The summer after my final year as a Girl Scout, there was going to be a Real Camping Experience, and I was eligible to go because I was a Scout during the previous school year. This Camping Experience was going to involve putting up tents by ourselves, eating without access to a real kitchen, cooking our food over real campfires, and using an outhouse as our toilet. Thinking this would be a wonderful experience for me, a real “growth opportunity,” my mother signed me up. Camp would last for two weeks, and we would be somewhere in northern Wisconsin–in other words, the middle of nowhere. I already knew the other girls who were going; they had been my troop for over a year. The two I was closest to—Jean and Tracy—were occasionally nice but often downright snotty, and they had a tendency to team up and enjoy being snarky and vicious together. I was not eager to make them my intimate living companions. Nonetheless, the three of us were assigned to live in a tent together.
The campout was scheduled for July, and about a month before that, each future camper was required to attend a meeting at our leader’s house. My mother sent in a deposit to reserve a place for me, convinced that this would be a “Fun Experience” and really make me a More Well Rounded Person. After giving it some thought, though, I decided that I was not going. Two weeks in the woods with no toilets, no good food and no friends sounded distinctly unappealing. I didn’t share this decision with my mother; I hoped that things would eventually get busy enough around the house what with her other four children and her part-time job that she would simply forget that camp was supposed to happen. I was being naïve in the extreme, even for me, because once actual cash money was spent on anything in our family, it was going to happen.
When the day of the required preliminary meeting at the Leader’s house rolled around, I left the house at the appointed time, but I had no plans to actually show up. I simply rode my bike around the neighborhood and enjoyed the lovely summer day, thinking as I pedaled about how glad I was not to be at the meeting and what a relief it was to know that I was not going to have to go to camp. I knew my mother would be mad when she found out that I hadn’t gone, especially if it meant that she would lose the deposit money, but I was prepared to handle her anger and disappointment. I figured it couldn’t be worse than the camping would have been. Everything would blow over in a day or two, and we would forget this regrettable Camping Experiment as soon as possible.
When I arrived home later that day, my mother asked me how the meeting had gone. “Oh, fine,” I said. “Really?” my mother asked. “Because your leader called and she said that you never showed up for the meeting at all.” The jig was up. I knew I was about to bear the brunt of some serious maternal anger, but I was ready to endure it stoically. On the other side of that anger was my gloriously unplanned summer with indoor toilets, books and good food. No such luck. Apparently the Required Meeting was not Required after all. My mother had convinced my leader that I really needed to have this camp experience. Despite my best efforts, I was going to camp.
Sure enough, when July rolled around, I was marched onto a Camp Bus with all the other girls in my troop and we travelled for a long time; it is a long distance from Milwaukee to the Middle of Nowhere. When we finally arrived at our campsite, our Leader ordered us to set up our tents. Neither Jean, Tracy nor I had even one clue as to how to set up a tent, so we watched the other girls and tried to more or less mimic their actions. To our credit, we did actually pound in stakes, connect the tent to the stakes, and create a three dimensional living space that accommodated the three of us and our sleeping bags. I wonder now how it was that no one noticed that our tent was pitched on a fairly obvious incline—or perhaps I should say decline, because our tent was halfway on flat ground and halfway on the gentle hill that rolled under our campsite to the lake below.
The day-to-day of camp experience is a blur to me now; I do remember campfires at night with a lot of singing. “Come to the Water” was a favorite.
Also, I remember hanging my dishes in the trees after each meal. We each had our own mesh bag and after meals, we washed our dishes, placed them in the bag and hung the bags from tree branches. The point of this, the leaders informed us, was to let the dishes dry off naturally and also keep them away from bears.
Even at my young age, I was taken back at all this casual “bear talk.” If there was a chance that we were in the neighborhood of actual bears, I was pretty sure that our dishes were the last thing they would go for. Jean, Tracy and I were all a bit on the plump side, and I thought any bear worth his name would be smart enough to go after our flesh and not a plate to put us on. Given the devil-may-care attitude about the bears, I concluded that they were a Camp Myth, like the old ghost stories that get told around the fire.
Given my bear skepticism, imagine my surprise when, about three days in, we awoke to find out that BEARS had gotten into our food supply and as a result, all of our junk food was gone. At the time, I accepted this news without suspicion; looking back, I wonder why a bear would choose to eat only our junk food. The bears ate our graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey Bars; they turned up their bear noses, apparently, at our oranges, bulk Oat Flakes, and beans. Our leaders tended to stay up long after all the campers had been ordered to our tents and “Lights Out,” and they always did look well-fed. At the time, however, I believed them, and was distressed to think that our parents had cavalierly sent us all off into Bear Country armed with nothing but mesh bags and badly constructed tents.
We campers did have Swimming Time every day. Usually, that would be a highlight for me. I loved water and I loved to swim. However, the leaders first had to place us into groups based on our proficiency as swimmers. I was a pretty good swimmer, and so I approached the Swim Test with confidence. We all lined up on a wooden pier, and one-by-one, we jumped into the water and swam to the rope and back. When it was my turn to respond to the whistle by jumping off the pier, I looked down at the water. The spot where I had to jump in had about twelve large and mean looking fish swimming around. I was going to have to jump onto those fish. Even without a chubby fifth grader suddenly showing up in their Fish Gathering, those fish looked crabby. I had no desire to jump headlong into some big angry fish.
When I heard the whistle, I tried to angle my body away from the fish and toward the fish-less water, but my movement was so ungainly and awkward that I ended up entering the water in a sort of sideways fashion, using my arms to swat at fish rather than execute the front crawl. I was placed in the lowest swim group as a result, along with the campers who had never seen a body of water before or who, when they jumped in, sank like stones. The water in our designated swim area came up only to our knees, which made swimming a whole lot less fun and more like wading in the shallow weeds while swatting at bugs.
In addition to “swimming,” we also spent a good bit of time hiking. I was never a fan of hiking, or really even walking, especially in the woods surrounded by mosquitoes, flies and, apparently, bears. After swimming time and hiking time, we made something called “lanyards.” Lanyard Time meant sitting on the ground and weaving long plastic strips together in some sort of complicated fashion until they looked more or less like really ugly graduation cap tassels. When any of us crafted a lanyard that suitably resembled an ugly graduation cap tassel, it was time to put it aside “for safekeeping” and start on another one. Lacking as I was in small motor skills, I never finished even one lanyard, which was actually fine with me. To this day, I have no idea what the purpose of lanyards was. Jewelry? Too big (and ugly). Mostly it felt like it was something for us campers to do until it got dark and we could have our junk-food-free dinner and sit around the campfire slapping at bugs and, again, singing.
Toward the end of the first week at camp, we had severe weather. In our more sophisticated times, weather-wise, camp personnel probably have ways to know a storm is coming other than looking at the sky and saying, “Well, that certainly looks ominous.” In any event, I am pretty sure our leaders knew a storm of some sort was coming, and this would have been an ideal time to notice that our tent was pitched on a hill. Badly. By three girls who really had no idea what they were doing. Sure enough, when the thunderstorm hit that night, the winds howled and the rain beat down. Inside the tent, we were actually pretty excited about all this Stormy Drama. Then we felt our tent starting to move. Apparently it was windy enough to pull out and topple our tent. Which was on an incline. I still remember the sensation of rolling down that hill toward the lake (we didn’t get that far, which is a blessing) inside our tent, the three of us banging into each other like large pieces of laundry in a spin cycle. Once we stopped rolling, the hysterical leaders ran down the hill and got us out. Our tent-pitching the second time around was overseen much more vigilantly.
We never did see any bears at camp; perhaps they were all in a carbohydrate food coma after eating all of our junk food. When the two weeks was up, I was very glad indeed to get on the bus to Milwaukee. I survived the Camping Experience, and to this very day have never experienced the slightest desire to go camping again. I think my mother was satisfied that I had become an even more well-rounded person, just as she hoped, but I was more than happy to return to the land of indoor toilets, fishless water, and no bears—not even mythical ones.