The strug­gle bus

Rappahannock News - - COUNTRYSIDE - BY JOHN KISER

“Dad, do I have a choice? This will take up my whole sum­mer.”

Tough love, be­ing stretched to phys­i­cal and men­tal lim­its, team­work, ca­ma­raderie and un­par­al­leled wilder­ness ad­ven­ture in the rivers of On­tario and Que­bec — these are some of the good­ies that come from a camp­ing ex­pe­ri­ence still bear­ing the im­print of Fred­er­ick Gunn, whose Gun­nery School he founded in Wash­ing­ton, Connecticut, in 1850. Gunn was a vig­or­ous New Eng­land ed­u­ca­tor who took se­ri­ously the idea of an in­te­grated mind-body-spirit ed­u­ca­tion for young boys. He be­lieved in the old-fash­ioned idea of “man­li­ness.” Phys­i­cal and men­tal tough­ness were qual­i­ties he ad­mired. Ed­u­ca­tion was about de­vel­op­ing char­ac­ter. Throw­ing snow­balls was OK.

Gunn was also an un­con­ven­tional Chris­tian for his time. He be­lieved re­li­gion had lit­tle to do with out­ward pieties like go­ing to church or pray­ing, but with liv­ing a

life of in­tegrity and com­pas­sion. A Yale grad­u­ate, teacher of botany and lover of na­ture, he had been de­nounced by the lo­cal Litchfield pas­tors in the 1840s for his un­pop­u­lar abo­li­tion­ist pol­i­tics. One of his fu­ture stu­dents was Gregg Clark, a Har­vard grad who de­vel­oped a pas­sion for ad­ven­ture in the wild and, with a like-minded friend, founded Keewaydin on Lake Temagami in 1903, to­day a five hour drive north of Toronto.

The camp ad­ver­tises it­self as old­est ca­noe­ing camp in the world, and serves a camper pop­u­la­tion from 10-year to fit 70-year olds. This year 170 campers will pass through the base camp on Devil’s Is­land (sounds worse than it is) for the “trip­ping” ex­pe­ri­ence.

The north end, known as Ojib­way, is a col­lec­tion of spare but com­fort­able wooden cab­ins for vis­it­ing adults and par­ents to sleep, eat, pad­dle and re­lax. The south end is for campers who sleep in civil war tents and bunkhouses in be­tween their “trip­ping ex­pe­di­tions.” At each end there is bliss­ful free­dom from phones and elec­tron­ics, cab­ins are lit with gas lights, and food is ab­so­lutely de­li­cious. Loons ser­e­naded us in the evening.

The Kis­ers have a friend and for­mer camper who lives in Vir­ginia Beach to thank for dis­cov­er­ing Keewaydin. Bruce Bishop is a tire­less pro­moter of Keewaydin as a life chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, one that made the Marine Corps easy for him. Watch­ing his video pro­pa­ganda every spring, I fi­nally de­cided to “of­fer” our four­teen year old son a com­ing of age ex­pe­ri­ence. We signed Pierce up for to­tal im­mer­sion — the six week deal: five, then ten-day pad­dling trips to learn ba­sic skills needed be­fore set­ting off on a gru­el­ing 21 days of mul­ti­ple daily portages through soggy muskeg and over fallen pines. They drink wa­ter from the rivers, carry loads of 80 pounds or more (dou­ble packs, wan­ni­gans, ca­noes) sup­ported by leather tump lines strapped around their fore­heads like the In­di­ans and Hud­son Bay trap­pers once did.

Campers ride the “strug­gle bus,” camp direc­tor Bruce Ingersoll’s ex­pres­sion for wrestling with life’s multifarious hard­ships. Here kids dis­cover what they’re ca­pa­ble of en­dur­ing and achiev­ing whether the chal­lenges are phys­i­cal, men­tal, so­cial, or all the above. The ex­pe­ri­ence builds self-con­fi­dence and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of find­ing out what you can ac­com­plish that you might never have sus­pected. And yes, it’s not for every­one. The old hands rec­og­nize three cat­e­gories of alumni. Hated it, never do it again; hated it but glad had the ex­pe­ri­ence; liked it and want to do it again.

Bot­tom line for Pierce: He emerged ready to re­turn, but next time he wants to go to Out­post — re­mote trips where po­lar bears roam. Would he rec­om­mend it to his friends? Yes.

“I would tell them it was a good ex­pe­ri­ence. You’ll learn to swear and cuss, but also you learn to be or­derly and do things the right way. You learn to ap­pre­ci­ate na­ture, but most im­por­tant you learn about the power of co­op­er­a­tion, team­work and hav­ing a good at­ti­tude. Our motto is “help the other fella,” es­pe­cially the kids you don’t like much. It’s about the art of get­ting along, be­cause the al­ter­na­tive is three weeks of hell.”

COUR­TESY KEEWAYDIN CAMP

At Keewaydin, kids dis­cover what they’re ca­pa­ble of en­dur­ing and achiev­ing.

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