Slowly I came to in the tent, the nagging sense of ‘damn, I need to pee’ nudging me awake. I lay still as my senses attuned to the enveloping silence of the campground, the darkness and the gentle breathing (with the odd snuffling snore) of Scott beside me. After a half-hearted attempt to try to get back to sleep to avoid the hassle of backing out of the tent like an uncoordinated small animal emerging from its den, I found myself shuffling around in the dark on damp grass as I tried to quietly find a spot to make use of without disturbing anyone, overcome by the physical need to respond to the call of nature.
So here I was, back in a campground again. A couple of days earlier I’d been burrowing into our messy cupboard digging out shorts, t-shirts, fleece leggings, waterproofs – who knew what the weather would be like with our luck lately – and I’d wondered why we were headed out for another camping trip, the third in the space of five weeks of four or five days each. Our first four days had been characterized by torrential rain and a deepening lake forming each night on top of our tarp, and the second by thunder and lightning crashing overhead the first night as I’d wrangled vegetables into a frying pan over our camp stove.
Now, a couple of hours drive and three ferry rides later accompanied by sporadic rain, we were on Hornby Island, a Northern Gulf Island sitting in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Hornby, famous for several soft sand beaches that slope gently and shallowly enough that the sun (if it’s around) makes the water the warmest in the area, enjoys the moniker of ‘Little Hawaii’. The ocean in its salty freshness was some of the clearest I’d seen in this region although I’m not sure the tropical waters of Hawaii are the most apt comparison considering the invigorating temperature of the sea here, but then I haven’t been to Hawaii yet so, hey, it might be so. Driving to the end, literally, of the one main road on the island we’d pitched tent in a peaceful campground, characterized by family groups and one shower shared amongst twenty or so sites. Any food scraps we had we were asked to throw to the resident chickens who scratched around in a coop and came running up to the fence when someone walked by, excited at the prospect of some leftovers.
For the next four days we pursued the sun as it made its sporadic appearances. The shadows from Douglas Fir with their chunkily scabrous bark, Western Red Cedar and the orange-red coastal Arbutus trees crisscrossed the not-so-gentle ups and downs of rough pavement as we explored this tiny but varied (and hilly) island on our bikes, often passing deer unconcernedly chewing roadside grass. We ditched the bikes and walked through a forested park on paths packed with fir and pine needles, suddenly opening out to high undercut bluffs made golden by grasses, a fitful and contrary wind blowing hither and thither, showering us with rain one moment and pushing clouds aside another to bake us in sudden heat. Scattered amongst the grasses and Arbutus were Garry oak trees, so gnarled and fantastical you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d spotted an elf peeking out from behind the branches.
Alternating with sandy beaches we found pancaked layers of rock where we sat patiently by intertidal pools. These oceans in miniature came alive with tiny crabs pushing aside shells and seaweed, scuttling around each other in a complex dance of deferment and domination. Parts of the seashore offered rock eroded by sea and weather, looking as smooth as cream until we brushed our hands against the stone and felt the roughness chafe our skin.
Bald eagles soared on thermals over the island, their wickedly curved beaks turned to the left then right as they scoured the area for prey. Sea lions popped their heads out of the water, checking out their surroundings, and us, from their watery home, whiskered noses lifted to the air.
We nodded at two cycle tourists we’d noticed on the ferry who arrived late the first evening at the campground and who escaped the drizzling rain to crash out in their tent. Over shared coffee the next morning we chatted with them for a couple of relaxed hours, swapping cycling stories, even revealing personal struggles and adversities that had been overcome, the state of the world and how travelling opened (hopefully) our eyes and our minds. All so nourishing, and yet, and yet…..
It was as I was inching my way back to the tent that night that I heard it, the voice in my head that said ‘look up’, a reminder from other trips where my first reaction as night set in was to crane my neck and peer at the stars. I’d omitted to check out the night sky on this particular excursion. I looked up, and it was spectacular. Pinpoints of light filled the sky and my eyes swept back and forth, to and fro, taking in the tiny fraction of the cosmos that I could see. For a while I stood outside just looking, enjoying the solitude of the moment, this experience of the night. Finally, as I chilled down, I crept into our tiny tent and still I couldn’t stop looking. I kept the fly open for a while longer, wrapping my sleeping bag around me and gazing at the sky. It was a complete moment. I’d remembered why we make this effort to get away. To experience the deep silence and darkness of the night far from city traffic and light pollution, to be lucky enough to spot wildlife in a relatively unspoiled corner of nature. To smell salty ocean air, fragrant earth and to sit on a rock or bench sipping coffee under the benign shade of a tree, looking out to sea with barely a thought in our heads.
This is why when we get home, we’ll unpack the camping gear, wash our clothes and get ready for the next trip.