by Adam Kaplan
The saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” So why Paul Bunyan?
Curious, isn’t it? Camp Nebagamon for Boys, an institution that strives to welcome and nurture generations of young men, offers a first impression consisting of a hulking, 15-foot statue representing the roughest, toughest, most intimidating figure in the history of (fake) lumberjacks.
Keep in mind the emotional state of these boys as they enter through the front gates for the first time. Many of them have never been away from home. They’re somewhat terrified. In that moment of apprehension and uncertainty, they want to be comforted. They want to be assured that they are up to the challenge. Basically, they want their mothers. The last thing they would need is a reminder of how puny, weak, and insignificant they are in comparison to the true giants of the Northwoods.
Indeed, the choice of that massive Paul Bunyan statue as a first impression might seem to be an odd one… to some. But only to those who have never spent time at Nebagamon—or, for that matter, have never taken a really good look at the statue.
A close inspection of our iconic gatekeeper reveals that Paul is not nearly as unapproachable, stoic, and daunting as one might think. For example, have you ever looked closely at Paul’s hands? No? Well next time you are at camp, check out the fingernails. Nail polish! PINK nail polish! Our resident tough guy paints his nails pink? Yep! And what is that popping out of his back pocket? It’s not just your garden variety bandana-style hanky. Nope, not at all. Peeking its head out of Paul’s work pants is an adorable mouse. Paul Bunyan, alpha male of alpha males, cares for a cute, little pet mouse in his back pocket!
Our mischievous staff members’ Nebaga-additions to Paul actually make sense because it’s important to remember how much of the Paul Bunyan legend is enormously whimsical. A giant pet ox? That might be frightening—except for the fact that Babe is a blue ox. That’s just playful, appealing to the kid in all of us. And what about when Paul gets hungry? Well, he has his resident cooks strap giant slabs of bacon to their feet to skate playfully across a cast iron griddle—you know, to grease it for the ginormous pancakes to follow. I mean, come on, that image doesn’t suggest “Lumberjack on Steroids” as much as it shouts “Disney on Ice.”
So the Paul Bunyan at the Camp Nebagamon front gate—the first one built in 1937, and the current one having stood there for nearly half a century—was not meant to loom larger than life. It was meant to suggest that we embrace life. It makes us grin. It energizes us. It gets us in the mood for a summer of whimsy and wonder.
In fact, if one really thinks about Paul Bunyan and what he stands for (literally, in our case), it becomes clear that he is a near perfect representation of Nebagamon. Paul is all about effort and perseverance. He represents both reaching personal potential and valuing teamwork. Virtually every Paul Bunyan legend tells the story of a challenging situation being overcome through working hard, working together, and pushing through some tough circumstances. This is the story of virtually all Nebagamon successes as well.
Sometimes an all-true Nebagamon tale tells of an incredibly challenging portage requiring that the entire trip group work together to make it to that next lake. Sometimes it is the story of a camper passing his tripper rank in swimming despite being afraid to swim in a lake, an achievement that may require the combined efforts of staff members and cabinmates, not to mention a deep personal drive to achieve that goal. Sometimes it’s about a homesick little boy who needs to lean on counselors, his camp big brother, village directors, and his peers to help see him through his first few tough days. And sometimes it is the story of making and keeping your best friend in the world through distance, arguments, jealousies, or personal struggles.
All are stories embodied by that 15-foot lumberjack behind the Big House—determination, cooperation, persistence, potential. So no, Nebagamon’s Paul Bunyan was not meant to intimidate, but rather to motivate and to remind us all that the best things in life are earned through hard work and enjoyed through a sense of community.
As I often say, the geniuses who invented this place had it all figured out, including knowing how best to make a great first impression.