Shockingly young-appearing camp counselors greet parents and offer tours. Many of us decline, no need to explain how deeply we feel at home here. In fact, we recognize them. They are us, twenty years ago.
I am at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan to greet my oldest, who has just returned from his first canoe trip.
I spent many summers here at Widji. As a camper, I thought I went for adventure and to meet new people. I did not think I went for the terrifying storms, 13-hour hikes, nauseating homesickness, weeks of damp feet, weepy blisters or thick mosquitoes. But camp was all of those things, too.
I thought I joined the staff for all the same reasons. And I wanted to be a teacher. This was experiential education at its finest: working with girls on the brink of adulthood in nature.
Yesterday when I arrived in the north woods, I stepped out of my car and was immersed in the smell of pines. The air was soft with impending rain and dappled evening sun. Immediately, the sensations seeped in through the bottoms of my feet like water. If you’d been there, you would have seen it begin to brim upon my lower lids.
This is why I returned to camp, summer after summer. It filled up a drained-out me like a dromedary. Every time I returned, despite all challenges, or perhaps because we endured the hardships so well together, I left with enough fresh water to make it through another year of school.
The nervous excitement growing in my belly feels odd and displaced. I am a parent awaiting a glimpse of my son. I am a camper excited to see my parents. I am a counselor eager to return from trail. My camper has only been gone for five days—I know this feeling isn’t just about this moment—it is about all of these moments.
So much feels the same. Some staff remain the very same. The trail building is in an entirely new log structure, yet it smells the same. The drying canvas packs emit the same heat. The big black camping pots were our pots. The canoe barn whispers history the same way it did when I first entered it. The towering pines, the wind off the lake, the feel of cabin row, the bursts of laughter, the screen doors—they are as mine as my heart.
Camp is peppered today with campers and counselors who are the children of dear old friends. This is how I remember camp too. We came home excited to tell our parents about our new friends, only to hear them say, “Oh that must be the niece” of so and so.
We learned “The Widji Way” to travel the wilderness. We sat around fires and told the same stories, generation after generation. We know the same songs and indoctrinate our children with them in their cribs. We claim it’s not a “cult” but we know. We know.
Tonight, we find our campers, freshly sauna-ed and sun-kissed. Their hugs are more lingering than usual. They look bigger than when they climbed aboard the bus. My head feels swimmy with memories. I slip easily from now to my childhood.
They introduce us to their counselors and walk us about camp, showing us their route on a map twice as tall as them. We hear about the storm, the stinky tent, card games, and happenings so funny they can’t get to the end of the story. They show us how to 3-person lift an 80-pound wood canvas canoe and how they can actually carry the beast. They are reverent of its strength and delicacy.
I am earnest about ensuring my son feels this is his trip, his experience, his discovery. I want it to feel as powerful, new and exciting to him as it did to me. I quiet my memories as much as I can until he beckons them himself.
We walk into the tripping center. He asks me to find my Mountaineer hat on the wall, hung with all the others. We find Molly’s, Rachel’s, Aaron’s, Peter’s, Amy’s and and and…I loved those friendships then when we were here together. It is a fraction of the gratitude I feel for those continued friendships in this moment. We look at names on plaques and paddles of Voyager and Mountaineer groups. “Mom, that’s cousin Jeff,” and “Look there’s Melissa,” and “Isn’t that the mom of my babysitter?”
After the banquet, we sing Viva la Companie and Madeline with a life-force revved by recent adventure. Each troupe rises to the front and each child, age 11 to 15 or so, shares something. “I am proud of myself for learning to steer a canoe.” “I loved seeing otters play.” “My favorite part was these people.”
What we hear as parents is that camp succeeded. The mission of the YMCA and Camp Widjiwagan is being expressed right here in front of us by the campers themselves. They speak to wilderness, quiet, learning, cooperation, bravery and growth that are timeless.
Through a soggy face, I watch my son sing in firelight. I’m lost in a “this is your life” montage. These songs we sing at family gatherings, weddings and funerals. These are my lullabies. “In time when you are ready, come and join me take my hand, and together we’ll share life out on the lose.” My son turns and finds me in the crowd and smiles. We know.
The funny thing is, I didn’t know. I did not project into sleepless moments with my infant a child of twelve. I sang those songs because they were the most familiar to me when I was my most exhausted.
I love this place. It was not perfect. Some summers we couldn’t afford to go. Sometimes I was nauseatingly homesick. But good and bad, camp helped me walk bravely into other communities, continents and experiences. Camp was the adventure that beget all further adventures in my life.
Camps are designed to help kids practice working through struggles they can handle, like getting along with others and sustaining a fire. It is a second family. If my kids find that at Widji, I will be thrilled. If they find it elsewhere, I will be thrilled. I know kids who find it through choirs, theater productions or sports teams. What we want for our children is experiences that make them feel attached and stretched—a place to learn skills that give them a sense of competency in the world.
At session close, the staff stands in front of camp and sings a sort of prayer: “May the long time sunshine on you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”
We know it will.