Ian Merringer naked
Credit: Ian Merringer

It isn’t easy to bare all in public. But camping au naturel does have its rewards

I have just passed a sign warning that there are “Naked People Beyond This Point.” Which makes me slightly more anxious than I already am. So when I drive into the parking lot at the Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park, I panic and pull into the first available spot. The problem is I’ve left myself about 150 feet to get to the office where I am to register for camping. Not a big distance perhaps, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to cover it naked.

It is time to rationalize. I am at a naturist camp. Nudity is not foreign to me. I don’t shy away from skinny-dipping, and the ratty towel I use at the gym is too small to wrap all the way around my waist. Also, now that I’m getting older—into my late thirties—I seem to spend increasing amounts of time in public with my fly undone. (My wife is not impressed.)

I reassure myself that I’m no shrinking violet, which immediately brings to mind worries about how cold it is outside. The sun is strong, but it is only about 20 degrees, with a wind that could be both stiff and wilting at the same time.

“What are you afraid of?” I ask myself. I step out of the car and slip my shorts and sundries past my knees and over my sandals. The rush of liberation that is supposed to come with being naked, the one that’s parroted by so many naturist testimonials, fails to take hold.

I’m aware of every hair on my rear end as I rummage through gear in the trunk. My car keys, pen and notebook go into a fanny pack. Normally, I consider fanny packs to be dorky, but they’re useful enough to be tolerably worn in certain circumstances. This is one of them. I consider wearing it loosely around my waist with the pack in front, but instead sling it over my shoulder like a purse.

I step self-consciously across the lot on legs that feel newly gangly and foreign. It takes all my willpower to keep my arms straight and to my sides, not creeping out in front to act as a form of concealment.

As I walk, a caretaker bicycles by. At least I assume he is a caretaker because he’s wearing typical caretaker garb. The point being, he has clothes on.

When I open the door to the office, a woman shrieks. Whatever has caught her attention turns out to be over my shoulder in the parking lot and not more centrally located, but the blood has already rushed out of my face, and possibly one or two other things.

Two young women behind the counter are wearing only sympathetic smiles. One pushes a waiver toward me and stays close, directly across the belly-high counter. I attempt to limit my
peripheral vision but still read the first line of the waiver four times, trying hard to be as unconcerned about her breasts as I trust she is. I work my way slowly down the page and manage to spell and sign my name correctly.

I’m now a registered naturist.

The reason I’ve come to Bare Oaks—located about half an hour north of Toronto, not far from busy Highway 400—is to see whether being in a state of nature helps outdoor people be in a better, well, state of nature. Or at least, that’s the official reason. I’m also here because I’ve always wondered what goes on at a place like this.

My visit begins with a quick tour of the clubhouse and grounds led by the camp’s owner, Stephane. Stephane—who has a large moustache but no tan lines—tells me that the club was started back in 1972, and now has about 500 members. He says that he’s been a naturist since the 1980s, when he explored the logical extension of his love of skinny-dipping.

As we walk through the clubhouse, Stephane explains the difference between naturism and nudism—naturists are more inclined to see nudity as part of a closer relationship with the natural world, while nudists just enjoy getting naked, anywhere. He also explains the body-image problems that result from clothing and the restorative power of simply going without. But I’m having trouble concentrating. Instead, I’m wondering if it is better to follow a nude person very closely as he climbs stairs, thereby risking an inadvertent bump, or to drop back a few steps and resign yourself to where this leaves your eye level.

After my tour, I pick out a tent site at the back of the property. Setting up takes a little longer than when I’m clothed. It’s not just that I don’t have any pockets to keep the pegs in while I stake the tent out, but also because every time I begin to bend down to clear debris or attach a line, I do an involuntary 360 to see if anyone is looking my way. My comfort level with being naked is creeping steadily upward, but there’s been no improvement on the being-naked-and-bent-over-in-public front. Squatting is somewhat better, but as a man it leaves me vulnerable to getting the undercarriage caught in the underbrush.

With my tent set up, I’m not sure what to do next. If I were on a normal camping trip, I would move into equipment management mode, unpacking and organizing clothes, sorting through gadgets to see how many tools I could clip to my belt or sling around my neck. But I’ve packed in the spirit of nakedness, and have left behind not only clothing but also most of the excess gear that normally weighs me down.

I have to confess that this stripped-down tripping style feels liberating.

The surest way to be conspicuous at a naturist camp is to keep your clothes on. But for men at least, there’s also a way of being conspicuous while naked. A naturist website had assured me before my visit that erections are unheard of in such non-sexual environs, yet it also went on to recommend that “a strategically placed towel, a dip in a cool pool, or rolling over on your stomach will take care of it.” Assuming that I could be a significant distance from the nearest swimmable pond, and imagining the consequences of lying prone on the ground, I decide deft towel arrangement is my best bet should the need, um, arise. I hang my terry-cloth security blanket from my fanny pack before setting out to visit Lake Beamor.

Lake Beamor is a hub for Bare Oaks’ more rustic members. The large and semi-natural pond has a beach at one end and a swimming raft, but I am hesitant to jump right into the skinny- dip/sun bake rotation that a dozen or so naturists are already engaged in. Instead, I turn my attention to the canoe rack (the key to my naturist experience so far being to look not just naked but also busy). I’m about to swing a faded fibreglass hull onto my shoulders when a friendly naked man asks if I’d like a hand getting it up, which I take to be an offer to help lift the canoe. I want to be beyond body in mind, but an imaginary scenario takes shape. It involves me standing toe to heel with the man while we bend down, perhaps grunt and heave the bow up and over our heads. I would then crouch down to duck under the gunwale of the overturned canoe and settle under the yoke while the friendly naked man stands fully extended underneath the bow seat.

With a few more nude weekends under the place where my belt should be, I might accept his offer. For now, I tell him I won’t be taking the canoe far and was intending to just shuffle along holding the gunwale with the hull resting against my thighs. I hasten to demonstrate and realize that the friction on my thighs is painful. But even more painful is the emotional anguish of slowly shuffling across a beach full of sunbathers while using rhythmic pelvic thrusts to unweight the canoe and make each next step possible.

When I get on the water, I find the act of canoeing naked is little different from the clothed pursuit, with two exceptions: It demands a thorough, though discreet and unenthusiastic, application of sunscreen; and it allows for—even encourages—effortless slips over the side for
frequent skinny-dips.

Getting back in with both grace and modesty is impossible—something has to give. So I forgo grace by keeping my legs uselessly together and manage to scribe bold red lines across my chest as I scrape myself over the gunwale. They are a nice counterpoint to the more intricate design the seat has imprinted on my rear end. I notice this on my return to the beach and spend a few seconds craning around to get a good look at it, like a dog chasing its tail.

Then I make a note to sit lightly while on toilet seats around here.

A little hike sounds like a good way to round out the day. Strolling onto one of Bare Oaks’ walking trails, I feel the sun on my backside and the wind in what the Germans would call my shame hair.

With legs that feel like they fit me again, I’m taking lithe steps toward becoming less a self-conscious middle-aged man and more a child of nature. I realize that the people here simply feel good about themselves and their natural surroundings. Maybe they are the ultimate outdoors people.

On the path, I fall in behind three teenage boys. They are about 14 and from the comprehensiveness of their tans they look to spend a lot of time here. I decide to adopt a properly unconcerned naturist attitude, and don’t slow my pace to put more space between us. I’m close enough to hear their conversation, and admit to being curious about what boys talk about while naked and on the pinnacle of puberty.

“Yeah, well, Hitler only had one testicle,” says the one on the left. I’m surprised to hear what might be considered to be a body-based value judgment at a place that’s supposed to be above such things—especially since the man in question pretty well set the standard when it comes to shortcomings to discuss.

“Did you know he was Jewish?” asks the one in the middle. This is met with confusion and disbelief by either flank, and I decide to interrupt to help set the record straight. “They say his grandfather was Jewish.”

Silence up ahead. The boys look over their shoulders and see a pale naked man following at eight paces.

“Creepy,” comes the verdict from the boy on the left.

A few minutes of slow walking later, I get the inevitable mosquito bite you-know-where. A little swelling I can handle. Scratching it will be a problem.