Summer Journeys: The struggle bus

Officially, on the calendar, summer is sticking around for a couple more weeks. But with another Labor Day now in the past, the summer vacation season has indeed passed. Fun and carefree getaways, yes — and we all need those. But often journeys lead to unique, unexpected, meaningful experiences far beyond what was on the itinerary. This summer, by happenstance, Rappahannock residents shared such tales with this newspaper…

By John Kiser

“Dad, do I have a choice? This will take up my whole summer.”

Tough love, being stretched to physical and mental limits, teamwork, camaraderie and unparalleled wilderness adventure in the rivers of Ontario and Quebec — these are some of the goodies that come from a camping experience still bearing the imprint of Frederick Gunn, whose Gunnery School he founded in Washington, Connecticut, in 1850. Gunn was a vigorous New England educator who took seriously the idea of an integrated mind-body-spirit education for young boys. He believed in the old-fashioned idea of “manliness.” Physical and mental toughness were qualities he admired. Education was about developing character. Throwing snowballs was OK.

Gunn was also an unconventional Christian for his time. He believed religion had little to do with outward pieties like going to church or praying, but with living a life of integrity and compassion. A Yale graduate, teacher of botany and lover of nature, he had been denounced by the local Litchfield pastors in the 1840s for his unpopular abolitionist politics. One of his future students was Gregg Clark, a Harvard grad who developed a passion for adventure in the wild and, with a like-minded friend, founded Keewaydin on Lake Temagami in 1903, today a five hour drive north of Toronto.

At Keewaydin, kids discover what they’re capable of enduring and achieving whether the challenges are physical, mental, social or all the above.

The camp advertises itself as oldest canoeing camp in the world, and serves a camper population from 10-year to fit 70-year olds. This year 170 campers will pass through the base camp on Devil’s Island (sounds worse than it is) for the “tripping” experience.

The north end, known as Ojibway, is a collection of spare but comfortable wooden cabins for visiting adults and parents to sleep, eat, paddle and relax. The south end is for campers who sleep in civil war tents and bunkhouses in between their “tripping expeditions.” At each end there is blissful freedom from phones and electronics, cabins are lit with gas lights, and food is absolutely delicious. Loons serenaded us in the evening.

The Kisers have a friend and former camper who lives in Virginia Beach to thank for discovering Keewaydin. Bruce Bishop is a tireless promoter of Keewaydin as a life changing experience, one that made the Marine Corps easy for him. Watching his video propaganda every spring, I finally decided to “offer” our fourteen year old son a coming of age experience. We signed Pierce up for total immersion — the six week deal: five, then ten-day paddling trips to learn basic skills needed before setting off on a grueling 21 days of multiple daily portages through soggy muskeg and over fallen pines. They drink water from the rivers, carry loads of 80 pounds or more (double packs, wannigans, canoes) supported by leather tump lines strapped around their foreheads like the Indians and Hudson Bay trappers once did.

Campers ride the “struggle bus,” camp director Bruce Ingersoll’s expression for wrestling with life’s multifarious hardships. Here kids discover what they’re capable of enduring and achieving whether the challenges are physical, mental, social, or all the above. The experience builds self-confidence and appreciation of finding out what you can accomplish that you might never have suspected. And yes, it’s not for everyone. The old hands recognize three categories of alumni. Hated it, never do it again; hated it but glad had the experience; liked it and want to do it again.

Bottom line for Pierce: He emerged ready to return, but next time he wants to go to Outpost — remote trips where polar bears roam. Would he recommend it to his friends? Yes.

“I would tell them it was a good experience. You’ll learn to swear and cuss, but also you learn to be orderly and do things the right way. You learn to appreciate nature, but most important you learn about the power of cooperation, teamwork and having a good attitude. Our motto is “help the other fella,” especially the kids you don’t like much. It’s about the art of getting along, because the alternative is three weeks of hell.”

John Kiser is the author of numerous books, among them Communist Entrepreneurs: Unknown Innovators in the Global Economy, and Stefan Zweig: Death of Modern Man. A former international technology broker, he makes his home in Sperryville.

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