I’ve lost count of the number of times my husband and I have threatened to send our boys to military school. Visions of boot camp danced in our heads every time we found one of Spence’s fugitive pet snakes peeking at us from some unexpected spot, or, more recently, when we discover Alex playing World of Warcraft at 2 a.m. on a school night. It was especially tempting when Will ran over my beauty bush with the family van. Fortunately for him, he was only five at the time and too young for boarding school (though, it seems, old enough to drive – if not well). Instead, we settled for sending them to summer camp.
Now, a child’s first weeklong, away-from-the-parents camping experience is a right of passage. I know this firsthand because my parents sent me to camp, often two or three a summer. Sometimes I had just enough time to shower and pack fresh undies before being whisked off to continue my commune with nature. Of course, anyone who’s ever been to summer camp knows it’s less about nature than it is an adolescent social experiment. Adolescence and nature: both red in tooth and claw.
For me, it began at Camp Niwana. Camp Niwana was – and is – a Camp Fire camp on the outskirts of Port Orchard. Though only an hour from home, Camp Niwana felt like a wilderness outpost to an eight-year-old girl. As a Bluebird I had been in training for the rigors of life in the wild, living by my wits under the tutelage of Sandy who ended each meeting by hunting me down and punching me. Bring on mosquitoes, rain and wild animals; as long as Sandy wouldn’t be there, sign me up for camp!
In fact, Camp Niwana was quite civilized and tightly run, and – in those days – girls only. It was a blissful week of swimming (in the lake … no sissy chlorinated pools for us!), playing games and singing songs (“the other day, I met a bear … ”). By the time Grandma came to pick me up I’d discovered I could survive a few nights away from home; I was a liberated woman, and I was hooked on camp.
Before long I was also attending the Camp of the Holy Spirit (CHS) at Spirit Lake. My memories of the experience are doubtless over-romanticized, owing to the fact that the camp is now gone; not merely closed, but wiped from the face of the Earth by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. There was magic to the camp at Spirit Lake. Whereas Camp Niwana was highly structured, the Episcopals ran a much looser ship; relying, no doubt, on divine intervention to keep its campers “quick” rather than dead.
Compared to my previous camping experience, the facilities were more rustic and the population co-ed. There were wild blueberries everywhere, and the girls in my cabin spent many happy hours throwing them at the boys – who gave as good as they got. We swam, fished for Spirit Lake’s green-fleshed trout, and hiked up Mt. St. Helens in search of Sasquatch and wild strawberries (one of which we happily found; the other, happily, did not).
Another popular pastime was “tippie-canoe” in which campers would paddle out and, on purpose, sink their canoe. The canoes were fitted with flotation devices and never completely sank. We campers, while not fitted with floatation devices (life jacket … what’s a life jacket?), never completely sank either.
At CHS, I was initiated into that hackneyed camp tradition, the snipe hunt. Now, maybe it’s a real guffaw to send a bunch of city kids out to beat the bushes for make-believe beasts, but our roots were mostly rural and we understood snipes to be those little feathered wave-chasers also known as killdeer. So it made absolutely no sense to be out after dark, in the mountains, slapping the salal to flush out innocent little shorebirds. I suspect the counselors wanted to get rid us long enough to rifle our duffle bags and eat our candy.
Soon another camp was added to my summer repertoire: 4-H camp. Also co-ed, it added a whole new dimension to camping as my friends and I were now old enough to be more interested in kissing boys than throwing blueberries at them. 4-H camp was the only camp in my experience crazy enough to hand us bows and arrows. It also added new camp songs to the dozens already buzzing around in my brain; camp songs I still sing at random moments, to the horror of my children.
For me, the defining moment of summer camp came one warm August night on the shores of Spirit Lake. The entire camp had been divided down the middle, and each camper and counselor had been fitted with a blue or red armband. It was camp-wide capture the flag, and it was a freedom fiercer than any I had ever experienced. From just before sunset until far into the night we ran and hid and plotted and sacrificed ourselves for our teammates. We were feral, and the night was ours.
As for my sons’ camp experiences, I have no idea. With boys, what happens at camp stays at camp. But I hope that on some moonlit summer night they’re allowed to run wild in the forest. Just keep the car keys away from Will.
Contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org.