Category Archives: Camp

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