Willa returned last week from an overnight trip to the RKY camp up on Eagle Lake near Parham. The school bus pulled up in front of Central Public about six o’clock, and the kids stumbled down the steps and gathered mostly mute at the back door to collect their sleeping bags and backpacks, their extra blankets and I’m pretty sure I saw a ukulele too.
Parents tousled their kids’ hair. They were excited (and, if they’re like me, slightly relieved) to see them again. For their part, the kids squinted a bit into the early evening, as if surprised to find themselves back in town, their heads still full of those two days, the utter remove from the classroom. Finally they wandered off down the street, dragging their bits and pieces, their MEC lanterns and their wool blankets, the beat-up pillows, a few of them chattering away like songbirds and the rest of them yawning, saying they wanted food and then bed.
Willa and I drove home and she was no different from her friends. We shared a quick back and forth about the morning’s polar bear dip (Sam had already sent me a video) and then she was focused on some interior screen that I know was running a loop of film highlights of her big adventure. It was the next day before I’d hear in a breathless rush about the “awesome” veggie burger and the potato pancakes, about how cold the water was and how great the camp counsellors. About the kids who slept and those who didn’t, about the excitement and about the “beautiful” campground, and about the hot chocolate powder set out in a pan with a scoop in it.
All the regular smells and tastes and sensations of camp, in other words. No more and no less. An experience that will stay with them always, is what it was; a well-organized and professionally executed adventure. A safe trip into the near wilderness with your classmates. There’s an awful lot to be said for that. All of it good.
Camp wasn’t a thing for school kids back in England in the 1970s, but I do remember a geography field trip when I was a bit older than Willa is now. We headed to the coast to study the formation of estuaries, the build up of silt, and further inland to circle the oxbow lakes dropped like giants’ tears into the long grass fields. I remember there was a scratched-up table tennis table in a gloomy front room and bench sofas along the wooden walls. I remember the dusty grey laneway up to the lodge between dark hedgerows, and the reflected yellow light in the midnight windows. There is a file stored away somewhere with these details and a few others I’ll keep to myself, thank you very much. My point being that field trips, overnights at camps, leave a permanent mark, an elegant, simple etching on the brain’s soft deep folds.
Last night, a few days on, Willa and I sat on the deck shoulder to shoulder and she told me some more. She filled in with great joy some details. She added some colour. She did the same on a walk downtown. The memories were clearly settling in for the long haul. And I’m convinced that along with the cascading waterfall of bright moments there were lessons being absorbed too - about friendship, and self-reliance, about confidence in both her physical and mental capacity to live and thrive in a very different environment.
I’m thrilled. It’s been a good week to be a parent. And yes, I know it was only a couple of days - a couple of days in which I thought about her a lot more than I’m sure she thought about me (and hooray for that) - but they are two days that will surely change every one of the days that follow. Think about all the more or less inconsequential days in a life. T.S Eliot said, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” He was talking about the routine, humdrum parts of a life that are hard to recall, and affect nothing very much. There are plenty of those. But it seems RKY, and likely plenty of other camps too, doesn’t do days like that. And I for one am grateful.