Summer camp 101

A summer camp by any other name.

It was just a few minutes south of town. And I was the taxi driver, transporting our granddaughter to the summer day’s activity, her day camp. Only this day was different. She had her cap, her bug spray and a big sports bag packed with stuff. And added to the luggage was a pillow.

“We’re having a sleepover tonight,” she said.

This day, the fourth of her week-long adventure, took our granddaughter to the Durham Forest Environmental Education Centre, south of Uxbridge for its Summer Day Camp. And last Thursday, as I drove her to camp, she told me about her adventures.

She’d learned about water conservation on Water Day. She’d explored the forests and wetlands in the Durham Regional Forest. She’d held such wildlife as salamanders, frogs, turtles and snakes in her hands. I asked her for her assessment.

“It’s awesome,” she said predictably.

Now that’s not a word I would have ascribed to my summer camp experience, when I was her age. And taking her to day camp this week brought back a whole backpack’s worth of my own memories: of a time of innocence (the senior boys had smuggled in some skin magazines); of the physiological impact (getting sick on bags of liquorice); and the psychological ones (embarrassment that my mom had sewn my name on every blanket and piece of clothing I’d brought to camp).

As I recall it was the summer of 1958 when a couple of the neighbours’ sons – Roger and Bob Middleton

– convinced their folks they should go to summer camp. And why didn’t several of the other kids on the street come along? I guess my folks joined the group initiative and we were all packed off to the wilds near Parry Sound.

“Camp Wa Ye Kwa Kana,” the sign said, and just like my granddaughter who got a Durham Forest camp T-shirt, I was given a T-shirt with that name inscribed on the front. To this day, I have no idea if the name had any indigenous significance; it’s probably an insulting phrase, so if it is, I sincerely apologize. However, at the time, and for years afterward, I wore the shirt like a red badge of courage. I had survived summer camp.

Courage was indeed what I needed, first of all to get through the early days of homesickness. Then, despite their good intentions to make us better Canadians, I needed some fortitude to endure the camp counsellors’ odd sense of achievement and good citizenship.

I remember wanting more than ever to pass my Red Cross swimming test. But just when I thought I had the Holy Grail – my Tadpole grade – in my grasp, their Teutonic nature nearly drowned me. “Kick harder! Stroke faster!” they shout at me. “No, no, no. More laps. Stay underwater another 15 seconds!”

On the whole the counsellors treated us campers fairly, unless they wanted to impress counsellors of the opposite sex with their power. I do remember one breakfast counsellor, however, who saw me wolfing down a slice of toast loaded with strawberry jam one morning.

“Stop!” she screamed. “Where are your manners?” Then, she proceeded to rake me over the coals for not cutting my toast in half before eating it. “No toast for two days,” she announced my punishment in front of everybody. I nearly cried. I loved strawberry jam and felt like an idiot.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the camp was co-ed. It was pretty obvious since I saw girls around the dining tables, sharing swimming lessons and at the campfire sing-alongs each night. But what I didn’t initially realize was that there were parts of the camp that were definitely NOT co-ed, a fact I discovered by accident one day when I decided to take a different route up from the beach to the cabins. I wasn’t far along the path when I realized I was in uncharted territory.

“It’s a boy,” I heard a girl scream. “What’s he doing here?”

The camp was co-ed, but not co-habiting. And I’d wandered into the girls’ cabin section. I began to run, and run. My heart was pounding, not for the girls, but out of fear that the morning counsellor would spot me and bring down the boom of punishment yet again. Could Madame Guillotine be next? Somehow, though, I escaped notice and made it safely back to the boys’ barracks. Thus, went my two weeks in the wilds of northern Ontario. Summer camp taught me lots of useless stuff about breakfast etiquette, recognizing boundaries and passing swim tests.

I’m quite certain that our granddaughter came away with a much more enriching experience at her summer camp than I ever did. When I was 10 I don’t think I could have recognized a salamander, much less held one. And I’m sure her sleepover was far less traumatic than my misadventure among the girls’ cabins.

Still, I guess memories of camp, however indelible, are worth having.

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