I am not sure about other places in the country but here in Massachusetts where I grew up one of the most anticipated rites of passage was fifth grade camp. Every class from every school in our general neck of the woods were put onto busses during various weeks throughout that school year, with suitcases and bug spray, and shipped off to Caribou, Maine for seven days; for many of us it would be our first trip away without our parents and we were psyched.
The main theory of getting that many different schools together at camp was that we were supposed to bond, to make new friends and to learn “survival” skills from our camp counselors. The week our group made the seven hour journey up to the literal and figurative middle of nowhere Maine the only thing any of us really learned was fortitude in the rain; that is unless of course treading water suddenly became one of the basic skills of woodsmen everywhere.
We arrived fresh faced and excited to try new things. We learned that while we were there we would all have the opportunity to canoe, take part in other fun water sports, learn to properly use a jackknife, sleep in rustic cabins, light fires and on the last day we would be making the trek through a swamp -- this was considered to be the pinnacle and most looked forward to (as well as most talked about) part of camp. All of us were jazzed.
The lake at twilight the first night was a peaceful and tranquil stillness of periwinkle, sapphire and dusty blue plus a healthy dose of pink and purple from the reflected, setting sun of the night sky. Huge birds flew low over it just as the sun was going down and we inquired as to what they were. We were told that the birds were loons. They were majestic and looked magical to me. Having this scene burned into my memory is a special gift because it was the last time I saw sun until returning home.
Our sleeping quarters were small cabins with bunk beds and we shared with a bunch of other kids, many if not all were kids I had never met before. I was a shy kid who embarrassed easily and meeting new kids was not easy for me. Not to mention that fifth grade was probably one of the worst school years of my life since it was the year our teacher told us there was no Santa Claus. I was looking forward to getting out of the cabin and hopefully spending time with my friends but they set it up so activities were done by cabin; I was stuck like glue to these people until free time.
During free time we were allowed to do anything we wanted from exploring the campgrounds to swimming or, what quickly became my favorite, learning how to whittle. As the daughter of a Carpenter wood totally fascinated me and I was excited to learn how to manipulate it. Because it was constantly raining I never had the chance to take my swimsuit out of my suitcase anyway and since I was a shy girl I found it much easier to chat with the grownups on the big porch while I shaped and carved my way through this wet week of hell.
I grew up as a Catholic and it was beat into our brains by every single boring priest and Sunday school teacher that God made it very clear “he” would not destroy the Earth again through either fire or flood. I never fully identified with this particular religious sect but as each day passed and I watched the swamp and puddles everywhere rise like the Red Sea I prayed that the no flood thing was factual. All my letters home probably sounded just like an Allan Sherman song. I tried to conceive of how I could just disappear instead of having to do the swamp walk; would they even miss the girl who rarely ever spoke? I was almost out of clothes already and it wasn’t like they were drying by slinging them over the end of our beds. It seemed like they just became breeding grounds for larger and larger mosquitoes. I was in full on panic mode as we came to the last day.
The morning of the swamp walk it was still raining but it had slightly let up from the downpours of early in the week. I was so grateful for that little reprieve. Our group got there and we started out no more than ankle deep, I was elated to think this was the walk! I had been so worried about having to walk through a pond of water that could hold anything from snakes to, well, snakes. Then we kept going.
We trudged on and the swamp kept getting deeper and deeper. I immediately patted myself on the back for putting already wet clothes on to do the walk; I had somehow managed to save one dry outfit for the ride home. The water level had risen so high that the top of the swamp was hovering somewhere just under my chin. Now my greatest fears involved something having to do with swallowing swamp water or drowning at camp. Even the counselors made a note that it was unusually high and typically only came up to our waist.
They laughed it off. I was not so much finding the humor in my soggy fears. We emerged from the other side of our walk and then everything is a fuzzy blur until we are on our way out. I can only imagine that the endorphin crash caused me to black out as I packed 100 pounds of wet clothes into my suitcase and ran to the bus. But there was no bus to get on. We had actually been rained in; the road was impassable and they were trying to figure out a way to safely get us out of there.
After what felt like the longest day of my life I stood with fellow classmates and other sodden kids as we waited for a solution to the ‘how do we get these kids out of here now’ problem. I have no idea how long we waited but I do remember we were very late getting back home because they had to truck in a flatbed tractor that could traverse the moat that had built around our little campsite. In very small groups and at painfully slow speed we were driven out of camp.
It was like a Barry Manilow song when we emerged on the other side. I ‘kept myself protected’ by sitting on the inside of the tractor’s flatbed. After being poured on and having to walk through a swamp when I was down to my last semi-dry outfit, the last thing I wanted was to fall back in as we bounced along as if riding the rapids. The water level was within inches of the top of the tractor. It was quite wild and a fitting end to a week I was happy to see come to an end for so many more reasons than a week’s worth of rain.
The bus ride home seemed to fly by despite the complete lack of comfort from being waterlogged. I believe I read a Nancy Drew book and enjoyed checking out the whittled carvings I brought home. Once we were back in our comfy homes the rumors started to fly. Seems that the group of kids slated to go up the week after us had to be cancelled due to the rain. Those kids got to go to sixth grade camp instead. I simultaneously felt bad for them and wished I was one of them. I bet those kids had the chance to get wet in the preferred method -- in a swimsuit on the lake as they watched loons fly by overhead.