Loons, Lakes and Lily-Dippers: Lessons Learned at Camp

300px-wooden_canoe_sharbot_lake_ontario1I work every Tuesday night at The North Face, selling tents and sleeping bags and hiking shoes to people sometimes as passionate about the outdoors as I am.

Last night, it was a 12-year-old boy with a blond bowl haircut and his mom. The boy, just back from summer camp in New Hampshire, needed a backpack to replace the one he had shredded hiking 4,000-foot peaks. Total strangers, we chatted like old friends about camp — my memories more than 20 years old, his from last week. We had plenty to talk about: mice, bugs, bears, buying candy from the camp store twice a week, (and making sure it didn’t attract bears), how to use a signaling device when you’re lost.

You learn a lot at camp, as much about yourself as anything. I spent eight summers at sleep-away camp (a redundancy for many Canadians), at three in northern Ontario, beginning the summer I was eight. I went for eight weeks every year, trading boarding school and its bells and shared rooms and meals for a bunk bed, spiders and a fresh batch of kids.

The bus would hum for an impossibly long three or four hours up the highway until, finally, it pulled into the birch-lined gravel driveway. Greeted by your counselors, summer began.

You learn to pick your bunk, preferably the lower one so you can draw your knees up and kick the bum of the kid above you. You hope the kid above you does not wet the bed, snore or have an epileptic fit.

You learn to hoist a sail, build a fire, portage a canoe, gunwhale bob (and pronounce gunwhale, “gunnel”), twang a bow, pitch a tent, collect firewood from the highest branches (using a Melamine mug and long rope swung like a lasso.) You get homesick, and get over it. You discover you’re really good at the J-stroke or singing Broadway show tunes in the summer musical. You learn how to cup your hands and imitate a loon call. You learn how to spot a loon across a lake before he dives deep and disappears. You learn to find your place in a new community, amid the bed-wetters and thumb-suckers, the jocks and the artistes. You realize, no matter how poorly you might fit into your class or your school or your neighborhood or town or your family, these people are genuinely happy to see you. The best counselors, and they are gifts indeed, want to see you thrive and grow. Your shoulders drop a little with relief.

Canoe trips, long days spent in the knee-gouging, biceps-wearying cradle of a wood-and-canvas canoe, teach you to take care of each other. Knowing you can push yourself, your food and shelter and canoe, across a huge body of water by your own sheer physical power and mental stamina, is a lesson you won’t forget. You portage your 65-pound vessel, maybe alone, while wearing a heavy pack. Sweaty, stumbling over rocks and roots, you can’t swat away the black flies heading for your nose because you’ll drop and damage the damn canoe — the one everyone needs. You learn to avoid the lily-dippers, the ones who barely touch the tip of their blade into the water because, if they did, and pulled really hard like they’re supposed to, you might actually make it to the next campsite before dark.

You learn what you’re made of. The 12-year-old boy told me he’d swum in hail. We, too, took our daily lessons in water so cold I thought my legs would cramp. Camp taught us both that a little cold water/rain/hail, while miserable and uncomfortable, actually won’t kill you. This is a good lesson to learn, at any age.

At its best, camp creates an intimacy almost unimaginable. Jane Hamilton, in the July issue of “O“, writes: Not so many years before, I had dragged my daughter to a wilderness camp in Vermont. She clung to me weeping as I’d tried to say goodbye, and although we later heard from her counselors and knew that all was well, she herself did not send us a single sentence for the month. When it was over, on the way home in the car, across Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, all the long way across Ohio and Indiana, through the congestion of Gary and Chicago, and finally into Wisconsin, she alternately sobbed and feverishly wrote to her new friends. I couldn’t help remembering that feeling I’d had as a girl, the sense that you have left your very heart behind as your parents drive you inexorably toward your bleak town, back to your old gray life. There, it turns out, your family and your friends don’t see the person you’ve become, the person you were meant to be all along, the you who emerged and was acknowledged and treasured at Camp X. What you have left of Camp X, besides the secret knowledge of your best self, is your worn list of addresses, the photographs, the water from the lake in a jar, the sand in an envelope, a few leaves from the tree, songs that matter to you past speech that you will sing to yourself for solace, and private jokes that are the funniest things that have ever been uttered, which no one at home can understand even if they would consider listening to the whole setup. Love, nothing short of love more real than you’ve ever known, has been seared into your being, and no one can tell this about you at home, and no one cares.

Here’s my favorite paddling song:

My paddle’s clean and bright, flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back, flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip and swing

9 thoughts on “Loons, Lakes and Lily-Dippers: Lessons Learned at Camp

  1. Jennifer Kirk

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful post! Although the summer camp I attended growing up was a ballet camp, which meant not a lot of time spent in the great outdoors, being on my own, amongst my peers, and learning how to fend for myself, so to speak, was an invaluable experience. Reading this post brought me right back there!

  2. Karen Dukess

    Wow, I could have written every line of your post, including the words of the song, which I sang for five idyllic and adventurous summers at camp in northern Minnesota. Your description of the misery and thrill of portaging only neglected to include the indignity of tripping on a root while “double packing” and ending up flailing your arms and legs around like a beetle in the mud.
    Camp was not only a hell of a lot of fun but it got me through some pretty unhappy school years when I hadn’t yet found my place or the right friends. I had a calendar and starting around March, I would X off every day until I could get back to the north woods.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I think the power of a great camp binds a lot of people who’ve never met. Such a welcoming, wonderful respite for me, and I’m glad it was for for you. I was always in trouble at one school or bullied at another, but camp was heaven and I miss it still.

    Beetle in the mud. Yup, I did it, too. Such memories!

    1. Karen Dukess

      Just curious — was it an all girls camp? Mine was, and my son is at an all boys camp. I’m not sure a co-ed environment would encourage and produce the same kind of freedom…

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Karen, I always attended all girl camps, and am glad I did. I agree that it offers a very special kind of freedom. I attended an all girls school grades 4-9 as well.

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