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Camp Pine Bluff

Thomas Loretto

Camp Pine Bluff was a summer camp for boys several hours north of Toronto, on Drag Lake. I went there each summer, from 1970-1974. I doubt that it still exists. The camp was probably sold in the late '70's for some amazingly low price, and the land today would go for several million dollars. Enrollment was typically around 25 kids, and my parents paid about $125 for me to go there. That is about $520 in today's money.

Activities – On Camp The sessions at Camp Pine Bluff ran for 2 weeks. There were the typical activities to keep the kids occupied, including swimming, water skiing, archery, target shooting (.22 caliber rifles), arts and crafts and campfires. On Friday nights we would go into town and see a movie. There was no horseback riding. There was 'pop and candy' every afternoon. Those days, pop cost a quarter, and candy cost about 15 cents. The thought of having pop with candy now appalls me, but I loved it then. There was an 'Olympics' the last weekend of each session with a bunch of contests. I won the running race my last year at the camp, and set a Camp Pine Bluff record in the process. That alone should have enticed me to do cross country, not football, in high school – but I got sucked into the peer pressure thing and (nearly, not totally) wasted 3 autumns, collecting splinters on Friday nights.

The campfires were pretty special; we all sat around the fire and the camp leaders told scary stories. One time they told one about a spook that had invaded the grounds of the camp. They got the camp dog worked up; he was barking up a storm thinking something was lurking out there in the dark, and because the dog was worried, so were we. It turned out to be the director of the camp; he ran in from the woods toward the campfire and we all tackled him, thinking he was some sort of boogey-man. He was lucky to have survived. They had two campfire tricks that were pretty cool. One trick was to start the campfire by thrusting a stick into the heart of a pile of wood that had been carefully and nicely piled before we got there. The whole thing erupted in flames when they rammed the stick in there, and we were left to speculate how it happened. They told us that they were just really good at starting fires, but a bunch of smart-aleck kids said they had some explosive device at the bottom which ignited when it got hit by the stick.

The other trick involved a wire that went from the fireplace to high up in a nearby tree. They told us the fire would start by itself. Then, a flaming ball of something traveled very quickly down a wire that was strung from a nearby tree, to the fire. The flaming ball hit the fire and all the nicely piled wood burst into flames. It was pretty neat.

One of the more unique activities were the steam baths, which we had once or twice a week. Steam was generated the steam by pumping water from a canister through a nozzle onto a basket of glowing rocks that had been sitting in a fire all afternoon. We all stood around the steaming, hissing basket of rocks stark naked – about 25 boys and a handful of counselors. This was conducted in a room built just for this purpose – a small wooden frame cubic structure covered with heavy plastic. It was just big enough to hold all of us. We did get pretty sweaty in there; the method worked well; when the rocks ran out of heat we all ran out the hut and down the path onto the dock and jumped into the lake. It felt great. By the way – skinny dipping, and standing around stark naked in a steam bath with a bunch of boys, would never happen at a camp in the Middle East. In this part of the world, your private parts are private, and private means no one besides your mate sees them. Gang showers? They just don't exist in the Middle East. Over here, in locker rooms in the Middle East, you get your own individual shower, with a curtain.

Canoe Trip – Algonquin Park When our parents registered us for Camp Pine Bluff, we had the choice of signing up for a 6 day canoe trip in Algonquin Park. Algonquin Park is a canoe park in northern Ontario – about 4 hours north of Toronto. On these canoe trips, you paddled from one lake to the next, all day, and set camp late afternoon. In between the lakes you had to portage your canoe along a designated trail that was marked with a white sign posted on a tree that you could usually see from your canoe a good distance away. The campsites were marked with yellow signs and were easier to spot because you could also see the cleared area.

I signed up for the canoe trips each year. I had no idea what I was getting into, the first year I signed up. I had never been in a canoe, and I didn't ask any questions about how the trip was going to be conducted. I just said 'yes' when my mother asked me if I wanted to sign up. We drove to Algonquin Park from Camp Pine Bluff in the back of an Econoline van, which had 2 seats. The camp director got the driver's seat, and the canoe trip leader got the passenger seat. The rest of us sat on the corrugated steel floor in the back, for about a 2 hour drive. It might have been longer than two hours; whatever it was, it seemed like a long time in pretty uncomfortable conditions. Econoline vans, you may recall, had no windows in the back. We didn't have anything to look at except each other. We could see out the back door; we were supposed to watch the canoes and make sure they weren't falling off the trailer. One time, I did see a canoe slipping off the trailer, and we stopped the van before it fell off. I was rewarded with free pop and candy for my vigilance. I thought this was a great reward. There is so much pop and candy handed out these days that I don't think a random, free, pop and candy is equally appreciated.

Trip 1 It turned out that the first trip, in 1970, was not really representative of the rest (the other 4) trips that I did. The counselor that led us on this trip was an American Indian and (later) labeled 'lazy' by the camp directors. They said he was lazy because he only took us on a very short trip, and it was supposed to be a lot longer than that. The guy's name was Mike; I was in the same canoe with Mike. I liked him. Mike talked like an Indian and I ended up talking with the same accent, for the rest of the summer. Mike found a spot on top of some cliffs on Joe Lake that he liked a lot, and we just stayed there for about 3 or 4 nights. His excuse was that we were all a bunch of little kids, so we weren't strong enough to do a proper trip, which would have involved paddling all day every day, and changing camp each night.

The first night of this trip we camped by a dam that connected Canoe Lake (the starting point) and the next lake (Baby Joe Lake). The portage between these lakes was a measly 200 meters, and somehow Mike decided that even though this was not an official campsite (you're not supposed to camp along a portage), this was where we would stay the first night. This spawned the first of a number of events that would have closed the camp to litigation years later.

Potential Litigious Incident 1 The base of the dam was a good swimming hole, so we all jumped in and hung out under the waterfalls at the dam. One kid – Franky - was a pale pudgy kid with glasses. Franky slipped at the base of the falls and smashed (lost) his 2 front teeth. He was taken back to Camp Pine Bluff (somehow, I'm not sure how he got there), and he had his teeth fixed for probably a lot more money than it cost his mother to send him to camp.

Potential Litigious Incident 2 The next day we paddled to the cliffs that Mike found so attractive. Mike determined by using a length of rope that was as long as our canoe, that the cliff was 35' high, and the 2 ledges below the cliff were 17' and 6' above the lake. Mike was a good diver and he did beautiful swan dives from the 35' ledge. I don't recall any of us doing that, but I know it was decided that all of us had to jump, or dive, from the 17' ledge, and if you didn't you were a 'chicken'. Well – I hadn't seen 'Rebel Without a Cause' – but I was responding to similar influences when I decided I had to go off that ledge, like it or not. After several questions about my status as 'chicken', I finally got the mind to go off that ledge. I made some terrible entry which hurt my head a lot. It was in no sense of the word enjoyable. It was my only leap from that ledge but I only needed to do it once, to shed the chicken label.

Potential Litigious Incidents 3 and 4 Another cool thing that we discovered on this same trip was a neat way to dispose of empty Raid cans. We used Raid to fumigate the tents before sleeping, so mosquitoes would stay out of the tents. We were issued old heavy Army surplus canvas specials, with no screens. We carried them on portages in rolls longer than any of us. There was not a stitch of nylon on any of these tents. Anyway, the turnover of Raid cans was pretty quick with the nightly fumigation of about 4 or 5 tents. What to do with the empty Raid cans? Our counselor enlightened us to a nifty disposal site – the fire. After dinner, as we relaxed around the campfire – the same fire that we had used to cook our dinner – we tossed the empty can in the fire and within a few seconds, watched it blow up and send a flame high into the trees. We all thought it was incredibly cool, but years later it dawned on me that this was an inherently dangerous act – most notably given the possibility of shrapnel flying into any of our young bodies. Well – this never happened, and no tree ever caught fire from the huge flames either. As for the fumigation policy, I think DDT had been banned in 1968 or '69, so by 1970 we were probably using some other inherently lethal or mind altering chemical to inhale all night.

Mike didn't come back the next year. I was upset when I showed up at camp that summer and found out pretty quickly that he wasn't around. Later, I heard from one of the two directors that Mike was 'lazy'. The director told me that he was supposed to take us on a long trip and all he did was take us to a lake one or two short portages from our start, and camp on the cliffs several nights until it was time to head back. Well that was good enough for me, and I didn't understand what our director had to complain about. What he didn't mention were the incidents with Franky's smashed teeth, the raid cans, or the cliff diving. Each of these incidents today would have invited litigation, and protection against such claims would send the cost of the camp from the measly $135 or so that my parents paid, to perhaps 3 times that.

Trip 2 On the second trip, which was the summer after my 7th grade, we went on a 'serious' trip. We were led by one counselor, Jerry, who had been in the military (he always wore his green jacket with the corporal stripes on the sleeves). It was on this trip that I first experienced, without putting into words, the concept 'are we having fun yet'. There were a number of factors that contributed to this feeling. We had to paddle across vast stretches of water, frequently into the wind and over whitecaps. It was hard work and it seemed to take forever to cross some of the lakes. We had to portage the canoes to the next lake; this meant hauling out the bags and taking two trips across trails that were from 300 to 1800 meters. I think they averaged about 600-800 meters. On the first trip we took our bags and the tents. Then we came back for the canoes and took the canoes on the 2nd trip. It took two of us to handle the canoe. If your technique was good you could do it alone, but we were a bit young for that. There was one all-league football player in my high-school who I was told could portage the canoe by himself. He had just completed 6th grade and I remember being incredibly impressed by this feat of Herculean proportion. Woody Hayes came to our school and offered him a scholarship, which he accepted. He didn't amount to much at Ohio State.

The other thing that took 'fun' from the experience was the weather. It rained a lot. It seemed as though every time you looked up there were grey clouds overhead, usually dropping light rain.

On this trip, and each of the trips I did the following three summers, we never stayed at a campsite more than one night. It was always, as I thought of it, 'paddle and portage all day, set up camp, get firewood, cook the food, clean the dishes, go to bed, take down camp the next morning, and off again.' This left little time for fun. What I didn't understand then, was why so many other people seemed attracted to this activity. There were lots of people using this park. We exchanged hellos to many canoers on the open water, and along the portages. One thing I did notice was the preponderance of what I knew were attractive women. Each of them, it seemed, had a male partner. It got to where I believed the reason they were having fun and I wasn't was because they were 'together'. These convictions congealed more with each trip. But in spite of the awareness that I was not having 'fun', I continued to sign up (there was no pressure from anyone and it was totally optional) for the canoe trip. Something in the back of my mind told me it was the proper thing to do, and that the camp experience was not complete without it.

Potential Litigious Incident 5 Before the second trip, the camp director told us that the previous session's canoe trip had had several encounters with bears. He smiled as he told us that many of these encounters were in the night; the bears had actually stuck their noses into the tents, looking for peanut butter. 'Not to worry' he told us; the bears wouldn't hurt us and if we made enough noise they would just go away. Peanut butter was a staple of our diet. Each day for lunch we had at least 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The bread was flattened fluffy white that had been stuffed in someone's back pack. It had usually been flattened so much that the slices had to be peeled from each other. The peanut butter and the jelly were carried in big half gallon cans, in someone's pack. Our packs were kept in our tents at night, with the half gallon cans of peanut butter and jelly in the packs. So it is no wonder that the bears paid the group frequent visits. The last time I remember seeing a bear was on my first trip; we saw one swimming across a lake and then get out on shore and walk around a bit. This was a real highlight for me. In spite of the peanut butter and jelly in our packs, in our tents at night, I never saw another bear.

Trip 3 In the Olympic year 1972, we had a counselor named Bob Jagow that looked like Mark Spitz. I didn't realize this until about a month later, after Mark Spitz had become a household word because he had won 7 gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Olympics, and set 7 world records in the process. This girl that I liked from my hometown had the popular (at the time) poster of Mark Spitz in his bathing suit with his hands on his hips, smiling, with his 7 gold medals around his neck. The poster was for sale everywhere; I am almost positive I saw it in the K-Mart in Niagara Falls.
The next year at camp I met this kid named Billy Nimmelman (that really was his name). He was a friendly kid who was good fun and he pointed out to me that as we watched Mark Spitz on television, in the Olympics, we had probably made the comment – 'Hey – that guy looks like Bob Jagow!', and then – after Mark Spitz became famous anyone that saw Bob Jagow probably said 'Hey- that guy looks like Mark Spitz!'. When Billy pointed this out to me, I realized immediately the irony and humor of these comparisons.

Trip 4 A big bear of a guy with a full beard named Tom, and Mark Spitz's look-alike Bob Jagow, led us into a more northern portion of the park (my memory tells me they led us to Cedar Lake – and I have not been back to the park in17 years), where previous trips had not been. The camp directors felt like this group of kids was 'seasoned enough', and big enough, to make a longer trip to more 'uncharted' waters. The directors did warn us that during the trip the previous session, the whitecaps in Big Trout Lake were so big that they caused Big Tom's canoe to pitch, and sink. We were told that whoever was in Tom's canoe would have to be big enough to counter his weight. I was deemed big enough and I rode in Big Tom's canoe on this trip.

Basically, what happened on the previous trip was that the pitch caused by the whitecaps in Big Trout Lake sent the front end of Big Tom's canoe, and whatever little kid was sitting up there, pointing skyward, and Big Tom's end went pointing 'lake-ward'. So the rear of his cane went below the water-line, filled with water, and went under. It was, in hindsight, not unlike the manner in which the Titanic went under – except that Big Tom's canoe did not snap, or hit an iceberg.

It was during this 4th trip that I finally developed a sense that I was enjoying this 'work' – that it was making me feel 'strong, like a man'. I was 14 at the time. At the campsite one night I was cutting wood for the evening meal and I overheard Big Tom tell Bob Jagow – 'Tom's (me) a pretty strong kid'. I was getting off on cutting this wood, and getting off on the awareness that I was strong, and could do physical labor, all day, for many days. The uncharted waters of this trip took us to a portage that connected Big Trout Lake and Burntroot Lake. No previous Camp Pine Bluff canoe trip had gotten to Burntroot Lake. At the end of the portage between the lakes, we found what Big Tom called a 'poacher's cabin'. It was a big open room dug into a small hill on the shore of Burntroot Lake. It was entirely self-supporting. It was too cool to pass up and we all slept in that poacher's cabin that night. I have – to this day – wanted to return to that spot and see that poacher's cabin. I haven't seen it since we left it that morning, bright and early about 6AM. Bob Jagow got us up at some ridiculous hour of 5AM, because he wanted us on the water by 6 so we could 'beat the whitecaps'. He knew that the whitecaps would build over the course of the day, as the wind speed increased, and he didn't want to be stuck out in the middle of Portal Lake, paddling against them.

Trip 5 My last year at Camp Pine Bluff we did the longest trip in the history of the camp. We covered 100 miles in 5 days, not 6. We finished a day early because the 5th day it rained all day long, and there seemed little point in setting up camp that night in soaking wet tents, with the sense that we could get back to civilization if we just pushed it pretty hard. 'Civilization' was the outfitting shop on Canoe Lake – the starting point for 3 of the 5 trips that I did. We made it back to Canoe Lake just as the sun was setting. The several years of experience that many of us had by now had turned us to the 'efficient portaging and paddling machines' that we needed to be to cover the territory we made on that last day. At Canoe Lake, we used the showers and cabins there and hung out with all the impressive ladies that just a couple of years earlier I sensed made this park such an 'attraction'. Now, under this random circumstance, they were occupying the same turf. Nothing transpired between me and any of these ladies; maybe we exchanged some greetings and some comments about what a grand feat we had accomplished (100 miles in 5 days). I know I felt incredibly proud about what we, I, had accomplished.

Failed Greetings On my last trip, there were two guys named Keith and Doug that had been going to Camp Pine Bluff as long as I had, but always to the earlier session. This was the first time the three of us went to the same session. Keith was a big black kid from Niagara Falls; he went to LaSalle High School, and Doug was a white kid from 'the Heights' in Lewiston, and went to my high-school. He was not in my class; I think he was a year or two behind me. I am mentioning this because in spite of the fact that we thoroughly enjoyed each other's company during this two-week period, and had been on the same 100 mile canoe trip together, we ceased to communicate after that. And this was not for the lack of opportunity. I know that I saw Doug on occasion in our school, and I think the most that happened between us was an exchange of glances. I also know that I saw Keith at a Varsity basketball game between Lew-Port and LaSalle; he was standing in his uniform at one end of the court before the game. I had the opportunity to greet him and all I did was sit in the stands and stare at him, trying to come up with some possibility that maybe it wasn't him.

This phenomenon of 'silent failed greeting' was not peculiar to Doug and Keith. I remember it happening with two other kids in my neighborhood – Owen and Gary. Owen and my brothers and my dad used to fungo baseballs on many occasions in the big field across the street from our house. We shared countless 'sporting' experiences with Owen. We had a chemistry and humor that made these experiences enjoyable. As we took turns at the bat, we would announce the new batsman in the same monotone style of the announcer at Fenway Park. 'The next batter, Carl, Yastrzemski. Number 6, Yastrzemski.' But years later, during one of my return trips to Lewiston from – I think – college, I saw Owen in a store in Lewiston and we didn't even say hello to one another. He looked away and I stared at him, quietly, and walked on. That was the last time I saw him.

Gary and I used to go out in the fields at the end of our street and look for snakes. On one occasion, a bunch of us were walking home from a field several miles from our house, and a guy offered us a ride. We all stared at each other wondering 'should we accept the ride' – because our parents had told us countless times 'don't take rides from strangers'. But we got in the car anyway and the guy drove us home, with no incident. Another time, we walked home from a closer field and I had something like 2 garter snakes hanging from my hand; they were holding on with their teeth. We knocked on my parents' door and when they opened the door I held up my hand with the two snakes hanging from it and they freaked out. They went inside and grabbed one of my snake books to make sure that the snakes that were biting me were not poisonous. I was an 'expert' on snakes (at the ripe age of about 11) and no matter what I said to them they had to back it up with the 'manual'. Anyway – the point of this is that in spite of these shared, positive experiences with Gary, when I saw him years later in one of the supermarkets; he was a cashier at the time and he was ringing me up, we didn't even say hello to each other. It was as if we didn't even know each other.

I don't think this kind of 'failed greeting' is unique to me but it was common enough (I could cite other examples) that it makes me think there was something peculiar about our neighborhood that spawned this type of dysfunction. Jimmy Carter called it a malaise.

Epilogue After the summer of 10th grade I stopped going to Camp Pine Bluff. I must have talked about our experiences enough to turn my parents on to them, because 3 years later my brother Ken and I went up with my dad on the 4th of July weekend. It was quite an initiation to wilderness camping, for my dad and my brother. The bugs were terrible, and during a terrible thunderstorm one night, lightning hit a tree at our campsite and the tree fell down, next to our canoe. My dad was amazed at our luck – that the tree did not fall on our canoe, and crush it, or fall on us, and kill us.

Well with the bugs and the lightning, my brother Ken decided never to go back. But my parents and I did several of these trips over the next 10 years. They were not rigorous; my dad just wanted to get to a nice campsite toward the interior of the park, and stay there, and relax. I was still too young to appreciate the concept of relaxing, which I am all too appreciative of now. My dad also taught me how to properly prevent bears from entering the campground. He read on the park map that the food was supposed to be kept in a box, or a pack separate from anything in the tents. The box was supposed to be tied up in a tree, hanging from a strong branch. So every night after dinner we went through the routine of tying a long rope with a rock at the end of it to the box, and tossing the rock end of the rope over a strong tree limb. Once we did that, we could pull the box up and leave it suspended in mid air, out of the reach of any bear.

I wasn't really concerned about bears. I had gotten away with keeping one-gallon cans of peanut butter and jelly in our tents with us, as we slept, for years, and besides – some of my greatest memories were of seeing bears in the park. But my dad wanted nothing of that excitement – and now I realize that my dad was taking the proper measures, and that – when it came to concerns about bears - the camp directors were slackers.

My last summer at Camp Pine Bluff was 31 years ago. My two week episodes at this northern Ontario camp were bright lights during a time otherwise filled with pimples and adolescent angst. Now, I may have to spend $1500 for my kids to have the same experiences.

Card illustration by Steve Willis; doodle by John Schilling

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