JUST DESSERTS

Many of the first memories that I have involving camping with my parents. At the time, I knew only that the drive from Vancouver took hours and hours before we would reach exotic locations like Cultus Lake or Echo Lake or Conkle Lake.

I remember a four cornered tent, a blue rowboat, a blue box that we called the “kitchen” because it had shelves that could be filled with necessary items like dishes, cutlery, seasonings and sugar, and a hinged door that could be fastened shut. I remember other camping stuff, too – like collapsible canvass chairs, air mattresses, sleeping bags, fishing gear, and branches stripped clean by my dad so we could roast marshmallows.

I remember camping with my parents and my sisters for almost twenty years. During that time, the four-corner tent and the kitchen were always present. Other camp items camp and went as wear and tear dictated.

As the four-cornered tent aged, my parents replaced it with a new one that not only had four corners, but an extension with a slopping ceiling. The larger tent provided space for my parents and for my two youngest sisters, while the older siblings slept in the old tent.

By my twentieth year, that old tent was clearly showing its age. The fabric holding a ring at the center of its roof was frayed and could no longer provide the tension required to hold the tent pole straight up the centre. My always-creative-improvising mother devised a scheme to get us through one last weekend: she placed a melminac cup upside-down at the top of the pole. The cup filled the gaping hole and provided the necessary tension to hold the tent up. In doing so, however, the height of the tent was increased by about two inches – the length of the metal tip at the end of the tent pole that would normally protrude through the metal ring.

My sisters and I didn’t care. We didn’t plan to be in the tent much. It was for sleeping and changing.

On a Friday evening late the summer of my twentieth year, we set off from Calgary in two over-stuffed vehicles for a campsite at Tunnel Mountain, near Banff. My sisters were older by then so four of us occupied the old tent, while mom and dad took the bigger one for themselves.

We blew up our air mattresses, rolled out our sleeping bags and tested them for comfort. Around the tent pole, we set tote bags containing clothes and other items deemed necessary for the weekend. My bed lay across the doorway into the tent. The two youngest placed their mattresses on either side of the tent, and the fourth claimed the spot along the back wall.

We enjoyed a camp-style dinner whipped up by my mother, then sat around the camp enjoying a quite evening roasting marshmallows. Eventually, we sought our beds.

Well before sunrise, I awoke from a curious dream. I recall thinking it was like one of those cartoon scenarios where the sleeping character has a dialogue balloon over his head full of zeds. I groggily and realized that the noise I had been dreaming was not actually a dream. It was emitted by a long snout pressing through the tent wall and running along the length of my body. In that moment of clarity, I froze. As a bright beam lit up the tent, a male voice yell “hey!” In response, I watched the shadow of a black bear rear on its hind legs above me. Terror paralyzed me.

A moment later, I heard a thud. The shadow-bear seemed to flail its forelegs threateningly. Then it growled and ran off into the bush.

Moments later, my parents and I erupted from our tents, with my two little sisters in hot pursuit. The park ranger lowered the beam and jumped from his pick-up truck. While he enquired about our well-being, he wandered about the camp.

“She was after something,” he said. “I’ve been trailing her through the park for a while. I know she’s hungry. Too many folks feed the bears without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes, they don’t even lock their food up at night.”

“Oh,” my mother assured him, “we put all of our food in the car before we turned in.” We all nodded at her truth.

“Not everything,” he said reaching under the picnic table. He held out what was once a box of bacon-flavoured crackers, now empty and marred with claw marks.

“But, who?” my father gasped, stunned at the evidence.

“Not me,” we three said in unison, to the jury of mother, father and ranger.

“Then –“ my mother said.

The six of us twisted around scanning the camp site. Wait! One of us was missing.

“Hannah!” my father exclaimed. “Where is she? Did you see her?”

“Who’s Han-“ the ranger started to ask.

“My sister,” I said, starting to giggle. “She’s still in the tent! She never came out!”

We all stilled and listened. In a heartbeat, we heard Hannah’s quiet snoring. I burst into nervous giggles, my sisters promptly joining me.

“The crackers must be hers.” My mother sounded annoyed. “She was acting suspiciously earlier. She was probably hiding them so she wouldn’t have to share. That girl, honestly!”

“I suggest that you have a word with her in the morning,” the ranger said. “I’d say you folks got off easy this time . . .”

“I’ll take care of it!” my father said, his glare putting an end to the giggles. “You three go back to bed.”

The following morning, my father had a few words – several actually – with Hannah. The rest of us skulked around the campsite, waiting for the fun to return. When father thought Hannah had suffered enough, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Later, we went for walks, played cards and generally passed the day without further event. Once again, we ended the evening with quiet chatter and roasted marshmallows, then sought our beds.

Just as the sun began to rise, I was jolted from my sleep by a loud pop. On the heels of the previous night’s fright, my heart beat wildly. As I puzzled what the root of that gunshot -like sound might be, I heard a dull ping. The third sound was reminiscent of air being slowly released from an air mattress, underlined by a high-pitched whistle. As my groggy mind struggled for answers, I opened my eyes to see the top of the tent slowly deflate, landing gently atop its occupants.

I hastily untied the tent flap and crawled out. Once again, my two little sisters scooting out behind me. The three of us huddled together, gawking of the deflated tent. A hearbeat later, we erupted in giggles.

“What’s going on out here?” my mother hissed, slithering through the flap of the large tent.

“Look!” I said, pointing to our tent. “I think the cup went through the hole!”

Our giggles increased, and mom joined in.

“Well, where’s the cup!” my mother demanded.

“In the bush somewhere,” I said between giggles.

As we struggled to control ourselves, my father appeared. I explained what had happened while he scanned the campsite.

“Where’s Hannah?” he demanded.

As if in answer to his question, we all watched the back wall of the tent begin to rise. We could no longer control our giggles and laughed uncontrollably. “Stop laughing, you idiots!” Hannah’s seated apparition screamed indignantly. “Get me out of here!