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Michael Roberts (host): If you ask people what the ultimate childhood paradise looks like, they’ll probably say something predictable, like Disneyland or maybe Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
But for a lot of kids, paradise is nothing like that. Instead, it’s sleepaway summer camp—especially a camp that lets you do crazy stupid things and get really, really dirty.
Timmy: I got there for the first time and the older kids were talking about a Rove and I'm like, what the hell is a Rove? Well it turns out it’s one of the best activities that I've ever experienced. You do it after dinner and the counselors and the whole staff get the whole camp really whipped up into a frenzy. I can still hear it. Like in the dining hall, they start the chance super low Rove, Rove, Rove, Rove, Rove... until it reaches like a fever pitch.
And what you do, it's pretty simple actually. They would take all the kids and you go into the water in the Lake and you get wet. And then you basically just run around camp, like crazy people, chanting Rove and jumping and diving into mud puddles and wrestling. And you used to go out to the horse pasture and then roll around in the horse poop. The way you cap off of Rove is after you do all that, you go back in the Lake and you get rinsed off and you go take a hot shower and then you celebrate by eating a sundae.
Roberts: Ok, so there’s a little Willie Wonka in there, but only after the mud and horse poop.
That story came to us from Timmy. He’s going to kick off the second installment in our 2-part series on summer camp. Timmy is not his real name. Just like with the first episode, we’re concealing people’s identities so they can tell us what really happens at camp.
Decades ago, Timmy had his first year at a camp that would become a centerpiece in his life, even as he grew up. It was in the North Woods of Wisconsin and offered numerous classic camp activities, as well as some cult-ish practices like roving... but it was really defined by overnight canoe trips. Groups of five kids would head out with a couple counselors on multi-day paddling adventures that varied in length and difficulty depending on the age of the campers.
Timmy was 11 that first summer, and as he and other boys prepared for their canoe trip, they were introduced to some long standing traditions.
Timmy: And so the first thing you do is you go to a trip’s house, which is this iconic place, right. Cause you have to get all your check out all your equipment for the trip and they have this very dialed in system. And I remember the trip's director was this big burly dude with a beard and he was super jacked. And they had all of these procedures for checking in and it taught you to take care of your possessions and one of the things that they do is they check you out your pots and pans. And they're beautiful and clean, right?
These aluminum pots and pans. And so the deal is when you check them out, you need to return them just as clean as when you got them. And that's difficult, right? You had to cook on open fires. They didn't check you out with stoves or anything. The pot is going to blacken right? Because counselors didn't want to have to deal with scrubbing the pots when they got back which we are all terrified of because this big burly dude, and it was going to be a lot of work. And you heard all these stories about kids in the wash house, scrubbing their pots and pans for hours, which I don't think actually were true.
And so as a result of that, like the counselors there came up with all kinds of tricks.
Roberts: Among the common tricks was soaping the outside of the pot before cooking, which prevented the buildup of soot. But the most effective technique was to not use the aluminum pots at all. Instead, counselors would have their crews cook inside #10 cans. Those are the big tin cans that sometimes hold Folgers coffee grounds... or maybe canned peaches. Every group of canoers was issued a #10 can to carry eggs for their first breakfast on the trip. They’d pack them pine needles to keep them from breaking. Kind of cute, right?
Anyway, counselors realized they could get away with cooking in the cans, and not even bringing a pot. This was what Timmy’s counselor planned to do. The crew’s first #10 can meal would be a customary dinner at the camp: potatoes, carrots, and ground beef.
It probably would have worked out just fine, if the weather hadn’t sucked so much.
Timmy: it just rained and rained and rained. It was early summer in June and it was so wet and cold. You think it's like gonna be warm, right? It's summer and Wisconsin, it's going to be nice and warm. It was not.
Roberts: The group set out in the rain, and after a rather miserable day, they reached a basic campsite that included a vault toilet and a fire ring. The counselor immediately got to work on dinner.
Timmy: I don't know if you've ever tried to start a fire with really wet wood, but it's difficult. And I think that he was supposed to learn how during staff training, but it's a difficult thing to do.
And I just remember him on his hands and knees just blowing on this fire forever. And, um, finally gets the fire going a little bit, and, we're cooking in our tin cans and the water starts to boil a little bit and we throw everything in, cook up the ground beef on the frying pan, put the potatoes and the carrots. And then the fire just like starts to fizzle out. And finally, after many, many breaths, our counselor throws in the towel. He's like you guys, I'm sorry.
And so he takes the tincan off the fire and hands it to one of my cabin mates, Scott, and he's like, go dump this out. We're going to eat something else tonight.
Roberts: Little Scotty took the can and went off to the vault toilet to dispose of the failed stew.
Timmy: Meanwhile our counselors like rummaging around in the pack looking to feed us peanut butter and jelly and crackers or whatever he can find.
Roberts: A few minutes later, Scotty rejoined his fellow campers, who notice that he’s not holding the 10 can.
Timmy: We're like, Scotty,where's the 10 can? He's like, Oh, I threw it. I threw it in the toilet. And we were like, duh, that's what we're cooking out of.
Roberts: Timmy and the other camper decided to head back to the toilet with Scotty to investigate.
Timmy: Sure enough, it's down in there and I don't know how much y'all know about vault toilets, but this one was pretty full. And so which ended up being kind of unfortunate, right. Because the can was just out of reach cuz there was a lot of poop in it. We could just see it. It’s on top of this big mound of poop and we're like, Oh man. We gotta get that out. Like our counselors are gonna kill us. We got a stick and we're trying to fish it out with it with a stick and it smells pretty gnarly.
We're like Scotty, you have to deal with it. Like you're the one that threw it in, so we're sort of egging him on. And ultimately like he got up sort of balanced sort on top of the toilet seat and really stuck his whole upper body as best he could. He's 11 year, you know, into this toilet. And we had the stick and was trying to fish it out and ended up brushing up against the side and getting some stuff on him. And, that sent a sideways, right? We were like, Oh my God, we all ran down to the Lake. to clean Scottie off, who's now got like poop from the vault toilet on his arms.
And of course that finally gets our counselors attention. He's like, what are you guys doing? And so we tell him the whole story. We go back up there and he looks at it and he just shakes his head.
Roberts: Ultimately, the counselor had to use a pay phone to call back to the camp and request that his proper pot be sent along.
As for Scotty, the other campers didn’t hold his mistake against him. Timmy points out that it was a totally new situation for all of them. Confusion was a constant.
Actually, the only person who was upset by the situation, was Timmy’s mom.
Timmy: I was telling this story of my mom and she's like, we paid that camp a lot of money and they were cooking out of a tin can???
Roberts: Another kid who went to this same camp had a very different kind of first-time experience. We’ll call him Al, and it also happened when he was 11. Al had grown up in a big midwestern city, with minimal exposure to outdoor adventure. Still, he was excited to go to camp: swimming, archery, group games… all that sounded like a blast.
But then he got there and realized that he’d also have to go one of these canoe trips.
Al: And it really dawned on me that this was going to be a fairly serious undertaking for a suburban kid who had never really been on many overnight outdoors activities. So that's when I really started to think to myself, wow, this is maybe something I'm not as excited about as I thought I was.
Roberts: Making matters worse, Al was the smallest kid in his group.
Al: There were a couple other guys on our trip who were definitely going through puberty earlier than I was. And they were basically like twice my size.
And so A) the trip was easier for them. They just had stronger arms and so paddling was easier. I think even one of them was on his middle school football team and he was huge. He seemed like an adult to me. And also those guys, they were a little bit like bullies.
And one of the guys, he was always sneaking candy. And he was a little bit more savvy and just kind of bigger. And so he was kind of, you know, his whole role is like, I'm big, this trip is easy for me. And guess what? I snuck a bunch of candy that I'm not going to share with you.
Roberts: Poor Al was miserable from the get go. The paddling was hard... but even harder were the portages. That’s when groups carry their boats and all their stuff from one lake to the next. The counselor would deal with the canoes, carrying them one at a time upside down on his shoulders, while the kids lugged the food and gear.
Al: I might've even thought a couple of times, maybe if I got injured, I could be evacuated from the trip. You could twist your ankle, with a big heavy pack on your back and no one would probably think twice about challenging you. Right. It's a totally believable story. So I think I definitely thought about that. I definitely thought about like, what if I got food poisoning? That could be a great way to get evacuated as well.
Roberts: Initially, the portages were short, maybe a quarter mile or so. But on the second day, the group had a big one: about two miles. As they paddled towards it, Al got increasingly anxious. His biggest worry was that he’d end up being the one who had to carry the heaviest pack, which they called the grubber, because it held all their grub.
Al: Let's say you're doing a grocery run for five days of food. That's basically what's in that pack.
Roberts: When they reached the beach, the campers drew straws to determine who would carry what.
Al: Sure enough. I drew the straw for the grubber. I was small enough that I actually even needed help getting it on my back. There's no waste strap or anything like that. It's just two leather straps over your shoulders, I'm the smallest kid in the trip. I've got the heaviest pack and everyone just kind of takes off. The bigger guys on the trip might've even made fun of me at how slowly I was moving and how the pack was like, literally at least as big and heavy as I was.
Roberts: Fairly soon, Al was alone, walking alongside a rural road that led towards the next lake. After a while, his shoulders hurt so badly that he decided to take off the grubber for a break. A couple minutes later, when he tried to put it back on, he couldn’t.
Al: I can't get it up on my knee to help get it up over my shoulder. So I'm in a little bit of a pickle here and not sure what to do when I hear a motor like a car engine drive up and slow down right in front of me. I look up and there is a yellow gremlin.
Roberts: In case you’re not familiar with the Gremlin, it’s an odd looking little automobile. They were introduced in 1970 as America’s first subcompact car. If Scooby Doo drove a hatchback, it’d be a gremlin. The one idling next Al was in pretty rough shape.
Al: And a woman doesn't get out of the car, she just yells out and says, Hey kid, why do they make you carry those giant heavy packs and walk down the road? I said something like were doing a five day canoe trip and sometimes you have to go from one Lake to another. And she just said, well, that seems ridiculous and unfair. You want a ride?
Roberts: This was a tough decision for Al. He knew he wasn't supposed to get into cars with strangers. And he knew that he was supposed to be on a wilderness trip, without the aid on modern conveniences. Then again, his shoulders were getting pretty sore.
Al: I really decided to myself, I'm about 10 to 20% of the way on this Portage. It doesn't feel like I'm going to get there on my own. So I better hop into this car and keep my fingers crossed. She moves the passenger seat forward and I shove the grubber into the back of the seat. And then I sit in the front seat.
And she just starts chatting me up like, where are you from? What’s the name of that camp again? How many kids are doing this. I think the funniest thing about it is she was truly incredulous. She just couldn't understand why we would be doing what we were doing, why you would be canoeing multiple days, when when you canoed across the lake, why would you pull the canoe and all the packs out of the water and carry it all to another lake and keep going? She just really couldn't understand it.
The scariest part was, as I'm looking out the front window, I'm starting to see the other kids on the road. I would tell the lady, like I got a duck and every single time I ducked below the window, and then she would say, okay, you're in the clear. It was kinda fun, it was kinda scary, I knew I shouldn’t be doing it but she and I were in cahoots, like I wasn't just doing this myself. There's actually an adult who was helping me do the same thing. So that might've made me feel a little bit better about it.
Roberts: When they reached the short trail leading down to the next lake, Al dragged the pack out the car and watched the Gremlin rumble away. Now, of course, he was ahead of everyone else—which meant he had to hide.
Al: But what I did is I kind of pulled the pack off the trail behind a couple of bigger trees and I waited.
Roberts: Sitting still in the woods, Al found himself facing an entirely new challenge.
Al: Well, if you've ever been in the upper Midwest in the summertime, it is crazy with mosquitoes. They're like hummingbirds. They're, they're huge. And it hurts when they bite. I’m just wearing a tee shirt, a life jacket shorts, and some hiking boots and mosquitoes are all over my legs. They're all over my arms. They're all over my neck, all over my face.
It was maybe seven to 10 minutes that I was waiting there just enduring mosquito bites, knowing that I had to stay, I had to stick it out. And you know you're going to suffer for the next several days because you're going to have 50 mosquito bites that you probably wouldn't have gotten had you not hitched a ride and sat in the woods, hiding from the rest of your group until they showed up at the put in.
Roberts: The counselor arrived first and dropped a canoe in the water, then turned around to get the next one. Then the kids slowly rolled in over about 15 minutes.
Al: And as everybody's assembling, I was able to muster just enough energy to get that grubber onto my shoulders, walk in and drop it and act exhausted as if I had truthfully portaged the entire way. And we were high fiving cause we did the portage and nobody really asked me any questions. And then basically we jumped into our spots in the canoes and we paddled and nobody was the wiser. I was kind of on cloud nine. I was like, you know what, I beat the system a little bit here. I kind of feel bad, but I kinda don't because guess what, I just got out of the worst experience of the trip.
Roberts: Al kept his secret for a number of years. Meanwhile, he came around to loving wilderness canoeing, which surprised him more than anyone else.
Al: When I was in that car, I was probably spending time thinking to myself, I'm never coming back to this place. I'm never going to touch a canoe paddle or getting a canoe again, and I'm never coming to camp again. And then, when I had a little bit of time to reflect, I was a little bit embarrassed about that I had done it and a little bit disappointed in myself and the next year it was time to sign up and my parents asked me, they're like, Hey, do you want to go back to camp? And I said, I was pretty much like, yeah, I do.
Roberts: He ended up going back to the camp for 10 summers as a camper and then a counselor. And throughout that time, he never took the easy way again.
Al: Maybe that specific experience helped me to look a little deeper and harder at myself. I think it definitely crosses my mind when I'm thinking twice about trying something new or doing something differently or doing something I don't think I can do So I think it was a huge learning experience and a turning point. And sometimes when you decide to cheat the system, it actually gives you an opportunity to understand yourself better and do it right. And do it better in the long run.
Roberts: We’ll be right back.
Roberts: For so many kids summer camp is an escape. You get far away from your normal life and spend long days outside with people you’ve never met doing all kinds of new things.
But some kids need escapes more than others.
Some time ago, a 10-year-boy named Russell was eager to escape a difficult home situation. His parents had divorced and were living thousands of miles apart from each other while fighting over their children. Somehow, this ended up with his mom putting him and his sister on a plane to spend seven weeks at a Christian Science summer camp that was about as far as possible from both of their parents
Russel: I showed up literally in my -- I think I was wearing cowboy boots and one outfit in my trunk that had all my clothes hadn't arrived yet. And I was sort of the new kid there. Everyone else who was in my cabin had been there for years already. And we're already a tight knit group. I hadn't been away from home for that long I think ever. And my mom, I think was pretty worried about me. She would call the mess hall almost every other day, the main phone line. And it became a camp wide joke, like “Russell, you mom is on the phone. “
Roberts: But while he had tough moments that first summer, he soon fell in love with the place.
Russell: I think sending me to that camp was basically the best parenting decision my mom had ever made for me and I would always come back from it and I was tired. Every day is constant activity, but she was looking at my eyes and said, I've never seen your eyes so clear. I've never seen you in such good shape. I've never seen you so happy. So this was the best part of my childhood, honestly.
Roberts: Russell says he learned to play a number of sports at the camp, and got really into hiking, backpacking, and canoeing. But his most enduring memory is of what sounds like the most epic game of capture the flag of all time.
Russell: It was always played in the woods. And it was always played over a really long time. So even the junior ones were overnight. So they would take all the 9and 10 year olds out to the, to the woods and they would play straight through the night.
It was characteristic of a lot of things at the camp. There was sort of that go big or go home mentality
Roberts: In this camp’s version of the game, instead of grabbing the flag and bringing it back to your team’s side; you’d pick it up say “flag” a few times, and that counted as a point. In this way, the games could keep going and going. For the older campers, the matches would run continuously for four days and nights.
Russel: They a property that was just enormous, just a big empty forest with Hills and ridges. And it must've been a couple of square miles.
Roberts: There were tryouts, meal planning, and also mental preparation that was in line with camp’s spiritual ethos.
Russel: There were meetings about how we were going to act and what thoughts were going to keep in our mind as we went into the forest.
Roberts: The game began when the teams were bussed out to an area in the woods they’d never seen before. Each team was then led by a judge to a hilltop that would be their home base. Their first task was to build a 14-foot-tall judges tower.
Russel: This was where the judge is basically going to sit for the rest of the four days with a bird's eye view of everything that was going on.
Roberts: The judges would score the teams on their sportsmanship, their meal preparation, and work building the tower and other structures.
Russell: And as soon as the game began, it was basically open the season. So I remember the first night you're already tired. The game doesn't stop, but while you're not actually raiding or running through the woods, you're building these structures. I was halfway up a tree with a friend of mine. It was probably two in the morning. We've got our headlamps on and we were doing everything with twine and saw, no nails, no tools, no nothing.
Roberts: For Russel and the other campers, the game became a chaotic endurance challenge… one that, for him at least, had a lasting positive impact.
Russel: That first night you're really tired, cause you're not used to staying up all night. And then the second night you sorta realize that you can actually keep going. And the third night you're just jacked on adrenaline, more or less. You're probably technically in some sort of insanity category if a psychologist were to look at you, but you realize by the third night that you know what, I can do this. I mean, I'm going to collapse when this is all done, but I have pushed myself so far past where I thought I could go on night one when I was sort of sitting there on the hillside, struggling to keep my eyes up. And so when you returned to camp, you feel kind of special. You feel like you went through something that no one else has gone through.
Roberts: Russell says that this exhaustive approach to competition was part of a larger strategy taken at the camp, where the counselors pushed you to the edge of your abilities, but also supported you emotionally in a way that he had never experienced. He carries those lessons with him today as an adult.. and as a father.
Russel: Just that combination of being tough and being loving. I's just not something you see as a man in particular, in other areas of life where you're encouraged to be so tough and to push yourself and also encouraged to be so loving and to feel love coming from your role models at the same time.It's just the opposite of the sort of macho cultures that you hear about in so many other places, on college campuses, on sports teams or whatever. That's not what it was like at this camp. This camp was about love. And it was about pushing yourself while making sure that you love each other. And I think that that has always stuck with me in my relationship with my son, my relationship with other men, friends.
Roberts: Other lessons we learn at camp come through moments that have us questioning what’s going on around us. In the late 1970s, a young man we’ll call Steve traveled by plane and bus from his home in a midwestern city to a remote camp in Canada. He’d seen a slideshow about an outfit that took teenage boys on wilderness canoe trips, and thought: this looks great.
He knew it would be physically demanding, but really, he didn’t know what he was getting into.
Steve: We were maybe not even three hours into the trip when the waves in the Lake got really rough and our canoe flooded and I became soaking wet and it was get everything out of the canoe, empty the canoe, filled water, get back in and keep going for the next four or five hours. It was not a question of, Oh, I want to stop and dry off. Like that just doesn't happen.
Roberts: The days involved long hours of paddling heavy wood and canvas canoes, and brutal portages lugging old-fashioned gear. Still, the trip leaders were kind and the ten boys in the group generally got along.
Steve: There was an incredible sense of comradery and fun, so that it was -- you didn't feel like you're all alone
Roberts: On trips like this, food—or the lack of it—becomes a centerpiece of the experience.
Steve: We were eating three meals a day, but you were always hungry. One thing that nobody ever did was ate food that wasn't communal at where you went in and like helped yourself to food. I mean, everything was like cook together, eating together and watch like a Hawk.
Roberts: One sunny afternoon about two weeks into the trip, they were paddling along a river, when the trip leader in front held his paddle up in the air, a signal that meant there was wildlife ahead.
Steve: We came around the corner and we could see what he was looking at, which was a calf moose that was down by the river. And so everybody was quiet and watching it. And then as we, the river took us closer and closer to it. We realized that while it was alive and moving, it was, it was obviously badly injured because he couldn't get up and run away. And it became very clear that it was not going to survive. It was not able to stand up on its own and yet it was very much alive.
So we were sitting there talking about what are we gonna do with this moose? And the trip leader started talking back and forth. And one of them said, we need to kill it and put it out of its misery because it's not going to survive. And the other one's like that makes sense. That's the humane thing to do. Let's let's do that. And he's like, yeah. And he goes, I'll do it. And so he grabbed his ax and he gets out of his canoe and he straddles the moose and everybody had the same feeling like he wasn't doing this. He was just testing us to see what our reaction would be. And low and behold, before we knew what was really happening, he raised up his ax with the blunt end of it, came down on the moose’s head right between the eyes to put it out of its misery and killed it.
And it flopped into the river and started drifting towards my canoe and instantly he and the other staff were yelling grab it, grab it, grab. I was like in shock because I couldn't even fathom what had just happened, let alone that a moose was floating towards me and the river. So I reached down and I grabbed it and I got it. I got an ear. Somebody else grabbed this tail and we ended up holding onto it, and paddling across the river to a clearing where they just said we're going to carry the moose up there and we're going to field dress it.
Roberts: Some of the other boys had hunted deer before, so this was all within the range of normal to them. But as a city kid, Steve was bewildered. His discomfort only grew as the leaders hung the moose up and began to butcher it.
Steve: And I was just speechless. I was unnerved. That just really unnerved me. I went for a walk in the woods. I just said, I just got to, I need to take a break. Self-imposed timeout.
Roberts: When he got back ten minutes later, he was instructed to dig a hole where they’d be burying the parts of the moose that they wouldn’t eat.
Steve: That I could do.
Roberts: The whole operation proceeded rapidly, since nobody wanted to be caught in the act.
Steve: There was some anxiousness to make sure that we were very quick about what we were doing so that somebody didn't come upon us or because even though we hadn’t seen a lot of people, you just never know, cause you're not supposed to kill moose out of season. Even though I think everybody felt like it was the right thing to do. We’re just not supposed to.
Roberts: That evening, they made camp and cooked an enormous meal.
Steve: And for the first time you could just go and grab and eat as much as you wanted.
Roberts: Some four weeks later, at the end of the trip, when the paddlers came ashore for the last time, the director of the camp met them pulled the trip leaders aside. He’d managed to get word of what happened, after one of the boys had mailed a letter home from a resupply outpost. Steve says the director was a former military man, and very regimented. You could see he was conflicted about what he’d heard.
Steve: Part of him was not happy about this because he wouldn't want to do anything that would get the camp in trouble. But at the same time, you could see a twinkle in his eyes that he loved the fact that this group had this experience together. And kind of the only kind of way you have that experience is to be out in the wilderness, traveling in the woods with wooden canvas canoes.
Roberts: For Steve, the event left an indelible mark. But not about the ethics of eating meat or hunting. He was left with a deep respect for the unpredictability of wild places.
Steve: You just didn't know what was going to be around the corner. And most of the time it was just more river and more trees and more woods and more mosquitoes and more muskeg, but you just never knew. Right. To me, it kind of encapsulated that wonderful experience of being out in the woods. And just that exploration. What we did was no different than what they would have done a hundred years before.
Roberts: This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.
Thanks to all the listeners who wrote in with submissions for summer camp stories. If you have an idea for anything you think we should cover on this show, whether about camp or not, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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