It’s been raining hard for most of this last long weekend of the summer, so I don’t miss camping as much as I otherwise might. We camped a lot when our sons were young, but in 11 years since LW and I bought this farm, we have only pitched a tent once. As my cousin Joan says, every day on the farm is like fancy camping.
Camping is a matter of strong opinion. Some people think they’re not camping unless they hike into the bush carrying everything they’ll need for a week in a 30-lb backpack. LW and I are not that kind of camper. Others like to park their motor homes at a deluxe KOA campground with a swimming pool, a laundromat, and a video arcade for the kids. We are definitely not that kind of camper (although Pete and Tony, when they were kids, insisted they would like to be). Our family had a camping style of its own: cram as much gear as possible into the trunk of our ’84 Plymouth Caravelle, strap our four-man Coleman canoe on top, and head for a logging road. Why a logging road? Because they lead to some of the best campsites in the province—sites that are picturesque, secluded, and free.
Pete and I are park-and-read campers. We like to unfold our sling chairs in a sunny spot, crack open a book and a beverage, and relax. LW and Tony are keep-busy campers. They used to make a game of constructing an elaborate camp kitchen out of driftwood and whatever materials they scavenged on the beach. One time they fashioned a barbecue grill from a discarded lawn chair. The culinary disaster that occurred when the heat of the fire melted the hollow rods of the grill didn’t dampen their enthusiasm in the least.
One summer, the four of us decided to explore the north end of Vancouver Island. Armed with dog-eared copies of Mussio’s Backroad Mapbook and the Copelands’ Camp Free in BC, we steered our heavily-loaded Caravelle out of Victoria on a Monday morning in July. Three hours north on the congested Island Highway, we stopped for a quick picnic lunch in a meadow just north of Courtenay. Beyond this point, the population visibly dwindles. The shopping malls and car dealerships that clutter the South Island Highway give way to forests and the occasional black bear munching berries in the ditch.
By the time we reach the tiny lumber town of Woss, it’s nearly five and we’re hungry again. Pulling out the Backroad Mapbook to select a campground, we decide Alice Lake Recreation Site fits our criteria: next to a body of water and far enough off the main highway to discourage most campers.
At the Port Alice junction, we turn off the North Island Highway and drive about twenty kilometres west toward the mill town described by a billboard as “the gateway to the Island’s Wild West Coast.” Wait a second! Didn’t we just leave the island’s east coast? A check of the map confirms that Port Alice, though geographically centred on the island, sits at the end of the long Neurotsos Inlet, which empties into Quatsino Sound and the Pacific Ocean. The network of rivers and inlets on the North Island make it a kayaker’s paradise.
Halfway between the junction and Port Alice, the Port Hardy Main logging road intersects the highway. Turning left onto the gravel, we roll up our windows—logging roads are dusty. They are also dangerous, as the forestry company information sign reminds us. On an active logging road, a person can drive for miles without meeting another vehicle. Just when you’ve been lulled into a dream-like state, a fully loaded logging truck careens around a corner. If you’re lucky, there’ll be room to get out of its way. LW, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, likens the experience to coming up over the crest of a hill and encountering a combine.
“I’ve never seen a combine move that fast,” I tell her.
Direction signs on logging roads tend to be scarce and cryptic. After a few wrong turns and an unscheduled tour of a clearcut, we finally arrive at the campground at half past six. Our stomachs are rumbling. LW noses the car onto the beach and we scan the shore, eager to select a campsite and prepare our dinner. To our left, the beach narrows immediately around the curve of the lake. We see a row of camps along the shore, half-hidden behind fences with tall driftwood pickets. Utility tarps flutter in the trees like blue kites tangled in the branches.
As we roll slowly past, we detect an abandoned permanence to the camps. Alice Lake Recreation Site has the hushed, eerie feel of a ghost town. Each camp includes a rusty travel trailer, a firepit and a substantial woodpile, neatly stacked under cover of a vivid blue tarp. Half a mile down, the land points a long, craggy finger into the lake and we can go no further.
On the other side of the access road, the canopy of trees is looser, the expanse of shore broader. Here, too, we can see a row of camps, these ones more elaborate and every bit as deserted as the others. Although there’s not a person in sight, Alice Lake Recreation Site appears to be full.
We consider pitching our tents between the access road and an enormous heap of logging debris that has washed up on the beach, but this is not the ideal campsite we had envisioned. We decide to drive back to the provincial Marble River campground on the highway. We circle slowly back onto the logging road and bump ten metres, then LW applies the brakes. Flat tire.
“Okay, so maybe taking out the spare tire to make more trunk space wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.”
LW backs the car into a pull-out and the four of us get out. Heading right at the end of the road, we trudge along the beach, passing eight deserted camps before we spot it: a thin streamer of smoke snaking above the trees.
Invigorated, we pick up our pace and approach a tunnel-like structure made of driftwood and lined with black plastic. Heavy brush on either side of the tunnel demands that we pass through it. Waist-high piles of flattened beer cans line the passage. I feel uneasy: we are deep in red-neck country here, women and children with no means of escape if we run into trouble.
At the far end of the tunnel, the beach fades into a thicket of alders. A wide creek cuts across our path, and alder saplings push up through the rocks on either side of it. Picking our way across the creek on a log jam, we spot the occupied camp: a lean-to fortress constructed of plywood and weathered logs.
“Hello!” we call out to announce our arrival. No one responds.
“Is anyone there?” we call. We know someone is there.
A deep, gruff growl punctuates the silence. I want to turn back, but we have no other options. We poke our heads around the lean-to wall and discover a man and a woman sitting at a formica-topped table playing gin rummy. A muscular pit bull hold us in his icy gaze. He crouches at the man’s feet, waiting for the command to attack.
“We’ve got a problem,” I venture. “We have a flat tire, and we’re not carrying a spare.”
The man, a burly blond in his twenties with three days’ worth of stubble on his face, throws us a blank stare. Stupidity of this magnitude is apparently unheard of on the North Island. Finally, he raises his can of Kokanee and shakes his head. “Look, I’ve had too many of these to help you out. I’m not goin’ anywhere tonight.”
He softens when I assure him we can cope until morning. “I’m going into town in the morning anyway. If you want, I can take your tire with me and get it patched.” He extends his hand. “The name’s Pat, and this here’s Rhonda.”
Rhonda is a heavy-set blonde in tight blue jeans and an orange tank top, with an inked rose blooming under the shoulder strap. She waves at us shyly, holding her cards tight to her chest.
“How do the two of you get here?” we ask, looking around at their setup. A battered black Ford pickup truck with a rusted-out box is parked beside their trailer, but there’s no road in sight.
Rhonda points to the lake. “The water’s shallow along the shore. We drive through.”
True to their word, Pat and Rhonda stop in at our camp at 10:30 Tuesday morning and toss our tire into the box of their pickup. Pat looks doubtful at the $20 I offer to cover repairs, but the only other bill I have is a hundred, and I have no intention of giving him that. As soon as they’re gone, we snoop around the recreation site.
The access road divides the campground into two distinct zones: forest retreat and open shore. It’s the open shore camps that intrigue us—they’re elaborate examples of chainsaw architecture. The prize for creativity goes to our nearest neighbours, the Kal Tires—so dubbed because the husband arrived in a shiny Kal Tire pickup truck that morning and unloaded a cord of cedar onto their woodpile. Mr. Kal Tire is a mighty ambitious wood splitter, we realize. Even before this morning’s load, his woodpile was the biggest on the beach. We’d pilfered from it liberally the night before to construct several makeshift tables—nothing as fancy as the furniture here, but serviceable. If Kal recognized his cedar in our tables, he was too polite to say. He gave us a friendly wave as he rumbled off.
The Kal Tires’ camp was tidy and spacious. At the back of the lot was a tent hut, housing a matched pair of dome tents behind a driftwood barricade. Behind the hut, a plank and sawdust staircase climbed the short slope to a jaunty outhouse, framed with salvaged timbers and clad in brilliant blue.
A large covered kitchen, about ten feet by twelve, was the hub of the camp. Four sturdy logs had been planted in the sand to form the corner supports. Recycled 1x4s hammered to the posts made a skirting for the rafters, and the signature utility tarp cast a warm cerulean glow over the building’s interior. A plywood counter covered in floral-patterned Mac Tac ran around three sides of the kitchen, with the door of a 70s-vintage camper opening onto the fourth. A three-burner propane stove with a roomy oven was built into the counter. The front of the cabana was decked out like the bar of a beach resort and it offered a spectacular view of the lake. Half a dozen four-inch log rounds served as tabletops across the bar. On the outside wall, grass mats crisscrossed with driftwood added to the tropical flavour.
These people were our soul mates, but they took salvage camp construction to a whole new level!
The four of us reach a consensus over lunch: we love Alice Lake and we’re going to stay. That decided, we disperse to our own pursuits. Pete and Tony head down to the dock with their rods and tackle boxes while I unfold my sling chair on the beach and open a collection of short stories by Eden Robinson. LW, the industrious member of the family, announces, “If we’re staying, we’re going to need a toilet” and disappears into the bush with a hammer and shovel.
Late that afternoon, Pat and Rhonda return from Port Hardy with a tire. Our own tire was too damaged to patch, but the tire shop accepted our $20 as a deposit on this loaner. When we ask if we can pay them for their trouble, Pat brushes the suggestion aside.
“What’s the deal at this campground?” we ask him. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh, most of the people who come here work all week. The place livens up on the weekends.”
In the morning, we drive to Port Hardy and bargain with the man at the tire shop (not Kal Tire) for a good used tire; then we head down to the marina to take a shower. Clean and re-tired, we spend the day touring the North Island towns of Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Port Alice. When we return to the campground at dinnertime, LW and I walk down the beach with a case of Kokanee for Pat and Rhonda. Their place is deserted, so I scrawl a thank-you note on the brown paper bag and push it under the steps of their trailer. We’re alone again at Alice Lake.
But not for long.
The Kal Tire family—Mom, Dad, three kids and two dogs—drives by as we’re feasting on rainbow trout. They’ve come to turn their fridge on for the weekend, they tell us when they stop for a chat on their way back out.
“There’ll be a steady stream of vehicles through here on Friday night. We’ve got a work party going to build a new dock on Saturday.”
“How long have you been coming here?” we ask them.
“About six years.”
That explains their elaborate camp.
“Of course, we have to pack everything up and take it into town in the fall. The lake rises up so high in the winter that the beach is completely covered in water.”
“You rebuild the whole thing every year?” We’re incredulous.
“Oh, sure. It gives us something to do when we’re here. You can only sit around so long, and then you have to get busy.”
LW nods her head in agreement. The ultimate keep-busy campers, I think. Doesn’t anybody know how to relax?
The Kal Tires are happy to answer our questions about Alice Lake: the “open shore” campers are a group of friends who live in Port McNeill, while the “forest retreat” campers are another group of friends who live in Port Hardy. We begin to understand about Pat and Rhonda: they’re Port Hardy people on the wrong side of the track.
“Why are you camping up here on the road?” Kal asks.
Good question. The easy answer, the one we give Kal, is that we had a flat tire and this is where we got stuck. But we could have moved down to the lake, especially once we realized we had the whole place to ourselves until the weekend. Why were we still up on the road?
On Friday, we make a day trip out to Cape Scott Park, leaving the campground early and returning at dusk. Most of the Alice Lakers have already arrived. The four of us spend the evening around our campfire, listening to the laughter of the Alice Lake children and the barking of the Alice Lake dogs.
“They seem to be a good bunch of people,” Pete remarks. Still, we keep our distance. Like Pat and Rhonda, we’re outsiders here.
In the morning, LW and I walk down to the lake and watch the sun come up over the eastern mountains one last time. Like every morning this week, a cluster of clouds is tangled in their peaks. When the sun spills its pink and orange light, the clouds shimmer and glow. “It’s been a great week,” we agree, drinking in the beauty of Alice Lake with our morning coffee. Then we go and wake the boys and start breaking camp. By the time we’re ready to leave, construction of the new dock is in full swing. We pull away from Alice Lake to a symphony of saws.
Tony punches LW on the arm, grinning with anticipation: “Just think what we can build next year if we pack a chainsaw!”