Like many others, I was inspired (or was it forced?) by this summer’s travel restrictions to venture into the woods.

“I need a holiday,” my friend Hannah told me on one of our many Zoom calls.

“Well, where exactly do you imagine we should go?” I’d replied incredulously, not allowing myself to think too long about how fun a road trip through Iceland would be, or how I’d been meaning to go scuba diving in the Maldives for years now.

Instead, we settled on the French River. My only preconceived notion of the place was an old billboard on the side of Highway 69, with a giant blue cartoon bear advertising the trading post and motel. I knew it as a good place to make a pit stop on a long drive; somewhere I could gorge myself on fudge.

Suffice it to say, I’d never backcountry camped before.

Sure, growing up in Ontario, I’d made the odd car camping trip and had been to plenty of cottages. I’d travelled internationally to plenty of other remote regions of the world.

But I had never—you know— answered the call of nature in nature. And that, dear reader, is where many of us draw the line about what it means to be a real “outdoorsy” type.

photoEllie and Hannah scouting rapids - photo by Sarah Button

Luckily, Hannah had eons more experience than I did, and had soon organized our entire trip, inviting two others along. Within this group of four strong women, I was self-conscious about having the least experience.

Before leaving, I compulsively Googled my many questions: How do I choose a campsite? How do I sleep without a pillow? How do I pack out my own toilet paper? (The latter I typed while frantically wishing that all our sites would have a thunderbox. They did not.) 

Just about everything was new to me, from closing a bear barrel without pinching your fingers (personally, I still believe this to be a team sport), to the special kind of ache in your behind after a long day on a canoe seat (lesson learned: bring an extra life jacket to sit on).

I had borrowed my gear, so when we first made camp, I could at least excuse my clumsy bumbling because it really was my first time ever setting up that tent.

Still, it was worth forcing myself out of my comfort zone. There were magical moments I’ll never forget: mirror reflections in the calm of the river and sunrise swims. The thrill of running a whitewater rapid and paddling in the stern of a canoe for the first time. The silence-inspiring awe of watching an eagle soaring overhead and a black bear crawling, dripping wet, onto shore.

photoEllie canoeing - photo by Hannah Kent

In fact, I liked it so much that when I got home, I promptly joined the hordes of online shoppers to purchase my own tent, sleeping bag and mat. I’d decided that these were items I didn’t want to borrow anymore. Next time, I wanted to be able to pitch my tent in record time—no excuses.

I do admit, though, that I still don’t quite know how to light a camp stove. And I would still choose a thunderbox every time.


If you’ve been inspired (or forced) by 2020 to plan your first Ontario backcountry camping trip, here are my best tips:

  1. Go with friends who know what they’re doing and don’t let your ego get in the way.
  2. Camp in August, when the bugs are low, but the nights are warm.
  3. Cover a Ziplock bag with duct tape so you can always discreetly leave no trace.

 photoEllie and Hannah canoeing - photo by Sarah Button