Like many lucky kids, for many of my teenage years I went to summer camp. I went to YMCA Camp Beausoliel, on Beausoleil Island in the Georgian Bay Islands National Park. It was a wonderful and very formative interlude in those years, and probably did more to create and reinforce my love for the outdoors that continues to this day. It was a very long time ago and my memories aren’t 100% complete of that time but I’d like to share my memories of my last year there.
The oldest campers were put together in a cabin called “Islanders”. Being an Islander was like being king of the camp. Our cabin was on a tiny island just off shore from the camp, so we had our own canoes to get back and forth to the main camp. It was actually a prank that seemed to happen every time that the kids from the second oldest cabin would sneak over in the night and steal the Islanders canoes, so they’d have to swim to breakfast. That wasn’t a bad thing, because any cabin that went swimming before breakfast got the “Morning Dipper” award that sat on your table for the day.
As the oldest cabin, we got the least experienced counsellor – I guess they figured with our experience we could take care of ourselves if the counsellor wasn’t great. In our case, we got a counsellor who was a major flake.
The most major feature of YMCA Camp Beausoliel was that it was a “tripping” camp. Generally you spent the first day or two preparing for your big canoe trip, then left on your trip. The time back in camp after the trip was almost an after thought.
As a senior cabin, we did the usual long ambitious trip that senior cabins did – up the Musquash River to near Bala Ontario, then down the Moon River to Georgian Bay, and then down the shore back to Beausoliel Island. It wasn’t an easy trip – the first night was spent at Flat Rock Falls at the top of Go Home Lake (if you think some of these names sound a bit familiar, maybe you’re remembering the song “You Sold The Cottage” by Martha and the Muffins). When I had been a more junior camper, Flat Rock Falls had been a multi day trip to get there, but back then we’d stopped at the diving rocks in McRae Lake.
All Beausoliel cabins had 7 campers, and each trip consisted of three canoes with three people in each canoe – the counsellor took the stern of one canoe, and either a junior counsellor (jc) or the camp’s trip leader Larry Owen took another, and the three most experienced and strongest campers made up the “camper canoe”. I was considered a strong paddler, so this year I got to be the bowman in the camper canoe. Generally the counsellor got the pack with the sleeping bags, because he was supposed to be the best canoer and therefore less likely to get them wet. The jc got the food, because you didn’t want it getting wet but it wouldn’t be a disaster if it did, and the campers got the tents and cooking pots because it didn’t matter if they got wet. This year that turned out to be a big mistake.
On the first or second day, the counsellor decided to show off and do a handstand on the gunnels of his canoe. That didn’t go well, and he ended up upsetting the canoe. While all of us had been taught how to roll a sleeping bag in a groundsheet to waterproof it, unfortunately only mine and four other sleeping bags had actually turned out waterproof. So we spent the rest of the trip with seven campers crowded into one tent with two sleeping bags underneath us and three on top. It was only years later that I realized that the counsellor in question must have been pretty damn high to do something that stupid. All counsellors were only a few years older than the campers, so you’ve got to expect some immaturity, but that was just crazy.
The third or fourth day, we were on the Moon River, on a stretch called The Seven Sisters which is a sequence of rapids. As is usual in these trips, at each rapids everybody got out to scout the rapids. At one rapids, the camper canoe had a look, and said “we’re portaging”. The counsellor and jc had a bit of debate on the best line, and either the jc decided on a different line or they decided to portage. The counsellor said “HELL, LET’S SHOOT THEM!” We all portaged and then walked back to watch the action. The counsellor’s line went between two rocks that nobody but he thought the canoe could fit between. And as soon as he got into the rapids, past the point of no return and lined up on them, he realized we’d all been right and yelled “BACKPADDLE!” They didn’t have a hope in hell. The river was running too fast and with him in the stern and his strongest paddler in the bow paddling on the same side only balanced by the weakest paddler on the other side (whose name was Jeremy – don’t ask why that’s the only name I remember of the other 8 guys), it was inevitable that they’d turn sideways and be carried into these two rocks. The rush of the water under the canoe flipped it on its side, and the force of the water pinned it there, and the contents of the canoe, including sleeping bags, paddles, life jackets and Jeremy were carried down river to be rescued by the rest of us watching this performance. Meanwhile the counsellor and jc were finding it damn near impossible to pull the canoe off the rock, and they only managed to do it after the bow split open, relieving some of the pressure.
We spent a considerable time on the shore of that rapid, trying to dry out our sleeping bags and clothes in the sun while the counsellor and jc repaired the bow of the canoe with every canvas patch, tube of ambroid (a glue that we used for making canvas repairs) and piece of wire in the canoe repair kit. It took a while, but at the end of it they had a mostly water tight canoe that would have gotten them home if the counsellor hadn’t been such a moron.
One funny thing that stocks with me – the counsellor’s clothes were completely soaked, just like all of us (his canoe load from dumping, the rest of us from jumping in to rescue them), and we were all sitting in the sun stripped down to our underwear, except the counsellor was naked. And as we sat there eating lunch and waiting for our clothes and the repair to dry, a giant horsefly bit him on the penis. You’ve never seen a guy jump so high!
After the repair, we crossed under a bridge, the only road that crossed our route from Bala all the way back to camp. We went through one set of rapids safely and sanely, but at the next one the counsellor proved that there is no way in hell he should have ever been in a leadership position. The rapid had a shelf, about a two foot drop. An experienced canoer might have managed it, but not a moron in a canoe held together with baling wire and partially dried ambroid. He took one look at it and yelled “HELL, LET’S SHOOT IT!” Those of us in the camper canoe thought he was completely mental and we portaged. But the jc agreed to try as well, and he went first. Now he was a lot heavier than the campers in his canoe and I think the fact that it was stern heavy helped him get through it. The counsellor’s canoe was more evenly balanced, and when they hit the shelf they kind of hit the water below nose first, and dumped in the whirlpool below it. I have a vivid memory of Jeremy getting smashed between the canoe and the rock wall on the side of the whirlpool before we could drag him out. He also lost his camera in the whirlpool, although god knows how he held into it on the previous disaster.
This time the canoe was a write-off. The split now went beyond the bow seat and no amount of wire was going to hold it together, even if we’d still had any more canvas and ambroid. So we did the only responsible thing we could do – we distributed his packs and campers to the other two canoes, making them dangerously overloaded and tippy, and paddled back upstream to the bridge. The counsellor paddled his banana split of a boat from the stern deck, which kept the bow out of the water. We made camp at a fishing access that was not a legal campsite while the counsellor and jc hitchhiked to a phone to contact the camp. Much later that night a truck came from camp with a replacement canoe, but sadly not a replacement counsellor.
For the next couple of days, the trip went as they usually went. I don’t recall if the counsellor stopped trying to shoot unshootable rapids or if he just got overruled, but we ended up making it most of the way home without further incident. Until the very last day, when once again this moron decides he wants to try another handstand on the gunnels. Fortunately by this time the two campers in his canoe were more seasoned paddlers and so when he inevitably fell into the water, they kept the boat upright and prevented him from further soaking people’s sleeping bags. (I should mention that campers used the same sleeping bags as bedclothes in camp, and the camp didn’t have laundry facilities of any sort, so even without this a few of the campers still had damp sleeping bags for a night or two after we got back.)
Rereading this, I sound awfully angry about the incompetence of the counsellor. But the amazing thing about being a kid at camp is that we weren’t mad at him. Well, except for getting the sleeping bags wet. Everything else was dumb, but we just took it in stride. Just part if the adventure. It’s only afterwards as a parent I think back and think “we’re lucky he didn’t kill anybody” and I get mad at him.