The Wilderness Campers

It rained last night here. It really rained. The pond rushed over its overflow. The noise of the rain on the tin roof was fierce. Rain like that brings rain memories. We talked about ponchos at dinner, how inadequate they are. Your face gets wet. Your legs and feet get wet. And you are hot under the poncho. You can’t really hear. You remember hiking in the rain.

I waited to be old enough to go to the wilderness camping unit at Camp Wood-e-lo-hi, my beloved Girl Scout camp on the Cassadaga Lake. And finally I was! I was accepted. I was signed up. I was sent a list of what I needed for the camp. It was very different. No crate to put by my bed. No bedroll: I needed a sleeping bag and a tarp. I needed a cook set. I needed a canteen. I needed a hat. I needed a poncho. I needed a hatchet. I needed a flashlight. I needed a bandana. We went to the Girl Scout section of Sidey’s in Dunkirk, the counter with knives, compasses, uniforms displayed under glass. We bought the whole list.

My parents drove me to an unfamiliar part to the camp, away from the groupings of big tents on platforms. We couldn’t park near the camp site. The campers walked in by themselves. But we were big and sturdy and had been selected for this elite unit. We didn’t worry. Our gear got thrown into the back of the camp’s truck and we walked in with our strong self-assured counselors.

Our counselors knew everything. Their camp names were their real names spelled backwards, ‘Tap,’ and ‘Haras,’ and ‘Nasus.’ My camp name was “Nigge-nan-cigge-ny.” Easy to understand if you know double dutch. Tap and Haras and Nasus had a deep command of double dutch. They knew how to whittle, how to cook bacon and eggs on coals, how to make cocoa.

The skills were new, the tasks unfamiliar. Our assured counselors gave us a lesson in erecting pup tents. How to choose the site. How to clean the spot. How to lay out the tarp, raise the tent, position the poles and the ropes. We poundedthe stakes in the ground with the hammer end of our new hatchets. We put the pads, the sleeping bags, our gear in bags away from the sides of the tent.

Tap and Haras and Nasus showed us how to cut green branches to hold our wash basin. They taught us how to lash the branches together so they would make a sturdy tripod. Under their supervision we dug a latrine. They helped us erect a little canvas wall around the latrine. We had to remember to carry the toilet paper with us, to take it back.

Tap and Haras and Nasus gave us jobs, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Dinner meant building a fire, finding the firewood, helping cook the food on the grate. They showed us how to clean our supper dishes, each one of us scrubbing our own plate and bowl and cup in a big pot of sudsy water, then a cold rinse, then a hot rinse, dishes in a net, dunked in, pulled out, put back together in our own kits.

One day we broke camp. We were going to camp in the deep wilderness, in Burnham’s Hollow up Canadaway Creek. We were going to hike there, up the hill from Cassadaga. Under Tap and Haras and Nasus’ direction we rolled up and tied our sleeping bags. That took way too long. Should you fold and roll, or roll then tie? They didn’t roll right, they sprang out of the ties. The ties pulled out of the material. The sleeping bag rolls were too fat. Finally done. Very messy jobs. We pulled out our duffels. “Don’t lose your flashlights.” “Know where your bandanas are.” “Keep your ponchos out.” We pulled out the stakes. “Don’t lose the stakes. Show us your tent stakes. Where is the other tent stake?” “Keep your jackets.” “I can’t find my jacket.” “Fill your canteens. Wet the canvas. It will keep the water cold.”

Tap and Haras and Nasus led us out marching. We learned marching songs, “We are marching to Pretoria,” “I’ve got sixpence,” and the cadence. “Left, left, left my wife and 49 kids in a home of starvation without any gingerbread, keep your foot right, right, right for your country, up by jingle” where we hopped. We strode and hopped, strode and hopped down route 60. The wilderness looked pretty normal, houses, a supermarket, a taste-freeze stand. We turned left onto Bard Road. Lots of green grass well mowed and geraniums in neat tended flower patches. We started up the hill. Stay to the left. Stay on the shoulder. It is a big hill.

Tap and Haras and Nasus cajoled us up the first hill, and then down. We sang Jacob’s ladder. “Every round goes higher higher.” We did too. The verses started sinking in. I started wondering where is Pretoria? Why do I want to march there? I only get paid sixpence? And then I lose two pence? And then the last two pence? And who writes a song advising us to leave our wives and our children back to starve? I am not going to have a wife. I am going to be a wife. I don’t want to be left by my husband to starve with our 49 kids. Who would do this?

Tap and Haras and Nasus promise a canteen stop. Our wet canvas canteens banging against our hips. Our pants are wet from the canteens. We stop. We eat snacks. We start up the next hill. We sing “higher and higher.” We don’t feel like hopping. Our left feet come down when we sing “right by jingle.” Nothing is right. The clouds get darker and darker. No more neat little brick houses with flower patches. Woods. No cars. More woods.

Tap and Haras and Nasus tell us to put on our ponchos. We do. The rain begins. We pull up the hoods. “Don’t straggle.” They shout because it is hard to hear through the poncho hoods. The water streams down my face. My glasses get foggy. I clean them with the bandanna. I put them back on. They get wet. Foggy again. The bandanna is sopping. My bangs are sopping. I can’t see anything. Well, I can see the poncho in front of me and I just keep going. Up hills. Down hills.

Tap and Haras and Nasus tell us “You will make it. We are almost there. Just over the bridge. This is the Canadaway Creek.” I look at the Canadaway Creek. The water is rushing by, raging over the rocks, pulling at the banks, pulling in the trees. I know creeks. They burble, they meander, they stay put in their beds. This is no creek. This is a river.

The water is streaming down our ponchos. My jeans are wet. My socks are wet. My shoes are wet. When I walk water comes out. We walk up the creek. We walk under the trees that are shaking in the wind. We walk by the new streams joining the creek. The path is muddy. It is slippery. We make it! We are there!

I look around. We are in a clearing. The grass is bent over from the rain. The clearing is one big puddle. The stream is roaring by. “This is the there?” I wonder. We can’t lay tarps on this. We can’t put tents up in this. We can’t start a fire in this. There is no place to sit. No place to lie down.

Tap and Haras and Nasus huddle by the camp truck. Our gear is covered by a tarp. The truck leaves. The truck leaves us. Are we going to starve? We are cold. Are we the 49 children without any gingerbread? The rain comes down harder. The only more miserable people than me are everyone else. At least I am not crying. That is only rain on my glasses. Is Tap crying? What is Nasus whispering in her ear?

The truck comes back. Cars follow. We get in the cars, crammed in, poncho to poncho, front and back. All of us. We don’t look where we are going. The beat of the windshield wipers, the burst of the puddles as the car drives through, the rain on the roof, the smell of wet clothes. The campers sniffling, water dripping off their noses. Wet bandannas no good.

We unload at the camp’s farmhouse. I thought it was only the camp library. Tap and Haras and Nasus bring in our duffles. We shake out and hang up our ponchos. We pull off our wet clothes. We turn our shoes upside down to drain dry. We unroll our sleeping bags on cots. The cooking crew cooks supper over a kitchen stove. The cleanup crew washes dishes in the kitchen sink.

Cars take us back to finish our hike the next day. We start at Burnham’s Hollow. The creek is down. We leave the creek behind and walk up the hill. We pass the Burnham’s Hollow Cemetery. We keep going. We change the words to the songs. “Left my HUSBAND and 49 kids.” Two pence to send home to my HUSBAND.” We are strong. We are mighty.

The weather report says it is going to rain again today. We have a tin roof, and a big porch and a washer and a dryer. But if I want, the Canadaway is just down the hill. I can watch the trees fall in, the banks slip in, the water rush over the rocks. Or, I can make some cocoa and lie in the hammock and read. Hmmmm.

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