On the occasion of finding his 50-year-old camp letters, one veteran journalist pens a heartfelt love letter to his Maine summer camp.
By David M. Shribman[I]t’s where I learned the difference between a bowline and a half hitch, where I discovered how to make a rainy-day fire, where I grasped how to find the North Star once I’d located the Big Dipper. It’s also where I began to believe that “the days that make us happy make us wise.”
Years later, I would become a national political correspondent and run a big-city newspaper. As a reporter, I’d find myself on plenty of rope lines, watching presidents and White House candidates meet crowds, but knowing the bow line and the half hitch did me no good. As a Washington bureau chief, I’d be called upon to light a fire in my news staff, but knowing how to cut dry shavings from wood splittings was no help to me. As an executive editor, I’d navigate the twists and turns of a changing newspaper business, but neither the Big Dipper nor the North Star were any guide.
And yet those skills have warmed me for a half-century, connected me with my contented youth, and cemented me with the state of Maine, where I have never really lived but never really left — because those days that made me happy may also have made me wise.
This phrase — about happiness and wisdom — was inscribed with cedar twigs, arranged into crude but unforgettable letters, on a sign that hung from the arts and crafts building on the shore of Echo Lake at Camp Winnebago in Fayette. I first read this phrase as a child, away from home for the first time, wearing dirt-stained shorts and the look of worry that was (and still is) my trademark. I have carried its meaning with me, along with my worldly worries, into my 60s.
This all came into focus recently when my mother died and my two brothers, my sister, and I began sorting through what are sometimes called a person’s effects. In my mother’s drawer was a pile of letters from camp, primitive scratchings about visits to Mount Blue State Park in Weld (I can still remember how far you can walk in Webb Lake before the water reaches a 10-year-old’s knees), about expeditions in the back of a truck, no seatbelts, to Pemaquid Point Light (where my wife and I would return as newlyweds on our first Maine trip), about canoe trips on the Moose River near Jackman (where, a quarter-century later, I would take my children and awaken them to the deep blues of a Maine lake and a Maine sky).
It was in those letters — my mother’s effects — that I was reminded of the effect that our years at a Maine camp had on all of us.
It was at camp that I discovered the undistilled beauty of a crisp canoe stroke in flat water or whitewater. I was marked by those strokes; why else would the name of the pristine lake where we paddled, Chesuncook, still possess so much magic for me? I didn’t know then what is clear to me now, a truth set forth in a remarkable recent book, Canoe Country, by the Canadian poet laureate of the canoe, Roy MacGregor. “Once used to explore the land,” he writes, “the canoe is now used to explore ourselves.”
It was at camp, during those sunny Maine summers, that I learned the relationship between work and wonder, conveyed with unmistakable clarity by the satisfaction of a clear view after the demanding hike up Mount Bigelow. It was there that decades of mountain expeditions were born. Why else do I still own, after nine moves, a 1960s-era mountain guide published by the State of Maine?
It was at camp that I first tasted the delicious agony of writing — and if you look at the Camp Winnebago yearbook for 1964, as I did just now, you will find an oddly prescient phrase just beneath my name: Junior Journalist. I would become the editor of the camp newspaper, the Winnebago Afternoon Gazette. My sports editor was a 13-year-old named Chris Berman, who you may know as ESPN’s “Boomer.” If you wonder where his inimitable knack for nicknames came from, there are some 120 men, all around age 60 and each with his own sobriquet, who could tell you.
For all that’s included in our heartfelt camp letters, there isn’t a whisper about the bedtime ghost stories, so vivid in my memory. There’s not a mention of the self-reliance lessons of campcraft that would stick with me for decades.
I couldn’t know then how those happy Maine summers would so mark me, would shape my outlook, and walk with me on the hike of life. None of that is evident in my old letters — the effects that presage the effects — in my mother’s drawer.
In those letters, there is no hint of character building, of perspective, of confidence, of mastery — the boilerplate selling points of camps even beyond Maine’s borders. Instead, they’re full of youthful high spirits and hungers, mostly for homemade brownies. A pre-spellcheck classic from brother Jeff — now 60, a lawyer and a leader in his community — written just before the classic midsummer ritual of Parents’ Visiting Day and retaining all the charm that comes when a young man is forced to put pen to paper during “rest our”:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I checked with [brother] Peter and he doesn’t have a pillow case or laundry bag so when you come up on Saturday bring those 2 at least and a 6 pack of Coke, some gum and cookies and brownies ect ect ect. Right now its rest our and there is nothing to do and the only reason I am righting it is because I have to. Peter does not like his counseler to much but it is nothing to worry about because neither does anyone else.
And from brother Peter, now working in real estate and a grandfather of three:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I went on Mount Tumbledown and it was good. That is why I did not write. . . .
Bring fruit and any kind of candy. I will tell you more about my trip on visiting day. My nose is wrecked up but not broken or sprain just scratches. I will tell you how it happen on visiting day.
Must have been a heck of a Visiting Day.
For all that’s included in our heartfelt camp letters — the excuses for not “riting,” the complaints about the food, the report that my camp chum Andy Lappin and I had both thrown up on our first day — what’s most remarkable is what is omitted. There isn’t a whisper about the bedtime ghost stories, so vivid in my memory — especially the one about the dismembered arm that glowed green in the dark and brandished an axe, a story I later told to my own children. There’s not a mention of the self-reliance lessons of campcraft that would stick with me for decades, assuring my prominence as the go-to guy in any living room with a fireplace. There isn’t the merest hint that I, as a husband and adult, would know how to choose the best path across a swiftly moving stream or on a steep hillside descent, or that I’d know how to identify Cassiopeia in the northern sky (it’s the one that looks like a ‘W’).
Of course, in themselves, none of those things are all that important. But together they formed for me a way of looking at life, the certain knowledge that leisure has its purposes beyond idleness.
Along with the tap dance of fingers on my keyboard, I find myself humming the camp anthem — a kind of love song to Camp Winnebago that we sang at the end of evening assemblies: In our hearts we’ll treasure / tender thoughts of you. You can be sure that I didn’t have to check the words in my camp songster (I still have not one but two of them). I know them by heart. And in my heart. For unlike William Blake in his poem “Night,” I did not have to say, “Farewell, green fields and happy groves.” Those green fields and happy groves will stay with me, and with my brothers, for as long as we live. For a long while, I wondered why. But now, in my seventh decade, I know. It is because the days that made us happy made us wise.
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams.