As I sat on the Caledonian Sleeper train, en route to Fort William to begin a four day family canoeing and wild camping adventure along Scotland’s Great Glen with Louis, my 11 year old, I reflected on the holiday phases we go through as a family. When they were babies, we overdosed on extended family get togethers. When they were toddlers, we obsessed about ‘family days out’, with far too many trips to castles, craft workshops and wooden playgrounds where the smell of bark mulch always made me feel queasy after a while. By school age, we finally got it right, and just went camping. They ran around all day and slept all night. It was bliss.
Then glamping hit, and suddenly our old Gelert wasn’t good enough. Real yummy Mummies stay in yurts, you know, where their kids learn bush skills and attend nature workshops. All very cool, until I realised that this isn’t really us. So when I suggested we go away together, just me and him, to celebrate his leaving primary school, Louis hit the nail on the head. “Can we go wild camping, Mum? I mean, really rough it?” Yes, yes, and yes, I thought.
And then I thought again. “Can I, really? I used to be that woman, but now I’m not sure anymore.” No expresso makers on the wood burning stove, no goose down duvet under canvas, no lie-ins while the kids are ‘activitied’ to within an inch of their life?
But as we packed all our belongings into water tight barrels, rolled them, our tent and provisions down the Caledonian canal bank into our handsome Canadian style canoe, and paddled our way slowly but surely away from the crowds, I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief. Because this is living, I thought. I was up front watching where we are going, while Louis steered us skilfully from the rear. All the time following our guides Craig and David, who gauged the family dynamics just perfectly (three families in all). They offered just the right amount of instruction when we did a bum steer, humour when fatigue kicked in, cheers when motivation was needed and praise when a loch was conquered. But they also left us in peace, to savour these rare moments of silence. From time to time I just looked round and smiled at Louis, and he smiled back, revelling in this challenge as he mastered his vessel, or just marvelled at the views of the mountains and lochs all around.
Sharing a canoe with my first born all day long for four days was the most precious way to turn this corner from childhood into adolescence together. This was going to be a new journey in his life, and after negotiating locks and portage, getting exhausted when the rain comes in, putting up tents and shelters at the end of a long day, coping with midges, experiencing the joy of canoeing across the wide open lochs through every element Scotland can throw at you, and then diving into its waters at the end of the day, secondary school was going to be a breeze. And holidays? When you discover the wild within again, there is no looking back really.
Catherine Mack created and runs ethicaltraveller.co.uk a website dedicated to eco-tourism, responsible travel and sustainability. She recently won ‘Best in Responsible Tourism Writing’ in the Virgin Responsible Tourism Awards 2011 and writes regularly for the Irish Times. You can keep up to date with her articles on Twitter @catherinemack