We were trying to figure out what time it was by the position of the sun. One person had a watch.

“3:30!” I called out.

We paddled in a group today instead of a long line. Eva and I were miraculously keeping up and the red canoes had formed a pod, talking, laughing.

“2 o’clock!” called someone.

We passed a few loons. They swayed on the black lake from our pod’s forward surge.

“2:42!” called another.

It was the end of our third week and my arms had learned how to use a canoe paddle. I had discovered the various ways to keep our boat straight, pressing the paddle against the canoe like a rudder, or a modified J-stroke. I was trying hard to keep up with the group. Eva wore a red bandana around her head and I was admiring that.

“Hey,” called a boy, “isn’t there a camp tradition of girls taking off their shirts when canoeing?”

I looked over, the sun in my eyes.

At 13, I believed everyone. And I loved tradition. At home, I was the self-appointed foreman of Christmas tradition, walking the rooms and making sure everything was in place. Where was the Kermit with the Santa hat? If it wasn’t on the edge of the shelf above the dining room near the tree, I got a chair and made sure it was. I was devoted to my pink poodle ornament that no longer had a recognizable shape and the deer hoof from my late grandfather. Both were placed with honor in the center of the tree.

Off came the shirt.

Eva kept hers on but she had announced her group status earlier with her tubular red bandana tied thickly around her head and off we went, children of the 70s, me and my cousin on a black lake in the middle of Canada, surrounded by tall pines, whistling loons and ogling 13-year-old boys, all in the sake of tradition. The sun was on my back and I dared not look down at my front. But I was group status now, baby, keeping my canoe straight.

I glanced over to another girl who also believed in tradition and the two of us looked at each other, unsure suddenly.

After two minutes the shirt went back on. Soon we found camp. Pulled up the canoes. A counselor started kindling. Eva and I put up our tent and dragged in our blue duffels.

Then I had an idea.

I unzipped my messy duffel and searched. Maybe I was dressing for dinner?

Standing outside our tent, surrounded by the smells of burning kindling and the sounds of camp being made, I tied my red bandana around my head like Eva.

red bandana

Stolen Lunch

The food was heavy on the back, light in stomach.

We were ten 13-year-olds and two counselors aged 16 and 17. We were without cell phone, RN on duty, sunscreen, supervision. We were alone, canoeing across miles of deep Canadian lakes.

I was the girl with the appetite of a man. I was always hungry, and I always looked forward to lunch: Triscuits with peanut butter and jelly carefully divvied out, a small chocolate bar, a piece of cheese. Dinner came from the cans, and we learned to crave Dinty Moore Beef Stew as if it were from home.

After two weeks of our wilderness camp, I started to take swipes of peanut butter when nobody was looking. I remember being never fully fed and begging internally for more, a few more pieces of meat this time? Such disappointment to get more potatoes! We traveled with a tub of margarine, minus refrigeration, not something you’d do today but back then I’m sure they considered the coolness in the Canadian woods refrigeration enough. We got a lump of it in our hot cereal every morning and I watched as the lumps got smaller as the month progressed. After scarfing down my own bowl, my eyes would travel to Eva’s.

Poor Eva to have such a hungry cousin. Luckily for me, Eva didn’t like oatmeal or any kind of hot cereal so she would take a few bites and give me hers. She still gives me food like that. At Cape Cod last summer, she offered me her chicken salad, practically forcing it upon me (“No! Here! Take it!”), and I had to smile.

Early in the trip Eva stole a candy bar for me from the stash out of sheer love and older cousin duty, a duty she took on quietly. Because she was a smart tomboy, nobody saw, and she handed me the candy bar privately.

It turned into quite a scene.

We watched together as the counselors realized the candy was missing. They kept counting and recounting the stash. When they realized the problem, they called the group around for a serious discussion and spoke in concerned voices about how important it was to be careful with our food supply, as we had just enough for the fourteen of us. Eyes accused two boys, and Eva and I stood there, allowing it.

Well, this made me feel so terrible that I never ate it but chucked it far into the woods. This was one of the few times Eva has been mad at me. She could not believe I didn’t eat it and frankly, she still can’t. She remains incredulous, possibly because it took her so much to steal it. In fact, at a recent dinner out with our men we told the story for the first time in, yikes, 30 years, and her voice still showed that incredulous spark as she was speaking. I felt bad again and apologized for not eating it (then we dug into our jumbo shrimp).

But as life mysteriously shows us, that early experience of the stolen lunch made us all work more cohesively as a group, bringing in a new level of serious. This was the woods, baby. We depended on the canoes, the cans, the map and each other. After two weeks, we were expected to be at a certain point to receive our next shipment of food from a sea plane that would land on the lake. Can you imagine? Sending a bunch of teenagers into the woods with only just enough food and then hoping they show up to get the rest from a sea plane? But that was the plan. And wouldn’t you know, we showed up right on time. Everybody had to play by the rules.

As it turned out, we ran out of food only for the very last night of camping, eating cold waxed beans from an industrial-sized can and dry orange Tang with our fingers.

Cooking in a hike in the cauldron hanging over the fire