Story and photography by Andy Goodson
"Remember to blink once in a while," I remind myself or else my eye sockets will dry out.
The pressure on my finger nails from clutching the steering wheel makes the tips feel numb. It's pitch-black outside and barely past 8 pm. I complain to myself while my car drifts over gravel like marbles.
In the narrow tunnel-vision of my headlights, the forest looks unrecognizable. The tall, unkempt grass on either side of the road is stalking me, waiting for a slip-up before sending a giant animal crashing through my windshield. An empty passenger seat and no cell signal only enhances my paranoia.
The turn to Parr Hill Lake has got to be just ahead, I thought. The drive is way longer than I remember.
After passing over a few more bridges, I find my way into the campground. I expect a few hunters and fall campers, but the place is completely deserted. If I were bringing someone out here for the first time they would definitely think I'm going to murder them.
A faint beam of light shines through the spiny silhouettes of balsam fir. I park and step outside.
"Hey, Andy! How's it going, man??" Adam greets me. The voicemail I received two hours ago was from him, saying that he and Kyle got lost on the grid-roads while driving from Saskatoon.
They never did respond to my calls, typically having lost their cell signal. "How long have you guys been here?" I ask.
"Just got here actually— we found a way eventually," he says. I barely get the chance to sit down before my brother Matt passes me a beer.
It's good to be home again.
Experiencing some déja-vu from last year's trip, I wake up to evergreen, contrasting the near-hallucinogenic yellow of the turning birch and aspen leaves. I fumble out of my hammock and get working on some coffee. The noisy whiskey jacks have laid waste to some bread we forgot to pack in.
As I make my way to the fire-pit, I see Adam sleeping on the bare ground, his head resting on his hands as if he fell asleep curled up next to the fireplace on Christmas Eve. I wonder how he got the idea to sleep outside... It was probably the darkness— because, in the light, he looks a little out of place. The cars, picnic tables and bread crumbs just make things appear unflattering. I try not to wake him up.
Parr Hill Lake offers some of the slackest end-of-season camping. You basically live out of your car, drink fresh water from the springs, and pig out on chips 'n dip. The fall colours are incredible and there are hardly any bugs.
I can't complain, but there is definitely something missing.
Maybe a little fishing will fill the void. With only one day to spend in the Porcupine Forest, we decide to go on a day-trip to the Little Swan River.
I catch three brook trout before packing in my fishing rod and opting for a little rum-in-the-sun relaxation. I groan about camping season coming to an end.
Sean responds: "It's not like we're screwed for the winter. We usually find something to do, like staying in a ski shelter or a cabin or something." He puts down his rod and stretches. "But, I think I know what you mean. It's not the same as the back-country."
We take to the back-roads to see what else we can find.
Sean reaches a dead-end for the sake of his vehicle's suspension. We step outside for another break.
"This place is like heaven," Nate says, noting the almost cartoon-like perfection of the scenery. I dub the spot Little Swan Municipal Park. The grassy areas, used as public pasture land, appear neatly manicured—the kind of place you would host a church picnic, music festival or family reunion.
Nate says we have to come back here sometime and everyone is quick to agree. I had promised myself last year that we would camp the "executive-level" reaches of the Little Swan River— but we have run out of time. Another summer, gone. One summer closer to the year we become too lazy to do any of this.
I'm reminded once again of the season's shorter days as we chase the setting sun back to camp.
I like to think that working in the city keeps me from normalizing the outdoor experience by keeping it fresh and exciting. I'm not sure if that's exactly the case. It's more like an addiction, complete with withdrawal symptoms and increased tolerance. The small-town burger shops and fuel stops are a bit of a drain on the bank account too, I suppose.
This was to be our final camping trip of the season, but let's be clear about this... There's final trips and final trips, what kind was this to be?