We first met Tommy at Campsite 52 on a frigid August evening. It had been drizzling for the last hour, and it was already dark by the time we reached our site.
We approach the little grove, enclosed by thick pine trees, well after 6 pm, and see a large silhouette sitting in front of a burning stove.
Katrina pulls the site map out of its rainproof case and checks it again. Each site is meant for only one group, so if this one is already occupied, it means we’re at the wrong one.
“Wait… this has to be 52, because 51 would be another few kilometres away,” she points deep into the forest.
“And there are no other sites in the area, or we would have seen them,” she confirms.
Determining that the silhouette is, in fact, encroaching on our site, Katrina leads the way into the grove.
“Excuse me,” she calls out. “What site is this? I think this is our site…”
The silhouette looks up, alarmed.
Sitting by the stove is an enormous muscular man with giant shoulders, but with braces and the face of a teenage boy. He is sporting mail courier shorts and has a teeny quick-dry towel wrapped around his humongous body. He looks like a white, buffer version of the UPS Guy.
“Um… not sure. But this is my site.”
Katrina holds the map out. “Which site did you book?”
“37? That’s like 10 kilometres back that way!”
“Oh… uh, I mean… 51?”
“Ah,” Katrina says. “That’s up a bit further, this one is 52.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not leaving,” Courier Shorts tells us defiantly, shivering over his tiny fire.
“We’re not kicking you out,” Katrina tells him patiently. “It’s raining, and it’s dark. I’m just saying you’re in the wrong site.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry,” he says, clearly not sorry.
I’m wary of this late-night intruder who DGAF about site numbers, and who looks like he could rip me apart with his bare hands.
Katrina is strong and self-assured. I hide behind her in case he’s insane and decides to lunge at one of us.
We set up our tents and find a tree for our bear hang. By now, the rain has mostly stopped.
As we start to prepare our dinners, our campsite squatter tells us about himself.
His name is Tommy (name has been changed to protect his privacy). He’s a lawyer, and he’s also trying to finish the La Cloche Silhouette Trail in ten days, like us.
We finish eating and head to our tents for a good night’s rest. It’s only our third day, and we have another long day of trekking ahead of us.
Katrina first approached me about doing this trek six months prior. It’s her goal to one day do all of the major trails in the province of Ontario in Canada. The La Cloche Silhouette Trail is a majestic 78-kilometre trekking loop, winding through old-growth birch forests, pine trees, and beaver-inhabited lakes, and it had been on her list of trails to do for awhile now. She was looking for a group of about four women to do the trek together in August. I immediately said yes. I was leaving Canada for at least a few years, so I thought this would be a special trip that we could do together before I peaced out semi-permanently.
I did have some reservations about going on this trip, though. This was going to be a back-country camping trip – meaning, no cell phone reception or wi-fi, and plenty of bears around but few people. If a bear decided to eat me, my body likely wouldn’t be found for days. Not an ideal scenario.
Also, the last time I had done a true back-country camping trip was about a decade ago. My cousin Iris and I did a five-day trek through Algonquin Park, one of the easiest trails in Ontario. I spent most of the trip picking at my mosquito bites and entertained us by singing nineties’ pop songs off-key for several hours, while my cousin did all of the preparation and planning, as well as most of the chores.
I was also worried because Katrina is a marathon runner, and the other two girls coming with us, Ariellia and Paula, were also runners. Meanwhile, I’m an asthmatic who does no cardio and is allergic to running. While I do keep an active lifestyle, my main sports are salsa-dancing and indoor bouldering.
Bouldering consists of about twenty seconds of physical exertion, and then a ten-minute nap on the crash pads to recover. Salsa-dancing involves three minutes of exercise, and then another ten minutes of my (usually) elderly gentleman dance partner telling me how calloused my hands are for a lady (I’m not a lady) and asking if I want a drink (I don’t want a drink). I was in no way physically prepared to speed walk 78 kilometres up a mountain over ten days – and the majority of the trail would be done over four days. However, I agreed, because Katrina is one of my closest friends, and this would be our version of spending QT together.
We started our trek in the late summer, after all the bugs had decided they’d had enough of the Canadian cold, but just before it got too cold to be unpleasant. It became apparent, however, that we were not an athletically even team. Most of the trail was straight up the mountain, and my cardio conditioning was non-existent – salsa did not prepare me well for extreme mountaineering. That, combined with my asthma and the fact that the other three were experienced long-distance runners, meant that I fell way behind the rest of the group. I was the weakest link.
Also, on the second day, Paula fell ill. She was going at a decent pace, but she had to slow down because of severe stomach pains. And on the third day, Katrina discovered a latent phobia of falling. A lot of the trail involved scrambling – climbing up and over giant boulders – and walking along narrow paths, where a slight misstep meant falling over the side onto a pile of rocks far below.
After one extremely bad day, where Katrina had a severe panic attack and clung to a tree for an hour and a half, and I held the group back with my glacial walking pace, Katrina decided we needed to change the plan. We were aiming to do 12-15 kilometres a day, when the guidebook recommended about 7-9. We’d planned to get to the end of the trail in eight days, so we’d have two days to just relax. But after an evaluation of our various weaknesses (except for Ariellia – she doesn’t have any weaknesses), we decided to spread the trek over the full ten days and not have any days specifically for relaxation.
The problem with this plan was that Katrina had booked the campsites months in advance, as had everyone else. And each site was only meant for one group. We were going to have to squat, Tommy-style, at other people’s sites for the last few days of our trip.
The next morning, we get up and start taking down our tents. Tommy is already up and making breakfast.
“Hey, what happened to you?” Katrina asks. She’s a light sleeper, and she’d told us that he’d been screaming, “No, no, please don’t!” over and over again in the middle of the night.
“I’m fine. Why?”
“You were screaming last night, like you were being violently murdered. It woke Paula and me up…”
“No, it wasn’t me.”
“It was a man’s voice.”
“It must have been someone else…”
He’s the only man at the site, but there’s no point arguing with him.
As we pack up, I ask him why he is decked out in cargo shorts and a towel, when it’s not even ten degrees outside. He tells me he didn’t expect it to be this cold – in northern Ontario, at the end of summer – so he only brought the one pair of shorts he’s now wearing.
Katrina tells him our new plan, I don’t know why. I’m still wary of this strange creature with the massive arms, insane night terrors, courier shorts, and cherubic face.
“I might join you guys, then,” he says, inviting himself along on our squatting adventure. “I’m doing the keto diet, and it’s taking a huge toll on me… I feel weak all the time.”
“You’re doing keto while trekking??” Katrina asks, incredulous. Her husband did keto for awhile, so she’s familiar with this diet. I am not. She later explains to me that it involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat, which puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. While it has been proven to help with weight loss over time, cutting out all carbs suddenly can be draining, especially if you’re just starting out with the diet.
“What’s the next site you booked?” Katrina asks.
“I can’t remember…” he says suspiciously, not making any effort to check.
“Well, do you have it saved somewhere? Like on your phone?”
“No. I wrote it down on a paper, but the paper blew away…” he says pathetically.
“When did you book? They should have sent you a confirmation by e-mail.”
“No, they didn’t. I just booked the sites a few days ago…”
“A few days ago???” Katrina asks incredulously. “I booked our sites six months ago, and I still didn’t get most of my first-choice sites!”
Tommy shrugs indifferently.
“Well, anyways, if you’re gonna try and squat too, you’d better come with us. People are more likely to say yes to one group than to two.”
As I listen to this exchange, I try frantically to make eye contact with Katrina before she invites him along. I’m still undecided on whether Courier Shorts is a serial killer, but I DO know he’s a pathological liar. He knew he was in the wrong campsite last night, and he definitely didn’t book any sites in advance. I’m not even sure whether he’s a lawyer. All I know is that he seems sketchy AF, and now this pants-less, somnambulant liar is going to be trekking with us for the next few days.
But it’s too late to convene a group meeting and vote on whether we trust Tommy enough to travel with him for a week. We make our way out of the site and back on the trail, hoping we’ll be able to squat somewhere – we will be the first people ever to steal camping.
To be continued…
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