Every year, I make a point of carving out most of a day to drive up to Moose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to pick up our 9th graders on the day that they come in from their two week canoeing trip in Canada.
The rationale for this annual sojourn is almost entirely selfish. First, I worked as a trip driver in the summer of 2000 and totally loved the job. In my job as camp director, I really miss the opportunity to get out there and drive into the wilderness. If you have never been in the Boundary Waters before, it is a really special and beautiful place. To be honest, I also use this drive as an opportunity to have three hours to myself with no questions to answer, no disputes to mediate, no decisions to make…silence. I don’t even listen to music.
The final selfish reason that I do this every year is because I figure that the kids will be really psyched that I make a point of driving all the way to pick them up. What could be more indicative of the significance of this culminating event in a camper’s life than to have one of the CAMP DIRECTORS make the trek to the border just to bring you home. What an honor…
It is on this final point that I am proven to be a vain and self-important man year after year. More on this later…
It is a great scene. The morning has been organized so that both of our remaining Big Trips have been told to meet at the canoe landing at Moose Lake at 10:00 AM. As the driver, I arrive at least an hour and a half early to make sure that I am there to see them come in (and of course so they can see me in all of my magisterial glory standing on the shore and waiting for them). I stand on the shore at the landing and wait. Again, there is some nice solo time associated with this ritual as well. I enjoy the sounds of eagles and loons as I wait. Eventually, the specks appear on the lake. Slowly, they grow and eventually turn into canoes…and finally that first trip reaches the shore. They fling their paddles onto the beach and leap out of their canoes embracing and congratulating each other. In a few minutes, they come and say hello to me (they like to hug me in all of their smelly, dirty, adolescent glory…but hey, I am just psyched to be noticed).
We then drive to a beautiful state park where the entire ninth grade and their counselors are reunited. This includes boys from the earlier Quetico trips, those that chose not to take the Big Trip, and all of the ninth grade counselors. Those that are coming from camp drive north to the park; we drive south to the park from the border. As soon as we arrive at the park, that very same scene from the canoe landing is played out again. Brothers greeting each other after separate adventures. So excited to be connected again, and brimming with stories to share. It is a wonderful moment. And nobody notices the camp director in the corner.
Admittedly, this used to bother me. I mean, how could this possibly be? Don’t they understand how busy I am, and what a huge sacrifice it is for me to take so much time to come and get them? Don’t they realize how honored they should be, how flattered they should be, how truly grateful they should be to me for making such a show of support? I used to stand off to the side of the group and fume a bit. But then it changed. I began to understand what was really going on there. Playing out before my eyes was camp succeeding at so many of its goals in a wonderful way.
With the arrival of the Big Trips, the boys, many of whom were quite nervous prior to leaving on the trip, had done it. They had completed two full weeks in the wilderness. They had challenged themselves physically, mentally, and psychologically…and succeeded. Score one for independence.
The embracing of their friends with whom they shared the trip is clearly emblematic of the degree to which, during that shared experience, they had come to depend on each other and unified into a tight group. They learned that in order for any wilderness trip to succeed, you need to work together, be patient with each other, attempt to understand each other, and be able to count on each other. Score one for interdependence and one for group living skills.
Finally, when the 9th graders convened at the park, they got a chance to see their best friends who were on separate trips, or having separate experiences, and shared genuine moments of joy in seeing each other. In watching these reunions, I am reminded of the scenes that I have seen at airports in which family members that have been separated for years reconnect in touching and jubilant moments. If you have ever witnessed one of those airport moments, you know how amazing they are to behold. Score one for truly meaningful friendships.
And I get to watch it all play out…
And so it is, that despite the fact that I am all but completely ignored there at the canoe landing, I find the trip to pick up the boys from their Quetico adventures so rewarding. Right in front of my eyes, I get to see how Nebagamon has really worked for all of these boys. They have become independent, learned to depend on each other, learned how to navigate the challenges and joys of living together as a group, and made deep and important friendships
The drive back to camp from the park is much of the same. I get to hear some of the stories from the trip (their nod to humoring the guy that drove up to bring them back home), but mostly I just get to listen to them speak in their own language (that tends to develop on a long trip) and speak to each other in inside jokes. It could be a complete stranger driving for all of the attention I get…and that is just fine
Because what comes next….is amazing.
When the vans arrive at camp, we enter through the far Range gate and honk our horns as we drive through camp. It doesn’t matter who, or what they are doing at that moment, everyone drops what they are doing and sprints down to the waterfront…..to watch it happen. The vans pull up along our lakefront, and then the doors fly open. In an instant, the entire ninth grade class of smelly, dirty, and exultant young men come flying out of them and make a mad dash for the lake. With the entire camp assembled and cheering wildly, they all pound into the water screaming at the tops of their lungs. The next five minutes are spent hugging one another and congratulating each other. This is a HUGE moment for the boys. For many of them, their camper careers began seven years ago as frightened Swampers, jumping into the cold waters of an alien lake to take their first swim tests, terrified about what lurked below. I believe, in that moment, the Swampers feel like they are alone. Seven years later, their camper careers end with the very same boys, once again jumping into that same lake. But this time, that alien lake is nothing of the kind. It is home. Its water feels as warm and comfortable as the most welcoming bath. And not a single one of them feels alone. They are surrounded by, exhorted by, and embraced by, their brothers.
It used to be that my sole focus down on the waterfront during this special moment was on the 9th graders themselves. But lately, I also have been noticing the other campers and staff as they share in the moment. I notice the Swampers and Loggers, who, while they clearly do not yet understand the significance of the moment to those older boys, are very clearly aware that something big is happening and cheer loudly and excitedly as it happens. They look on admiringly at these guys that they have seen throughout the summer in different leadership roles. They have been looking up to them for three or seven weeks…and they are happy for them. I notice the Axemen, boys that have recently realized that next year, they will be the leaders of camp, they will be the Lumberjacks. And while they still have two years until they will be entering Lake Nebagamon in this way, it is clearly on their minds. I notice the 8th grade Lumberjacks. They always position themselves in the best vantage point possible to make sure they can see every second of the proceedings. The looks on their faces are oddly serious. As though they understand that this is the last time they will ever be spectators to the event…..next time it will be real….next time it will be them. And I notice the staff members. Those for whom this is their first summer at Nebagamon, stand slack jawed and awed at the spectacle. While they have no first-hand experience with the feelings and excitement of these boys, that emotion and energy is palpable and easily assimilated. Those staff members that were campers themselves stand silently and wistfully. While they are generally supportive guys that are all about the kids, and are genuinely happy for the returning 9th graders, I notice that in this moment, these veterans turn inward. It is clear that the sight of these boys returning to Lake Nebagamon at the end of their Quetico, and camper adventures, transports these staff members to that moment years before when they were the ones running into the lake. They remember the exaltation of that moment, they remember the bittersweet nature of that moment, they remember the power of that moment…..they stand silently in their own transported worlds and remember.
And, while I, admittedly, am a sentimental type, it is perhaps the most moving moment of each summer. It is a moment that signals individual success, incredible camaraderie, a true camp family and, yes, a lurking sadness borne of a realization that it is all coming to an end very soon. We express this through shouts, hugs, and a coming together like no other during the summer. Score one for the absolute knowledge that camp works….it REALLY works.
All is well in the North Woods….