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Coming home….

Every year, I make a point of carving out most of a day to drive up to pick up our oldest campers as they return from their two-week Big Trip adventure. Most years, my destination is Moose Lake in the Boundary Waters as the boys would have just paddled across the Canadian border and back into the United States after a fortnight Canuckia. This year, due to the border’s continued closure, we had to plan a different kind of Big Trip for the boys. We decided on a two week trip paddling around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (a place that has been the backbone and base of so much of their Camp Nebagamon wilderness tripping) culminating with the famed Grand Portage, a nine-mile portage that connects the Boundary Waters with Lake Superior. It was the main avenue through which the voyageurs of the fur trading era connected their bounty with the markets. Yeah…you read that right…a NINE MILE PORTAGE!!! That means, on the final day of their Big Trips, the boys carried all of their gear and canoes across a NINE MILE PORTAGE and eventually arrived at Lake Superior. The boys launched their boats into the Gitche Gumee and then their trip was complete. Quite a finish huh? I was waiting for them at the end of their journey.

The rationale for this annual sojourn to meet the trips 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 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 drive 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…

The final days of the trip were organized so that the two Big Trips met up on Monday night to reconnect and spend a special night together. Then, early this morning, the boys set off on their NINE MILE PORTAGE with a target of finishing at about 11 AM. (Indeed an early start!) As the driver, I arrived at least an hour and a half early to make sure that I was there to see them come in (and of course so they could see me in all of my magisterial glory standing on the shore and waiting for them). Again, there was some nice solo time associated with this ritual as well. I enjoyed listening to the distinctive sounds of eagles and loons as I waited.

Eventually, I heard the boys. They saw the end of the portage before they saw me and the hooting and hollering of the first of the two groups commenced. When they emerged, they quickly set down their canoes and the celebration began. More cheering…congratulatory hugs all around…exultation. A few minutes later the second group arrived…and the exact same scene played out…except this time it was both groups embracing each other. Brothers congratulating each other after separate adventures…so proud of their achievements and so brimming with stories to share. But before any stories could be swapped, the culminating moment that they had all been waiting for had to be experienced.  They grabbed those canoes one more time and portaged them down the road (I know….”down the road” is way less cool than “across the last bit of the ancient portage that the voyageurs had traversed a century and a half ago” but I try to be as faithful to the facts on the ground as possible!) to Lake Superior and walked straight into its chilly waters, hurling their canoes into the water….mission accomplished!  More hugs…more cheers….more chest thumping….It was a wonderful moment to observe. And nobody noticed the camp director standing off to the side.

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 in so many of its goals in a wonderful way.

With the conclusion of the Big Trip, 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 emotionally…and succeeded. Score one for independence and one for grit.

That embracing that they do of the others that they shared the trip with is clearly emblematic of the degree to which those that shared that experience have come to depend on each other and grown together as a 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 two trips get together, you get a chance to see best friends who were on separate trips, or having separate experiences, reunited and share 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 Big Trip 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, resilient, learned to depend on each other, learned to live 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 sprint down to the waterfront…to watch it happen. The vans pull up along our lakefront, and then the doors fly open. In an instant, every one of the smelly, dirty, and exultant young men come flying out 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. All these years later, their camper careers begin their culminating few weeks 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 Big Trippers themselves. But more recently, 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 their summers in different leadership roles. They have been admiring them for a long time…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 other 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 Big Trippers, 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 Big Trips 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…really works.

All is well in the North Woods….