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Bunks, boats and bears: PDF Print E-mail
Written by Rick Epstein   



Summer bliss at sleep-away camp



My daughter Sally was 10 when she first went away to a YMCA sleep-away camp in the mountains. It is a classic, with a lake, cabins, a totem pole, a trading post, a mess hall and a camp ghost.


At camp Sally discovered a world run by college kids and populated by fun-seekers. She acquired a ton of new friends (I’m figuring 20 friends at 100 lbs. each) and took part in her first “color war.” Every camper is assigned to one of two rival teams – Red or Black. The competition begins without warning at midnight with the firing of a small cannon and lasts 48 hours. The kids paint themselves red or black and yell themselves hoarse for every tug-of-war and canoe race. Each win provokes wild celebration.


The camp ghost is Crazy Annie, a kitchen worker who drowned herself in the lake when a counselor jilted her. Need proof? Well, the lake is right there, and no camper has ever needed more corroboration than that. At night, Annie’s ghost comes out of the lake and prowls the camp.


So do bears. The campers are taught how to deal with them. Sally shared her knowledge with me, “If a bear is after you, do NOT run away, and do NOT climb a tree.”


“Hey! Whose side are you on?” I asked. “How about if I just catch a cub and hold him hostage to make his mother behave?”


“Stay out of the woods,” she advised.


That first summer, besides making candles and braiding lanyards, Sally learned a new sport and came home with a trophy – a gold-painted sailboat centerboard inscribed: Outstanding Windsurfer. She talked about camp all the time. Sally was hooked and went back summer after summer, eventually becoming a paid counselor. Back home, we miss her cheerful company.


It’s a July day and Sally is 17. I take a day off from work and drive a few hours up to the camp. At the office, the director tells me Sally is supervising the boat dock.


There, empty canoes and rowboats drift on their tethers while boys and girls scamper back and forth catching tiny moths in the woods and dropping them off the dock to float wriggling on the water. Fish surge up from below and snatch them away. Whether the kids were being cruel or kind depends on whether you are a moth or a fish.


Sally sits dangling her feet into the water, dividing her attention between chatting with a cute boy counselor, watching the young kids feed the fish, and scratching a small-but-demanding outbreak of poison ivy on her leg.


“Dad! What are YOU doing here?” Sally asks in friendly amazement.


“I wanted to see you,” I confess.


“Excellent. You can have lunch with me and my girls,” she says. Sally tells the curious kids who I am, and I help them nourish the fish. Then Sally and I are in the mess hall at a table with eight 13-year-olds who live in her cabin. They all are smiling and radiant from outdoor living. Being Sally’s father makes me a camp celebrity.


By way of welcome, a girl with a ponytail says, “Let’s each say our name and our favorite color. I’ll start: I’m Brittany and my favorite color is kind of a yellowy orange like an oriole.” Camp culture requires everyone to buy into this kind of cheerful goofiness.


Without any electronics more complicated than electric lights, at night the kids roast marshmallows, strum guitars, sing foolish songs like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt,” play guessing games and put on talent shows. They gossip and flirt and sneak out of their cabins after hours in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with their counselors.


Even though I am only there for lunch, the girls make me feel like one of them. We wolf down hamburgers and the bug juice flows like wine.


What a great place! What wonderful kids! Driving home, I get an idea. The camp is chronically short of cheap help, and I get five weeks of vacation every summer. I COULD WORK AT THE CAMP! But my plan dies quickly; my wife would almost surely figure out where I went.



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