Dressing

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

Big, Blue Duffel: Intro to the Canada Series

(circa 1980)

An original life is unexplored territory.
You don’t get there by taking a taxi—
You get there by carrying a canoe
. –Alan Alda

The Canada series starts in LaGuardia airport in New York, with my mother running after the camp director, yelling at his flanneled back, “Make sure my daughter takes her medicine!”

Did he nod? He had a plane to catch.

Those were different days, when kids ran out the front door saying, “Bye!” Or if they explained their whereabouts at all, just hopped on a bike and pedaled away.

Now my cousin and I hopped on a plane with our blue, camp-sanctioned duffel bags and headed to the great outdoors. Eva’s duffel bag was stretched tight at the zipper, full of Noxema, a big hand mirror, Sassoon jeans, little luxuries and functionalities but no snacks. The snacks would have come in handy, cousin. Me, I packed Jordache jeans, a brush, socks and underwear, a new bottle of pink Tickle deoderant that would barely break its seal, a notebook and pen.

I was so excited.

We were camping, heading into the woods. Not backdoor woods, but Canadian woods full of bears and blueberries and real tents and cooking over a fire and if the wood was wet, oh well! Eat crackers! The Canada I knew from the globe in the corner of the library at school would soon display an uncharted view of nature, including the decadence of uncountable shooting stars that would draw across the night sky above our sleeping bags. And it would make us strong. I didn’t know that then, of course, being 13 and half-wondering if I would ever be able to plug in my curling iron.

We would be gone for the month of July. It was my uncle’s idea. Eva would be in the front of our canoe, I would be in the back. Together, with our group of ten 13-year-olds and two counselors whom we considered ancient but were a mere 16 and 17, we paddled over 300 miles around Ontario’s lake regions, portaged over 20 miles, taking turns carrying the canoes themselves and the dreaded sack of cans that gave us bruise stripes on both shoulders. We were tough by the end, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: Eva and I stole food, swam naked, swung a few punches, climbed a firetower so tall it swayed in the wind, ate chicken from a can and sucked on the bones, came nose to nose with a mother moose, jumped off a cliff, saw my first naked penis (several actually), slept under stars so vast that God was watching us sleep, saw the end of a giant rainbow, slid down mossy rocks on our bare feet laughing into the black lake. All without a cell phone. Or a registered RN on duty. Or special water bottles (we leaned over the canoes to drink from the lakes with our hands). Or supervision, for that matter. This was camp!

We were children set loose in the Canadian wilderness, trusted to look after ourselves. Just to be super clear, there were no music lessons with a guitar somewhere along the way, no water shoes, no arts and crafts projects, no adult. I don’t remember seeing a first-aid kit, but I can’t say I looked for it either, even when I twisted my ankle. I think it was Eva who brought along the Bandaids and nursed me back to health. I think I shampooed once. I say all this to set the stage. We did have Coppertone SPF 4 until it ran out, and a campfire every morning and night because we needed it to cook, to eat.

I sound like the old man who walked a mile to the one-room schoolhouse in the snow. I get you, old man! Since life now is so different, life then seems so unique! And since this eye-rolling Girl Scout begrudgingly sewed sit-upons out of used tablecloths while the boy scouts went camping, the heavy wish in my heart was now here before me, laid out like a prize, which taught me this: I should believe that wishes, even unspoken ones, come true. What a beautiful thing to come across at 13. How I would depend on this later.
Girl canoeing
Next up: Canada Series, The Send Off