Last weekend I attended the 100th anniversary celebration of my childhood sleep-away camp. Among many of the weekend’s magical moments was a tribute to the outgoing owners of the camp. I had the privilege of reading the story below, in honor of their achievements. An abbreviated version of this piece was originally published in the 2012 March/April Camping Magazine.
Kamaji Hats Off to Thee
The Camp Lady, as she was known on the North Shore of Chicago, showed my mother and me photos of swank camps with luxurious cabins, electric tennis ball cannons, and soft-serve ice-cream machines. She talked up theatre and sports camps. She effused enthusiasm for all the currently “in” camps. I wasn’t enticed.
As a last ditch effort she mentioned Camp Kamaji, Minnesota’s oldest camp for girls. Tight-lipped, she shared photos of ramshackle cabins with screens for windows. She admitted it was recently under new ownership, not accredited by the American Camping Association, and very, “and I mean very,” rustic. No electricity, no heat, and no toilets.
The camp lady hadn’t really thought I’d bite. Who chose outhouses over ice-cream machines?
To her I was an oddity, but for me the choice was clear. As it turned out, I made an excellent decision. This dilapidated camp, situated 210 miles north of Minneapolis on a lakeshore 17 miles from the nearest town of Bemidji, would become more than a place where I’d learn to build a fire, portage a canoe, or shoot an arrow. It would become the place where I’d leave my familial conflicts behind and be my most joyful, despite the lack of creature comforts.
Several months and two army duffle bags later, I stepped off a bus alongside 40 other girls for a four-week stay. It was the summer of 1981 and I was just shy of ten-years-old. Bubbly counselors ushered me to the lodge, an immense log cabin-like structure. Walking towards the building, I gawked at the trees. I followed their trunks upwards with my eyes, and practically lost my sense of balance. Pine needles spiraled downwards mimicking the nervous sensation in my stomach.
In minutes, I’d be whisked off to the Nutshell, home to the youngest kids in camp, where I’d make my bed, fill my cubby, and locate my flashlight. Soon camp would be enveloped in a calm, thick darkness.True to the Camp Lady’s word, Kamaji was rustic. We brushed our teeth with ice-cold water over a trough with spigots, watching our collective backwash slide past. Our list of requisite supplies included biodegradable shampoo for Sunday morning wash-up in Wolf Lake. As she had forewarned, we used outhouses to do our business. There was no heat in the cabins, and the mosquitoes were relentless. Yet it hardly felt like hardship; rather a welcome respite from real life.
For such a young camper, I’d arrived with quite a large amount of baggage — and I don’t mean the duffles. My parents separated when I was two. A year later my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died before I was four. My mother worked and raised me alone until she met and married a widower with two children. I was eight and suddenly part of a merged family. There were three of them and two of us. My two teenage siblings didn’t much care for me. I felt like an outsider in my own home.
At Kamaji, I met Sara Vesely from Tulsa, Oklahoma and Susie Anderson from Salina, Kansas. Over the years these girls would provide invaluable support and a sense of belonging. Sara explains it well: “If I had a bad day with my friends at school, I could rely on the knowledge that I had these other friends.” It was like having the security of invisible friends, only better, because they were real.
Beyond the emotional support, came the extraordinary experience of befriending someone who was different, yet the same. I was the first Jewish person either Susie or Sara had ever known, but I wouldn’t be the last. The new directors, Mike and Kathy Jay, were an interfaith couple committed to building a spiritually, ethnically, and socio-economically mixed clientele. Industry experts advised them to choose one demographic and stick with it. They ignored the pundits, providing me and my friends with a positive introduction to diversity.
While atypical, lifelong friendships were the primary reason we returned summer after summer, there were other draws, too. We came back to camp because it was pure, unadulterated fun. Because we didn’t have to focus on what we wore. Because we had more autonomy and less stress. Because popularity was diluted. Because we had a break from the boy-crazed competition of adolescence. Because it was a Secret Garden, a Taribithia, a magical separate place. Because, as Sara says, “We weren’t necessarily our different selves at camp. Possibly just our truer selves.”
Our reasons for returning had nothing to do with infrastructure. Camp was a fixer-upper when I arrived. Attendance had dwindled.To my surprise, neither Sara nor Susie had visited any kind of camp lady. They’d always known they’d go to Camp Kamaji because that was where their mothers, aunts and grandmothers had gone before them. How lucky was I? By some fluke, I’d managed to crash this seemingly exclusive multi-generational party. I didn’t realize it then, but the legacy kids were keeping the camp afloat.
Kamaji had been beaten down, but its essence was in tact. The songs and traditions that had been collected over generations had endured. The focus on fun and friendship was solid. The natural backdrop of lake against trees and trees against sky was unwavering.
Over time, strategic improvements happened, bit by bit. Outhouses were razed. Shower houses and bathrooms were built. Accreditation was achieved. Sunday morning wash-up was deemed environmentally unfriendly. Attendance grew to 150 girls.
Over the ten summers I spent at Kamaji, both as camper and counselor, camp blossomed, and so did I. During that time, I’d gone from fragile, misplaced kid to confident, college graduate who had lived on her own for several years.
In 1993, Sara, Susie, and I each enlisted friends from home to work as counselors alongside us. My desperate need to draw a strict line between camp and home had disappeared. It was my final, sweet summer at camp.
By then, Kamaji had become an “in” camp amongst parents and girls on the North Shore. I was excited for Mike and Kathy’s success. At the same time, I knew my ten-year-old self would have balked at going to such a well-known camp. Back in the Camp Lady’s office, I’d found the idyllic spot for me, an absolute escape from home, a place where no one had a preconceived notion of who I was or what I’d experienced.
Kamaji and I had crossed paths at the perfect point in time; it was down and “out,” on the edge of obscurity exactly when I’d needed it to be.
Fast forward to today…
For years now if ever I get really stressed I will go to sleep at night and I will have this one dream. The dream will vary a bit, but for the most part, it’s the same. I’m back at camp. It doesn’t matter if a boardwalk has been built from the swim dock to Rutgers or if I’m teaching water-skiing instead of archery, in my dream I’m always incredibly happy and relieved to be at camp. I’m always excited to see Susie and Sara, and Mike and Kathy are always in charge. What I take from this dream is the knowledge that while camp may be fleeting and ephemeral, if I ever need a break from reality, a jolt of courage, or a return to innocence, it is always there in the back of my mind waiting for me to come home.
Thank you Mike and Kathy for nurturing such a special place for me, my daughter and so many other girls.
P.S. For another story about the power of camp friendships check out the heart-warming blog post Forever Friends written by Laura Weisskoph Bleill, a former camper of mine.