if?” aspect to the canoe capsizing on day one. I realize that we never had a proper follow-up discussion, so I sit him down with his brother and explain what would have likely happened if we’d flipped (basically, the other canoers would have rescued us and reflipped the canoe, and we would’ve been wet, uncomfortable and a bit miserable for about an hour). I assure them that there was no real danger. He’s visibly relieved; his brother, as nonplussed as ever.

Real danger does exist on trips like these, of course. We lifeguard the kids both in and out of the water. We have a comprehensive first aid kit, crucial but rarely opened. We set up log and canoe “fences” around campfires and stoves so that tag-like games don’t end badly. We saw and chop wood at safe distances; the kids are allowed to help by handling big branches but never blades. We critter-proof the food at all times, especially at night. We’ve seen a moose twice in all these years and a bear once.

Not every situation can be predicted, though. One hellish portage ends with a surplus of mud and a steeply sloped hill. When one father wipes out in the silty sludge, a canoe goes barrelling down the path towards oblivious children. A couple of adults shout an alert but quickly realize the kids aren’t hearing because they’re so used to us barking orders that they tune us out. Two kids have to be scooped out of harm’s way, but no one is hurt.

Most evenings, fireside, the adults compare notes on the day’s misadventures and potential parenting fails. We all agree that knee-jerk authoritarianism and, yes, excess shouting, is never the plan, but we also understand that corralling and organizing 11 kids is, to say the least, difficult.

Kids Being Kids

While the natural setting may bring out the best in our children, it doesn’t make them immune to everyday household problems of sharing and impatience.

Anything can be a source of squabble—this book, that plate, who’s encroaching on whose marshmallow-roasting spot, whose turn it is to tell a knock-knock joke. A particular but understandable rivalry emerges when we discover an abandoned paddle boat (there are cottages in the area, though none anywhere near us). The hull has a small rupture, so the boat is always slowly sinking—and the kids love going down with the ship. Trouble is, it’s built for four and holds six “small people.” Lest fights break out, adult lifeguards are forced to (pretend to) time the children.

And water-frisbee fun ends early when two kids decide they can neither be bothered to retrieve a throw gone astray nor tell a third party. The adults don’t need to reproach them because plenty of deserved flack comes from their peers.

Tired but happy, day eight finds us emerging from the local river system and back at Lake Temagami, where the wind seems to have seen us coming and changed, accordingly, to impede our progress once again. My boys are a bit concerned at first, but both adopt the air of a combat veteran; the crossing, still hard, is fairly direct and entirely drama-free.

Taking a shoreside break, we find the lost frisbee, kilometres from where it went missing. Overjoyed and reading too much into the event, my elder boy comments that we were meant to find it, meant to come this way, meant to be here now. It’s a facile existentialism, and I’m all for it. His brother, who lost the frisbee in the first place, agrees that all is right in the world.

We shove off, back into the lake for the final stretch. We’ve all missed Mom at moments during the trip but, once the cars come into view, we start paddling harder than on difficult day one.

When we share our stories later, the Lake Temagami challenge barely registers with the boys. It was just something they did, and something they’ll do again. “We just kept going,” shrugs our elder son, “because what else were we going to do? Plus, the sooner we got to the camp, the sooner we could play.” I’m game for that.

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