One of my joys every summer is the opportunity to watch how the experience for our campers is not only an exercise of the spirit and the body, but also of the mind. This presents itself in various ways – Sunday Services, Council Fires, quiz bowls, communal readings in the cabin after “Taps”, existential discussions while watching the sun set in the Boundary Waters. But I also see this journey of the mind in a program we call Trails Forward.
A few times each summer, we are visited by camp alumni who have particularly interesting jobs – whether they’re visual artists or television producers or toy makers. They carve out time in their busy lives to return to a place that helped form their skills and passions… and then they pass on that skill and passion to another generation.
Now, you would think that a bunch of kids who have just finished a two-mile paddle at the canoeing project… or baking vanilla cupcakes at the MOCA project… or chopping wood for a future cabin cookout… would have trouble switching gears. Would they really want to sit down and talk shop with someone a generation or two older? Do they want to spend a rest period replacing a cabin card game with a sort of summer-camp classroom?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Just this past week, three alumni spent some time with campers, detailing what it is they do. First, an author arrived. He’s written and published dozens of books for readers of all ages, including a dozen rhyming alphabet picture books about everything from the history of baseball to the contributions of immigrants. So he sat down with a group of campers and brainstormed an alphabet book about Camp Nebagamon – from A (arrival) to Z (zipping up your duffel at the end of the summer).
The campers were eager to offer insight. Letter K? “Keylogs that Keep the Fires Burning!”… Letter L? “The Lower Diamond! Lorber Point! The Little House!”…. M? “Mountain biking! The Mountain Dew song!” Two days later, the author-alumnus unveiled 26 poems – co-authored by a group of enthusiastic campers. It’ll appear in a future edition of the alumni newsletter, The Keylog.
Just a couple of days later, two more alums made an appearance. One is a longtime sports agent who has represented NBA and NFL players and now reps coaches like the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr. The other, making his first trip to camp in three decades, is a longtime scout for the Minnesota Vikings. After lunch, they were met by a throng of campers in the Rec Hall. Ten percent of the talk consisted of the men discussing what they do for a living. The other 90 percent? Truly excellent questions from campers.
Now remember, I’m a former teacher. I know when a young person’s question represents a sort of go-through-the-motions process as opposed to true intellectual curiosity. All of these were the latter. The campers asked what a scout does when thrown a curveball during the NFL Draft, how an agent handles it when one of their clients is having teammate conflicts, how they feel about a player or coach speaking out on political issues, what kind of travel their jobs require…Those are some darn good questions.
To be honest, I suspect that many of our Trails Forward speakers are often surprised by the insight and interest of our campers. But they shouldn’t be. Because those speakers were once those campers. The first Trails Forward program took place back in 1973 when a couple of camp parents, Chuck and Arlene Semel, completed several art projects with the campers – including painting the colorful mural on the side of our 9th-grade Throck cabin.
That mural is now an iconic part of camp. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Throck without it. And the same goes for Trails Forward. It is a sort of paying-it-forward mainstay every summer. Grateful alumni return to the place that was a transformational part of their childhood and they pass on their passions to another generation of campers… who will someday be grateful alumni.
Later this summer, the campers will have the opportunity to chat with a former camper and counselor who served as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration. I can guarantee that there will be a group of eager campers digesting every word while they digest their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
It’s why I love the kinds of kids who choose to make Nebagamon their home each summer. They are as curious as they are adventurous, as insightful as they are enthusiastic. Someday, some of them will return – older, wiser, experienced, and eager to share. And they’ll pass on the torch of generational wisdom. That’s why we call it Trails Forward.
Of course, all of these heady pursuits this week will be juxtaposed beautifully against the backdrop of PAUL BUNYAN DAY(!!!!) tomorrow….More on that in a couple days.
All is well in the North Woods…