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Winter Camping in Tofino - The Anthropology of a West Coast Ritual

May 22, 2014
Prof. Phillip Vannini

It never fails. You’re out camping and right in the middle of the night you feel an irresistible urge to go pee. The outhouse is only a few steps away but you dread losing sleep momentum by getting out of bed and scavenging for your shoes and lamp. You ignore it for a while. Yet, it keeps you awake. The pressure is too strong. It’s…of all things, pissing outside, and getting dressed is a hassle. You eventually surrender.


You have been cautioned about the presence of a bear in the area.  So you try and speed up urination flow—however a futile physiological effort that may be. As you go on about your business, you anxiously eavesdrop into the trees and the wind chattering to each other in the moonless dark.


And then it happens, just like you feared it would. The light cast by your headlamp hits a large body rustling in the bushes across the trail. Your entire life flashes before your slumbering eyes. Then it jumps. Then you jump.


Why do we go camping?  What possesses us to have to walk a quarter of a mile to find an outhouse, take one-loonie showers, fight with ants and mosquitos (at best) and with the demons of bears and cougars (at worst), and to constantly having to tinker with a campfire, a recalcitrant tarp, dishes that won’t wash themselves, and ravens that that seem to get more larcenous every year? My job as an ethnologist of North American cultural rituals was to answer these very questions for a group of Chinese-born and raised Royal Roads University graduate students in intercultural communication.


“Well, it’s the… the beauty of peace and quiet… er, it’s the appeal of wilderness,” I mumbled in the classroom in Victoria. Blank stares.  A cell phone rang. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do—I’ll take you to Tofino next weekend, it’ll be a good lesson in fieldwork,” I spoke before thinking.  More silence. More blank stares. A hand timidly rose.  “Professor, what exactly do you mean by… um…camping?”


Camps are unique spaces.  Camping trips are unique times.  They are ephemeral pauses in the rhythms of everyday life.  They are changes of pace and place—changes that allow us to experience space as place and time as uninterrupted, unscheduled flow. Yet, as fleeting as they are, camps endure year after year, becoming points of return, familiar escapes, comfortable safe heavens, recognized rites of passage. 


Winter camping magnifies all this. Out here on the West Coast the simple pleasures of the camp life—warmth, good food, good friends—must be wrestled even more mightily from the winds and the rain, from busy work schedule, and from the appeal of common sense.


The sixteen of us arrived at Bella Pacifica Campground on one of the wettest spring Fridays Environment Canada ever forecast for Clayoquot Sound. Yet, as the yellow school bus peeled back a timid sun broke through the clouds. 


“So, what’s there to do, Prof, fishing, catching crabs?” “Well, setting up tents and tarp might be a more fitting start,” I advised Janna.


Only three hours later, the white plastic-donning campers (“it’s dirty on the ground”) were all done with their two borrowed tents. This was their first time camping, ever. Having grown up in busy megalopoles, this was their first time away from the hustle and bustle of city life.  The first time meant having to master a new esoteric lexicon— words like “hatchet,” and “kindling”—and place blind faith in the mysterious foreign power of “White Rabbit, White Rabbit” and its ability to cleanse human eyes of noxious windblown smoke.


We—West Coast dwellers, Chinese exurbanites, or otherwise—live in homes, towns, and cities over which most of us have limited or no control.  Though our great-grandparents may have been deeply involved in collecting water, tending to the hearth, growing food, or making do with what was at hand, nowadays our homes provide us with everything we want without much involvement on our part. Camping unsettles that relation. By taking charge of a small site and reinventing how we bring comfort

into our shelter, even if only for a few days, we play and experiment with a different sense of daily order, temporarily re-imagining our lives.


It all comes natural after a while, really. By the time—only 24 hours later—the whole group was learning to kayak in the pouring rain in Tofino Harbour, the Canadian ritual of camping had been fully demystified. “I think camping was a way to escape from daily routines, right, Prof?”—observed Jingya. I couldn’t have put it any better.


Oh, and… the rustling beast in the bushes?  It never fails: just a male—a human male—like me too lazy to walk all the way to the outhouse.