When I heard that the owners of my beloved overnight camp were having a BBQ and ceremony to honor the original owner's widow and children, I knew that I had to make the trek to Eagle River, Wisconsin, from my home in Los Angeles. It would be my third visit to camp since my last summer there in 1976. Each time I visited, I would see the sign for Chippewa Ranch Camp as we drove down the long, wooded road off of County O, and I always welled with emotions as the vestiges of my childhood poured into my psyche. And now, at age 50, accompanied by friends in my age group, we would share the memories of Chippewa together as decidedly middle-aged women.
My first summer at the all-girls overnight camp with only eight-week sessions was 1971 when I was a 9-1/2-year-old. Though I couldn't wait to go there, the rigors of camp life were quite an adjustment for a spoiled North Shore (Chicago) girl.
I quickly found myself in a prepubescent "Private Benjamin" experience dealing with the shock of the zero-frills cabins with no window coverings -- the sun rose in the North Woods at 5:15 a.m., and as our camp director said, "When the sun is up so are you!" Add to that cleaning toilets as part of the daily cabin clean-up (an abhorrent chore that I had never done at home), the deprivation of no soda pop or candy (bug juice and milk only), of course no TV, insects everywhere, and camping trips with no showers and wild animals (such as the porcupine that meandered into our tent), and the memories just began to be made.
Our director had gone straight from the U.S. Navy to camp so he set up Chippewa as a mini female military base. We were awakened at 7:00 every morning by reveille, had flag-raising ceremony, ate in the mess hall, "reported" to activities, had mandatory cabin inspections that were graded daily and heard "Taps" every night before bed. We had to obey countless other non-civilian directions that most of us were certainly not used to since these stringent rules were not in place in our parents' homes. So the stage was set for recalcitrant behavior, which in turn led to endless pranks (short-sheeting the beds was a perennial favorite) and the clever hiding of our stashes of candy in tennis ball cans in the woods (or later, Kotex boxes).
With obligatory swimming and horseback riding daily, we were forced to learn skills that had we not mastered as children would be difficult to procure as adults. Of course, at the time I didn't see it that way. Swimming in Dam Lake (aka "that damn lake" where leeches were frequently spotted) on cold days (and there were many of them in the North Woods) was often downright miserable.
I didn't realize until I was an adult how very fortunate I was to learn such a wide variety of sports, from waterskiing, fencing, sailing, modern dance to kayaking and canoeing. Camp also brought out my competitive spirit (excellent to prepare me for a career in public relations). With color wars (Tan & White) each summer, the desire and need to win and learn to be a gracious loser proved to be an invaluable life lesson. Most important, living in close quarters (there were 16 girls in our Lilliputian cabin my first summer) with others taught all of us the extreme importance of nurturing friendships with girlfriends.
At the end of every summer when I returned home, there were always re-entry issues; e.g., CWS (Camp Withdrawal Syndrome). My mother was horrified that her prissy, well-mannered little girl had come home as an "animal" and suggested that perhaps she no longer needed to cook my food. Since we were not allowed to get second helpings at our cabin table until everyone was finished, a nasty habit of wolfing down my meals had developed. Chippewa was certainly the antithesis of charm school! As an adult, my parents developed a Burns & Allen routine where they would enjoy telling my boyfriends how they sent their polite daughter to camp only to have her return home as a wild animal.
In the summer of 1977, as my friends headed back to become senior CITs I was inconsolable. My parents had offered me the opportunity to go on a teen tour to Israel and Europe and I had waffled about what to do. My mother advised me that I would regret turning down such an amazing experience and deep inside, I knew that she was right. As my friends were on their way back to Chippewa I became reflective and was inspired to write a poem. One line summed it up: Chippewa is a place where I learned companionship, sharing and caring; a place where I learned how to fend for myself and become a little more daring.
So last month, as my dear friends and I sat at the center fire circle (a place so sacred that I had wanted to have my wedding there) for the alumni reunion and I looked upon the shimmering lake and towering pine trees, I realized that camp had been the source of almost everything that I love in life. As each alumna iterated during the ceremony, Chippewa had instilled in all of us a love of the outdoors and a respect for nature, a thirst for adventure, an independent spirit, athletic prowess and established the importance of female friendships.
In Michael Eisner's book Camp, the former Disney CEO recounts how his early experiences at overnight camp had shaped his success. There is no doubt that camp's influence on all of us had been profound and everlasting. So profound that a former camper who passed away as a young woman asked to have her ashes scattered at there.
Looking out upon the all the young campers today (many of whom were second generation) made me so fulfilled to see that they are carrying on our traditions. In today's ever-increasing digital world where young brains are being short-circuited by an overabundance of electronics, the need to disconnect and live in the woods has become, in my opinion, almost a necessity. Though terribly saddened that my 9-year-old niece chose to attend a different camp from Chippewa, my heart is filled with pride that she loves camp as much as I did. She will reap the same rewards that all of us have experienced. And so the circle will continue ...
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