I love the smell of pine tree forests
Sunrise is my favorite time of day
I love at night to sit around the campfire
With friends to sing and guitars there
to play . . .
"I want four piles of sticks. Pieces skinnier than your pinky finger, pieces about the size of your pinky finger, pieces the size of your thumb, and pieces thicker than that," my counselor told us, pointing at the ground. Many girls moaned and groaned at the thought of rummaging in the woods for sticks. I crawled under tents and through bushes to find dry pieces. While I didn't exactly like gathering wood, I loved what came next. Fires were my favorite part of camp. After the piles of wood were deemed big enough, we were sent off to play until the counselors built the fire.
At camp, sunset is just the beginning of an evening of fun. Around the fire the counselors perform silly skits, read stories, and teach endless numbers of songs. It was much more exciting than the evenings other children spent glued to a TV. I loved learning new camp songs. I memorized them all and drove my parents crazy by singing them over and over again on the car ride home.
Each week there is an opening campfire where counselors make up songs for the kids to tell them what the week will be like:
(To the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat . . . .)
Go, go, go to camp
Here at Bonnie Brae
Meet your counselors, Hershey and BB
You'll have fun all week.
Learn, learn, learn to swim
To hike, to sail, and cook
You'll compete in archery
And to the island swim
Stay, stay, stay a week
Here at Bonnie Brae
Make some friends, and have some fun
You'll never want to leave.
Then, at the end of the week, there is a closing campfire where the girls make up songs to tell the rest of the campers what happened in their patrol during the week. I loved watching the flames jump and blink while listening to happy voices singing. The skits and made-up songs were entertaining, but my favorite part was the end of the night. The staff sang slow songs to lead into bed time. They didn't teach these songs; they just sang for us to enjoy.
As a little girl, I always begged counselors for "one more song" at the end of the night. Then, as a teenager I hoped for more songs, though I would never have asked. When I became a counselor myself, my kids didn't have to beg. Bonding with the girls around the fire and singing them to sleep were my favorite parts of camp. Time stops when I sit around a campfire — there's always time for one more song.
Don't disturb the ladybug sleeping by the spider's web
And if you see a butterfly, don't try to catch it in your net
It's taken such a long, long time, to build this very special place
So open up your heart and mind, to all it has to say . . .
"Hershey, can we go Polar-Bearing tomorrow?" one of the campers asked the first week I was a counselor.
Oh, right, that's me. It took a while to remember to answer to the nickname.
"Yeah, pleeease? We reeeally wanna go Polar-Bearing."
I thought about the frigid early morning water. I hate swimming even in the middle of the day. The thought of swimming before the sun has risen to a decent level was atrocious. "No. Let's be Turtles instead." Turtles go for pre-breakfast walks.
"Let's go on a mud-walk," one kid suggested.
"Wouldn't you rather hike to the wetlands?" I tried to persuade them. I did not want to deal with ten children smeared in mud from head to toe.
As a camper I wanted to do everything at camp. I swam in Big Pond at sunset, slept out in a field underneath the stars, and ate my lunch in a canoe on the lake. I took advantage of every possible opportunity. Each summer, awards are given to girls who participate in certain challenging activities — swimming to the island, Polar-Bearing, or Turtling each morning during the week, waterskiing around the island, completing the ropes course. Over many summers I earned each of these awards at least once. I couldn't get enough of camp.
"Why did I take this job?" I asked myself one night as I attempted to crawl in my sleeping bag for about the eighth time, only to hear a child calling my name.
"Hershey, I'm scared. Will you sing me a song?" Sigh. Of course. I sang song after song until she finally fell asleep. While I sang I reflected on the nights that I fell asleep to the sound of counselors' voices. I remembered waking when the sun was barely up and wiggling into my swimsuit so I could go Polar-Bearing. I remembered trudging through the mud in the rain and learning to pitch a tent. I thought about all the counselors who did these activities with me. Wanting to give other little girls those same experiences was the reason I had become a counselor.
The next morning I was the first one dressed for Polar-Bearing. I grinned through my blue lips and played Marco Polo until the breakfast bell rang. Watching their smiles and listening to the giggles as I chased after them in the water, I remembered why I wanted this job. My weeks after that were packed with activities. My girls and I studied the beauty of nature, competed on the ropes course, learned to cook over fires, and yes, we even Polar-Beared daily before breakfast. My paycheck didn't get any bigger, but my smile sure did.
One breath of a butterfly and one ray from the sun,
And lots and lots of laughter from little children's fun . . .
Pixie dust. This was the solution to one of my biggest challenges as a counselor. I had a group of Brownies (six- to-eight-yearolds) who were homesick and whiney. No activity interested them — swimming was "too cold," dress-up "too dumb," hiking "too hard," and crafts "too babyish." I needed a plan. While the girls were eating lunch, I prepared. After they ate, I led my droopylipped, teary-eyed girls away from the dining hall. A little way down the trail I gasped in "surprise" and knelt down to study the trail. "Wow!" Brownies are naturally inquisitive so they gathered around me. "This is incredible!" I pointed at a little patch of shiny powder glittering in the sunlight. "I can't believe this!" The girls started getting excited. Their eyes were big and they were asking each other, "Do you see that?" Once they were all excited and curious I asked, "Do you girls know what this is?" They shook their heads side to side.
"This," I told them, as all of their eyes confidently watched me, "is fairy dust." Ten little pairs of feet were immediately jumping up and down while ten pairs of hands clamored at me. Each girl shrieked louder than the next in an attempt to be heard. "Shhh," I cautioned them, "You'll scare the fairies."
As we spent the next two hours traipsing all over camp following trails of fairy dust, the girls consulted my authority on countless questions regarding fairies. "Four inches tall," I confidently answered. "Yes, they're all nice," I assured them, and "Yes, there are boy fairies, too." The glittery piles and lines led us through the woods, into buildings, and around fire circles. The girls giggled and ran and whispered to each other, "Did you hear that? I think it was a fairy." "I think I saw one!" Finally, the trail of fairy dust led us to a shiny, jeweled box hidden under a pile of leaves. Inside were candies, ten plastic fairy rings, and supplies to make fairy wands — an afternoon snack and a craft. The fairies saved the day.
Find yourself before you run away
Stand in the grass and watch the children play
For their world is really half of your world
For their world, is really half of yours . . .
"I don't want to go home," six-year-old Rosie told me the last night of camp while I was tucking her into bed.
"Of course you do, I know your family misses you." I responded automatically.
"I'd rather stay here with you."
My heart skipped a beat.
"No one tucks me in at home." She was very matter of fact about it.
In my mind I replayed conversations with Rosie from earlier in the week. "Nobody ever braided my hair before . . . No one tells me to brush my teeth at home . . . My Mommy doesn't color with me . . . " My heart ached for this little girl. She wanted so much to be loved and taken care of. I remembered reading the information about Rosie before she came to camp. Her Dad was in jail, and her Mom was under investigation by the Department of Social Services. DSS had paid for Rosie to attend camp for a week to make sure she was in a safe environment.
The next afternoon Rosie sat in my lap while our patrol played duck-duck-goose before dinner. She tugged on the pigtails I had braided into her hair and watched my every move. "Can I stay here with you?" At a loss for words I just shook my head. I watched her big blue eyes fill with water and her tiny lip tremble as she started crying. "I don't want to go home," she whispered. The gong rang for dinner, and a tearful Rosie held my hand when we walked inside. I mouthed grace because my voice wasn't working. Counselor training hadn't prepared me for times like this. I expected to care about the kids' safety and to enjoy spending time with them, but I hadn't imagined dealing with touchy situations like this. I didn't touch my food.
After dinner I pasted a smile on my face and said goodbye to my girls. They hugged goodbye and scattered to find their families. No one came to get Rosie. I had to take her to the meeting area to have a driver take her back to the city. I knelt down to hug her goodbye. All I could think was: what kind of parent could neglect this sweet little girl? Who leaves their child to be driven home by a stranger? She scuffed her shoes in the dirt while I said goodbye. Right before she got into the van she tugged on my hand.
"This was my favorite week ever." She climbed up into the seat. As the door slammed shut, she called out, "I love you, Hershey."
"I love you, too." I mouthed to the closed door. I couldn't help wondering the last time she had heard those words.
Mmm mmm and come September
Mmm mmm I will remember
Mmm mmm our camping days and friendships true
Mmm mmm and as the years go by
Mmm mmm I'll think of you and sigh
Mmm mmm this is goodnight and not goodbye . . .
Wish boat ceremonies are a significant memory for every girl who has spent a week at Bonnie Brae. During the week each girl builds a boat out of items from nature, and then she brings it to the closing campfire. The fire circle resembles a miniature marina as all of the bark boats are placed at the girls' feet. The campfire starts out as a celebration as each group of campers performs a skit or song to tell stories about their week. The skits are interspersed between songs that the counselors lead. As the night progresses, the songs get slower and the mood more serious. When the last skit has been performed and it is completely dark, the camp director lights a candle in the main fire.
The counselors stand on each side of the path singing quiet songs and holding candles to create a flickering tunnel. Campers file into a long line holding their boats and approach the tunnel. As each girl reaches the tunnel, the light on her boat is lit, and she proceeds through the tunnel, ending at the lake. Each camper squeezes her eyes closed and makes a wish before setting her carefully crafted boat in the water. Legend has it that if your boat floats your wish will come true.
Once the boats are launched, the entire camp joins hands in a giant circle around the campfire. Counselors, directors, and girls join together to sing Taps for the last time that week. Girls reflect on the week of friendship, activities, and fun. Many tearful faces glow in the flames. As the last note fades away, counselors start singing the final song of the evening, Linger. The girls join in with shaky, quiet voices. The camp director dismisses groups of girls one at a time. During each pause in the song, sniffles are heard around the campfire. Eventually all the girls are dismissed, and only counselors remain for the last round of Linger.
Say when, will we ever meet again
Say where, and I'll meet you right there,
Say why, do we have to say goodbye . . .
College, jobs, and responsibilities have pulled me in multiple directions and prevented me from journeying to camp as often as I'd like. I keep a picture taped to my mirror to remind me where my heart will always be. When days are especially difficult, I imagine myself transported there. I focus until I can imagine the smell of the woods and the feel of the water. I keep in touch with my camp friends and together we are able to keep the memories alive. Someday I will bring my little girl there. I will let her breathe in the scent, see the vibrant colors, and feel the color-filled water on her bare skin under a sky of stars. I'll build her a campfire and hopefully late into the night she will beg for just one more song.
There's one last song I want to sing before I leave you . . . .
One last song to show how much we have shared
A smile a tear has brought us closer together
Each of us leaves a part of our hearts here
Note: The lyrics featured throughout this article are a collection of camp song memories from the author's days at camp.
Michelle Pugh began camping as a child with Girl Scouts of the USA. Her love of the outdoors was the impetus for her 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail hike. She went on to serve as an outdoor education coordinator for YMCA Camp Bernie before returning to Girl Scouts as the day camp director at Camp Candlewood.
Originally published in the 2008 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.