It used to be that I would say that the most powerful moment of any summer was the Keylog ceremony during the final Council Fire of the summer. Who could possibly argue that the power of heartfelt and tear laden words, shared by a camper on his last night as a camper, are not the emotional high point of any summer? Indeed, that night surely is the most trying on my emotional self-control. Their emotions affect me deeply. The realization that the summer is coming to a close, and the fun, the laughter, the singing, and the intensity of connection are about to be shelved for the winter deeply affects me. And the realization that that particular group, the camp family of that particular summer, would likely never again be assembled on this planet, deeply affects me.
Still, I have to say, over the course of the past few years, I have found the power of a different annual moment at camp to be even more poignant to me. That moment occurred yesterday afternoon…..and totally delivered. It is the moment when the 9th graders return from their two week trips to Canada. The arrival has been choreographed in such a way as to have all of the 9th graders arrive at camp in a caravan of 15 passenger vans at precisely the same time. Not ones to ever let a potential moment of emotional significance go underplayed, we have the lead car call in to camp about ten minutes before they turn into the Range gate. We then ring a special bell in camp so that everyone knows that the trips are about to arrive. It doesn’t matter who, or what they are doing at that moment…sailors, photographers, kitchen staff, office workers, everyone drops what they are doing and sprints down to the waterfront to watch it happen. (Ok, well not our climbing wall instructors. Having them drop what they are doing immediately would have complications!!!) The four vans pull up along our lakefront, and then the doors fly open. In an instant, 39 smelly, dirty, and exultant young men, and their trip counselors, come flying out of the vans and make a mad dash into the waters of Lake Nebagamon. With the entire camp assembled and cheering wildly, they all pound into the water screaming at the top of their lungs. The next five minutes are spent hugging one another, chanting together, singing together, and congratulating each other. In so many ways, this final entry into Lake Nebagamon for these boys signifies the culmination of their camper experiences as a whole. Their camper careers started out, for so many of them, 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, some 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, in this moment, 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 that 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.
I cannot do justice to this moment through an update. Its power is truly amazing. It is a moment that signals individual success, incredible camaraderie, a true camp family, and, indeed, a lurking sadness borne of a realization that it is all coming to an end very soon.
At this point, there is no denying the fact that all of us have begun to deal with the realization that camp is rapidly coming to an end. We have all become very aware of the fact that, in just two days, our Radical Utopian Experiment will come to a close for the summer.
This is a special time at camp. Over the course of the final days of camp, we all partake in quite a roller coaster of emotions and experiences. We will move from bawdy, frenzied silliness, to prideful moments celebrating individual achievements, to melancholy, pensive reflection.
Last night, we were visited by the chief of the Yo-Yo Islands, Chief A.K. Agikamik. The chief was a roommate of Muggs Lorber at Indiana University in the 1920’s, and he has magnanimously maintained ties with Nebagamon ever since. It is always quite a treat when legitimate (or illegitimate) royalty comes to grace us. The chief always likes to hear about the outrageous happenings at camp throughout the summer. And…outrageous it was! Ask your kids about it. Actually, come to think of it, PLEASE DON’T ask your kids about it!!! Words cannot do it justice…
This morning, we all shared our final Sunday Service. Unlike most Sunday Services which are written and entirely presented by an individual (and delivered on Sundays!), the final Sunday Service is a group effort. I remind the Camp Family that just four or eight weeks ago we each arrived at camp toting a book called The Summer of 2019. In each of our cases, these books were completely blank. Over the summer, each of our books has been written by our own hands, and by the hands of so many others. During this Sunday Service, together as a camp family, we examine some of the contents that have gone into our books. This morning we explored the many chapters of this book: the moments during the summer that made us laugh hardest, our favorite meals, our favorite moments in nature, and the moments that made each of us most proud. Everyone was eager to share their thoughts. It was a great hour of reflection for all of us, and really crystallized each of our summers as we prepared to write the final few pages of our books.
Tonight will be our final talent show, the Follies. Many of the boys have saved their best acts for this final show, and it is always a wonderful combination of genuine talent, absurd comedy, and plain old fun. After the talent show, we will share one final extended sing along. We will sing all of our loud and raucous favorites. This is always fun and is also always different from other sing-alongs. The Rec Hall will be louder, more intense, and even more alive than normal during our singing. If you have read my descriptions about the post talent show singing in the past, you may be wondering if it is even possible to have the singing be more intense than usual, but experience tells me that, without a doubt, it will be. There is always an urgency and almost reckless quality to the singing during the final Follies. EVERYONE puts all of their energy into the songs. You certainly get the sense that, for some of the folks out there, there is an understanding that this is indeed the last time that they will be singing these songs together for quite some time. For our oldest campers, it is clear that they understand that this might be the last time that they ever get a chance to put aside their inhibitions and sing profoundly childish songs with their best friends on the planet…and they will doubtless make the most of it. The silly singing will be followed up by a slideshow featuring photos from the summer. The slides are set to music that has meaning from earlier events in the summer. I have to say, there are few things as effective as photographs set to music to create nostalgic feelings and cause one to reflect. Great stuff. The Follies will be wrapped up by singing three special camp songs that have been sung at the conclusion of talent shows for years. The boys will stand up, remove their hats, throw their arms over each other’s’ shoulders, and sing beautifully.
Tomorrow will be packing day….YUCK! The boys will throw together all of their belongings (well…hopefully all of them) for their trips home. It is always a tough day. Emotions runs high and no one really enjoys it.
The afternoon will be dedicated to our final awards ceremony. Boys will be recognized for all sorts of accomplishments. Some awards will go to athletes, some to artists, some to wilderness tripping aficionados, some to excellent naturalists, some to accomplished sailors…and the list goes on…and on…and on (yes, it is a LONG Awards Ceremony!). This event has a terrific message about what really matters at camp. That message is that everything matters. You are as celebrated here for hitting a home run as you are for knowing how to make home fries. You are as vaunted here for throwing a football skillfully as you are for throwing a pot skillfully. You are as acknowledged here for shooting a bullseye as you are for shooting a beautiful picture.
And then, tomorrow night will be the final Council Fire…the Ninth Grade Council Fire. Without a doubt, it is a night that has been lurking in the backs of the minds of our oldest boys throughout the summer. No, in truth, I think that most campers that have ever been at camp for one of these Ninth Grade Council Fires have been, at least in some way, thinking about the night that looms for them in their final few hours of camperhood. For the ninth graders, their keen understanding of the fact that their camper years are over, fills them with a need to communicate their feelings to the rest of camp. It becomes very important to them to make SOME attempt to share with the rest of the camp family what this experience has meant to them and how the younger campers should relish their time here. The resounding message every year is that it goes too quickly…way too quickly. They are right. Year in and year out, they are right…it goes way too quickly. Needless to say, it is a huge deal for these boys.
Tomorrow night will also be rife with emotion. Dry eyes will be the exception, no doubt about it. I always make a point of telling everyone on this night that if they are feeling sad and struggling with the fact that they are leaving tomorrow, they have done it right. They are to be congratulated for their sadness. It means they came to camp and gave themselves to the experience. They let people in, found new brothers, and connected. They should be sad. We all should be.
Now to be clear, I am a person that avoids tear-jerker movies at all costs. I absolutely despise the feeling that a sad film creates in me. I don’t like to be sad, except for that one night a year when I welcome in sadness like an old friend. I enjoy it just this one night. I am looking forward to that sadness tomorrow night…because it will make it clear to me that I did it right.
Finally, this will be my last update of the summer. For those of you that have been readers of these updates throughout the summer….thank you. Thank you for having the patience to read through my wordy missives. Thank you for finding the time to stay connected to camp. And most of all, thanks to most of you for having the faith, trust and selflessness to share your children with us for the summer. It has been a great summer thanks to each of them…and thanks to you.
Take good care of my boys during the off season…
All is well in the North Woods…