When I was about 10, my parents learned that it was actually more economical to send me to Girl Scout camp in the wilds of Maine - central Maine, Stephen King's Maine - than it was to keep me in Haagen-Dazs cones for a summer at home in Connecticut. From the depths of the garage, they dragged a down sleeping bag, bug netting and other mildewed camping supplies I never knew they owned. So what if I'd bailed on the Brownies in third grade? "You're going," they said.
By the last hour or so of the drive up the New England coast that June, the pine trees were thick enough to strain the sunlight from the air. Finally, our tires crunched on a gravel parking lot, and I - pudgy, cautious - climbed out to gawk at what looked like a primitive civilization overrun by little girls. There was a log cabin mess hall, a fire circle, a building called the Mountain House that contained the only flush toilets and showers for miles, a canoe beach and - barely visible from main camp - the first of the platform sleeping tents, scattered along the perimeter of a deep black swimming lake. Above it all loomed Mount Katahdin, purple and jagged, the cloud-upholstered lair of a mountain god whom I would soon learn to sing to.
Camp Natarswi was run by a legion of gray-haired, grown-up Girl Scouts with funny camp names like Skeeter, short for mosquito (the camp teemed with them). One of the first things these women did was distribute hot pink whistles, which campers were to blow into with all possible strength and haste should we: encounter a bear (there was an actual bear trap on camp property) or a moose (worse than a bear: they charge), start drowning during free swim, or veer off-course on a midnight trip to the latrines. Otherwise, the whistles were to hang, silent, from our necks, as we enjoyed the staples of our summer life: nature, archery and swimming. Nat-ar-swi. The strange thing is, there was no archery that I can remember.
Meanwhile, my school friends at their fancy co-ed camps were learning how to water-ski and slow dance, and they returned home every August with male pen pals to sigh over. Their success in this matter prompted me one summer to propose to the Natarswi leadership a mixer with a nearby camp of rugged Boy Scouts that was widely rumored to exist. We never found out for sure, because my proposal was rejected. Vigorously.
So I didn't learn to slow dance. What I did learn: How to eat broccoli, break in hiking boots, swim the butterfly, skip deodorant, sing all the lyrics of "On a Moose to Find an Outhouse," build fires better than future boyfriends, whittle, drip vinegar into friends' ears to stop infections, scrub latrines, tread water for an hour, define the word "gorp," cheat beaver fever, write letters, brush my teeth in a lake.
The climax of my three summers at camp, as I remember, was a canoe trip on a stormy day. My best friend and I were assigned to carry the group's cooler in our berth. The waves in the lake were big, and at some point, the dead weight of the cooler was supplemented by the bulk of a girl everyone called, for no reason, The Anaconda, who was too exhausted to keep paddling. The Anaconda coiled on the bottom, seasick and weepy, a sweat shirt over her head. Our canoe rode very low in the water; the shore seemed so far away. I looked down at my arms jamming the oar into the water and was amazed to see muscles there.
Years after my camping days ended for good, I often wondered whether Natarswi was as tough as I remembered, or if it had changed. Maybe the clouds of mosquitos were thinner, and the mountain had shrunk like an old man.
A few summers ago, on a hiking trip in Maine with my boyfriend, I stopped by to see how it had weathered the past decade.
Our tires crunched on the parking lot, but opening the door, I knew that if I were a child today my parents would never have sent me, as tuition had clearly gone up. The buildings seemed brighter and freshly painted. There were actual archery targets, and someone had stuck pastel butterflies on sticks all over the main camp. It looked like a pretty nice place to spend a summer, and for the first time, I was glad to leave.
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