Tim (beard) and Peter Harris (tuxedo) recounting Camp memories over a donut breakfast.
I am standing outside the security exit at Duluth International Airport on a sunny Sunday morning waiting for campers. I’ve flown in from Nashville to spend another 10 days working at Camp; COVID has hit the labor market, and good help seems to be in short supply. So why not? I ain’t 40 yet, and how often will I get the chance to be a summer camp counselor again? It doesn’t hurt that I married into the Erdmann Clan either—I’m literally part of the Camp family now, so when the necessity arises, you can bet your biscuits I’m going to maneuver a few priorities, so I can answer the call.
Today, that means running the shuttle buggy; I have already met with another Camp staffer, Finn Wilson, and a handful of camper arrivals, and I’m excited; Debbie said Tim Harris was flying in with his son, Peter, so I’d have a chance for a hug and a hello. Other names fill the shuttle manifest including Cole Geupel. I recognize the surname; I’ve noticed Abe Geupel’s name on Mess Hall plaques for 30 years, so I assume this is one of his boys or perhaps a nephew. This is often the case when I look at CV rosters. Tim and Peter walk through the security exit, and I perform some silly antics en route to my expectant hug. Peter has grown, again, and Tim looks not unlike he did when I first met him in 1994; he was a counselor, I was a camper, and we took a canoe trip together. Peter is a camper and has been for several summers.
By the numbers, it has been 18 years since I slept on the Hill, and plenty of new generations of campers—descendants of CV legends—have joined the ranks every year. I’ll be in Cabin 3, with Peter, and I make sure to mention this to Tim; he is visibly, audibly pleased and excited for Peter. Later, I will tell Peter about my canoe trip with his dad. I’ll tell him we put in at Little Gabbro and discovered our food pack was missing, so we paddled back to Camp that day; John Erdmann was waiting for us at the BWCAW entry point on the Kawishiwi River, smiling or shaking his head, or maybe both. I probably won’t tell Peter about Herman Rock, nor can I recall the nuance of Tim’s rendition of Oliver Twist. But at the moment, that’s all ancillary; I’m busy wondering where Cole Geupel went?
Legacy Matters. When I speak of legacy, I am speaking of the generations of campers that begat new generations of campers and so on. We see a lot of third-generation campers these days—edging towards a robust fourth-generation—as I come upon the grandchildren of campers from the earliest decades. Always we ask, “How’d you find out about this place?” Names are dropped, links are made, connections forged, and so on. As a business, legacy is important to Camp; we depend upon future generations to keep coming down the pipeline, so we can repair that pipeline we severed while doing some much-needed tree removal this last summer! We also need future generations to join our ranks, reflect on CV’s rich history, explore the present moments, and pass our traditions along on their own life’s journey. But, as a part of our camp culture, legacy is essential and to some—like myself—infinitely more meaningful than dollars and cents.
My dad is standing in the back row, far left.
My own legacy descends from my dad’s summers spent as a camp counselor in ‘69 and ‘71. The short story: Dad went to Vanderbilt, met John Blanchard, Dad nearly flunked out, John transferred to DePauw, talked to Dad about it, Dad talked to Charlie, Dad transferred to DePauw, then worked at Camp (If you read this post John, I encourage you to correct my foggy knowledge). Then in the early 90’s my two brothers, Alex & Robert, and I began our long—somewhat permanant—tenure at Camp. Recently it was revealed to me that Mim played a more significant role in supporting Dad’s transition to DePauw than did Charlie, and I continue to investigate this theory. I expect it’s true, or maybe I want it to be true. It deepens my dad’s story, and it forces me to search for memories and continue the conversations I long to have, and to know my dad a little better each time. I think about all this at random times, like while waiting around for campers in an airport.
Cole has been sequestered by the airline. There is an investigation—something to do with having the same name on the unaccompanied minor form as the person who is picking them up; see, unfortunately my name is not on that piece of paper, so we’re stuck here until we work this out. I feel that myself and Finn donning our CV staff shirts, and the cadre of campers in tow makes a compelling case for Cole’s release, but even my best attempt to persuade the airline folks won’t do, and I know this, so I don’t even try. I speak to the airline agent once more, then I start calling Camp admin to solve the problem. This sucks, because Finn is waiting in the Camp van with more campers, and Peter and Cole are ready to go; they’re campers, for crying out loud, and they’re ready for camp! I know how they feel, and any more minutes spent waiting are excruciating reminders that we’re all missing out on whatever is happening on the Hill at this very moment.
Cole must’ve learned how to fold hospital corners from his father, Abe.
Cole calls his dad to explain the situation, and he hands me the phone, so I can play adult. “Abe Geupel??” I say, and the connection is instantaneous, like old friends the story starts taking shape. Abe introduces himself, and I continue with something like, “Abe Geupel? I know you, I mean, your name is on some Camp plaques, so I know who you are. Hey! Did you know Tim Harris? He was here no more than 10 minutes ago, but he’s flying back to Chicago. He brought his son, Peter.” Abe remarked that he hadn’t heard the name in a long time, and we exchanged frivolities for several more moments, said farewell, and I expect—hope—he felt a connection similar to mine in that moment; legacy matters, and we were both pleased to know who we were working with. Cole is in good hands; I assure Abe of this, and I promise myself when I am next in Arizona that I will enthusiastically kick the Geupel’s door down and celebrate our mutual love of the peninsula, share anecdotes, and talk about what’s next for Camp.
Stories about my dad’s time spent at Camp circulate now and then; I am lucky enough to be at Camp every summer to cross paths with those who knew him. There are too few pictures of him in the Camp archives, but I find stories to be a worthy—perhaps a better—substitute, and I cherish them. When I am lucky, I visit the Behnke family at their cabin on Farm Lake. John and Dorothy are infinitely hospitable people, and they always share Camp stories. I am particularly fond of tales about my Dad, the late John R. “Smitty” Smith. In a single afternoon, Dorothy recounts how Dad was always catching snapping turtles and skunks. He once discovered a deceased loon and gathered the carcass in hopes of getting it taxidermied, and I expect he was sore when he learned that this was illegal as state and federal laws heavily protect them. In the same afternoon, I can visit the next room, and John shares the same stories, albeit with his own narrative spin. Upon my return to Camp, I might run into Vicki Burgman, and she’ll mention the skunks and how Dad wanted to get their stink glands removed, so he could raise them. My father was an unusual man, but he was also a pretty cool fella, and I’ve heard these stories countless times thanks to the memories my CV friends share. I get that warm feeling in my heart when I hear them, and sometimes I’m so happy I think I might even shed a few tears. Keep telling them Dorothy, John, Vicki; I’ll keep listening.
Our wait persists, and we’ve reached the point where boys will be boys. Their patience has reasonably waned, but thanks to Finn they’re in good hands while I continue to work with the airline people—the investigation—to resolve our little paperwork problem. After multiple phone calls to clear up the mess, we finally reach a point where Debbie and the airline agent have a conversation, the rules of releasing a minor are reinforced, and we can finally put the rubber to the road. We have to make a pit stop at McDonald’s first to feed our hungry crew and give them a final taste of civilization before we dunk them in the woods for the next four weeks. They don’t care; it’s what they’re here for, and the excitement is palpable. I recall my own trips from the airport, the conversations in the van, the anticipation, and the shock at seeing how much my Camp friends have grown in a single year.
I look forward to the day, none too far in the future, when my three boys can join the ranks at CV and start their own journey—Abi too. I look around at my contemporaries, guys like Clay Pendleton and Zach Scott, whose boys are of similar age to my own, and we chat from time to time about that day. I spoke to Mark Tremblay several months ago, and he’s counting the days until 2027 when his boy, Indiana (Indy), is old enough to go to CV. I see my brother-in-law, Charles Erdmann, and his boys have already infiltrated the peninsula with enthusiasm and spirit. Jonah, John, Joey, and Jordan are fourth-generation, Papa’s great-grandchildren, and they’re knee-deep into canoeing, fishing, and making lifelong friends. The cycle, to me, is astonishing. I grew up with these guys, and I know a lot about them. I’ll tell them Clay would hike 10-15 miles on the SHT with a 60 lb. pack, and then drop his pack and go run 5-6 more miles to train for cross country. I’ll tell them about my Grand Portage trip with Zach and Tremblay and how we paddled alongside a black bear for a spell on Saganaga and that we camped on the portage landing, because the GP campsite was so busy that day. I’ll remind them that their fathers are good men, men to look up to and admire, and I’ll nudge them along the Trail of Life, so they can find out a little more about themselves just as their fathers did in their time. Oh, the stories I can tell!
Camp Director John Erdmann (far left) leads a trip alongside his son, Charlie (far right), and three of his grandchildren John (front left), Joey (front right), and Jonah (red lifejacket). Other tripmates include Chuck (orange), grandson of Kevin O’Kane of the notorious 1960s K-Crew, and Asher, a first-generation (sunglasses) camper.
There are too few pictures of my dad at Camp. I can’t change that, and quite frankly I think it reveals a great deal about his character. He was an understated man and recognition didn’t suit him; it wasn’t his style. That said, I won’t be capturing skunks for de-scenting any time soon, but I do have a few stories about him, and they’re tough to beat, and I want guys like Peter, John Clayton, Indy, and Noah to keep coming to CV so I can say, “Hey buddy, I know your dad. Let me tell you a story about him.”
I have Peter under my care now, and as I watch him and Cole climb into the Camp van after our arduous airport kerfuffle, I know my own boys are going to be in good hands when Peter, Cole, et al take the reins. I hope they’ll tell my boys stories about me, and the legacy will continue, because it matters.
Every camper has a legacy at Camp whether or not he descends from the ancient CV warriors of the past or he’s the vanguard in his family, forging a new path in the Northwoods for generations to come.