Lily Dipping

It was the third week of our summer canoe trip.

Eva and I were making our way with eight 13-year-olds and two counselors, aged 16 and 17. We were living among the loons and Canadian lakes with a paper map and tents and red canoes, eating from the cans we carried on our backs during portages from lake to lake. There was no connection with an adult. Some kids didn’t change their clothes. Eva and I cleaned our Jordache jeans with Ivory against a large rock and were mocked for our diligence but our difference from the wilderness gang was never more apparent than when in the canoes.

“EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” shouted the girl with curly hair, from her canoe up ahead. The wilderness gang paddled on.

(Later that evening at bedtime, in our tent, Eva would call out into the dark night: “EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” Making us giggle and repeat it back and forth to each other. The campsite would remain silent until someone finally would shout, “Put a lid on it!”)

But right now, we were falling behind again. We were tired. Our sugar rush from the lunch chocolate was gone. The sun was round and strong and we had seen the map over the girl counselor’s shoulder that morning. We had a long ways to go before we found camp (and dinner) in the evening.

My cousin and I were quiet in our canoe, having already played “What would you eat if you were home?”

“C’mon, Eva!” I said, digging in harder.

Eva dug in.

In unison we moved us forward. Swoosh. Swoosh. Catching up was always hard.

I kept my eyes on the wilderness gang as I paddled, steering with my J-stroke so that the canoe was aiming directly at them. I watched their muscular paddling and wondered what they were laughing about. I admired their faded bandanas tied around their foreheads. My bandana was tied around my forehead, too, but the material was bright and crisp and uncomfortable, new. A costume next to their reality.

I stopped paddling and scooped lake water to drink. For a second, my drinking arm caught the edge of the shade coming from where pines leaned over the lake’s edge. I paused like a picture, keeping the cool on me, but Eva was trying hard in the front of the canoe – swoosh – so I had to keep moving, too.

The girl counselor looked over her shoulder at us and made a comment to the boy counselor in his canoe. He shrugged. They kept going.

Then we heard a motor – now that was a surprise! Eva and I shaded our eyes with our hands.

Lo and behold, it was the flannelled camp director! Now this was news!

Like Santa on retirement, with grey beard and stomach, he steered his motorboat over to our dispirited canoe. He said nothing and threw us a pile of rope.

As his twin-engine grumbled, he tied an elaborate knot onto the front of our canoe. Eva and I looked at each other gleefully.

He tested the knot with a tug, dragged his stomach back and shifted up, his engines whirling the quiet black lake. As he raced forward, we watched the pile of rope disappear.

When we lurched forward in delight, we screamed a little and grabbed onto the sides, my bandana falling over my eyebrows but I held on. We came upon the wilderness gang quickly.

Now had this been a movie set, my cousin and I might’ve used this moment as an opportunity, shouting in unison: “LILY—DIP—THIS!” while shaking our oars in the air, in triumph.

But we just smiled as we passed them, the breeze blowing our hair and the tips of our machine-washed bandanas, oars comfortably on our laps.

Lake Temagami

The Surprise

I was the girl who could climb trees and outrun boys. Dusk made me invincible, as if I were running faster than I actually was, so I loved to play games like Manhunt when the light was fading and I could tear across a stranger’s lawn or an empty golf course. So, in Canada, when we were presented with a long ladder up an old-time fire tower that was taller than the treeline, I thought, Great!

I waited on line to jump onto the ladder. The people in front of me were so slow. I just wanted to get up there! To see. I always wanted to see, to look. Finally I got on and as we climbed the three-story ladder, I looked down. Nothing but grassy dirt and our nervous counselor. The higher I climbed, the more the tower swayed like a skinny pine tree in the wind, gently, but moving back and forth. There was no backing on the ladder to catch us if somebody missed a rung. On the top was a small cabin. Some of the rungs were either rusted or broken off.

When I got to the cabin and stood looking out over the trees, I sensed how the wind felt different up high, making me step a few feet away from the railing. As I blinked into the start of dusk, this difference held me rapt as I finally noticed how vulnerable I was. Up here, nothing impeded the wind, and it seemed to reign as it pushed around the tops of the pine trees. As if a mask had been peeled off, this was the true wind. I peeked over the railing with new eyes. The extreme height dictated good behavior in the small cabin, but two boys started to joke in a pushing manner so I left and climbed back down, holding on tight, aware that I would never be here again.

As we waited for the others, Eva and I went for a paddle by ourselves. We got into the canoe and paddled slowly because we didn’t have to keep up with the group. It was nice to just hang out, and Eva and I enjoyed being in the canoe talking and relaxing, the sound of our dipping oars in the lake. I looked up and examined bright pink clouds, surprised at their perfect fluffy shapes. I pressed my “mind camera” to remember this, knowing it was something special. Then Eva wanted to go across the lake so we paddled toward the tall reeds on the opposite bank, but when we turned the corner of those tall reeds, we got a huge surprise.

Eva reached for her camera, her oar clambering against the canoe. I stopped paddling, mouth dropping open, in awe of the enormous brown animal before us with horns as big as you can imagine. Not ten feet away was a giant moose.

I think with Eva’s camera snapping and the two of us exclaiming whatever we exclaimed, the moose ran. We stood in the canoe, balancing and grabbing onto the useless reeds as we watched the animal run into the woods. All we wanted during this trip, Eva and I, was to see a moose. Not realizing how rare that sighting would actually be, we decided this is what we wanted. Everywhere we paddled, we looked for our moose. That we actually saw a moose and didn’t get trampled by it is still a mystery. But it brought me back to how I felt at the beginning of the trip, to the notion that wishes can come true, and to expect that.

Moose in Velvet feeding in the wilderness

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

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

Portaging: The Can Sack

“Because the activities involved in canoeing
activate hearty appetites, don’t skimp on food supplies.”

– Temagami Canoe Routes

I had it in my head that the can sack was 100 pounds. It could have been 500 pounds, but regardless, when we got to the edge of a lake, somebody’s back had to transport it over land to the next lake.

The can sack was a large, long, Army-green duffle with two straps that you fitted over your shoulders. We had a couple of heroes who took it on several times. I was never a hero, though I did carry it once.

It was a bright and cool day, the air without heat but spiced with pine sap. As we pulled up to the edge of a lake, we yanked the packs and tents and duffles off the canoes, piling them on a dry area. The sack looked at me, and I decided to try it.

Sixteen-year-old “Boomer,” mature in his role as counselor, raised it onto my back. (I never learned Boomer’s first name.) I was seriously surprised at how heavy the pack was and realized quickly that I couldn’t walk upright. So I walked stooped over with nature above me and watched where my feet were being placed on the skinny path that had exposed roots, stones, hills, as the other campers passed me by. I have no idea how long this portage was. Most were under a mile but long enough so that you couldn’t see the other lake from where you started and had some walking to do.

Eventually, no one was on the path with me. After the silence became obvious, I knew they were finished and waiting. Alone on the path, peering up from my stooped position, I could see sky through the trees ahead, telling me the new lake was getting close. But the straps were digging into my shoulders and they really hurt.

I stopped to try and adjust them off the raw spots. I stood there and tried to shift the straps but they didn’t budge. The sack was just too heavy. I leaned forward more, trying to give myself room to loosen them, but as I leaned forward, the noisy rush of cans went over my head and onto the dirt in front of me.

My fanny was in the air, my head between my legs. I listened, heard nothing. No loons, no cousin, no counselors.

Now, I was once a girl who asked for advice. The girl who asked not just one person, usually my mother, but several people, taking polls. What should I do? What do you think I should do? With no one to ask, or even offer help, I seriously didn’t know what to do.

Getting conscious of the time, and embarrassed about my situation, I tried several ideas but the straps were adjusted tightly, so it was hard to slip them off my shoulders and start over. I just had to push through this and make it a physical stunt. Bending my body, moving, sliding, doing some sort of freewheeling yoga, it hurt like hell and caused bruises I would admire later that evening, my knees and I got that can sack onto my back again and merely continued on to meet the others by the lake. They were resting, waiting for me. Since we were all expected to do our job, no one had even thought to check on me. In fact, they were happy for the rest. They knew I would eventually get there and I did. A week later I carried a canoe on my shoulders during another portage. That was it for me and heavy lifting.

The following summer, when I asked to go back to Canada, I already knew the trip was meant for only once. It was an expensive camp and I’m the oldest of five, so I got a newspaper route and carried those, also rolling up my beach towel with 12 cents for the orange ade at the pool. The summer after that I got a job for great money at the Ardsley DPW, painting fences and ripping up weeds and deadheading public geraniums with other kids my age, hiding out in Macy Park when the heat was too much. On the weekends my neighborhood friends and I did a lot of walking to the village for pizza, taking the shortcut alongside the stream but no longer bothering to sit on the big rock. I guess because kids think about what they see and what they do, I eventually stopped talking about Canada. I moved on as life carried me grade to grade, and the lessons I learned in the woods quietly stayed put without fanfare or me noticing.

Canoe bow on lake