Wednesday, May 6, 2020

AN UNWORTHY IDOL – My Summers As a Camp Counselor

There’s no better way to notice and celebrate small wonders than to see them through the eyes of a child.

Glad to say, I’ve had a few opportunities to do that: as a parent, as a grandparent, and simply as a keen observer of how folks of all ages interact with wonder. Certainly one of the best was the two summers I served as a camp counselor on southern Maine’s gorgeous Lake Sebago.

I was a sophomore in college when my roommate, Kim, told me of his long love affair with Camp O-At-Ka—as camper, junior counselor and then senior counselor. He encouraged me to apply.

So, with Kim’s recommendation, I became the counselor for Cabin Durham, in the camp’s Junior Unit, for boys ages nine and ten. (Kim was counselor for another junior unit cabin, so we had a good-natured rivalry going all summer.)

If I didn’t already know it, I soon learned that ten-year-old boys are like dynamos of wonder. They’re curious; they see things with innocent delight —most have not yet acquired the hard-edged “attitude” that comes with adolescence.

       The kids understood, almost instinctively, 
       the nature of water.

That summer still ranks as one of my lifetime favorites. I became part of a wonderful, generations-old tradition for campers’ families—most of them from west-suburban Boston suburbs like Newton, Waltham and Wellesley. Many of the boys were carrying on an O-At-Ka legacy handed down from their fathers and grandfathers.

It was an opportunity for me to learn about leadership and collegiality, to immerse myself in life in the out-of-doors and, I suppose, to test my native parenting wings. And then there was the heady feeling of being idolized by a bunch of boys who believed I could do no wrong.

Along with my high-school-age junior counselor, I led my eight campers in the typical summer camp fare: sports competition, boating, sailing, crafting, and performing songs and silly skits. There was also a spiritual component reflecting the camp’s Episcopal Church heritage.

My favorite part, though, was the camp’s embrace of Nature and all the opportunities for exploration and adventure. This was my element, a place where
I knew I could share my wilderness canoeing experience and my gifts for observation, curiosity and spiritual reflection.

In two summers at O-At-Ka I led both canoeing and hiking trips to some of Northern New England’s most beautiful places: Maine’s Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic lakes region, the Saco River and New Hampshire’s fabled White Mountains. I loved organizing and outfitting those trips, but even better was the thrill of getting out there in the wild, teaching the boys a few new tricks, and observing how the experiences affected them.


Some of my campers came with a bit of experience in canoeing, but none to the extent of that I’d acquired in my wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. So it was fun teaching them various camping skills and demonstrating just how adeptly one can maneuver a canoe using the various paddle strokes.

    Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown 
    out...because the gunnels slammed together
    with enough force to sever a limb.

The kids understood, probably from playing with it, the nature of water and its ability, even though it’s a liquid, to push back when you force the blade of your paddle against it. They were quick studies. With a little practice, they were handling the basic strokes like old pros.

A bigger challenge was teaching them the concept of vectors—how, to maintain a straight course when the wind or a current is at your side, you have to compensate by keeping your bow aimed at a point upwind of your destination.

The Saco river trip provided a stark lesson on both the vital importance of those paddling skills, and the sheer power of flowing water.

One afternoon we were easily navigating a class-II rapids when we approached a bridge. As one of the canoes without a counselor or junior counselor in it approached the bridge the boy paddling stern apparently got distracted for a few seconds.

I watched, helpless, as the potential catastrophe played out in what seemed like slow motion. The craft had turned sideways, and instead of passing harmlessly under the bridge, it struck one of the v-shaped concrete piers, right at the aluminum canoe’s midpoint. Within seconds, it flipped, open side upstream facing the water’s powerful flow, and then buckled, wrapping itself around the pier like so much tin foil.

Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown out and were able to swim around the wreckage, because the gunnels slammed together with enough force to sever a limb. (Later, the mess had to be salvaged by a wrecker from atop the bridge.)

I’m quite sure none of those boys will ever forget that lesson on focus and physics.

As for my hiking trips at O-At-Ka, the highlight was conquering the Presidential Range, the White Mountains’ string of seven 4,000-foot-plus peaks named for U.S. presidents. Among them, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, whose summit weather station holds the world record for the highest recorded wind speed not associated with a tornado or cyclone—231 miles per hour.

My cabin group was fascinated by this fact, and the indications everywhere of the place’s deadly reputation—like trailhead signage warning climbers that many others who’d not been adequately prepared had perished here. Or, on the summit, the big chains running over the tops of the weather station buildings to keep them from blowing away.

The White Mountains are small compared with their big brothers farther west. But non-technical climbing in the Whites is arguably more taxing, because, unlike the Rockies, for example, most of whose trails zigzag their way gradually to the top, these trails simply go straight up.

For a ten-year old boy, depending on his physical condition and temperament, such steep ascents are pretty daunting. A couple of our kids got so tired and discouraged that they felt they couldn’t go on. There was embarrassment; there were tears, but I dug deep for the motivational skills and patience to deal with the situation, and we eventually managed to do it together, learning a valuable lesson in teamwork.

        They’re beginning to learn that there’s a
        place where their fears and their growing 

        capabilities intersect.

On both water and land, it became clear how much better than I these ten-year-old boys were as observers, as enjoyers of life in the moment. While I had to be laser-focused on logistics, navigation, and the welfare of my young charges, they just did what kids do; they watched and listened, pointed out the small wonders they discovered, and dared each other to take mostly-harmless risks. Most of all, they just played.

They proved that boys will be boys. While big and awesome got their attention, so did some details—the grosser or gorier the better. Like the power of wind and water, especially when there were stories of deaths involved. Like how plate tectonics had squeezed and lifted this immutable granite into mountains, which then got scoured and scooped by glaciers.

Then there was the way clouds of black flies zeroed in and gnawed along the edges of our buttoned-up collars and cuffs, leaving bloody rings. Or the eerie, plaintive night calls of loons across a mirror lake. And definitely how that insane old man with the glowing red eyes—last seen right here in this area—had stalked, then torn out and eaten the eyes of a bunch of young campers.

Boys both fear and love stuff like that. At that age they’re beginning to learn that there’s a place where those fears and their growing capabilities intersect, where knowledge, ingenuity and practice impart power.

The weather had been fairly warm and calm when we started out, but sure enough, by the time we were nearing the summit of Mt. Adams, the temperature had plummeted into the 40s with steady 45- to 50-mile-per-hour winds. The kids took photos of each other leaning into that wind at a 15- or 20-degree angle. Another lesson on the dynamics of an element.

An unforgettable irony of our ten-hour trek up Mt. Washington was peeking over the last little crest in the trail and catching sight of a big parking lot. That’s right, turns out there are two other ways up (by car and by cog railway). Nonetheless, we all felt proud and triumphant having conquered New England's tallest mountain under our own power.

On these and all my trips, I loved how the group, with a little guidance of course, coalesced into a team, with the boys falling naturally into certain roles—as leaders, as workers, as cheerleaders, as clowns—to handle various challenges.

I also enjoyed teaching the kids some of the observation skills I’d already mastered at that ripe old age of 20: patience; thinking as an animal, bird or fish thinks; and, perhaps most importantly, fully expecting wonder instead of just looking for it.


Gary Noren said...

What a wonderful experience during your college years!
Love this: "Boys both fear and love stuff like that. At that age they’re beginning to learn that there’s a place where those fears and their growing capabilities intersect, where knowledge, ingenuity and practice impart power."
Insightful words, Jeff. Thank you!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Gary. It's so nice to know you're among my readers! I really appreciate it. I know how fondly you remember your scouting experiences. Did you tell me you'd gone on to Boy Scout leadership as troop leader or counselor?

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