In June of 1963, at the age of eight, I boarded an overnight train in Chicago bound for Camp Agawak in Minocqua, Wisconsin. I was clutching my Teddy bear, Zelda.
Jittery during those first weeks, sleepaway camp became so much fun that I would return for the next nine seasons, two as a counselor. I could never imagine, departing as a sobbing 19-year-old for my would-be last summer, that four decades later I would be back on staff.
I was hired to resurrect the camp magazine, Agalog, which had ceased publication in the early 1980s. Contributing to Agalog summer after summer is how I discovered my passion for writing, planting the roots for a long literary career.
Newly eligible for Medicare, I am a camp girl forever, still walking the grounds and swimming the lake in a place that has bestowed me with an ageless spirit, unfailing tenacity, and unbeatable skills in the game of jacks.
On days when the girls leave on field trips, I stay behind and sit on a time-beaten bench I used to sit on as a child. In an empty camp, my history holder, I am every age.
I see myself walking out of Blue Lake in our uniform navy blue, one-piece swimsuit, cold and spent the day I passed the last dive for my advanced yellow cap. I see myself as the coxswain of the Blue Team war canoe, beating the White Team vessel by a mere two yards. I see dozens of tiny birch bark boats ablaze with candles, set adrift by campers after we made wishes the last night of camp.
My wish was always the same: that I would return next June, on the bus that replaced the train in 1965, chewing bubble gum and singing, "In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, beneath the sky so blue, where the pine trees are above us and the friendships are so true."
Beneath this sky and amid those trees I met campers who remain my closest and funniest friends. This is the greatest of the many gifts of camp, a girl-gang that became a family, bound not by blood but by love and loyalty.
These friends have stuck with me as a chubby child, a skinny bride, over bumps in raising teenagers and staying married to one husband for 32 years. They have held me up through the sudden death of my father and the long illness of my late mother, and through the recurring sting of an empty nest.
We slept next to each other as preteens, giggling about first crushes. We stood next to each other in front of the bathroom mirror, slathering our hair with pink Dippity Do, then securing soup cans on the top of our heads to straighten out the curls. We hid Smartees and Turkish Taffy underneath our mattresses, breaking the no-candy rule.
Dozens of aging camp sisterhoods and brotherhoods still thrive and reunite. Gayle Ulmann has been at Raquette Lake Girls Camp for 23 years and now holds the position of head counselor. Like us, she is "intricately connected, heart to heart" with her camp tribe.
"No one understands a camp girl like another camp girl," says Ulmann, 63. "When I tell my friends at home I'm going back to camp, they say, ‘What are you, crazy?' If they only knew how wonderful this kind of crazy fun, crazy love feels."
I am visiting with my neighbor, Gail Watkins, and she is showing me black-and-white Polaroids of the tent she slept in 70 years ago at Echo Hill Camp on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.
"Some of the happiest times of my life," she is saying, misty-eyed, as she sifts through the tattered pages of her photo album with its peeling green canvas cover and broken spine. The pictures are hardly decipherable, the black now gray, the white a pale yellow.
Though as Watkins approaches her 80th birthday, nothing has faded in her memory as she recalls vivid snapshots of the 12 summers spent at Echo Hill, starting at the age of six. She evokes clear scenes of her beloved counselor Gracie, who stroked her hair at night as she read the campers bedtime stories.
The creativity spawned in arts and crafts helped seed Watkins's career as an acclaimed visual artist who shows her work in galleries worldwide. She hands me a rough mosaic collage, made of triangle cutouts of construction paper, pieced together with Elmer's Glue at camp in 1952.
"This is where it all started," she says softly.
My own transformative memories of childhood in the woods are also pristine and ever powerful. As I watch young campers replicating our historic ritual at the Sunday night campfire, swaying and singing "Friends, friends, friends — we will always be, the truest, the finest . . .," my entire life hurls through me.
I see what these young girls have yet to realize — that new friends will turn into old friends who will become the thread that stitches the pieces of their lives together.
Like a perfect quilt.
In this rendition at Agawak, I am constantly reminded that the line between past and present is a flimsy filament that can be broken at any moment to fuse into one unbroken life.
Bunkmates share some of our most enchanted hours, some of the most sacred, all of it. There is nobody else who knows this about us, who feels all of this for us. I speak to a camp friend by phone nearly every day.
These are the girls with whom we would grow together as our braces came off and our pigtails were cut into the flips, then grown into the longer locks of our then-hero model Cheryl Tiegs. We credit Agawak for toughening us and making us brave.
Camp kids evolve into adults who can deal.
Reflecting on the chaos of birthing four sons in three years (twins made that happen) and raising soft babies into sinewy young men in their 20s, I felt capable. I felt like, "You've got this." And I knew why.
At 16, I was the captain of 75 girls on the Blue Team. At 17, I was responsible for eight 10-year-olds as counselor in Cabin 6. At 18, I was in charge of 16 high schoolers in Cabin 15.
I was used to bedlam. I was used to peace-making. I learned early on to be open to all sorts of people, something this era of campers is learning in even more significant ways.
In our camper days, Agawak, which turns 100 in 2021, and many of the older traditional camps, were comprised of populations that were nearly all Jewish. These communities were founded by activist immigrants to provide their children an escape from the filth and bigotry of industrializing big cities.
Yet, decades before the flight of European Jews into the American woods, it was the Christian men who launched the summer camp trend. In 1885, the Young Men's Christian Association opened Camp Dudley for boys in Upstate New York, still standing as the longest, continuous-running summer camp in the country.
As important changes are taking place in the faces at sleepaway camps, what I notice most is that the spirit remains unchanged. Camp communities are unified by these wants: We want to love and be loved. We want to feel worthy. We want to have fun.
A few summers ago, one of my youngest Agalog writers, Sadie Benjamin, wrote this poetic testimony to that eternal sentiment:
I walk by girls
Smiling and happy,
And I want to jump, up into the sky, touch the clouds
And dance around the evening stars,
Throw my head back and laugh aloud with joy
Because I am happy at camp.
When 50-year-old Jennifer Manguera talks about her childhood spending a few days each summer at a Girl Scout camp in Southern Missouri, her memories mirror studies that conclude the sleepaway experience makes a profound impact, whether sessions run two or eight weeks.
"Living in the woods in a tent with strangers for a few weeks of my life have been fundamental lessons in becoming independent, in problem-solving, in all aspects of life," says Manguera. "It's not like you can call Mommy for help. We learned early on to help ourselves and to really live the Girl Scout Promise: ‘To help others at all times.'"
We, too, lived the Girl Scout Promise to help others at all times. Most of us have lost parents and siblings, some have endured divorces and illness. We are fortified by our indestructible friendships to carry on, sure-footed and hopeful.
I met Terry Rubin on the bus ride to camp in 1967. We spent eight summers in the same cabins. She stayed in Denver after attending college there, and we have only seen each other a dozen or so times since our last year as campers in 1970.
In Facetime reunions, our connection is as genuine as when we slept inches away from each other all those decades ago. Recently, she skimmed the phone over her tattoo, a pink ribbon marking her beating breast cancer, twice. She showed me photos of her four grandchildren. I showed her photos of four strapping, grown sons.
It is our alumni reunion at camp in July of 2019, and a dozen of us are standing around a campfire that has turned to glowing embers. Our hands are sticky from the charred marshmallows we pulled off our sticks to make S'mores.
Liz Weinstein and I stay behind to gather a bucket of lake water to douse the last of the fire. We are silent in the familiar hiss and smoke that ended all our campfires with these friends. We bring up a night long ago when our Blue Team won Capture the Flag, the biggest game of the year, because of the speed of a tiny 10-year-old who wedged herself between another girl's legs and snatched the white banner.
After that victory, I wrote this in my letter home: "Dear Mom and Dad: We captured the flag! That game lasted for hours, and I can barely walk now. But willpower beat exhaustion!"
I read that now and think of all the times in subsequent decades that willpower beat out exhaustion. During Capture the Flag, we run so hard our lungs burst in icy agony — and we keep going. Our legs are searing — and we keep going. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Yet, we never stop trying.
I learned this from camp.
Memories of pushing through our weeklong canoe trip through the Boundary Waters of Canada in a torrent of rain, shaking from portaging heavy wooden canoes, still make my shoulder ache. Though we loved developing our physical prowess, as this was something new for us.
For girls who started summer camp in the 1960s, years before the passage of Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs, most every athletic endeavor beyond kickball and ping-pong was something new.
And we learned how to do it all — jump a horse, golf, fence, pitch tents, build fires, shoot a bow and arrow. In and on Blue Lake, I learned eight strokes, six dives, and how to sail, canoe, row, kayak, and waterski.
As much as we craved hypersonic sports, some of our happiest times were just laying on our beds and talking during rest hour, or in slow-rolling activities like arts and crafts.
I see this same pleasure in simply hanging out in campers today, kids whose childhoods have been accelerated by the speed of technology. They adore rainy days, the stormier the better, when all they can do is huddle together indoors and have conversations in real-time without computers and cell phones.
"Giving kids time to decompress from the stressors of their over-packed home lives is more important than ever before," says Mary Fried, owner/director of Camp Agawak. "These children are tutored far earlier now for ACT and SAT tests, and then they take these tests multiple times. Adding to academic pressure, they are stressed over the intense competition to make their school sports teams. Years ago, you walked onto a team.
"At camp, they aren't out-posting each other on Instagram; they are talking, not texting. They share their deepest secrets and it is healing, because they have uninterrupted time to really hear each other."
I am thinking of the healing hush of the woods as I sort out clothes for the coming summer. The pile includes the blue-and-white checkered flannel shirt I have had for more than a half-century. I bury my face in the fabric, soft and fraying and saturated in the scent of fire.
It still fits. So does camp.
Iris Krasnow is a New York Times bestselling author, journalist, and national speaker specializing in relationships and personal growth, a wife, and mother to four sons. For more information on Iris, visit her website at iriskrasnow.com.
This article is adapted from bestselling author Iris Krasnow's new book, Camp Girls: Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage, and Loyalty, coming out April 4, 2020, (Hachette/Grand Central Publishing) and available for preorder on Amazon now.
Camp Girls chronicles Krasnow's return to work at the summer camp of her youth at the age of 59. Her book is a nostalgic feast, weaving together interviews with campers from all over with her own experiences, then and now, at Camp Agawak in Wisconsin. However varied are the voices on each page, the common chorus is how the character traits nurtured at summer camp, from tenacity to independence to resilience, can form the spine of an adventurous and successful adulthood.
More on her books can be found on iriskrasnow.com.
Photo courtesy of Camp Agawak, Minocqua, Wisconsin.