Victoria Day in the outdoors: an enduring tradition

Paul
Paul Smith
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“The 24th of May is the queen’s birthday — If we don’t get a holiday we’ll all run away.”

I learned this succinct and memorable rhyme from my mother while still young and impressionable. It makes its point very boldly, I think.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, at least, we take our Victoria Day weekend oh so seriously. If the boss doesn’t give us a holiday, we’ll skip work anyway — or school, or whatever. It’s our gateway to summer.

After working and surviving through a long, wet, cold and soggy winter, we’re chomping at our bits for a weekend in the outdoors. It doesn’t matter what manner of weather Mother Nature throws our way. We are a rugged and robust breed, hardened from life on a windswept rock in the cold North Atlantic Ocean.

Neither wind nor snow, sleet nor hail will keep us away from our favourite camping berths on this most sacred of weekends.

We brave the elements in tents, trailers and backwoods or family cabins to trout, ride dirt bikes, pitch horseshoes, eat bologna sandwiches and roast wieners around campfires. It’s a time to rekindle and nurture friendships, create fond memories, embrace the outdoors, and welcome in the summer camping season.

One wonders, in this universe of 500 TV channels, Internet, video games and global influence, whether this microcosm of culture will survive. Well, I am happy to say that enthusiasm for Victoria Day is alive and well.

My 22-year-old daughter, a student at Memorial University, has signed up for the summer semester to expedite finishing her degree. Allison and her boyfriend have been planning a 24th of May outing to the Clarenville area for months.

She texted me a while ago, outraged that MUN did not celebrate the long weekend, so she would have to shorten her outdoor adventure to just Saturday and Sunday. Either that or skip class, which I think it safe to say her grandmother would approve of under such dire circumstances. No Monday holiday to celebrate the reign of Queen Victoria over the British Empire? Outrageous.

It turns out my daughter got mixed up somehow,  through the enthusiastic lecturing of a visiting folklore professor from New York City. I guess he got set straight on one piece of Newfoundland culture.

MUN does indeed honour its students, faculty and staff with a much needed reprieve from work, books and studies to partake in some trouting and general carousing in the wilds of “The Rock.” Imagine spending the 24th weekend in a stuffy and dimly lit library. That’s certainly cruel and unusual treatment, not condoned in this country.

 On one particular Victoria Day, quite a few years ago when the kids were wee and very energetic, I awoke in our trailer to an overcast sky and a thick soggy covering of fresh snow. The evergreen boughs surrounding our campsite were so laden that their lower limbs lay stuck on the ground. Our lawn chairs, strategically arranged for wiener roasting, in a crescent around a now camouflaged fire pit, looked like stuffed white sofa chairs. My propane lantern, once hung from a tree limb, was nowhere obvious.

I was not particularly excited.

Without waking anyone, I lit the furnace to warm my spirits and make the trailer comfortable for the kids to crawl out of their cosy sleeping bags. The strike of match and brimstone woke Goldie, my wife.  She peeped out the window and muttered something about craziness, camping and living in Newfoundland. All I could muster in way of encouragement was a cliché, but I suppose pragmatic; “We’ll have to make the best of it.”

I reluctantly ventured outside to get the bacon out of the Coleman ice box. Wiping off  four inches of snow with bare hands temporarily erased the furnace’s effect on my spirit. But never underestimate the effect of bacon sizzling in a hot pan. I had a plan.

I slipped quickly back inside the trailer, trying not to shiver, and lied to Goldie; “It’s not that bad out; just a little chilly.” I lit the propane stove and warmed my hands before digging the cast iron frying pan out of the cupboard.

Camping, especially when things get bumpy, is generally considered Dad’s idea. The onus was on me to make things right, or at least bearable. When the pan was ready, I laid those delicious strips of smoked pig side by side in my mother’s old pan, now demoted to camping pan. Each piece immediately hissed and sputtered, releasing an intoxicating aroma that has absolutely no early morning equivalent.

Tiny heads begin to stir beneath sleeping bags: “Oh Dad, that smells some good.” Goldie added, “There’s nothing wrong with someone cooking breakfast for me for a change.”

My devious plan was building momentum. Could bacon and eggs atone for Mother Nature’s impish 24th of May prank?

“How do you want your eggs, girls?”

“Yolks runny, Dad.” (I don’t know why I always ask that.)

The pivotal moment was approaching. Megan, the eldest by five years, was inching her head up for a look out the window.

“Allison, Allison; get up and look out the window. It snowed last night. There’s snow everywhere. We can make a snowman.”

Oh, the resilience of youth. Had my fears been completely unwarranted? Was the bacon and eggs really necessary? It seemed to cheer Goldie up, anyway. She was out of bed and had a pot of coffee brewing. The smell of fresh java and bacon filled the tiny trailer and all was well with the world.  I’ll never know the outcome that might have resulted from cold cereal.

After breakfast, the sun came out and the youngsters built their snowman, complete with fishing basket and hat. I dug my lantern out of the snow and chopped firewood for another campfire. Kids really do know how to make the best of things.

 

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: British Empire

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Clarenville, New York City

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