Role Models

This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photo: David McLain

By Frederick Reimers

My dad was a summer camp director. Not the goofy clipboard, short-shorts, and Gilligan-hat camp director, though. Camp Keewaydin, in Temagami, Ontario, is all about canoe tripping. There are no archery lessons, or arts and crafts. Just a long, rigorous immersion in paddling, camping, fishing, and thousands of square miles of Canadian wilderness. Kids finished the summer lean and dark from long days spent outdoors, paddling, portaging and cutting wood for the cook fires.

A former military pilot, dad looked forward to instilling the values of the camp in his own three children: work ethic, leadership, self-reliance. All that hard-nosed stuff. But there was one problem. The guys who worked for him, the counselors, were a bunch of scamps. Overgrown kids with nicknames like Dart and Gumby and Stevo. Guys with big beards and big smiles who returned to camp summer after summer. Dad employed these 20-somethings, but except for the school teachers who worked at the camp on their summer breaks, he believed most of them should probably have been moving on to more respectable careers. Or at least getting married.

Before camp started each season, they tackled work projects like re-roofing the dining hall or repainting the canoes. Dad worked long hours all summer, so to keep us out of his hair, he paid me and my young siblings to pick up nails the guys dropped around the job site—a penny per nail. When he turned his back, they’d reach into their tool belts and shower handfuls of roofing nails onto the ground. Evenings, they’d let us hang out on the porch and listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Steve Martin comedy albums while they drank beer and told stories. When the weeks-long canoe expeditions returned to basecamp at season’s end, I’d join the crowd of parents, campers and alumni on the main dock and cheer when these ruddy guys proudly steered their sections in.

Ultimately, I became a raft guide, ski bum, and Outward Bound instructor (basically a year-round camp counselor). Later—even worse—an adventure writer. I’ve never been married. Dad retired from the camp almost 20 years ago and became a realtor. Me, I never came back from the woods, so to speak.
When the opportunity to run the camp came up a few years ago, I didn’t even apply, even though I was already older than my father had been when he took the reins. I preferred to be the one riding in and out of the wilderness on a pair of skis or in the cockpit of a kayak, just like those scamps all those years ago.

Dad has never expressed disappointment in my career choices. “I just want you to be happy,” he always says. That’s what a parent is supposed to say, and it makes me wonder what my dad really thinks.

Maybe he spent enough time with those guides to know that you can’t scold a free spirit into settling down. He certainly saw enough role-modeling at Keewaydin to recognize that the deck was stacked against him. Who was I going to admire more? My dad, who ran the basecamp like a military barracks and was always too busy for his kids, or the guys who led me on weeks-long camping trips across the Canadian wilderness?

— Frederick Reimers was editor of Canoe & Kayak from 2006-2008. He has a house in Portland, Ore., but has yet to settle down.

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