Looking back, it’s pretty obvious that all of my summer camp “counselors” were stoned out of their gourds. It’s the perfect job for that type if you think about it. And I’m not looking down on “that type” either because if I did it’d be a study in hypocrisy. It’s a seasonal job mostly spent outdoors where an affinity for granola is almost a prerequisite. The ones I can remember all had bandanas and Birkenstocks, except for Robert. He was a massive ex-jock that had left his division one collegiate career with a leg injury instead of a place in the draft. His decisions almost killed me, but his strength saved me, so we’re even.
Camp Peggy Lake is a secluded Alaskan Paradise, and as far as I know, only two tragic things have ever happened there, although I suppose the second could be considered more of a calamity. The first involves a kid that was eaten by a grizzly bear, and I was smack dab in the middle of the second (which is exactly how I’d have it given the choice). I have two children now and I don’t want to make light of the former instance because such a thing would be crippling. It was approaching autumn and bears have a cycle to which they’re indentured servants. Bears gorge, hibernate, awaken, and repeat. The older ones that can’t store up enough fat go rogue because they know the winter will be deadly. Bears adhere to echelons almost as devoutly as we do, and when a younger bear challenges for that prime place on the river, the outcome is inevitable. Those rotting and rubicund salmon that fight the current and predation aren’t fodder for the old. An old bear that’s bested by youth can either die in peace or give in to desperation, which usually translates into hunting that which normally isn’t, and that’s exactly what happened. A little boy lagged from a pack of hiking children and suffered a fate we all fear on a visceral level. There’s not much more to the telling. A posse of counselors headed out armed with sobriety and shotguns to track down the bear and kill it. They did, and they recovered the remains to be shipped back to Anchorage. Despite their best efforts to keep it a secret from the remaining children until the week was out, their deception was discovered by process of elimination. Empty bunk beds don’t keep secrets. Knowing all of this, my parents sent me the following year for a nine day experience in survival.
The self-discovery cliché is played out but it fits right? If everything is taken from you and you’re put in a place void of distraction, where else do you look but within? I had a counselor who smoked himself silly one night and then found those of us that were dubbed as “trouble makers” still awake. I still remember him silhouetted in the doorway in a halo of mosquitoes with war paint all over his face that turned out to be sharpie. Instead of punishing us, he took the five of us outside in the midnight dusk that can only be found in Alaska with its skewed view of the sun. He devised a plan wherein he’d give us all badges of honor by way of crude symbols drawn in our forearms in sharpie. If we broke into the girls’ cabin and stole a bra, for instance, he’d draw some boobs on our wrist. If we could finish a box of Lucky Charms while standing in a rocking canoe he’d draw a clover; you get the idea. His creativity ran out and the last stamp was to be of the proverbial “twig and berries” which would only be awarded after a skinny dip in Peggy Lake.
One of my friends at the time had always been reticent when it came to locker rooms and the like, and we all considered him to be somewhat of a spoiled prude because his parents bought him whatever he wanted, but when it came time to skinny dip, he got this profound look of determination on his face and stripped down right there in front of us. He didn’t have a penis. As it turns out, he had lost it as a baby due to a botched circumcision and his parents had been spoiling him with the settlement ever since to compensate for something that’s frankly impossible to compensate for. He turned from us and walked slowly out into the lake and then back and then quietly dressed. A few other guys took the plunge, but it took more courage to do it ill equipped and our counselor recognized that so he drew the largest set of cock-and-balls on the forearm of the kid that had his cut short. It’s a simple irony that permanent marker gave back that which was taken.
On a different trip completely, without the sharpie wielding counselor (who as it turns out was the same one to kill the bear) we loaded an armada of aluminum canoes on top of an old school bus and drove out for a leisurely two day trip down a river with a name you couldn’t pronounce so I’ll leave out the cumbersome spelling. We had a nature loving female counselor with us and the aforementioned ex-linebacker. He came across as a cro-magnon type that could weather anything which instilled all sorts of misplaced confidence. He chose to load all of the food into one canoe and trust his outdated river maps despite the fact that our particular river had been feasting on unusually healthy rainfalls.
We took the wrong turn at a fork. It’s as simple as that. For the first few hours, we were navigating perfect waters and then for the next, we were battling class four rapids in metal canoes. That river was a fucking grey tempest swollen with glacial silt and hate. A glacier erodes the land under it as it slowly slides towards its death and the land that’s washed away is ground to fine grey silt that floats through the river. If you fall out of your canoe, the silt weighs down your clothing and you’re swept under to a death that’s only merciful because of the paralyzing cold.
I had the linebacker in the back of my canoe and his powerful oar strokes kept us out of the worst. His weight in the back made our canoe look as if it were on step like a speed boat so I had a great view. I was looking back when I saw a canoe, the one with all the food and drinking water, flip over. The two boys that went overboard made it to a large spruce tree that had been swept from the bank and anchored in the middle of the river. And no, they couldn’t swim to shore because the river was at least a half mile wide at this point. They clung to that tree for more than 48 hours before being rescued by Mahay’s Riverboat Service knowing that if they fell asleep and let go, they’d die. One of the boys, who was originally from Poland, came close to attempting suicide by drinking a bottle of aerosol bug repellant but the other talked him out of it. Those two guys became friends on that tree and the rest of us abstained from Pollock jokes for life. A screen door on a submarine isn’t that funny to begin with.
Those of us still afloat, fifteen I think, made it to a large sandbar in the middle of the river. We could see land to either side, but we knew there was no chance of making it off that little island because only three of our remaining seven canoes would still float. The others had been scarred beyond buoyancy in the mêlée of rocks and drift wood. And there we were; unbridgeable water to both sides and miles of ridiculous rapids ahead. No food, three water bottles, one tent, six sleeping bags, and a bottle of vitamin C. It’d be at least twenty years before a camp counselor could afford a cell phone, and even if we had one, I doubt that there will ever be cell service on that un-pronounceable river.
Christina was beautiful at sixteen; I think I was thirteen. The first thing she did when she made it to land was to strip right in front of me thanks to a justified fear of hypothermia. I can still remember those grey Jockey underwear she was wearing. She got a little embarrassed when I started laughing hysterically; here I was, finally stranded on an island with a gorgeous half naked woman but we didn’t have enough food to sustain the fantasy because the linebacker had chosen to put it all in a canoe with a Pollock. I gave her my dry denim jacket (that said Hard Rock Café Maui on the back) and turned away in disappointment.
We set up our eight-man tent and all crammed inside after a few failed attempts to make fire like a caveman with wet drift wood. I gave my sleeping bag to a girl from the lower forty-eight but I left it on that sandbar because she peed in it. She took me aside the next day and confessed to being too afraid to leave the presence of other humans because she was sure she’d die without it. It was an old mummy bag from my stepfather’s army days. The thing probably has more stories than I do but it’s lost to Alaska now.
Somewhere in the middle of that night, a girl whose name I can’t remember started telling a joke. I can still picture her sitting there in the muted glow of the tent with her shoulder length brown hair and coke-bottle glasses. It had to do with a string that walked into a bar that didn’t serve strings. The string tied itself into a knot and then frayed out its ends, and when the bartender asked it if it was a string, it answered, “no, I’m afraid not”. Homonyms had never been so funny and we all started laughing. It’s still my favorite joke despite its pedestrian quality because it’s a testament to what humor can do. A moment before, we were teenagers literally pissing ourselves with fear and a simple joke made us all laugh and forget about mortality for a moment.
We made an enormous SOS on the sand the next morning out of driftwood and orange life jackets, and late the following afternoon, after only 48 hours, one of those enormous double propped helicopters that was about to be shipped off for the first gulf war flew over and spotted us. It landed, and we all ran over asking for food. I got a can of tuna that I opened with a rock. At that point, it tasted better than the raw version you over pay for in Americanized sushi bars. Those airmen must’ve thought they had landed in the middle of a “Lord of the Flies” reenactment because we were all dirty as shit and brandishing spears that we had fashioned to use for fishing.
They radioed in for permission, and let us all climb in once it was granted. We all got those cool headsets complete with the movable microphones, and at my request, they left the huge door on the side of the helicopter open so I could get the whole “Vietnam experience.” We were over silt and spruce as opposed to the lush vegetation from the movie, but I started humming Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now because it seemed appropriate. No one noticed over the chop of the blades.
I vividly remember sitting across from that open door on the helicopter as the deafening white noise washed over me. We were all smiling as we sat in our filth with our headphones as if we were enjoying a carnival ride. They dropped us off at an airfield near Camp Peggy Lake where we met up with the two kids from the log and we finished out the week with hotdogs and campfire circles as if nothing had happened. There was never any lawsuit or compensation, but at that age I didn’t really want anything other than fajitas after the ordeal. We made it into the Anchorage Daily News and the linebacker lost his job, but none of that really mattered and I knew it. I wasn’t shipped home as remains, and I never had to worry that my friends might make a gruesome discovery in the locker room. I was whole.