“Wake up, ya filthy animals!”
It’s 7:30AM. A corridor of bunk beds rustles to life as a booming bellow shakes the sheets. The air is teal-hued, thick but light. Ten young teenagers journey in the cold as a cluster to shower stalls in a patch of pine trees, towel in one hand, playing cards in the other. We greet the day, greet another few dozen people slightly younger and older over breakfast, then promptly sweat through the clean by jogging at pace through the forest, urged along by dutiful adults spread and stationed to make sure not one of us falls behind. Among them are some of the most skilled sleight-of-hand experts and creative minds alive today, shouting at us to pick up the pace. Lungs raw and fingers nimble, we then break into factions across our commune, perched on tree stumps and accoutred with decks of cards ever-so-slightly softened by the misty Haliburton air.
Then, the magic begins. Literally.
I was lucky to attend Sorcerers Safari twice: once at 13, and once more at 16. Many campers would’ve rather died than skip a summer. It was 8 days away from home in Northern Ontario, a wilderness congregation of over 100 magicians from across Canada and around the world, together to share their love of a sacred art form, to teach and to learn, to watch world-class magicians do world-class magic, to jump in the glacial water at dawn and eat fries in the sand at a beach bonfire after sunset.
Imagine being a teenager. Imagine being a teenager whose peculiar passion is prestidigitation. Imagine being the only young person in your neighbourhood who cares about it the way you do. Now, imagine 100 other teenagers just like you, pasty and idiosyncratic with wildly varying degrees of social aptitude, coming together in your own little speck of the world for a week, each one of you suddenly somewhere you all belong. That was magic camp.
Our days would be filled with master classes: sleight of hand with cards and coins, stage illusions, the business of professional magic, performance theory, juggling. Sitting at splintering picnic tables and being taught one-on-one by legendary magicians never felt anything less than monumentally special. Between these classes was just plain ol’ summer camp fun: sing-a-longs, swim time, beach volleyball, exploring the green, and eating better food than you’d expect.
When each night would come, we’d gather at the campsite’s hilltop theatre and take in a show performed by the world’s best magic talent. Cards would be ripped and restored. Award-winning close-up magic acts would be revived just for us. Freaking tigers would appear onstage. TIGERS. We’d have shows like this every single day. The nights would finish in the mess hall, practicing what we’d learned from our classes that day and sharing our favourite tricks with one another over cookies and hot chocolate. We’d stargaze on our strolls back to our cabins, buzzing with late-night sugar and new knowledge, trying ever-so-hard to fall asleep and do it all again at sunrise.
By week’s end, we campers would put on a stage show of our own. Some performed, some ran lighting and sound, some emcee’d, and some sat and cheered as the most supportive audience you could ever want.
Then there were the daily surprises. Whether it was our counsellors calling David Blaine on speakerphone, or being handed free magic gear all week, or a magician you idolize dropping by your cabin late at night to privately teach you magic you wouldn’t learn anywhere else, Sorcerers Safari thrived on the unexpected. It pulled out all the stops to make each camp week one of the best weeks of your life, and year after year, with generosity and camaraderie and support and love and unrelenting spirit, it objectively succeeded.
Magic camp was where I learned that magic means different things to different people. To some campers, it was a morning-to-night way of life, a dedication and a devotion. To others, it was a social in-road or a straight-up fun hobby. And there we all were, at Camp White Pine, among our own people for one week that could easily be two, or four, or ten, sharing the thing we all had in common. Burgeoning romances and lifelong friendships formed, fiery passion for magic threatened to burn the campsite to the ground.
Magic camp was also where I learned some damn humility and some damn humanity. To go from a place where I was one of the only (and therefore, by default, one of the best) young magicians around to being surrounded by people who quickly showed me how much I still had to learn made me a better person. It opened me up. Oddly enough, magic camp showed me there was way more to life than just magic.
It’s been ten years, almost to the day, since I last attended Sorcerers Safari. Though many other summers have followed since, the camp heartbreakingly closed up shop in 2017 after 20 years of shaping Canada’s young magicians. Sad as that is, magic camp will always be alive; in memories, in relationships, in lessons, in the way we shuffle our cards or the way we step on a stage… and in stories like this one:
In my last magic camp summer, I was in one of the week’s first morning card magic classes with an instructor who had bluntly, affectionately pointed out what an opinionated and stubborn young dude I was (and, I mean, he was totally right). In his class that day, he observed that there was a card technique I had taught myself incorrectly. Evidently, I had been doing it the wrong way for years. In my typical youthfully arrogant fashion, I resisted. “Who cares?” The rough way I did it still worked okay, after all.
Then, on the last day of camp and waiting to depart, I spotted that same instructor by the water. I rushed over and said “Hey. Watch this.” Cards steadily in my grasp, I took a breath and patiently performed the correct technique for him, carefully and flawlessly. I’d relearned it the right way and practiced secretly all week.
He looked at me, a soft smile in his eyes. “I’m very proud of you, Michael.”
We boarded the bus and rolled back to real life.