John Burgman and I have probably walked down the camp road together hundreds of times. I once turned to him and asked, “How many times do you think you’ve walked up and down this path John?” We got to thinking about it. The math is relatively easy; three square meals a day multiplied by two makes six, plus a handful of daily walks to and from Pine Stadium and the Mess Hall for activities. Assume the average person walks the path ten times daily, spending half of their session in camp—about 15 days—and you’re at about 150 walks in four weeks. It gets trickier from there, depending on the years spent and the relevant weeks spent each year at camp. I’m easily somewhere in the realm of the several thousands, and John Burgman is probably staring down at the billion mark. Imagine what John or Charlie can claim? I think about stuff like this all the time, so bear with me here, because I have a few more questions to ask.
How many summers have I spent at Camp? How many miles have I driven in my lifetime to get there? How many summers haven’t I spent here? Do I always hear the distinct hum of my vehicle when I drive over the bridge at Silver Rapids? How often do I look left towards the Kawishiwi or right towards White Iron en route? Has my gaze been fairly balanced or do I favor one direction over the other? Do I sometimes glance neither direction, and rather focus my gaze on the highway before me? Is Silver Rapids busy? Did I notice the camp sign as I turn left onto Voyageur Road? Do I remember how many black fly bites Zach Scott and I endured when we set that sign up? Was it 1999? Or was it 2000? Why did my lymph nodes swell up that same morning?
Has the camp road gravel been restored after a season of wear, or will I feel the familiar bumps as I make my way towards the Mess Hall? Are the trees in full bloom and rich with pollen? Do I always roll my window down, pause on the drive, and take a few deep breaths to allow my olfactory receptors to stimulate a montage of memories? Are there watermelons growing at the Narrows yet? When will we get our first chance to bite into a slice of their sweet flesh on an extraordinarily hot summer day? Is Debbie waiting for me at the Mess Hall with a warm “Welcome back!” and “Glad to see ya!” through the kitchen screens? What’s for lunch today? Where’s John? Who else is here? What cabin am I in this summer? What’s broken and needs fixing? What’s new?
Do you recall the sound of the triangle? Can you hear it now? Do you remember the morning summons of Coach, or Bill, or Clarky, or whomever carried that mantle of responsibility in your time? Was it Babe Wheeler? Can you hear “RISE and SHINE; it’s a GREAT day in the North Woods!”? Can you recall the sound of the Mess Hall door slowly slamming hundreds of times each day? Or the sound of the morning bell, the lunch bell, and the dinner bell echoing a double-ding rhythm at the hands of an experienced bell ringer? Or the cacophony of a newbie K-crew guy trying to figure out how the rope and bell can sync into a symphony of summons? Where will you sit today? What are the boys talking about at the meal? Whose gear is on the stage awaiting the sweet serenade of a song or a bad joke?
Can you hear the sound of basketballs bouncing on the court as campers hustle back to their cabins for inspection, eager for a game of hoops, incapable of resisting the allure of a quick shot? Do you hear the sound of campers cleaning cabins or a counselor’s falsetto voice screeching “INSPECTION!” as he makes his rounds? What is the bonus question you will be asked today? Is it camp trivia, Charlie trivia, or some obscure geographical reference from your time spent with the Peace Corps in Lesotho?
Do you hear the boys emerge from their cabins and shuttle to the basketball court and Bill Burgman kindly, firmly shouting “Campers on the ROCKS!”? Can you recall the sound of dozens of feet sprinting to their destination? Did you ever pause along the camp road on your way to a morning activity, close your eyes, and feel the breeze break across the peninsula on a windy day? What did you hear? A loon? Anglers on the bay? Frogs singing summer serenades? A Grumman gently bumping into the shore? Is the Rec Hall open? Are the boys shouting enthusiastically during a heated game of four-square? Do you know how wonderful it is to hear sneakers shuffle on the hardcourt of the Pickleplex and the ensuing pop of a pickleball on a paddle?
What’s for dinner? While you waited, did you ever pluck a few needles from a conifer and rub them betweens your fingers then raise them to your nostrils and inhale their scent? Is this red pine or white pine? Did you count the needles? Did you resist the temptation to ask John everything and instead try to solve the problem yourself? When was the last time you took a shower? Is it time? Is that Dr. Bronner’s peppermint, or lavender, or a bar of Sweet Fern Soap Company birch soap? Is the sauna hot? Do you feel the release of a good sweat followed by the oddly closing catharsis of a chilly splash in Farm Lake? How many times have you ‘hit the rocks’ with a pan full of water? Is that garter snake still taking up residence beneath the sauna stove and casting off its winter skin for a curious camper to discover?
What trips did you go on? Do you remember the names of every lake you paddled along the way? How long was your longest portage? How long is the next one? How many miles did you travel on your furthest day? How many fish did you catch, and how many fish did you eat? Do you remember the names of all the other campers on your trip? Did you make a new friend or new friends? Did you find out something about yourself that you hadn’t known before? How many times have you picked up the scent of something familiar, like a strip of cedar, and for a moment found yourself longing for Camp, for another notch on your belt, for another trip down the camp road?
So, I think about this stuff all the time. I think about it, because it is important to me. I think about it because of how much the camp road shaped me. I think about it because of how much I shaped the camp road, displacing pebbles and dust, sharing conversations with friends and y’uns. I think about it, because the sense of place that camp creates for us is essential to our existence. I think about it when I’m feeling low, and I think about it when I’m feeling up. I think about it, because the first memory I have—of myself at camp—courtesy of Michelle, is that of an 11 year old boy walking that path for the first time in khaki shorts with a yellow mustard polo his mom forced him to wear so he’d look nice; he’s got his head in the clouds, she notices, he’s ambling down that path towards the cabins, eyes poring over the trees, nose turned up inhaling the rich conifers in bloom, feeling that wind break across the point, tasting the freshest air he’s ever known, and hearing the putt-putt of his tennis shoes shuffling along the gravel, and he doesn’t know it yet, but this place is going to stick to him for a long time.
Camp is in my bones; I’m married to it. I never quite find the answers to all of these questions, and I suppose I’m not really looking for them either, but these questions and the infinite probability of the many more we all share remind me of the sense of place that Camp Voyageur holds for me, for you, for everyone that’s had the chance to share in the experience, to walk—and paddle—the Trail of Life, hand in hand, keeping those memories handy for when we need them the most.
So, how many times do you suppose you’ve walked that familiar road? What other questions—on your mind—does the camp road conjure? Pop on over to our Facebook Alumni Page, share, and join the throng!