Teenage Love in the Backcountry

Quick: name the one thing that an adult most fears about camping in the backcountry with a normal group of 15 year old boys and girls? If you said bears or bad weather, you're wrong. Dead wrong! A broken leg, death by fiery lightning, and getting lost in the boonies isn't high on the list either.

What is, is love -- google-eyed, heart-throbbing, hormone pumping, toe-tripping, puppy love. If you want a supreme challenge, just pair up two enamored teenagers on your next wilderness outing. Then, see if you can solve all the problems they'll create.

Fortunately, you can delete the scenario by administering a simple test that identifies potential troubles. Here's how it works: Say you've agreed to lead a church sponsored canoe trip down a local river. Sixteen kids--eight boys, eight girls--have signed up and are chomping at the bit. Logistics (and your own sanity) demand that you split the group into two smaller crews of nine. You'll chaperone one group, another adult will guide the other. Be aware that teenagers are social animals who travel in packs of close knit friends. Separate buddies and many of the kids will drop out. The idea is to pair good friends but not lovers. To discern the difference, have the youngsters write down names of their close friends and arch enemies. Use the data to make up your groups, taking care to split friends of the opposite sex. What could be simpler? At least that's what I thought when I placed John and Martha--who apparently were not interested in one another--in the same group.

Unfortunately, I learned too late that the kids knew how my "sociogram" worked. They slyly outfoxed the system by pretending they were casual peers.

Problems surfaced the first night out. As soon as we pitched camp, John asked Martha to join him on a distant rock where he would show her the mechanics of spin casting. On the third try, her reel (which was evidently not locked down properly) went flying out into the lake. The line snapped and the unit headed for the deep six. When the embarrassment subsided, Martha apologized to John, whereupon John borrowed another reel from a friend who made him promise that if he lost it he'd buy it. John wanted to prove to his friend that the reel wouldn't let go, so he cast out the lure with all his might. At this, the rod tip pulled loose, snapped the line, and flew into the lake, out of sight. The fishing scene ended abruptly with a compassionate "Awww...John".

Oblivious to the comedy they had created, the pair nonchalantly strolled back to camp, where John presented me with a novel idea. "There's gobs of crawdads down by the shore. Whatcha say we cook some up for supper?" "Ever cook a mess of crawdads," I asked. "Yeah, sure, do it all the time!" "Okay," I said. "Go for it!" At this, John made a crude net out of his tee shirt and trapped about three dozen of the little buggers. Then, he boiled them up in salt water and served them, taking care to remove the tiny "mud" vein. The crayfish were surprisingly good and the episode put John back into Martha's good graces.

Early the next day, it began to rain. The kids knew they were supposed to pack their foul weather gear under a pack flap so they could reach it easily. But Martha had forgotten the rules: her parka was at the bottom of her pack. I was about to reprimand her for the oversight when John handed his rain suit to Martha and in a hushed tone said, "Here, Martha, you can wear mine."

"So what are you gonna wear?" I queried disgustedly. "My wool lumber jack coat", came the reply. It was a warm rain and there was no danger of hypothermia, so I reluctantly nodded okay. Maybe the episode would teach them both a lesson.

The rain quit a few hours later and a bright sun flooded the day. Hungry and eager to dry out, we put ashore on an airy point and broke out lunch. John wrung out his checkered wool jac-shirt and draped it over a sun warmed boulder, then he and Martha sat down together on a damp cedar log. Almost immediately, Martha stood up and cried,"Aw, John, my butt's all wet!"

"Here, sit on my life jacket," said John, apologetically. At this, Martha smiled coyly and beamed a," Thanks, Johnny."

I thought no more about the incident until we were back in the canoes and paddling down a placid beaver stream. It was a sweltering 94 degrees, so I succumbed to pressure and agreed to let the kids take off their life jackets. Three portages later, we emerged on a large lake and I told the kids to put the vests back on. Everyone but John complied. "Buckle up, John," I scolded.  "I can't: Uh, I think I lost it," he gloomily replied. Then he told me he'd left it on the log at our lunch spot four lakes back. I told John that he was fortunate he was on the swim team and could probably live without it. But "you will pay for it!" I chided.

Author's Note: Right after this trip I made it "illegal" to use life vests as seat pads. Life jackets are "life saving devices" and as such, should be accorded respect!

The next morning was mildly cold so everyone broke out warm clothes. Everyone, that is, except John. Generally, I don't like to pester kids about their personal attire, but it was obvious that John was cold, so I asked him why he didn't put on his red lumberjack shirt. "I think I lost it," he dolefully muttered. "Hung it on a rock after the rain and uh, I guess I forgot it." "Well, you've got your rain gear; why don't you put that on?" I suggested. "Uh..." At this, Martha butted in with, "I lost his jacket, Mr. J. Got the pants though!" Then she told me she had left the parka on the damp cedar log they had shared the day before.

By now, "John and Martha" had become a major source of entertainment for the group, and the crew needled the pair constantly. It was the fifth day of our canoe trip and John had lost a fishing rod tip, reel, wool jacket, rain parka and life vest. Before the day was out, he would also lose his flashlight. Honest, this is true. I'm not making it up!

Shortly after sundown, Martha discovered that the switch on her flashlight had turned on while the light was in her pack. The batteries were stone dead. So she strolled over to John's tent, batted her eyes and asked if she could borrow his flashlight to go to the bathroom.

"Sure, sure, Martha, you keep it," he said tenderly. She did, and promptly lost it! Now, John became despondent as he began to realize that he would have to explain the losses to his mom and dad. So at the campfire that night, everyone got into the act by suggesting ways that he could save face when he told his parents. Martha felt particularly sorry for John so she tried to cheer him up by showing off her new dance routine on the bole of a huge downed tree. It worked, and John burst into laughter, at which Martha fell off the log and sprained her ankle. Now, she could could not carry anything over the portages. Poor John would have to haul it all! To make matters worse, we were in a very remote area, where portages were spaced just minutes apart.

Now, John did everything for Martha. The instant the canoe touched shore, he was out, knee deep in water. Martha would put her arms around his neck and he would carry her ashore, where she would hobble over the portage trail with the aid of her makeshift crutch. Then, John would singlehandedly unload the canoe and portage everything across. Of course, the other kids offered to help, but John politely refused. He was a big strapping boy and wanted to show off his muscles to Martha.

Six hours and eight portages later, the tremendous physical labor began to take its toll. John was tired. Very tired. The final straw was pulled at a mucky portage on the edge of a foul smelling swamp. It was around 100 degrees in the glaring sun and the mosquitoes were God awful. Sweat rolled off John's body in waves as he struggled with the heavy duluth packs. Everyone was dieing of thirst and anxious for a swim, but the dank swamp water was unfit for both. Thick "loblolly" mud began at the shoreline and stretched tirelessly down the portage trail. The kids groaned from the sweltering weight of the packs and canoes and wished they were somewhere else.

Finally, the packs were across and John returned for his canoe. He edged out to a rotten log, flipped the canoe onto his shoulders and wheeled to face the portage trail. But the canoe caught firmly in the branches of large black spruce, and refused to budge. Sweating and straining, John bit his lip so he wouldn't swear, while in the background, Martha leaned on her crutch and shouted directions.

"Turn right, no left. Back up a bit... Go forward. More... More!" Then, without warning, John slid off the log into the murky water. Still holding the canoe overhead, he sank deeper and deeper into the oozing muck. Soon he was waist deep and solidly stuck. Unable to move, he suppressed what I interpreted as "intent to swear", and with brute force, threw the canoe into the swamp. It landed with a loud splat, and a shower of mud. Then, it drifted just out-of-reach. Now, the only way to get it back was to swim for it. John glared at Martha, and stiffly cooed, "Awww gee, Martha". Then he slipped into the foul smelling water and dog paddled towards the canoe.

Seconds later, he emerged from the swamp like a sluggish dinosaur, and in a barely controlled voice said, "Awww...Martha." As he turned to face her, she burst out laughing, at which he turned beet red, clenched his fists and at the top of his lungs bellowed, "Dammit, Martha, I hate you!"

This was their first and last domestic squabble. In a flash the romance was over--John and Martha had become "friends".

For some unaccountable reason, I refused to admonish John for his unmannerly outburst. Justice was on the wind at last and I felt it was best to leave it at that. 

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com

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