I keep a photograph next to my computer of me hitting a softball that ended in a home run. I am a young teen and the Blue Team captain at Camp Agawak. That run meant a win for our team. I keep that picture in a spot where I can see it dozens of times each day, a reminder of who I once was and still am today.
I am an athlete. Driven. Outdoorsy. A team builder and a team player. A camp girl forever. All that is adventurous, brave and mischievous about who I am today was birthed and nurtured in those pine woods. I loved Agawak so much; I could not stay away.
At age 59 I began working at my old camp in the northern woods of Wisconsin — the same camp where I spent 10 summers of my youth. I returned to resurrect the camp magazine that died in the early 1980s. It was the publication that launched my literary career. This summer, I hope, will mark my seventh season back. I now work with young campers on their writing skills, as well as on their life skills — like my counselors did for me.
The emotions, nostalgia and realization of how camp can shape a life come together in my new book Camp Girls.
Yesterday I was kayaking on the Severn River that fronts our Maryland home. As I am pulling hard with the paddle and gliding swiftly, I hear imaginary girls screaming, “Stroke harder, harder.” My memory rises in a haunting chorus of the dozens of copaddlers who have joined me at camp, in kayaks and canoes, in team competitions and on camping trips — more than a half-century ago. I hear us coaching each other to pull deeper, harder and faster in our pristine Wisconsin lake, where water lilies float like billowy angels.
My shoulders ache at the memory of our weeklong canoe trip through the Boundary Waters of Canada, much of which was spent in a pelting rain. Our arms shook from portaging heavy green wooden canoes. That adventure was the most grueling experience of my then-14 years, and something I look back on with pride. I think of that painful trek through the mud when I need to muster up the strength to try something new as an adult.
Spending lots of summers learning land and water sports, we became capable athletes in boat races, golf, volleyball, fencing, horseback riding, archery and track. On Blue Lake I learned eight strokes, six dives and how to sail, canoe, row, kayak and waterski.
Along with the athletic prowess we gained at summer camp, the greatest gifts of all are lifelong friendships. These are the camp girls who have tracked me and stuck with me, as a chubby child, a skinny bride, over bumps in raising four sons and staying married to one husband, through the sudden death of my father and the long illness of my late mother. We support each other through the lonely sting of an empty nest. We met as timid youth with velvety cheeks and grew together from flirty teenagers into a powerful sisterhood that includes some grandmothers. We now compare maps of wrinkles, though some have chosen to erase time with procedures.
Yet, we all realize that Botox may fix faces but cannot fix the yearnings of the soul — only love can, and we certainly give that to each other. Our girl-circle is the most effective and enduring of antiaging regimens, a tribe that make us feel forever young. We may have gray hair, but we have teenage hearts. So many lessons from activities at camp and adapting to communal living can form the spine of a successful adult life, most notably collaboration and perseverance.
As I am expecting to return to camp this June, I am conditioning myself on long hikes in Maryland so I can again keep up with girls a sixth my age. I will soon walk with young campers up hills and along familiar paths, stepping over gnarled roots I know the shape and location of instinctively. What a blessing to be anchored in the landscape I memorized as a girl.
As a young journalist in Dallas, I interviewed a 64-year-old woman in Fort Worth, Texas, who was a champion rodeo rider. She wore silver-tipped crocodile boots and a belt with a silver buckle cinching her tiny waist. I remember thinking at the time: “This is who I want to be in 40 years.”
Well, I am not a rodeo rider, but I can still do a flip on the trampoline. This is a stunt I mastered at age 9, and I love to do it at camp. I can show off for the young girls, proving that playfulness and agility do not die with age.
When my tribe of older camp girls reunite at Agawak, we still swim hard and play hard, and then sit arms linked around a campfire, blackening marshmallows for s’mores. We are transported back to a place of deeply rooted joy and belonging to a family, not of blood but of history and loyalty.
We talk about how our cookouts, canoe trips and longstanding friendships have infused us with qualities that compose the best of who we are today. Together at camp, summer after summer, we gained the capacity to be open to the unfamiliar, plucked from doting parents and thrust into self-reliance.
Here by the lake, dwarfed by towering trees and surrounded by really fun people, we became courageous and resilient. These are qualities that bolster us well beyond the season of summer — and throughout every age.
Iris Krasnow’s new book Camp Girls: Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage, and Loyalty (Grand Central Publishing) is on sale now.