My first week of my first summer at sleep away camp, I was so homesick that I threw up behind the canoe shed. It was an area protected by trees so that people walking along the dirt and pine needle path towards the waterskiing dock wouldn’t see me. I was embarrassed by having thrown up, but the body wants what the body wants, and my body wanted to puke. I was lucky that first summer because I had my older sister with me at camp, so after I wiped the vomit from the corners of my mouth, I walked up the steep hill to the bunk line, found my sister and was quickly enveloped in a hug.
The vomiting episode followed my first canoeing lesson at camp and I was still wearing the bulky orange life vest while I watched my breakfast come back up and onto the dirt. The whole process of canoeing felt intimidating to me – carrying the large metal canoes off their racks, undoubtedly banging my shin on the gunnels while awkwardly making my way to the lake’s edge. Clumsily climbing into the canoe, I was absolutely sure I would be the one to tip it and have to go through the long process of bailing out the water from my boat while keeping track of my paddle and trying not get swallowed by my life vest.
Canoeing quickly became less daunting after that first lesson, puke and all. I returned to the canoe dock that summer and often many summers after that, because being down at the canoe dock meant lots of laughter, no matter which campers or counselors were there with you. Somehow it was a place with little judgment or rigidity, even though we worked hard to master skill after skill that would allow us to move beyond the confines of our lake at Walden.
My third summer at camp we went on our first real canoe trip down the Saco River. It was three days of canoeing and camping by the banks of the river. We were giddily nervous that first day of the trip, dutifully trying to remember the skills we had learned on Walden Pond, navigating with seriousness the small rapids we encountered along the way. By day three, our band of pre-teen girls was quite a different story. Gone was the earnest effort to carefully make our way down the river. Instead we became a wild tribe of twelve girls, joyfully canoeing in our bras and shorts, shouting and screaming around each bend, belting out every campfire song we knew by heart. We were Huck Finn, Lord of the Flies and Indiana Jones all wrapped up in one, except we were pre-teen girls and the world was OURS. For those couple of days on the Saco River, we were the masters of our destiny, steering our canoes with sunburnt shoulders, blistered hands and shimmering confidence. Conventions were tossed aside to the sandy banks of the river as our bodies grew stronger and we reveled in how far we had come in three short days.
In my 6 summers at Camp Walden, I had the privilege of experiencing many such eye opening journeys down rivers and up mountains. But that canoe trip has always held a special place in my memory as the first time I consciously felt freed from the ordinary strictures of normal life. I could wear what I wanted, shout what I wanted, sing what I wanted, and the only things that mattered to me were my body, my friends and our canoes.
This summer I have seen the first photos of my daughter in a canoe at camp. Gone are the enormous orange life vests – hers is a sleek yellow – but the metal canoe in which she kneels is eerily familiar and I can easily conjure the slight ache she must have from kneeling on the metal bottom of the boat. What is most recognizable, however, is the seriousness of purpose with which she is practicing her strokes, the names of which I’ve long since forgotten. I can only hope that after she’s mastered the basics and ventured out into rivers beyond Walden, she too will find the adventure that I found thirty years ago canoeing down a river. I hope that life will offer her, as it did me, the opportunity to feel the hot sun beating down on her muscular arms as she sings her heart out, surrounded by friendship and imbued with power.