Crystal River, Fishing, Keen, Kelty, Lake Michigan, Leelanau Outdoor Center, Mary Baker Eddy, memories, Northern Michigan, REI, reunion, Sleeping Bear Dunes
I haven’t slept in a cabin in almost four decades since my last year at camp. The prospect of doing so in late September in Northern Michigan did not appeal to me. But that’s how this camp reunion was shaping up and I had already booked my non-refundable flight. I felt confident of a good time, even if none of my camp friends had signed up, because I traveled with ‘Lathe’. We call her ‘Lathe’ because otherwise she’d be another Susan. She coordinated our flights from Northern Virginia and made sure I shared her cabin.
Lathe is a board member, (one of those mysterious ladies behind the scenes), and we had attended camp together all those years ago. Lathe looked up to me, perhaps, (probably not), because I had been a Counselor in Training when she’d been a camper. Since she decided to sleep in an unheated cabin, and I look up to her now, I decided I should sleep in one too. And, I wanted to prove to my husband that I could rough it, (never mind the actual bed and cabin), and I wanted to prove to myself that I really had learned all those great life-changing lessons in Memory Lake.
I bought a sub-zero sleeping bag from REI and a high-tech down coat and packed flannels and wool socks. The first night, Lake Michigan raged below the cliff and a cold wind whipped through gaps along the shuttered screens. My nose dripped through the tiny gap of my zipper’s opening. I tried to fall asleep but mostly I held stiff and rigid on the plastic mattress covered in a towel. I imagined snow drifted against the back of the cabin.
“Do I have to go to the bathroom?” I wondered, taking a body check in the dark. “No, I can wait.” Time passed slowly and painfully. “No, I can’t wait,” I decided. I unzipped the sleeping bag from toes to shoulders. Its high-pitched rip roared like an alarm clock. No one stirred from the rows of bunks, but I imagined having awakened them all. I donned my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow, slipped into my Keens, and tried to tip-toe down the aisle toward the door in complete darkness. I unlatched the metal hook, (more unbearable noise,) and braced for an arctic blast. A balmy breeze hit me. As I darted for the bug light outside the bath house, I wondered, greatly annoyed, why it seemed so darn cold in the cabin! I repeated this same noisy routine two more times before dawn.
Far too early, someone hit the cabin light. “Dips,” a voice whispered. My bed had finally become warm, cozy, and comfortable and I did not want to move. When I emerged from my mummy bag, all the beds were lifeless except the one nearest the door. Ellie stood beside her foot-high pile of blankets hauled to camp in her car. She raised her eyebrows at me and the unsavory task ahead; getting into swim gear. She rushed, so I rushed, because we couldn’t miss dips. Lathe was out there. Everyone was out there. I wanted to ask her how many times she got up, if she had heard me, and if she had slept at all.
We stepped from the cabin into the rising heat of the sun. Ellie deadpanned, “It’s winter on the other side of this cabin, you know.” I laughed, feeling the same sort of relief as I had my first year at camp, decades earlier, when I’d met the other ‘Nancy’. Except, Ellie was more like another ‘me’. Lathe was her ‘Nancy’, the best friend and perfect camper who kept her in line. As we stood on the cabin stoop and stared into the woods where the 100 wooden steps descended to the freezing lake, Ellie droned, “Well, let’s get down there so everyone can see us.”
During the reunion, I stuck near Ellie and she proved my theory; every perfect camper needs an imperfect friend to balance out the universe. We were those imperfect campers. Ellie and I had amazingly similar memories. We dreaded council fires for not earning ‘beads’, though we happily watched our friends win awards. We always messed up in front of counselors or just missed that opportunity to be helpful. Our similar stories made us laugh from pure joy and gratefulness because we knew even as mediocre campers, we had developed confidence, leadership abilities, and hidden strengths by attending camp.
Suzy, (another imperfect camper), suggested we had actually reached perfect camper status because we attended camp reunions. She offered this bit of wisdom as she navigated our canoe down the Crystal River. (Her mom had wisely put a ‘z’ in her name to differentiate her from all the other Susans, and it worked once you knew the ‘z’ was there.) Suzy had been a camper in the Fifties. She so effectively linked our camp experiences, I now feel connected to the old camp. Suzy is how I imagine my mom would have been as a camper, and how she would be now, if she had lived.
Marcia (aka ‘Robyn’ in Memory Lake) ran the reunion and tried to keep us on some sort of schedule. (Josh, our talented chef, really appreciated that.) Honestly, Marcia’s dedication amazes me and I’m still trying to live up to her expectations. “Since you’re the writer…,” she told me 15 minutes before ‘skits’ on the first night, “Write some dialogue for us. Here’s the scenario….” I spent ten minutes locating paper and pen. Frantically, I managed to eek something together and it actually drew laughter. Phew! I suppose such feats are possible at camp because expectations run high yet everyone is easy to please.
The rainy day turned out to be my favorite. We sipped hot tea and hung out in the heated arts and crafts shed amid a cozy atmosphere of creativity. Lathe, Kappy, Deb, Murph, some Susans, Diane, and Lee Ann wove complicated, intricate bracelets to rival boutique merchandise. Ellie and I hot-glued rocks to wooden picture frames. We didn’t even gather the rocks ourselves, I’m embarrassed to say. Except, I did add a few tiny pebbles as fillers, purposely gathered on my exciting day of canoeing the Crystal River with Suzy.
Except for a deep longing to return to my heated bedroom in Virginia, I was sad to leave the company of so many confident, accomplished women who similarly credit camp for defining their strengths and honing their focus. We are fit, optimistic, and not nearly finished with all we intend to accomplish.
Thanks ladies, you have reminded me why I wrote Memory Lake. (Now in its Second Edition with an authentic cover depicting Lake Michigan from the top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes!) Many thanks to the year-round staff of the Leelanau Outdoor Center (LOC) for making the week-end possible.
“Spiritual development… propagates anew the higher joys of Spirit…. Each successive stage of experience unfolds new views of divine goodness and love.” Science & Health, BY Mary Baker Eddy. (P.66)
Very well written, loved your insight! ❤
We need to do a post together on a gourmet meal cooked completely on a campfire with just aluminum foil. We could ‘hike’ into your wild and frightening way, way back yard. 😉
That would be so much fun!
Cancer in My Thirties said:
Though cold, it sounds as though you made some great memories. I give you a lot of credit — I loved camping as a kid, but the thought of late night bathroom trips is enough to keep me away from a campground these days!
Though I haven’t taken them “real” camping, the boys and I have camped in the backyard, but in summer and feet from the house and refrigerator and bathroom. It’s the best I can do! 😉
Congratulations on Memory Lake’s 2nd edition printing — what a great cover and what a great storyteller you are!
Well my dear, “the best you can do” is nothing short of amazing. Daily, I send you prayers and positive energy. Finally you are getting the readership you deserve. If every reader sends a prayer, that’s a powerful treatment. You are a loving, generous mom, a beautiful gentle soul, and this above all makes you the perfect woman. I am very proud to be following you.
Malcolm Greenhill said:
Nancy, I really enjoyed this post. I have camped and backpacked too often not to have gone through all the same thoughts and motions about getting up at night to relieve oneself in the ice and snow. I’m also so impressed with the commitment everyone showed to hold this reunion, in those conditions, after so many years. Furthermore, I find it almost unbelievable that you actually went swimming in those temperatures.Only Amazon warrior women would do that. The secret is out 🙂
Thanks for the compliment Malcolm. I know you have an understanding of the woods because you weave its lessons so well into your beautiful writing. I am always awed, entertained, and enlightened by your posts. My best to you and yours.