How We Tamed Nature

By Eric Dregni | August 22, 2018

  • Camp Watchamagumee in 1985, a camp similar to Eric Dregni's childhood camp in the Wisconsin northwoods.

Camp Watchamagumee in 1985, a camp similar to Eric Dregni's childhood camp in the Wisconsin Northwoods. (Photo by Steve B)

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Summer sleepaway camp. For some kids, it’s the highlight of their year…where the innocence of childhood meets a magical, sometimes mischievous, world of semi-independence. Writer Eric Dregni reminisces on a particular day at a summer camp in Wisconsin.

How We Tamed Nature

At nine years old, I was pretty sure I could tame nature. I had a bow with a quiver full of arrows and a belt to carry a small pickax and a leather case for a deadly sharp fishing knife—none of which my parents let me carry to camp. My mom signed me up for two weeks of overnight camp deep in the north woods of Wisconsin.

Our two counselors, Nick and Dan, would rather chase girls than be shackled with needy boys who refused to bathe. We figured our smell would keep away the wild animals—and girls. They took us zigzagging across the lake in canoes into the deep, dark woods for a three-day overnight. At the campsite, the counselors wanted to relax in the sun and go skinny-dipping. They correctly figured that we timid preteens wanted nothing to do with nudity. We hauled the bags to the campsite while the counselors sunbathed naked in the warm sun down at the lake.

What they didn’t count on was that ten-year-old Robby would find the hatchet. He bragged how his dad took him hunting so he knew how to survive in wilderness, just like Grizzly Adams. We ducked as he swung the small ax like a berserker Viking to cut down trees. When that proved tiresome, he chopped at stones to watch sparks fly. The chipped hatchet was soon dull as a hammer, but he said his weapon made him king of our tribe – just like Lord of the Flies.

Then Johnny, the kid with the “Let’s Boogie” T-shirt, discovered a box of matches. He wanted to make s’mores, but Alex, the “husky” kid in desperate need of a belt, had already finished off the Hershey’s chocolate bars. Alex’s hand was deep into the marshmallows when I snatched the sack from his grasp—we could at least roast them over a campfire.

Despite Johnny using nearly the whole box of matches to light the logs, he couldn’t keep the flames alive. We had no paper. For some reason he burned the tent rope, which smoldered into a useless mass. He smiled from the dizzying effect of the fumes. Meanwhile, Robby covered every inch of his body with bug spray, and Johnny discovered that Deep Woods Off! is highly flammable. He held up a match and huge flame emitted from the aerosol can towards the logs. He laughed at the singed hair on his hands. We impaled marshmallows on sharpened green sticks to roast with Johnny’s makeshift flamethrower. Johnny used up all of his bug spray, but the logs finally sizzled to life. We applauded Johnny’s inventive camping skills.

As we feasted on marshmallows cooked with flaming insecticide, the counselors ventured back from the beach, drawn by the bizarre smell of burning chemicals and caramelized sugar. Nick and Dan finally put clothes on and admired the blaze Johnny had started. They grabbed the hatchet from Robby, who had chopped off every low-hanging branch he could reach. Just as they noticed the molten mass of rope that we needed to set up the tents properly, Johnny tossed his used-up can of Off! on the fire.

“Get down!” Nick yelled. “This could blow!” We ducked quickly behind trees. Nick grabbed the griddle to use as a shield and slowly approached the fire. Despite our fear, we were all awed by the impressive BOOM of the exploding aerosol can and the ensuing mini mushroom cloud. We had finally frightened ourselves into submission. I can’t say, though, that it stopped us from wanting more.


Song: “Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli

Eric Dregni

Eric Dregni

Eric Dregni teaches English at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s the author of several books including “For the Love of Cod,” “Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America” and “In Cod We Trust.”
2018-08-21T20:40:20-05:00Tags: , , , , , |

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