Sigurd F. Olson said it best about the significance of good campsites:
“Campsites are punctuation marks for the voyageur, signifying the end of the day. I may forget portages, rapids and lakes, which merge into a nebulous montage of the country travelled over, but there are some campsites that stand out vividly in my mind as special places remembered.”
I agree with Olson’s sentiments. Campsites are more than a patch of ground to sleep on. They are the bookends to our days outside, the centerpiece to every canoe trip. They are where the day’s stories are shared, laughs are had, where we view the stars from. They’re more memorable than a buggy portage, windy lake or swift rapid.
Sigurd Olsen preferred to pitch his tent in the Boundary Waters of the northern United States and the neighbouring Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario. I’ve also loved my fair share of wilderness sites there: a beautiful remote beach on Poohbah Lake, the central island on Sturgeon Lake, under the canopy of the 400-year-old pine rooted alongside the banks of Shawn Walsh Lake. Yes, there are lots of giant white pine campsites. I just love the history of this lake, named after Quetico’s acclaimed naturalist.
History plays a big part in some of my favorite sites. Aldo Leopold used a survey marker as a tent spike along the boundary of Quetico and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, at Lower Basswood Falls. You can use the same spike as a peg today.
I have camped among the hoodoos along the Milk River, all decorated with First Nation petroglyphs, and the French River’s Blue Chute where Canada’s great explorers and voyageurs made camp. There’s also Best Island in Wabakimi Provincial Park where Wendell Beckwith built a series of cabins to study mathematical theories, including the existence of pi. But to camp on the same spot of legendary wilderness visionary Aldo Leopold and to view the same breathtaking scenery he did—the same scenery that inspired him to protect this wild area—is one of my most precious places I’ve pitched my tent. (And there’s been a lot of places I’ve pitched my tent.)
Once campers have their basic needs met—a big enough spot, access to water—we prioritize experience attributes. That could be a high rock for cliff jumping, a west-facing shore for beautiful sunsets or a big flat rock for stargazing.
The attributes prioritized are based on personal preference, but I’ve never met anyone who’s complained about a scenic vista unfolding in full view of the fire ring. Low down on the third rung are backcountry amenities—a comfy log by the campfire, trees for hanging a tarp or a clean thunderbox.
What’s much harder to study and quantify scientifically is the instinctive home-and-hearth feeling a campsite with shelter creates. Even 10,000 years after the dawn of the agricultural revolution and permanent dwellings, the nomadic campsite is instantly recognizable as a refuge. One small square of the earth to call our own and rest our weary heads upon, dreaming about what the next day’s adventure holds.
Olson was right. Campsites are the punctuation marks in any journey. Whether an exclamation point or simple period, they make our journeys complete.
When we spend our days paddling through lakes and rivers, we are visitors on the land. But at night—at camp—for just a little while, we’re home.
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