The wind picked up suddenly, and though we were nearly across the lake, the threatening clouds demanded that we pull our canoes onto land, and quickly.
We paddled to an unoccupied, densely-wooded island, grabbed our personal flotation devices and first aid kit, and went into lightning stance just before thunder boomed across zigzags of light.
Bad weather happens on the wilderness excursions that I simply call "trail," and I’m happy to accept it as the price paid for memorable experiences. My campers didn’t have quite the same outlook.
A veteran camp counselor and explorer, I forget sometimes that squatting on your PFD and shivering in the pouring rain, breathlessly counting seconds between a lightning strike and the corresponding thunder, is tedious and often frightening; especially when you’re 13 years old.
Granted, my campers knew more or less what they were in for. Camp Manito-wish YMCA, based in Boulder Junction, is known for its tripping program. Everyone, even the youngest campers, goes on trail for at least part of the summer session. My campers were slated for five-day canoeing trips, and we took an ambitious route that included nine portages and 15 lakes.
Boulder Lake at sunrise. Photo by Sara Knutson
While some girls were excited about hitting the watery trail, apprehension was a more common feeling. Some had encountered bad weather during last year’s trip, others fretted about carrying heavy packs and boats, paddling all day. Then there was pooping in the woods – the biggest fear of all.
My goal as a counselor was to offer young campers opportunities to overcome those fears, guide them through the trip, and help them have a blast.
That sometimes meant taking pity. After a tough first day, the bugs were so bad at our campsite that the girls huddled in their rain gear and bug nets, under an opaque tarp. My co-counselor and I smiled as their small hands poked out from under the cloth to gratefully accept the macaroni and cheese we’d cooked.
My role through all: stay positive.
Crouching in lightning stance, knowing silence to be fear’s great friend, I started spinning riddles and asking ridiculous questions. “Would you be my friend if I wore a PFD all the time, even indoors? What if I had all different ones that matched my clothes? How about if I wore a velvet PFD with my evening gown?”
The rained poured. The girls considered just how absurd I could be before they’d stop being my friend. The back-and-forth lasted the length of the storm and provided fodder for inside jokes that continued long after we got home.
Usually, the campers themselves took the lead in overcoming challenges, together and individually.
Emma, after insisting pre-trip that she would never be able to take the stern position and steer a canoe, gave it a try on the strength of her fellow campers’ encouragement. After 20 minutes, she was steering proficiently.
When Anna was withdrawn and homesick, the other pulled her into conversation, gave her tasks, and drew funny pictures together. Anna needed my support, but she needed theirs even more, and having it perked her up into her true, fun-loving self.
Paddlers portage to Boulder Lake. Photo by Sara Knutson.
The greatest moment came during our final portage.
On the first day, Haley and Emma had tried picking up our 75-pound aluminum canoes; Haley went only two steps and Emma couldn’t move at all. As the days and portaging miles passed, they watched me, our co-counselor, and - most importantly - the other two campers carry boats for a half-mile or more. They began wondering out loud if they could go further, given another opportunity.
At that point, we had finished nearly all of our portages, so when we finally came to the Lower Dam of the Manitowish River, Haley and Emma found one last chance.
All six of us crowded around one boat. Anticipation built as the girls offered tips and encouragement. We hoisted the canoe and set it on Haley’s shoulders. After a few tentative steps, she smoothly portaged over 100 yards, surrounded by cheers.
Emma, bolstered by Haley’s success, went even further. We celebrated our triumph, and when I pulled out a surprise bag of Skittles to celebrate, the girls responded with glee and exasperation. “You had those the WHOLE TIME?”
“I was saving them for a truly successful collaboration,” I said, with a smile.
“So if we’d portaged earlier, we could have had candy on day three? You have got to be kidding!”
Spirits surge in smoother water. Photo by camp staff.
Swimming and smooth paddling, fried brownies and fresh-baked oatmeal bread - there are plenty of reasons to love trail. But the best part of counseling a camp trip was watching the transformative power take hold.
In offering dozens of tangible challenges, trail gives campers rich opportunities to choose how they want to grow. Haley and Emma learned how to portage a boat, but more importantly, they gained the confidence to test their true strength, and found that strength to be in abundance.
As I continue to plan my own personal adventures, they’ve inspired me to do the same.
Sara Knutson, a Shorewood native, has worked at camps for a dozen years, doing everything from kitchen to program director to counselor to evening activities to lifeguarding to outdoor education. In previous contributions to Off the Couch, she described serenity in the Sylvania Wilderness, cycling in the heart of Vilas County, and backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains.