Archives for June 2016

I feel the need; the need, for speed.

Drop a leaf into the Green River and it would transition from the tiny rapids beneath our covered bridge to a glassy creek, lazily winding through the Tuxedo valley until opening up into an expansive lake, the mouth of which is spanned by an ancient and decommissioned iron truss bridge: Lake Summit.

Adjacent to that old bridge is the modern replacement across which we drove, giving us the day’s first look at the water. We’ve been awake for some time already but the lake appears still asleep. We turn onto a gravel road passing by small houses pocketed into the hillside and arrive at tiny shed-roof boathouse straddling the shoreline.

The water and sky are just as clear as one another. Large fish can be seen muscling by with ease. A quick division to pair up the sailors is the last step before the docks become alive. Suddenly the campers scramble with naval urgency, gathering masts, booms, and dagger boards, while others are spontaneously abandoning land to retrieve their vessels from the moorings.

Aside from the kicking agitations of swimmers, the lake remained placid. There wasn’t a single puff of wind, but they didn’t notice or didn’t care and rigged their boats just the same. Piece by piece, they made ready for their voyages and, just as the first halyard pulled on the cloth, a light breeze appeared, invoked by the offering of sails.

A mallard mother passed by with five ducklings, paddling at a speed not much slower than the sailboats. Mirthful voices carried over the water from one boat to another. The lake was waking up. Mark and Frank were in a Sunfish, one at the helm and the other perched on the bow like the carved figurehead of a Caravel. But he is no voiceless statue, calling and hailing out across the morning to others in search of a competitor for a low-speed race. Elsewhere, another boy is simply sounding out into the air, shouting the word “Echo!” over and over, waiting each time for the sound to play off of the surrounding mountainsides.

August passes near the dock at a jogging pace, waving from his Sunfish like a yacht club version of Danger Zone’s Maverick. Instead of jet turbines, he scoots along on a noiseless zephyr, the only sound a slight gurgle as the water slips by under-hull. Afar, the other boats are ghosting about gently, constellating in the open space around a counselor on a paddleboard, flying their colorful sails as sigils of leisure.

But the mountains are known for hiding winds. A stiff breeze makes its way across the water, leaving a footprint of ripples as it approaches the boats. The entire drama can be seen from the docks. The gust strikes; boats heel; wits snap-to. The helmsmen adjusts, knuckles whiten around the sheet, and the boats zip off at an impressive clip. No capsizes today. The mountains, having played their cards, resume with gentle airs, and the lighthearted diversion continues.

Farther still, vaulted clouds fill the sky, possibly gathering into the nascent thunderheads of an afternoon storm. As I leave to return to camp, a boat calls to another: “Now do you wanna race?”

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“If You Could Be Any Animal…”

I noticed a bird today. I don’t know what kind it was, but I do remember how it banked and wheeled through the dense interplay of branches in the thick shrubs nearby, threading itself through the keyhole-sized interstices at incredible speed. Perhaps I was still thinking of Steve Longenecker’s Falcons from yesterday.

The bird in mention was spotted in DuPont State Forest, where we were eating a late-afternoon lunch under an open shelter by a pond, contentedly consuming burritos after having already ridden for several hours.

We had begun pedaling by eleven, and even though the sun was already high overhead, the storied canopies of trees kept the heat at bay, preserving the coolness of morning well into noon. At the edge of the forest were plenty of hikers and waders, coming to see the waterfalls or cool off in the river. But as we rode deeper into the trails the woods gave themselves only to us and a few other stray adventurers.

On the bikes, you’re either timing breaths to your pedal strokes, taking every scrap of oxygen you can find, or you’re blazing downhill, too fast and far apart for any species of conversation. It’s a far different atmosphere from the other activities in camp—or from, for instance, the van ride. There are certain well-known landmarks along the roads we take in the area, and throughout the years, the campers and counselors have developed a tradition of shouting out a corresponding drive-by location:

—A street sign labeled Audia Way: “Don’t go outta yer way!” someone shouts.

—Carl Sandburg National Park: Everyone waves and says “Hi, Carl!” in a drawn-out, nasal unison.

—An antiquated and slightly spooky-looking historical mansion: They hum and snap out the first few bars of the Addams Family theme music.

—And my favorite landmark, a small hand-painted sign on the shoulder of the road with the words “DO NOT MOW” written in stern, capital script to deter any county grass-cutters or Samaritan landscapers who might be tempted to tidy the wild flora of the roadside edges. Upon passing this sign, the van erupts in a synchronized chant with the charged inflection of a picket mob: “Eight letters! Three words! One strong message: DO! NOT! MOW!” Laughter follows. In this way, even a logistical necessity like a van ride is made into part of the trip.

Beyond the van, trips outside of camp have a different tempo. When you hike, or bike, you do so until you’re tired. Then, after you’ve rested and recharged, you travel some more. On the river, you float along with the water, corroborating with eddies and waves until a placid place is found suitable enough for a break. There is no bell. Sometimes, even on just a day-long expedition of speeding bicycles and bodily exertion, that free pace can overlay and coincide with the natural world in which we play. At our picnic shelter, campers began watching the fish in the pond, idly at first but then noticing more. A turtle buoyed to the surface. A fish was guarding a school of minnows from another fish. We even saw a nest of fledgling birds who were probably kin to the aerobatic mother I saw earlier.

Along with that self-sufficient schedule is a need for self-sufficient supply. The counselors don’t have to remind the campers not to play with their water bottles, squirting it into the air as one might do with one of the plumbed fonts in camp. They have to conserve it until the next fill-up. If something breaks, there isn’t another one in a nearby shed. You have to improvise. Stripped-out threads on a pedal? Cut a piece of an old bike tube and shim it into the grooves.

Still, we aren’t completely without a schedule, nor are we completely self-sufficient. There were more trails to ride and daylight wasn’t waiting around forever. With a quick sweep of the picnic area for traces of our respite, we zipped back onto the shaded trails.

Having completed an impressive circuit from the morning, we began the arduous uphill of our second round. Sometimes that infinitesimal patch of rubber struggling for purchase against rocks, roots and dirt, isn’t enough, which means that a part of mountain biking requires getting off and pushing it up the hill. Some make it farther than others before resorting to pedestrianism, but everyone had to do it at some point. It’s why I always thought of mountains as apt teachers: Each rider can find and meet their own challenge, all at the same time and on the same hillside. That kind of skill-based differentiation is no easy feat in the classroom.

The boys displayed an admirable resilience. There were a few wipe-outs, but nothing that couldn’t be helped by a dusting-off and a straightening of the handlebars. On our last uphill, we had a flat tire. A counselor was fixing it and, as the group waited patiently, the heat of the afternoon impressed a profound stillness on the forest, an impressive quietness rarely found, even at camp. Slowly, a sonorous roll of thunder passed through the sky at such distance and volume that some of us weren’t sure we heard it at all.

We reached the top, making a few small, winded celebrations. With little else to be said or done, we unceremoniously began our descent of over a mile of downhill trail—it was all that remained between us and the van. What followed was a blur of trees and a narrow ribbon of trail that banked and wheeled between the dense interplay of branches.

In the parking lot, the sky was beginning to darken. We loaded swiftly.

Underway, I turned from the passenger seat to ask what their favorite part was and they all named the last trail in unison. I asked if all the uphill was worth it and they responded in affirmation. Within minutes, several heads were propped against the windows. Endorphins from exercise fill your brain with a happy sense that bubbles from seemingly nowhere, and that kind of happiness makes a great prelude to a nap.

I wish I had asked them something more…perhaps what it is that they like so much about biking and if they’ll keep doing it when they get older. Many boys and girls lose interest in biking when they obtain a driver’s license. Anyway, they’re in bed now, resting up for tomorrow but still I wish I thought of something else to ask them. Perhaps I might have asked them what kind of animal they felt like when they were going down that hill.

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The Falconers of Falling Creek

I was talking to two campers by the ping-pong tables this morning, when they suddenly broke conversation and scurried off toward someone else standing not 40 feet away. As they drew closer, they quickly capped their excitement, cautious not to startle the fastest animal on earth: A Peregrine Falcon. Beneath its grip was the gloved arm of Steve Longenecker who has been involved with Falling Creek for decades.

He carried the bird to the porch during Morning Assembly, where a ripple of wonder passed through the crowd, rendering silent more than 400 campers and staff. This was Steve’s introduction of a program called the Falconers of Falling Creek Camp. When he finished speaking, he left quietly and placed the bird, itself a lean column of composure no taller than a quart of milk, into a special crate.

“This all started,” he told me, “in 2008 when I found a camper sitting in front of the enclosures, just staring at the birds, day after day, for quite some time.”

Camp has had birds of prey for several years prior, but the campers themselves were never involved in their care. So, Steve created the Falconer program to involve campers with almost every responsibility of caring for the birds. The only thing they aren’t allowed to do (stipulated by the Steve’s license to operate the program) is hold the birds themselves.

Today, prospective Falconers are gathered on a grassy knoll dubbed “Perry’s Place,” the eponymous location named for Falling Creek’s first Peregrine Falcon, Perry.

Helped by two Falconer campers from last year, Steve slowly and quietly introduces each bird, ferrying them out with a gloved hand while clasping the leather jesses around their feet. A Screech Owl, a Barred Owl, the Peregrine from earlier, and a small American Kestrel. The campers seated on the knoll were eager, but they soon noticed how Steve behaved around the birds and began to mimic his soft mien, speaking evenly and carrying themselves with deliberate and controlled movements.

All of the birds have some sort of injury or disability preventing them from reentering the wild, but truthfully it’s difficult to notice. All one sees are the glassy, perceptive eyes that peer from their perfect vestment of feathers. Campers walking by on their way to other activities slow their gait, sometimes pausing to look at the birds and take in their presence, even if only for a few moments before carrying on.

He ushers out the Screech Owl. “You all remember kindergarten, right?” Steve says. “What does the teacher expect you to say when she asks for the sound the owl makes?” The campers murmured in muted unison, “hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo.”

“Well, that’s not the sound this owl makes.” He produced a small device with recorded bird sounds, directing a camper to push the button labeled ‘Screech Owl,’ which gave a noise not at all like what one would expect with a name like that. “It’s not really a screech, is it? That one is called a Treble. The other sound they can make is called a Whinny.”

When the birds all had a chance to be looked upon by the young gathering, they were put away into their windowless, stress-free boxes. Some then stood and walked over to the boxes in captive contemplation of the animals waiting within, every bit as curious as the birds perhaps were of the sounds coming from without. Others were asking questions or diving into a crate of books, devouring the images and words.

When it was time to move the birds, everyone had some small job to do, some item to carry, whether bird or book, blanket or perch. “Would you two carry this one?” And with the gentlest reverence, the four boxed birds were carried in careful procession past the lakes and down the gravel road, from the Dining Hall to the Nature Center.

One by one, Steve and the campers installed the birds into their mews, a kind of hutch for these animals, set on the hillside behind the building like the cloistered dwelling of an anchorite. Some of the boys here today will become Falconers of Falling Creek. Steve passed out a written contract of duty to those who were interested and the last of the crowd dispersed.

No longer able to hunt in their disabled state, it looks to be that vigils are all these birds can keep nowadays, looking out from their monastic dwellings upon any inquisitive passersby, unwittingly fulfilling their new jobs as installations of education and wonderment. Instead it is a handful of campers who will keep vigil over them, arriving with Steve by morning, noon, and night to feed them or untangle them from their tethered perches, or to see, simply, that they are safe and content.

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We had a visitor from the England’s Globe Theatre today…sort of: Liam shared a quote during Morning Watch from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “In that play,” he said, “a character declared that ‘love sees not with the eyes but with the mind.’” Liam then elaborated with an excellent English-to-English translation. “It’s easy to jump to conclusions about people based solely on their appearance. But to your left and to your right, you’ll find people just like you with different strengths, worries, humors, and hopes if only you could get to know them.”

The heads on the benches were peaking left and right, perhaps taking a second look at their cabinmates. But after we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we walked to the dining hall, and the pensive glances gave way to regular conversation.

In Nature today, Will was leading a class about all things venomous and poisonous. He and the campers took a walk down a path, stopping to inspect plants, count their leaves, and see whether it was a vine or just a sapling of a nearby tree. In the grass they spotted small spiders, checking them against a guidebook for any indication to the potency of their venom. They found a creek and began looking for salamanders with poisonous defenses against predators, and that, despite their toxic flesh, their skin is permeable to such a degree that simply by handling them we can subject them to the unseen residues on our hands such as bug spray and sunscreen.

At the F.A.R.M. Doug was demonstrating the process of composting. He and the campers walked over to a large plastic bin, its lid a layer of burlap. “I didn’t even know this was here,” said a camper, assuming that any process involving decomposed vegetables would be cloistered far away where no one could be accosted by its stench. But only when you put your nose over the container itself could you detect the mild but odiferous soup of decay.

Doug then showed them who was responsible for breaking down all of that soggy chaff and detritus so quickly and stenchlessly: soldier flies. He shoveled some of the grubs in by the trowel full and then held them in his hand, offering a closer inspection. They leaned in.

Most of the onlooking faces expressed an irrefutable “ew,” but beneath their prejudiced disgust was an underlayment of curiosity. Doug poured them into a volunteer’s cupped hands and, to his self-startling amusement, his scrunched face turned into a smile as the writhing throng of grubs rioted harmlessly in his palms. A smile spread across the group that bubbled into full-fledged laughter. Now others wanted to hold some too. He reached over the edge and cast the larvae evenly over the bottom of the bin. “Why do they try to crawl through my fingers?” he asked, still smiling. “They’re looking for someplace dark to go,” Doug said. “It’s just what they do.” Soon they were asking all kinds of questions: “How much can they eat? How long do they live? What do they do when they hatch?”

A kind of door was thrown open. Quickly they took to the handles of rakes and shovels and wheelbarrows (either from inspiration or simply to replace the wriggling sensation with something…less wriggly) and began working in the garden area: cutting furrows for drainage, stacking rocks for a new partition, moving soil and shaping it into bed rows.

While Helena from Shakespeare’s play was speaking more on romance than on soldier flies and salamanders, the activities at camp are a perfectly suitable landing for the notion. It can be read as an invitation to step out of your comfort zone, to not lay so much confidence on your eyes but rather place it on what you learn, be it of flies, or salamanders, or of each other.

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You Came Today From All Points.

Out of 314 boys, we are honored to welcome 55 of you who will be orientating yourselves in this place for the first time. Others nearly bypassed the formalities entirely and embarked cabinward as quickly as possible. “Wait,” a mother said to her son, “I don’t know where we’re going!”

“I do!” he replied, barely slowing.

Many of you have been here for past summers and for that reason many of you already know one another from those days. When we return to a place we’ve left and to people we’ve missed, we like to see what’s changed, what news was wrought from the time and distance between us. In the cabins, those eager questions were loosed: “What did you do this year?” “Did you play soccer last fall?” The answers to those questions find a good space in that warm room of memory and comprise to mark our height against its wall: a demarcation of the old and a starting point for the new.

After lunch, campers prepared for the new. They raced excitedly around the gym in an apparent randomness that belied the directness of their destinations. Friends lined up before the counselors who were posted among activity sign-up stations, turning around to strategize and confirm so that their schedules would sync as much as possible.

We have campers both new and returning, and after dinner each of the two were brought into a single fold as the tribes introduced their leaders and played games wherever games could be played.

There was some speculation about the weather, but the rain held off for the entire day. That is, until the bell for campfire rang at the edge of the evening. We very nearly held the opening ceremony in the gym, but a quality in the rain made us wait, some sort of easiness in the way it fell—or perhaps an easiness carried by those upon whom it fell: a few raincoats came out, but most went on without bother, welcoming it as they welcomed one another. The late sun, maintaining an interstitial gap of sky beneath the clouds and above the ridge, cast its light upon the rain so that each individual drop was lit through and a-gold, transilluminated by soft brilliance. By the time everyone was seated, the rain had passed and the fire was lit. Embers and candles ushered in the dusk.

It may be a familiar place for so many of you, but it is a new summer for all of us. Tomorrow it begins!

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