The hiss of a Coleman, the echo of splitting wood, marshmallows toasted over the campfire, the smell of pine and soil and a tent nestled under swaying boughs -- to me, these are rites of summer.
For the inexperienced, however, or for families with young children, tenting can seem more of a sticky, smoky, uncomfortable ordeal than a vacation. Instead, many opt for camping trailers, fifth wheels or motorhomes.
In 2006, 14 per cent of Canadians owned RVs, according to a study by industry association Go RVing. Nearly half were families with children. And that's not counting the rental market. With bigger, more comfortable options gaining popularity and fewer kids exposed to old-school roughing it, I wondered: Will tenters eventually become an endangered species?
"More and more, there's a huge urban population. There's been a decline or levelling off in camping (nationwide)," says Gloria Keyes-Brady, interpretation co-ordinator with Parks Canada. "There seems to be pretty solid RV camping, but tenting camping... has declined."
This trend, and a recent Parks Canada study, has led to a new pilot program at national parks this summer. Different campgrounds are testing yurts, trailers and teepees. At Jasper National Park, Keyes-Brady is co-ordinating a cottage-tents pilot.
"We thought, 'What a great way for Canadians to connect to nature,' " she explains. "But it's a big expense to buy a tent and all the equipment and then test out whether you like it or not. So this way, people can try it out."
Admittedly, introducing my own toddlers to tenting seemed daunting, despite the fact that I've tented since my pre-teens. But there's something essentially primitive in the experience of lying in a sleeping bag listening to the forest's nightly rhythms, or relying on a fire for heat. The cottage tents presented a good way to ease our family into it.
Arriving near suppertime after a long drive with the kids, turnkey accommodation is immediately welcome. The cottage tents, pitched at Jasper's Whistlers Campground in late fall 2009, combine the convenience of drive-up lodging with tenting's down-to-earth ambience. With canvas walls, wooden frame and flooring, the tents resemble outfitter's shelters. Each is furnished with bed frames and mattresses, electric lights, small baseboard heaters and basic outdoor cooking gear, and sleeps five to six adults. No setup necessary.
Instead, we strike out for firewood. Three-year-old Aidan spots elk poop, ravens and interesting rocks along the way.
We come to a small stream with several logs forming a makeshift bridge. Aidan is thrilled. He holds my hand and crosses. I follow, then hold out my hand to Heather, carrying our one-year-old daughter Sierra in a baby carrier on her back. The logs sway and dip as we walk. The ease of it all is a little overwhelming.
"I need to start a fire to feel like I'm actually camping," Heather says. This sense of glamour compared to the average tenting experience has led to the term glamping (for glamour camping), though usually it refers to something a little more upscale, with butlers and five-star chefs.
Jasper's cottage tents are a little more economical and DIY. At $78.50 a night, including site fee and fire permit, there's no turndown service. But parks staff will give cottage-tent users an orientation, demonstrating how to safely use a camping stove, store food and build a fire -- essentially, providing a guided, entry-level introduction to tenting.
With the basics covered, our days rush by, throwing rocks into nearby Athabasca River, hiking at Pyramid Lake and picnicking at Centennial Park -- an excellent find for young families, tucked away on one of the town's back streets. In the evenings, the alpine cool chases us into our sleeping bags, where we whisper stories to the kids and listen to the night settle around us.
Something about the thinness of tent walls instils a sense of camaraderie and familiarity among fellow campers. We're all in it together, rain or shine. With only fabric separating us from the wilderness beyond, tenting draws us closer to nature in a more profound way.
"That type of camping is such an activity in itself -- setting up the tent, making a fire, cooking outside... All those things are pretty traditional Canadian experiences," says Keyes-Brady.
In the rush of daily living, Keyes-Brady suggests, there's also something to be said for the laid-back pace of camping.
Families aren't connecting as much as they'd like because lives are so busy, so camping allows people to not only connect with nature in a safe environment, but also, it's a family activity. There's something for everybody to do around the campfire.
As for the future of the cottage tents, park staff will decide at the end of the 2010 season whether the program will continue. But early bookings are promising, with weekends filling up fast.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Reservations can be made by phone at 1-877-RESERVE or online at www.pccamping.ca.There is a $10.80 fee per booking.