It is not surprising to me that my favourite memories of nature do not involve a science lecture or biology field trip. As with many people fascinated with the outdoors, I realized how special a connection to nature can be at a young age. Every summer, my parents would send my siblings and I off to overnight summer camp. What I’m sure started as a vacation for my parents, quickly became the highlight of my year.
I was fortunate to go to a canoe tripping camp and spent many nights and weeks paddling from campsite to campsite around Ontario and Quebec. Some canoe trips were four days total, and the longest was 27 days. These were very special circumstances. As a child, camp was the only time of year that I could go weeks without adult supervision - awesome!While I saw my counselors as “old”, in reality they were but a few years ahead of me. The environment this created was one of independence, creativity and freedom. Each camper had to pull their own weight but was also involved in some of the decision making - exciting for a young kid. What’s for dinner tonight? Well, you’re making it, so you pick! What campsite should we stay at tomorrow? Depends how hard you paddle!
What I think is most special, however, are the relationships that developed in these spaces. This includes relationships with other people, myself and my surroundings. The friends I made while 13 years old at camp are still some of my closest and will likely continue to be for my entire life. One camp friend I have not seen for 7 years, but we still send letters back and forth every few weeks. I look forward to the day we can reunite and I’m sure we’ll pick up right where we left off. I also learned a lot about myself during these extended periods outdoors. Turns out, my body and mind are capable of quite a lot. And in turn, they really don’t need too much to thrive: adequate food, water, shelter and friends. Finally, the relationship that took me a while to understand as special, is that between nature and I. I learned that you do not need to know the latin names of trees, birds, insects, etc. to appreciate how incredible they are. Canoeing along the edge of a river, I was grateful for the shade of overhanging trees. One time, a dragonfly sat on my shoulder for about an hour, while I canoed down the river and even through some small rapids. I immediately felt peace, knowing my dragonfly friend would protect me from mosquitoes. After weeks of drinking only water, spruce tea was a delicious addition to breakfast.
Though I did not know to name it at the time, I realize now that on these canoe trips I was seeing myself as a part of the forest and aquatic ecosystems around me. It was not lost on me that any garbage left behind or tree sapling stomped, had a permanent effect. In addition, I knew we had little control over our surroundings. During my 27 day canoe trip, it rained nearly every single day and there was not a thing we could do to stop that, so we sang songs and enjoyed (nearly) every minute, despite the circumstances. The forest and my group were intertwined in a messy relationship, each impacting and benefiting from each other. The dragonfly got a free ride downstream while I had my own personal mosquito-defender.
I remember one of my counsellors mentioned they studied environmental science in university. My eyes lit up as I thought, Wow you can actually study and pursue a career in the environment? Sweet! So, while I was lucky to have spent a lot of time in nature as a child, my interest became more formalized as I learned about ecology, carbon cycles, forest succession and so on. It turns out I was not the only one grateful for tree shade along the riverbank, but in fact river ecosystems rely on the cooler temperatures and nutrients from fallen leaves and branches of overhanging trees.
My science lectures and biology field trips indeed furthered my amazement for the outdoors, but it certainly did not start there. Anyone wanting to learn more about the environment will be hard pressed to stay engaged if starting with an introduction to soil characteristics. Human powered trips, such as paddling, walking or hiking, allow one to slow down and pay attention to the environment around them. The trees, flowers, and insects themselves have a lot to teach us if we are willing to listen. I believe this should be the first lesson in environmental science.