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You may remember summer camp as a place for hiking, canoeing, softball, swimming, arts and crafts, eating horrid food in good company and generally responding to the call of nature. I remember it for all that, too, but particularly for the call of nature. Specifically, I remember a fine July day in 1972, somewhere in southern Ontario. Nature called like an auctioneer.
If we had been back at camp, back at Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore in west-central Vermont, it would have been simple. We would have gone to the fort. (At Keewaydin, in a spirit of happy euphemism, we called the latrines "forts.") But Richie Harter and I weren't back at camp. We were out on a trip, 15-year-olds sharing a canoe in a lock on the Rideau Canal.
Looking back, I suppose the rushing water had something to do with nature's call. There's a lot of rushing water when the lockkeeper opens huge faucets to drain or draw enough water to get your canoe to a new level. Whatever the cause, there was no questioning the urgency of the result. Richie lashed the canoe to the side of the lock and we scrambled out in search of a fort.
In this case we happened to have been locking down, meaning that water was being drained from beneath us as we abandoned ship. The sage reader can probably picture the fate of a canoe tied to the side of an emptying lock: It eventually hangs so that gravity dispatches all of its contents to a place amid the dead fish and rusting Molson cans below.
Alas, this thought hadn't occurred to Richie or me. We were nanoseconds from a scene that could have launched Canada's Funniest Home Videos when the lock-keeper, an Ontarian for whose alertness we shall forever be grateful, noticed what we had done and did the lockkeeper's equivalent of slamming on the brakes.
The Keewaydin motto, "Help the other fellow," is being incanted to campers for the 82nd summer. I can say from experience that nothing makes kids more willing to follow that creed than finding themselves, literally, in the same boat.
Never tie up your vessel when you're in an active lock. I learned that at summer camp, in a few perilous seconds on the Rideau Canal.
I learned a lot of other things at summer camp.
I learned that while paddling a canoe solo, it's possible to make the thing go straight even if you take all your strokes on one side. I learned that skinny-dipping must be against the law, because the sensation of water seeping into every region of the body feels so illegally exhilarating. I learned that with a box of Bisquick and a reflector oven, it's possible to bake a cake on a deserted island. (My parents had sent me to camp because I didn't have an older brother, and they figured I could benefit from exposure to male role models close to my age. When I came back from that first summer and told my mother not to sweat breakfast for the rest of the week, she was thrown for a loop.)
I should say that I learned all these things at a traditional, well-rounded, outdoors-oriented, four- or eight-week resident summer camp—which stands in stark contradistinction to a day camp, a specialty camp or any of the diluted variations on summer camping that have cropped up to serve a society that wants more, sooner, "better." Today a kid can go to space camp, weight-loss camp, acting camp, football camp, money-management camp, tennis camp, sailing camp, oceanography camp, cheerleading camp, even prelaw camp, including one that shamelessly promises "an invaluable chance to gain a competitive edge on the law school admission process."