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


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

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

Canada Series: The Send Off

“Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
that turn into rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowded with pines,
Lies deep water, wild Temagami…” — Archibald Lampman

Canada’s wilderness would become a new playground for us, but right now, Eva and I hopped on a bus and listened to the kids in the back row sing Sweet Emotion. They wore light blue Levi’s and everyone had long hair.

As we traveled deeper into Canada, the authority of home stretched and broke. At the gas station, Eva and I ate Reeses for lunch. When we reached water, the duffels were on our backs and we climbed onto a flotilla of speed boats. I could only stare.

Nature here was not the same nature at home. Lake Temagami did not suggest a bottom and it required the same respect I gave the ocean. Loons floated on its depth with an unguarded air of confidence and their telltale call made me burst out laughing. Pines surrounded us on both sides and fought against each other for space, leaning over the lake. As we stepped onto the dock at the base camp, ten hours later from LaGuardia, I carried my own duffle and walked passed rows of red dented canoes, knowing we were soon leaving. The base camp would not be home. The lake was.

When all the boats were emptied there was an instant, live-wire energy at the base camp that I badly wanted to be part of. Older kids strode around wearing ratty T-shirts with cool sayings, greeting each other, their wavy hair uncombed. Some carried acoustic guitars by the neck. They went barefoot and knew how to start a fire. I showed up with carefully combed wings and for all my tomboy ways, a can of Aqua Net, so this was all new to me. I watched these kids, admiring their hippie bravura. But when my cousin and I had to pitch our first tent in the freezing rain, the romance wore fast.

Our first tough endeavor was the swim test. If you didn’t pass the swim test, you didn’t go camping. The flanneled camp director did have a few rules and that was one. So Eva and I put on our suits the next morning and stood shivering by the lake’s soggy, pine-needled edge. There was a gray storm chewing at horizon level. We got in silver rowboats that had water inside, making me colder, and they dropped us off at the wooden platform out in the black lake and were told to swim back.

We were the last ones to start the test. Eva and I stood and watched as the other kids in our group crossed the lake with swim team crawl strokes. Until just that moment, I didn’t realize I was such a terrible swimmer. I was always an ocean girl, and you don’t really swim in the ocean, do you? You hop, you laugh, you play a nice game called Martha Washington with your sisters that makes your hair look like a giant curl around your face. You wear seaweed. But these kids came from somewhere serious that had chlorine. The two counselors nudged my cousin and me, so we took turns climbing down the platform ladder.

When my foot reached for another rung and found only lake, I became a whoosh of fear, wondering what swam beneath. At Rock Hill Girl Scout Camp the counselors told Eva and me about fresh water sharks and that memory came back in detail. I did a frantic crawl stroke that got me ten feet until I switched gears for the doggie paddle. I forget who came in last. I think it was me. The counselors were gone when we emerged from the lake.

With no golden plastic trophies, Eva and I walked back to base camp shaking and teeth chattering with arms crossed, too frozen to talk. This was when we pitched a tent for the first time. Since it was now pouring rain, and the chlorine kids were warm and dry in their tents, Eva and I had no time to pretend it was hard. We were told to pitch a tent so we stuck poles in poles, learning as we went. Our counselor saw us struggling and gave us a hand. Afterward, Eva and I hid inside the tent as the rain beat on the top, shivering together as we yanked off our suits and put on dry clothes, sweaters. Shivering is actually exhausting. I couldn’t believe how far I was from home. This was camping? With wings deflated, staying at the base camp was looking more inviting.

But the next morning we were off. After a warm breakfast of hot cereal, Eva and I got in our dented red canoe with our blue duffle bags between us and the rolled-up tent that we couldn’t quite get back in the bag. The sun was awake and the loons called us out. The flanneled camp director stood over us on the dock and gave our canoe a hard push.

book cover 3

Next Up: Portage, on Aug. 21