Monday, May 20, 2013

Girl Scout Camp, God Rest its Merry Soul

The first time I attended a Girl Scout Encampment, our troop of eight-year-old girls was the youngest in attendance. We were placed in the unit furthest away from the central camp area. Starlight was a scattering of old platform tents at the bottom of a sizable hill. The older girls showed us a shortcut up to the dining hall, a steep trail through the woods that, two years later, we were delighted to find marked as Dangerous! No access! We shook our heads and sighed with the wisdom of ten-year-olds. To think, we murmured to each other, we walked up that path to breakfast every morning when we were just eight!

Few of us got any sleep the weekend of our first Encampment. I was too busy freezing in a sleeping bag that didn't close all the way and fretting with my friend Pam about the skulls someone had spray-painted onto the walls of the tent. Others were too busy giggling or shrieking in fear of imaginary bears.

It was at Girl Scout camp that I cemented my reputation as a champion frog-catcher. Whenever we had a free moment, it was straight to the pond for me. There were salamanders too, and lots of little frogs just a couple inches in length, but my specialty was the big, bright green squelchy ones the size of your hand. It was at Girl Scout camp, also, that I learned to hike following trail markers. Saturday morning, after breakfast, was when we traditionally did our hike. Some of the girls opted for the Blue Trail, which was less intense, but I was always a Yelow trail girl. The Yellow Trail gave one the opportunity to traverse creeks by crawling across fallen tree trunks, and climb up and down ravines with the aid of a rope. Years later, while I was working at the camp as a summer counsellor, I got to know that trail so well that I could do it in 20 minutes flat. In the dark, without a flashlight. No, I'm not joking and yes, I know that wasn't very clever.

The last Encampment I attended before flying off to Neuch√Ętel, my buddies and I turned up with our bags packed full of prohibited items. We installed a cowbell outside our tent door and instructed our leader to ring before entering. During yo-yo time on Saturday afternoon, we invited a select few others in for a few rounds of cards. Once everyone was settled around the blue tarp we'd laid on the ground, we brought out the goods.

There were marshmallows. Chocolate chip cookies. Swiss Cake Rolls. Chips. Cheez-its. M&Ms. Twizzlers. I don't remember what all we had, but there was a lot of it. Eventually, we had to pack up and head to dinner, where none of us could eat a bite. We pleaded 'not hungry' to our leader, who immediately rounded on me. "Laura," she said, "what did you do?" Mrs. B always assumed I was the ringleader when we concocted mischief like this. (And she always assumed correctly, of course.)

We sealed our loot into zip-lock bags, which we piled into a large, heavy-duty, sealed canister and hung bear-bag style from a rod arching across the roof of our tent. The blue tarp - our 'tablecloth' - was taken well into the woods and shaken, then sealed up in the canister as well. We weren't entirely without sense. When raccoons invaded the unit that night, it wasn't our tent they broke into. (It was the Brownies, a couple tents down.)

*****

It's been a number of years now since you could catch frogs in that pond. They got worried about kids falling in and let reeds overtake the shoreline. It's been even longer since the old Starlight was torn down and a newer version was built just beside the main field. The Yellow Trail was allowed to get overgrown, and it is now closed. My old friend Pam emailed me all upset last week, because she is preparing to attend this year's Encampment with the troop she helps run with her mom, and everything, she says, is in a fine state of disarray. Not only is our favourite trail closed, and not only are the numbers of girls attending down to so few that they'll be using only one unit instead of four, but the leaders in charge this year have no apparent idea of what they are doing. They are neglecting things left and right. And, to top it off, Health Haven (the nurse's lodge) has been invaded by critters and goodness only knows where she'll have to go to find a flush toilet.

I replied with an email of support. Sorry I'm not there to make sure you have a good time, I said. But screw the council, Dixie Cup. You know how to have fun without their nonsense. Now go show your girls how awesome camp can be, then come back and tell me about it.

What I didn't say was this: you wish I was there, Dixie? I'm glad I'm not. I don't want to see that place falling to bits. Here in my head, it's in as good condition as it ever was, flooded with kids and frogs; salamanders and horrible campers' stew. In many ways, it's sad to leave the place where you grew up. It's sad saying goodbye for the last time, knowing that it might not be there when you return. But I think staying around to watch it wither and decay would be even worse. Things don't last forever. You can either stick around to watch them evolve, or you can say your farewells, duck out early, and keep your memories untainted.

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