Category Archives: Camp

A Quiet Moment at Camp

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Swim Dock sits unattended on a glassy Triangle Pond waterfront

 

Through the din and the energy and the chaos and the pure exhaustion that exemplifies summer camp, it is incredibly easy to forget about the place where you chose to live and work. The long involved days with an endless to-do list of activities keeps one distracted from the distinctiveness of your location. You grow immune to the landscape of the place you work, gradually forgetting the immense beauty of the natural surroundings that drew you to camp in the first place. With so much to do outside everyday, it is easy to take this close access to nature for granted. The subtle beauty of nature often slips the mind…

As the last summer campers file out the gates, the camp staff can pause and breathe deeply, reflecting on the summer past. Then there’s this sudden realization. It is quiet once again. But not a silent quiet—a quiet absorbed with sounds. All around are the songs of the earth. The chirping of the insects, the shrill call of the birds, the gentle breeze rustling the tree-tops. Breathe deeply and listen closer to these sounds. They have been calling forth all summer long, but not until now have they received an attentive listener. It is the contrast from the clamor of summer camp that reawakens the ears to nature’s melodies.

The quiet moment encourages you to explore deeper. No commitments now. Please linger and understand what’s here. The forest paths that you walked hurriedly past all summer are now empty. Slow your pace. Look up and gaze amidst the trees. See the dappled light filtering through their leafs perched an immense height above the ground. Then look down, closely, all the way to the ground. Amid the brush lie flowers, the embodiment of the fecundity of nature. Stoop down close and admire their elaborate forms. They sprinkle the ground in all their intricate glory, yet are often overlooked by man; their complex beauty is but for their own sake. Through the air wafts the fragrance of the bushes. Breathe deeply, and take it all in. How many times have you been here before and not noticed this?

It is moments like these when it gets quiet, when life takes a momentary pause, that I begin to reflect on what brought me to this place to begin with. This is where I live. This is where I have chosen to stay. For me, an enticing draw of the camp life is to live and work in these beautiful places, daily immersed in the wonders of the natural world. In the busyness that life often rings upon us, it becomes difficult to take the necessary moment to realize the beauty that surrounds you. It is here all along waiting for your attention. The question is: will you stop and notice it?

Breathe Deep.

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Towering pines provide refuge on the path to the low ropes challenge course

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A pair of Pink Lady Slipper Orchids rest unperturbed by a challenge course obstacle

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The nodding bell flower of the a-chlorophyllic parasitic Indian Pipe plant is delicate and lacy, but easily overlooked

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Reflecting its gaze on Triangle Pond, the Jones Homestead adds a touch of New England charm, dating to the pre-camp days when this area was farmland

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The approaching sunset on the Spectacle Pond waterfront issues forth a compliment of contrasts

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Are There Any Hipster Children Out There?

Hipster Child

 

After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?

Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?

I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.

And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.

And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.

Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.

To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).

But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.

Cast Away

Wilson Castaway

 

It all began with a quiet evening pontoon ride on a glassy pond.

*Crackle, Crackle*

Radio traffic breaks the silence.

This is Base Camp! Do you read? Do not return to Base Camp! I repeat, do not return!

The seven campers riding on the pontoon boat turn their heads in abrupt curiosity at the surprise emergency call.

A situation has arisen here…something has invaded camp…lurking in the woods…glowing green…

The campers become more perplexed at the emerging crisis.

I repeat, do not return to Base Camp! It is very dangerous here—ALIENS!—ahhhhhhhhhhhh!

*Crackle, Crackle*

I turn to the driver of the pontoon boat and give a knowing nod. “Since we shouldn’t return to camp, I can drop you off on the island in the pond,” he suggests. A moment later, all seven campers and their two intrepid leaders step off the beached pontoon onto the island carrying nothing with them. “I’m going to investigate this situation, and I’ll come back for you later,” says the driver as he pulls away, “I’ll be back shortly!” As the engine noise from the pontoon slowly fades away, we realize that we are now left alone on the island. Left alone to fend for ourselves and survive in isolation for the unforeseen future.

So starts the summer adventure trip known as ‘Castaways’ at YMCA Camp Burgess on Cape Cod. The campers who sign up for this trip come knowing that they would be spending time surviving on a ‘deserted’ island sandwiched between two very active summer camps. They bring their sleeping pads and their mess kits and they mentally prepare to spend a week ‘roughing it’ in the wild. But—they weren’t prepared for all the surprises and pranks that we trip leaders would pull on them.

To be fair, staging an alien invasion on camp as a premise to get the campers onto the island early is a pretty farfetched idea. But, the bigger surprise was that none of the campers knew they would be getting stranded on the island that night. Leading up to the trip, all the campers were told was that they would be spending their first night at Base Camp back at Burgess, heading to the island on their second day. Even once they arrive at Base Camp, they are shown the platform tent where they will be ‘staying’ their first night. But then the surprise occurs: we convince them to go on an evening pontoon ride as a pre-island team-building activity, and next thing they know they are dropped off on the island. The trip has begun.

“Are you serious right now?” asks a camper freshly on the island. “Where even is our stuff?”

Good question, kid. Now go search the island.

~~~

Earlier in the afternoon, before the boat ride, we trip leaders held a brief meeting with the new castaway arrivals to address an unexpected situation at camp. A problem had arisen, we told them. The fire inspector had stopped by camp this afternoon, we said. The platform tent assigned to the Castaways was deemed structurally unsafe. We’ll have to send you all to an empty cabin somewhere else on camp tonight. Better pack your bags, kids. Sorry about the tent…not!

Little did they know, but the fire inspector story was just a hoax. While the campers were out on the boat, other camp staff had secretly nabbed their packed bags and transported them undetected to the island.

~~~

Back on the island, the search for supplies takes full effect. Pinkham Island, as it is formally known, is not a large tract of land to search, though it offers many good hiding places. An ovular shape approximately 500 feet long by 200 feet wide, Pinkham Island is a sandy forested plateau rimmed entirely by a rocky beach. A few clearings exist for campsites, otherwise the island is primitive.  It is barely an island, too. Camp, back on the mainland, lies only 30 feet away, a simple wade through ankle deep water. But the campers don’t know this about Pinkham Island. And right now, they are too pre-occupied with their own survival in the waning twilight. The island is scoured, first haphazardly, then systematically. Supplies are found one by one: coolers full of food, tents hidden in the bushes, military surplus ammo cans filled with coveted essentials. The campers all eventually find that even their own bags have mysteriously appeared on the island.

By now we have spent only a few hours on the island. Our tents are set up and we have settled in to stay a spell. An abundantly prepared camper has brought a flint and steel and is busy trying to light a fire, unsuccessfully. The nine of us gather around the dull campfire circle to discuss what we know about our situation: aliens have invaded camp; the island is the only safe spot left; the U.S. government is keeping us safe and provisioned while they battle the alien menaces; we must use our own wits to stay safe and survive.

Goodnight, kids.

~~~

The shimmering morning sunlight wakes everyone up early the following morning. They don’t know it’s earlier than six am—we leaders took all of their watches before the trip. Everyone has made it through their first night. The Castaways now mill about the campsite assessing their situation. More feeble attempts at lighting a fire are made before the campers give up in frustration. I was hoping for a hot breakfast, I tell them, but unfortunately there is no fire. Sorry kids. I reach into the food cooler and pull out some hard dry bagels for breakfast. The look of disappointment is priceless.

After the first morning’s ‘disappointment breakfast’, we commence our first challenge on the island. A fire competition—Burn the Twine. The Castaways are divided into three teams. Which team can start a fire with a handful of matches and burn through their suspended twine first? The competition will reveal the victors. Though the campers know that a desirable reward is on the line, little do they know that the winners and losers also get assigned to different island chores. Losers of Burn the Twine—well, they get to carry the groover (our much maligned industrial-strength porta-potty) off the island.

After Burn the Twine, the Castaways have completed their fire challenge and have now learned about the principles of making and sustaining a fire. All the meals from now on will be hot, cooked, and delicious. More challenges await the campers in the following days: tree identification, knot tying, raft prototype building, tribal dancing, scat modeling, Leave No Trace ethics. With each challenge completed, the Castaways learn more about surviving in the backcountry with limited resources. Life on the island keeps getting more luxurious too. With each successfully completed challenge comes a new reward: playing cards, Frisbees, ice cubes, lemonade mix, a hammock, a radio. Life is getting pretty good. We could stay out here for a while…

All the while off the island, the war between the alien invaders and the U.S. Government has been raging on. The battles become especially more pronounced at night, with colorful armaments exploding over the horizon. The climax came on our third night on the island, the night of July 4, when the bombing campaign reached its zenith. Military planes flying low overhead to nearby Otis Air Force Base added to the plausibility for the extraterrestrial scenario. And even though hundreds of people can be seen from the island, it is not safe to approach the others. Their minds have been taken over by the alien invaders, brainwashed into being slaves to their conquerors.

The morning after the epic battle of July 4, we receive no new supply drops from the government. Things seem quiet around camp—too quiet. A spattering of extraterrestrial goo is found around camp. Wait! Does the goo form a trail? Follow it, kids. Where does it lead? At the end of the goo trail is a clutch of glowing green alien eggs. Looks like the invaders are closing in on our whereabouts. Better eat those eggs for breakfast before they hatch…

With our faith in the success of the U.S. Government waning, we decide to take matters into our own hands. Clearly, judging from the eggs, the aliens know where we are. We can’t expect the island to be a sanctuary any longer. We make a plan to build a raft to escape the island. In a feat of unity, the seven stranded Castaways put aside their competitive differences in constructing a raft to hold them all on their escape from the island (in a foreboding omen, however, the raft is held together with nothing but nooses—also lesson for me, if you show a group of young teenage boys a dozen useful knots, the only one they will remember how to tie is the noose). Raft complete! Ready for imminent departure!

Awaiting any further communication from the U.S. Government, we retreat back to our central campfire to enjoy a hearty meal and some group bonding time around the fire. When the daylight fades, I introduce one of my favorite nighttime camp games to the group—Body Body. The premise of the game is that there is a group of townspeople and a few clandestine mafia whose goal is to secretly ‘kill’ the townspeople off without getting caught. The game involves trodding the now-familiar paths on the island in the dark, trying to detect which players are the mafia without getting killed yourself. Round after round of Body Body is played, and the campers get absolutely into it. They feel confident trouncing around the darkened paths and hiding in the bushes in ambush. Nothing scary is going to get them on the island, right?

It’s already late at night, but we gather around the radiant embers of the dying campfire to start yet another round of Body Body. But then, an unexpected rustle in the bushes. Calm down kids, we leaders reassure them, it’s probably just a raccoon in the brush. Let’s keep playing our game. But—more rustles follow. Could the aliens be lurking in the shadows for us, the campers begin to wonder silently. I approach the suspect bushes and shine my flashlight. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. You kids, your imaginations are running wild. But then, spooky music arises from the bushes. And unexpectedly, more quick rustling behind them. The seven boys huddle in a tight circle, sticking close to the fire and to each other. Even the bravest in the group is biting his lower lip in a nervous fashion. More rustling and running figures emanate forth from the bushes. The alien invaders are here! A foreign voice cries out from the shrubbery “You have twelve hours to leave the island or you’ll meet your demise!”

The rustling disappears and the eerie music fades. The once joyful campers are left in mortal fear of their impending doom. In the aftermath of the alien scare, the campers try to decide what to do next. One camper mistakenly heard the dark figure say that they have two, not twelve, hours to leave the island. All seven Castaways then eventually agree that this was the warning that was given. No time to waste now…in the dark several campers start packing up their belongings. They are ready for an immediate departure. For as much joking around that they had earlier about aliens, suddenly this is no laughing matter! Eventually the frenzy that arose during our arranged ‘alien scare’ settles down. The Castaways make a plan to deal with the invaders. They will take shifts to watch for when the aliens come back for us. Some will sleep, while the others will stand guard. Around 12:30 am the call comes to switch shifts. A tired sleep begins to fall upon all the campers. Eventually they all fall into a restful slumber, unconcerned about any alien invaders.

The morning after the alien scare, our fifth day on the island, we conclude that we have lost all hopes for our salvation. The government has been defeated, and we are on our own for our survival. In the clarity of the morning sunlight, we pack up our camp and cook our final breakfast together—fittingly, alien-green pancakes—over the campfire. We then bring our most valuable supplies to our makeshift raft which we will use to escape. Will the raft float? Will we make it across? The mainland lies two-hundred feet away through deep water from this end of the island—but here is our only shot at survival. While we make our final preparations for leaving our island home, a visitor has slowly been creeping up in the bushes behind us. Dressed in all green, our alien visitor from last night has returned! He pops out of the bushes to jump-scare the campers. In the daylight, the Castaways can tell it’s just another camp counselor dressed up, but they happily play along with the fright. They run laughing and screaming back to the raft and clamber on. The raft sinks and falls apart under their weight, but they keep swimming to reach the mainland. They have made it off the island at last, learning and having fun along the way. Another Castaways trip in the books.

Good job, kids.

Privacy

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Base Camp: My place of work and my home

 

It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.

But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.

 

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Inside my simple living quarters

 

So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.

As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.

Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.

I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.

It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.

And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.

Trail Trash

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Camp’s magical bin of “Trail Trash”

At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.

Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.

I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.

This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.

I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.

Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.

 

Cape Cod Canal

The popular park lining the Cape Cod Canal

 

Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.

 

Roadside Litter

Compiled rubbish common along many a roadside

 

But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.

The Future Leaders of the World

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On the road to North Star Camp for Boys, one passes a somewhat whimsical sign in the shape of a yellow caution diamond: CAUTION: Future World and Local Leaders at Work and Play.

Though I find the sign amusing, I also understand the truth behind it. The campers who attend North Star are, indeed, likely to become leaders of their communities and beyond. North Star is not a representative sample of children nationwide, and though these campers come from privileged backgrounds, they also face high pressure to lead and succeed. Families of North Star campers care enough about their children’s development to send them to an 8-week residential camp, and also have the means to afford it. Hailing from these types of environments, the campers at North Star tend to be more precocious and generally well-behaved—future leaders in training.

But, right now they are still kids. They aren’t fully aware of the significance of their background or how that affects their behaviors or expectations for the future. However, someday, like each successive generation has before, these kids will grow up and realize that it is now up to them to run the society they want to live in.

Whether or not we raise children of our own, we still all share in the same future of the world, and we all ought to share in that responsibility of raising the next generation. At age 26, having children of my own is a distant speculation—but though I don’t feel the evolutionary impulse to pass on my own DNA, I nonetheless feel the societal impulse to raise and nurture. Regardless of whether I procreate, I still have a future in the world to come: I still have that collective responsibility to invest in the future of humanity.

Maybe working with children shows that you are an optimist about the world. In a time of global turmoil, with pressing political, social, and environmental problems, you’ve got to have faith that the world is going to continue in order to devote time to the youth. If there is going to be no future, then why invest in the next generation at all? For me, I still have faith in social progress, that my generation can resolve some of the issues unresolved by earlier generations, and that the generation after will continue with the work left undone by mine.

My own generation—the millennials—is still up-and-coming. We have not risen to prominence yet. Nevertheless we are beginning to see the ways that we can lead and are learning about the power of our collective choice. But we are still learning. We still need the guidance from generations before, seeking advice from parents and getting mentored by those older and wiser than us. In a similar way, we’re already influencing the generation under us.

I’m not sure if the campers at North Star are part of the same generation as me. Even the oldest campers I’m more than a decade senior. These are kids whose entire lives exist only after the year 2000. Though I can relate to them in many ways, the world they are native to is ever so slightly different than the one I grew up in.

For as much as I may paint a picture of working with kids as some deeply-contrived social obligation, I don’t do it for any external philosophical reason. I do it because I have found that I enjoy working with children.

As someone who commonly feels socially awkward amongst peers, it has been energizing to work with children. Just because you are bigger and older, children give you a lot of undue credit right from the start. They look up to adults who want to spend time with them. They find you interesting as a person, and because of that they become attentive for what you have to teach. To a kid, the world beyond their parent’s home is a vast unexplored horizon. Already I’ve done many things with my life that kids find interesting to hear about; I can regale them with stories from the other side of adolescence, about adventure and exploration, about amazing things from this world. Sharing things that have become mundane and commonplace to me could be the first experience a child has with it—and that exuberance a child has when experiencing something for the first time is ever-encouraging.

The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. But it’s not just for the campers at North Star—it’s children everywhere who are the future.

Confessions of a Trip Leader

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The crew of the first trip I ever guided–a nine-day trip to Ontario’s Quetico wilderness

 

Getting paid to do what you love for a profession—an idea very appealing to a young, idealistic adventurer. We all have to work to earn a living anyway; might as well find a way to get paid for our passions. For myself, I really enjoy spending time in the outdoors, visiting wild places and traveling in the backcountry. Even if I held a conventional job I’d be doing these activities in my own free time. So, with an ample demand for outdoor guides in the recreation industry, why not become a guide and get paid to do my favorite pastime?  Plus I’ve always enjoyed outdoor trips more when I’m with people to share it. Thus working as an outdoor guide seemed like an ideal position for me: I’d not only get to take people to spectacular places in the outdoors, I’d earn a livelihood from it as well.

I had entertained the fantasy of being an outdoor guide for a long time coming, basically ever since I went on my first guided trips and learned that guiding can be a profession. The outdoor guides leading me had always seemed to carry a certain aura to them: super-engaging, energetic, and adventurous. They got to spend so much of their time going out on trips or hanging out and goofing off at the outfitters. I perceived them as experienced gurus capable of surviving outdoors under any situation. They also seemed timeless—living eternally in the carefree moment of the trip and not caring about what happened before or what would come after a trip. Most important of all, they all seemed to be having fun no matter what. This was my preconceived notion of who outdoor guides were.

Now I’ve completed my first experience on the other side. Technically I have been a professional guide, since I received compensation for my guiding services. Yet it still feels really out of place and especially undeserved to consider myself a professional. I still feel like such an amateur, and so many of the skills required for the job I’m still developing. But as I’ve seen from employment, aside from the rudimentary outdoor skills needed to run a trip, a guide doesn’t need to be a technical gearhead at all. In my case at North Star Camp, I wasn’t hired for my technical skills—I was hired for my judgement and ability to relate to children. My guiding job was a whole lot more social than I expected; and perceptive social skills more so than advanced technical skills really make each outdoor trip memorable.

North Star Camp took the kind of people they wanted to hire and made guides out of them. Most trip leaders at North Star, like me, had very little canoeing experience prior to the summer; some had never even canoed before. But we all learned quickly. So many of the requisite technical skills of guiding can be trained in a short period of time. In my case, this included basic wilderness medical safety gained in an eight-day Wilderness First Responder Course followed by an intensive two week trip leader training conducted by North Star. All the trip leaders at North Star Camp this summer were first-time guides; our training consisted of an abundance of practical practice as we essentially scouted all of the trips we would be taking the campers out on. By the time the first campers had arrived for the summer, I had undergone nearly a month of training. By then I was more than ready to start guiding people. Adding campers to each trip just seemed like the next logical step—not much of a stretch at all.

However quickly technical outdoor skills can be taught, the parts of guiding that are most difficult to train are the interpersonal skills and social perceptiveness needed to effectively lead a group through the wilderness. The social aspect of the job can be touched upon during training, but so much of it is developing your own guiding personality from experiences gained on the job. Being an outdoor guide is quite like a big game of improv, a constant flux of evaluating the conditions and then adjusting plans based on a reading of group dynamics. Should we break for lunch here or there, now or later? Should we get to camp early or sleep in late? Does the group want free time or more structured activities? Aside from the generalized structure of a trip which details major trip checkpoints, a lot of events on the trip are still unknown even to the guide. Most of the time we’re just one step ahead of the group with our decisions, but we pretend we had an exact plan in mind the entire time. So much of guiding is just acting the part, looking confident and making decisions on the fly. Constantly we keep weighing multiple scenarios in our heads, evaluating which ones would benefit the group the most based on continually changing circumstances. Although before each trip goes out there is a lot of prep work in order to be adequately prepared, once you’re out in the field there’s a limited amount of control over the circumstances—everything else is just improvisation and making do with the conditions.

 

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So much of being a guide is acting the part

 

Being an outdoor guide may have been the most fun job I’ve ever taken, but still it’s a job. Getting paid to take vacation after vacation is not the right idea for it. Sure, I’d be inclined to take personal outings to the places I led trips this summer. But when leading a trip as a guide the dynamic is entirely different than on a vacation with friends. Being a guide puts a lot of responsibility on you—you are the designated leader, the point-person for any mishaps that occur. Many guides are barely over 21, yet are entrusted with the health and safety of people venturing out into the backcountry—in my case, being entrusted with other people’s children. Perhaps some guides can give the air of being completely carefree, but the position actually requires constant vigilance to maintain the safety and well-being of all the participants.

Additionally, there are always the hum-drum tasks that are part of the guiding position. With so many trips coming and going, I was always in the process of unpacking the previous trip while outfitting for the next one. My guided trips were all of a similar nature, so I ended up doing lots of things over and over again: setting up tents, cooking campfire meals, doing camp dishes, loading and unloading gear, even paddling down the river could become mundane at times. Although a lot of these campcraft tasks are intrinsically enjoyable to me, doing these same tasks trip after trip for a job instead of for personal recreation turned some enjoyable tasks into a chore instead. On my own personal trips, I could do the same amount of work with hardly noticing, but when it’s part of the job description, unfortunately, it can feel more obligatory than self-initiated.

Even for as much work as a fun job like guiding can be, all the hard work seems worth it when the participants on your trip say they really enjoyed themselves. Leading trips may be your job, and you may have to go canoeing and camping on days you’re not feeling up to it. You may have even run this particular trip half a dozen times this summer already. But for the people you are leading, the days they are on a trip are something out of the ordinary. It is far different from the regular hum-drum of their daily lives. These participants come outdoors and notice the beauty of nature and appreciate the recreational activities with fresh eyes and happy expressions. It really makes my trip when I’m reminded of that.

The Mud Puddle Ecosystem

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Near where I live, an outbuilding was raised this summer. Down a gravel road then along a sandy two-track, the building stands new and distinct in a recent clearing in the woods. Earlier this summer construction vehicles often came and went, their heavy treads leaving a growing impression upon the sandy-clay soil. Spring rains had raised the water table and kept the soil saturated, making the soil easily molded by the tracks of heavy machinery. Every vehicular pass widened the quaint two-track until all the median vegetation was turned under and the ruts grew deep and muddy. Spring storms sent water flowing into the new depression; it was the genesis of a mud puddle.

I had walked past this puddle frequently during the summer. Always skirting around its edge, I never wanted to risk fully submerging my feet into the murky depths. Though it could feasibly be jumped across at places, it took fifty paces to walk entirely around. Getting too close to the edge was always risky. The waterlogged soil around the perimeter was slick and muddy; one careless step would result in a drenched shoe. Regardless, the dampness of the puddle oozed up into each visitor’s footwear, whether they were careful or not. How deep the puddle was I never found out. Its opaque muddy waters kept the true depth from me. There must be a bottom somewhere, but it was never for my pair of sneakers to find out where.

With the outbuilding having been finished, the rumble of construction traffic stopped mid-summer. The giant mud puddle remained, now undisturbed by track or tire. Only footprints troubled the new body of water. The hot July sun did its best to transform the lowly puddle into a series of dusty ruts, but continual summer storms provided aquatic sustenance. The puddle’s existence continued indefinitely.

A few weeks passed since the times I walked by the fledgling puddle in early summer. I remembered the puddle’s brown murkiness and the primordial look of its oozing mud. Yet, as I meandered past once again, I was drawn in closer. A sudden burst of movement caught the corner of my eye. Curiosity overcame me. In childlike wonder I stooped down to investigate what happened. A bullfrog had jumped into the mud shallows. Disturbed by my movement, the frog sought shelter in the puddle’s depths. The bullfrog now sat still, wary of any movement, its eyes poking just above the waterline. In my brief observational absence, the lowly mud wallow had been transformed. The lifeless ooze had changed into a thriving ecosystem all its own.

I continued to stand and watch closer. The longer I squatted and the stiller I stayed, the more movement caught my eye. Fat black blobs swam lazily in the brown water. These were tadpoles, the maturing progeny of the bullfrogs. Had the current generation of frogs been born in this puddle? Perhaps, but maybe the current bullfrog residents had moved in and lain their young there, staking the first pioneering claims to the new habitat.  Elsewhere, more black dots darted quickly below the surface of the water, stopping as rapidly as they had started. With two long oar-like legs attached to an elliptical body, these are insects known as backswimmers. They have likely flown in from similar habitat in a nearby swamp. Aquatic predators, the backswimmers indicate the presence of prey species in the puddle, some of which are too small to see. In this short amount of time, a food chain has been developed in the puddle.

The formerly impenetrable murkiness of the water had also begun to clear. Slowly, sediment had settled and the opaque brown became semi-translucent. The water still appeared brown from the muddy bottom, but light now penetrated deeper down. Mats of algae now lay revealed floating in the water. Intricate, delicate; curvy, lacy folds of blue-green. Still waters had allowed algae to grow. Their spores—have they come from a proximal swamp? Were they blown in from afar? Had the spores lain dormant on the dusty road, just waiting for the rains to come again? Algal life now flourished in the mud puddle, serving as the primary producer—the energetic foundation of the new ecosystem. Elsewhere, blades of grass had started poking up from the mud. Likely remnants of the former median vegetation, the rhizomes of the grass had survived dormancy under the mud, now sending new shoots skyward to catch the sun. The inundation of the puddle had slowly decreased enough that lengthy miniature islands had begun appearing in the terrain. These new spots of land remained moist, the perfect germinating spot for colonizing plants. Ruderal species—common roadside weeds—had begun to sprout up around the puddle. In time, these plants will fill in the disturbed soil; the mud being inevitably covered up in a blanket of green.

Where had the abundance of this mud puddle even come from? Until recently, this stretch of road was a dry dirt two-track. Now, this simple mud puddle, along the lonesome two-track road, had turned into a sonata of life. It had grown into an ecosystem of its own right, a microcosm of all life itself. What will happen to the inhabitants of the mud puddle at the end of the summer? Will intermittent rains continue to feed its life? Or will the hot August sun desiccate the puddle and all creatures within? Next year, after a long and cold winter, will the puddle still remain? Or is it really just ephemeral, making only a brief temporal appearance when summer rains come down heavier than usual? In ecology, the process of change is continual. Entire ecosystems may come and go based on such a small thing as a depression to collect water. What will be the fate of the mud puddle ecosystem? Only time will tell.

Letter from Camp

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Dear Family and Friends,

Greetings from camp! This summer has flown by. I can’t believe I’ve been in camp for over seven weeks now. Just one more week and camp will end and I’ll be going home. I’m going to miss all the fun things there are to do at camp. I don’t want to go back to school so soon either 😦

I’ve been keeping very busy at camp this summer. There are lots of activities and things to do. So far I’ve done a lot of disc golf, mountain biking, ecology, and lifeguarding. Mountain biking is my new favorite activity. We get to ride the bikes around the trails at camp. Sometimes we even get to ride trails outside of camp. Last week I was riding and fell. I got a big bruise on my knee, but I’m okay :). I’m still really hoping to learn how to sail in the last week of camp. Sometimes after all the daily activities are finished, I like to sneak off with the other staff members and go for a paddle at night.

Camp is beautiful! The north woods in Wisconsin are so different from life back in the city! I swear it must’ve taken twenty hours to drive here on the busses. We’re in the middle of nowhere! Camp is surrounded by really tall trees and it’s right on the lake. It’s so different to be surrounded by all this nature. I can hear the birds chirping and see the fireflies at night. There’s even a family of bear that wanders through camp (plus there are rumors that squirrels live inside the roof of the lodge). The mosquitos are pretty bad. I’ve gone through lots of bug spray. The stars at night are amazing. One of the counselors got us up in the middle of the night to see the northern lights!

I’ve made lots of new friends at camp. Lots of people have been to camp before, so at first I thought I wouldn’t fit in. But pretty soon I couldn’t tell who is new and who has been here before. My cabin is pretty small. I live with two other trip staff and the tennis pro. We get along, but we don’t spend much time in our cabin. It gets really hot during the day, plus it’s pretty messy. I don’t think my cabin will ever get a cabin pride award for cleanliness.

I’ve hung out with lots of different campers this summer. It’s surprising how easy it is to make friends with people. The youngest campers like to have lots of fun. We play in the water or go down the slip-n-slide. The older kids are cool. They know a lot of stuff and are really good at sports. I wasn’t sure if they’d want to hang out, but they all say hi to me and include me in activities too.

I can’t wait to go back home and have some of your food, Mom :). The food here is awful. I’m so sick of eating tinfoil surprise. There’s a salad bar, but one of my cabinmates always hogs the salad bar pass. By the time I get to the salad bar the yogurt is always gone and there are beans dropped in the cottage cheese. We used to have dessert at lunch, but then the kitchen started giving us fruit instead. We can’t have peanuts at camp either. We have this fake ‘peanut butter’ made of sunflower seeds. It’s called Sunbutter. People say it tastes terrible, but I really really like it. I want some more when I go back home. The thing I look forward to most at mealtimes is cheering after we are done eating. My cabin doesn’t cheer the most, but when we want to we can be the loudest to pound on the tables.

Each day we wake up to the camp bell. Most of my cabin mates have to rush to breakfast.If you’re last, then you have to clean up after the meal. Sometimes I get up really early in the morning to walk around while it’s still quiet. I get to see lots of animals that way, like giant snapping turtles. After breakfast we have to clean up our cabins. Then we have two different activity periods before lunch. After lunch we have a rest period. Camp makes us write letters during rest period, or else they won’t give us our mail :(. After rest period we have two more activity periods and then an hour of organized free time before dinner. Our evening program is always different. Camp has a lot of fun games that they do every year.

I’ve gone on lots of trips this summer too. Each cabin gets to go on their own wilderness trip. The youngest campers go on the Namekagon, Saint Croix, or Flambeau rivers. My favorite trip this year was on the Brule River. That was a four day trip with really hard rapids. The last night of the trip we stayed at a creepy campsite haunted by the ghost of a baby-snatcher. I can’t wait until I can go on the Canadian in two years as a Pine Manor camper. This year I also went on two mountain biking trips and did an overnight solo trip. I was pretty scared to sleep out in the woods by myself with nothing but a tarp. But I survived and I’m really proud of myself!

Gotto go. There’s a game of North Star Ball coming up after rest period.

Miss you all. Can’t wait to see you soon 🙂

Camper Ty