Nine alumni recall nine decades, one memory at a time
Chuck Cohen, 1934: In my first summer at Camp Nebagamon, I was seven years old. I have never forgotten hearing the bugler sound “Reville” each morning and especially “Taps” in the evening. It was at Nebagamon that I first learned the joys of camping out, which became a lifelong passion. My first canoe trip was on the Eau Claire Lakes. Unforgettable memories include sleeping outdoors, looking up at the stars, cooking meals over an open fire, and the wonderful aroma of pine trees. This is where I caught my first walleye and where I was introduced to fly fishing.
I also learned the pleasure of horseback riding on the range. In particular, I recall a covered wagon trip to a nearby lake. After eating steaks in the evening, we sat around the campfire and sang cowboy songs. My favorite was “Zebra Dunn”—the saga of a “tenderfoot from town” who approached a bunch of cowboys and “talked about ol’ Shakespeare while he downed his pork and beans.” But then he tamed the wild horse, Zebra Dunn, showing those cowpokes what he was made of. I still occasionally sing that song and heed its message. “One thing, a sure thing, I learned since I was born: Every educated fellow ain’t a plum greenhorn.”
All of this brings to mind a line from another favorite song—one that all camp alumni know: “And the memories of you that will live all year through—Thank you, Camp Nebagamon.”
1930 covered wagon trip
Joe Hirschhorn, 1942: My favorite moment at camp? It wasn’t when I performed in the Follies, which was overseen by the now legendary John Kander. Nor was it when I was chosen to be on the 1944 Big Trip. The train from Chicago to Hawthorne… covered wagon trips… the Boat House… all memorable. But most memorable moment? It happened on a beautiful June day in 1942. That’s when I found the Goat Badge.
For those of you too young to remember—and that’s most all of you—during the second week of the summer, an all-camp election was held (after some actual campaigning), culminating in an evening convention and the announcement of the “Goat.” Usually a popular older camper, he became the most powerful person in camp. He could actually issue directives, which had to be obeyed—things like “Swamper 4 gets ice cream for dessert tonight.” The Goat Badge, a symbol of power, stayed with that person and cabin (Throck in 1942). But one of the rules stated this: The Badge had to be hidden—outside, with part of it exposed during all swim periods. And if someone found that Badge, the power was then transferred to the finder and the cabin. Well, on that June day in 1942, I found the Badge. My cabin (Axeman 2) was able to maintain control of it throughout the remainder of the summer. So while the Big Trip was special, the Badge was the ultimate ego trip.
1946 fire crew
Bob Benton, 1954: I suspect that very few Nebagamon alumni remember camp’s See America First Trips, the epic bus tours of the American West. However, I was very fortunate to have been a part of two of these—as a camper, then as a counselor. One night in particular stands out. We were in Crater Lake National Park, on a cool evening with no chance of rain, so we decided not to pitch our tents. Instead, we slept under the multitude of stars. I awoke during the night (I’m not sure why) and looked around me. That’s when I noticed a large black bear wandering through the site. It was headed directly for Chuck Long, who was sleeping soundly nearby. Terrified, all I could think was: Please, Chuck, don’t wake up now! Thankfully, he didn’t. The bear simply stepped over him and ambled into the woods. Sometimes prayers work!
On my second See America First Trip, two years later, we were in Oregon again, heading up a mountain while sitting on the front bench of the cook bus. As we slowly climbed the hill, keeping close to the inside, a huge logging truck sailed around the curve on the outside. It was at that exact moment that Chuck Long, again napping, woke up. His first sight was the grille of that oncoming truck. I remember his scream even now. The drivers were pros, and we simply passed each other. But if Chuck had to scream, that was the time to do it!
1954 See America First Trip
Bud Schram, 1961: After being a camper in the 50’s I was fortunate enough to become a counselor in the 60’s. My counselors Ed Saltzstein, Ben Lerner, Ed Drolson, and Si Lazarus were outstanding role models, and to this day my former campers and I maintain friendships. The unforgettable moments are many—from the quirky (a Cruiser Day trip to Fitger’s Brewery in Duluth) and the clever (motivating tri-camp swimmers by offering pre-meet spun honey) to the enlightening (a Camp Council visit to Camp Bovey to see the Camp Nebagamon Scholarship Fund in action) and the inspiring (poetry readings and discussions after Sunday night Council Fires).
One memory that lingers is the early morning of July 21, 1961. At the crack of dawn, my co-counselor Bill Sternal and I woke our campers and made our way to what is now called Lorber Point, where recently retired Muggs and Janet were spending the summer in their trailer. It was there, on a little black-and-white TV, that we watched astronaut Gus Grissom become the second American launched into space. Nebagamon was where I was taught to rely on others while aiming high. Camp was the most important influence in my life, providing me the opportunity to grow as a human being. So it seems appropriate that, with our futures ahead of us, we were sitting amid an earthly paradise with the two people who made that opportunity possible as we watched a courageous man head toward the heavens.
1961 train arrival
Jon Colman, 1971:
During my first several years at camp, I spent most of my time where I felt most comfortable—the athletic fields. Only in my last summer did I feel ready to try tripping, and I joined most of my Throck cabin on my first Sawbill. Something clicked, and I took several more trips before our 1971 Big Trip, which proved to be the highlight of my camper experiences. When we reached Lac La Croix at dusk on Day 8, we stopped to make dinner. We campers started unloading the tents, but our counselors said, “No we’re not camping here.” They explained that we would eat dinner, gather our energy, then load back up and paddle the entire 25-mile length of Lac La Croix—by moonlight.
The feeling of the fresh night air on our faces, the call of the loons in the distance and the vast serenity invigorated us. We were the only people on the lake, moving together as a group, with the sound of the paddles hitting the water and only the lights of the Indian Reservation to remind us that, yes, the rest of the world did indeed continue to go on. While it is often difficult to appreciate some experiences until they are over, I couldn’t help but take it all in in the moment. I can still recall with ease the feeling of accomplishment and the bond we felt as a group. Camp had helped to stretch me beyond my comfort zone and taught me to reach for more.
1978 canoeing trip
Brad Herzog, 1983: I well recall my first few Pow Wow Days as a Nebagamon camper, when I would marvel at the big chiefs. They were teenagers, for goodness sake, confident and vaguely heroic and ten feet tall and fully deserving of their lofty titles. Then I became one of them—a near-sighted, shallow-chested, self-doubting big chief—and it was like discovering that the great and terrible wizard was a bumbling oaf behind a curtain. We mighty Cherokees lost each and every one of our first thirteen preliminary events—a comedic montage of errant jumpshots, missed targets, and tipped canoes.
Heading into Pow Wow Day itself, we were so far behind that victory was virtually unattainable. So I borrowed a notion from the Bill Murray summer camp movie Meatballs, which had been released a few years earlier, and led a procession of faux Cherokees through the Rec Hall at lunchtime. We shouted, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” And, it may be coincidental, but afterward we suddenly started sinking shots, hitting bullseyes, and actually staying afloat. By the end of the day, we had finished in second place. But the memory that makes me smile is the refrain, echoing through the Rec Hall: “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” And significantly, it didn’t.
1983 Pow Wow Day
Josh Gray, 1991: I used to compete in a lot of tennis tournaments at Nebagamon. Each was its own memorable experience. Sometimes we would travel on raucous van rides to exotic (it’s all relative) places like Eagle River or Bemidji to play against other camps. At other times, kids from camps like Menominee, Thunderbird, and North Star would make the trip to our home turf. They would pass through the front gate, glance up at Paul Bunyan, eat in the Rec Hall, complain about our egg water, and get a glimpse of what “roughing it” was like. At least, that was our point of view.
I remember playing against a camper from Menominee who beat me in an eight-game pro set, 8-6. I certainly hated losing, but with 25 years of distance and reflection, what I remember from that day is not the sting of the loss. Instead, I recall the joy of a support system of friends who sat on the grassy hill behind the tennis courts and cheered me on. When we walked off the court, a flock of Nebagamon campers and counselors greeted me with words of encouragement, high-fives, shoulder squeezes, and pats on the back. This was my summer family, showing me again what we all now know well: None goes his way alone.
Andrew Schram, 1998
Joey Laskin, 2006: To me, a chubby kid hailing from Los Angeles, the wilderness always represented the great unknown—and my dreams of being away from the city. My appetite for the wild only ballooned at Camp Nebagamon year after year. One trip I kept hearing about—spoken of in reverent, mythical tones–was the Grand Portage, a nine-mile, nearly 3,000-rod portage from the Pigeon River to Fort Charlotte in Minnesota’s northeastern corner. During my last year as a camper, I mustered up the courage to try it, and it was a trip that will stay with me for the rest of my days.
The highlight amid the highlights came on day six. As camper Malcolm Kerr, trip leader Mike Freeman and I dragged our canoe down the shallow Pigeon River, we confronted something remarkable: a ten-foot-tall Bull Moose, gently lifting its head from the trickling creek to gaze upon our stunned faces. I was terrified, yet there was also an undeniable peace to be had in observing this magnificent beast as it grazed and then stomped its way back into the forest.
To this day, the Grand Portage was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After completing the long, flat portage that gives the trip its name (bugs buzzing in the canoe that I was carrying over my head), my friends and I jumped into Lake Superior to let the water cool us off. I know I’ll never experience anything quite like it again.
Grant Rosskamm, 2015: It began as a rather typical Monday night, and for those of us who made up the Swamper staff our village meeting had just ended. As Swamper push David Sachs and I left the Wanegan, we happened to glance up through the trees and notice what we first thought was a light, wispy cloud cover. After taking another moment to examine the night sky, we were both suddenly taken aback as we realized that what we were actually looking at was the strongest display of the Northern Lights that either of us had ever witnessed at camp. After standing there for a moment, awestruck at what we were seeing, we both came to the same conclusion: We have to wake up the kids.
I quickly ran back to my cabin, flipped on the lights, and roused my confused and groggy 4th graders. I led them by flashlight to the Upper Diamond, while excitedly assuring them that they would never forget what they were about to see. Once we reached the field, the sleepy look on the faces of my campers was quickly replaced by that of pure wonder. We all stood there in silence as we marveled at the curtains of silver light dancing effortlessly through the sky. It wasn’t long before almost the entire camp joined us to watch the show. But getting to share that experience with my campers is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.