Story and photo by Cathy Webster
Smoky campfire tendrils float on the rarified coolness of Thanksgiving in Algonquin Park. You can smell it: roasting turkeys, ridiculous and delicious all at the same time, amidst the rich sour pungency of nature’s idea of perfect autumn. Families gather around the fire, generations of pumpkin pies under their belts, dressed not in their best tucker but in buffalo check plaid coats and hiking boots.
The picnic tables are pushed together and dolled up in fine crisp linens, dazzling white under the lowering sun of the coming fall solstice and brilliant blue skies. Children pluck goldenrod and maple leaves and put them in coffee cups; maybe not the most elegant of table decorations but perfect in a way that only this moment in this day can be perfect and never forgotten. Fathers and grandfathers tend to the turkey, covered in blankets of tinfoil and coals. They worry. Needlessly. Will it be cooked? Will it be raw? Will it be dry? When they finally pull it from the fire the skin is blackened and the breast is dry but it doesn’t matter; everything tastes better when you’re camping and the fresh air is tonic to bored and embittered appetites used to microwaves and fast food.
Nothing is fast on this weekend, the last camping trip of the season for all but the hardiest among us. After this the trailers are winterized, the tents are aired out and folded up, the sleeping bags with their heady aroma of crumbled potato chips, dirty socks and wet bathing suits will be taken to the coin op for washing and drying. Undeniably there is sad beauty in Thanksgiving weekend. Didn’t we all look forward to this season so much and isn’t it almost over?
It is, but not quite.
There is this time, this one last time, and we’re together. The turkey is being carved on the picnic table, the kids are stealing gherkins out of the pickle tray and mom and the aunts are carrying platters of food from the trailer. Mashed potatoes dripping with real butter, yellow jellied salad that only two people like and tomato aspic that only grandma will eat; nobody turns their noses up at the maple glazed squash or the buttery carrot coins and the youngest steals more than his fair share of Pillsbury crescent rolls when nobody’s looking. Homemade pie, brought from home, is dished out when the table is cleared off and the dishes are done, outside, soap bubbles floating off towards the lake. Even dishes are better when they’re done outside, the aunts agree, and when the happy mess is cleaned up, everybody retires to their camp chairs around the fire.
Dad pokes the coal with his designated poker stick; the kids, bored already, take off on their bikes; adult stomachs groan and settle, while we berate ourselves for eating so much and debate turkey coma – is it real? Is it a myth? Grandpa falls asleep in his camp chair. Someone takes his picture. In a few days we’ll be laughing at the photos on Facebook and Thanksgiving at Lake of Two Rivers will be fading as fast as the plate of leftover turkey.
But it was good, wasn’t it? Nah, it wasn’t good. It was great. And the best part? There’s always next year and another camping season right around the corner. Algonquin will wait as it always waits, while we move on with our lives through school and work and winter; it will wait for us without judgment, without remorse. And when we return in the spring, it will snug us close to its freshly minted chest in the frenetic rebirth of spring.