Northern Home

By: Weldon Rutledge

I wrote this piece five years ago when asked to write for a local magazine about home, while I was living in Leelanau County and running the Leelanau Outdoor Center programs.  The magazine passed on the piece and it has lived in my computer since then.  I want to share it with the world-wide-web of camp now.  It speaks to a very familiar experience for our campers on opening day, as well as a specific experience that helped ensure that I would be returning to camp year after year.  I never changed the names to protect the innocent so some of our Alum may recognize their roles in this story.  Enjoy.

I am not a local.  Despite this disqualifying credential I found a home in Leelanau County.  I never could be considered a “second homer,” or a retiree “snowbirding” from Florida or Arizona.  I have always been just a “summer camper.”  Each summer dumped off at Camp Leelanau for Boys I found a deeper sense of belonging and connection to environment than ever felt in the lower-Michigan that held my parents’ house.  I found home.

If you drive northeast out of Glen Arbor you will stumble upon Port Oneida Rd.  This road terminates in my found home:  Camp Leelanau for Boys.  Every summer as a child a large ancient barn greeted me, and with a “so long, Pop,” and a wet kiss from Mom my trunk and my duffle left the family station wagon and were trucked up to my cabin.  Riding the tailgate with my only belongings I past the two sky blue school busses, the canoe trailers with red and green Old Towne canoes, past the green soccer field shouting memories of games won and lost and further onto the cabins full of boys just like me.

These cabins stilted up to find level in a steep hillside are not of the architecture that you might find in your typical northern Michigan summer home.  Brown painted T-1-eleven pine exterior, 92 and a half inch studs exposed and holding 8 penny nails for my robe and laundry bag, large airy screens fitted just loose enough to allow mosquitoes to sneak through and harass sleepless campers, and “Louisiana-Pacific” staring down at you from the OSB ceiling with roofing nails poking through.  A steel framed bunk bed that creaked when I got up or down, my foot locker at the foot, my shoes lined up neatly underneath, and a bottom bunk-mate named Angus from Atlanta, or Mitch from Ohio, but always with a penchant for lighting leg hair on fire completed the picture of my northern home.

Summer camp held my imagination all through the school year.  Writing assignments for Language Arts never seemed to do it justice.  The Lake Michigan beach with sailing and windsurfing, the horseback riding, the archery, the nature walks, the friends made and remade year after year, the counselors –so cool, collected, instructional, hilarious, loving, and kind, the camp director and his golden retriever all made Camp Leelanau for Boys a playground for Algebra class daydreams.  Perhaps the strong sense of home came from the attitude of welcome acceptance.  Unlike my classroom, at camp it didn’t matter whether I had Reebok Pumps or Nike Airs.  Running barefoot with just met brothers, sharing the simplest commonality of counselor versus camper pillow fights, settled me into an annual summer niche in Northern Michigan. What held my attention the longest, when sitting through another exhausted lecture on the American Revolution, however had to be the overnight trips away from the camp property.  I yearned for the chance to adventure away from the dining hall and soccer field and travel with a small group into the wilderness of Northern Michigan.

In the summer of 1993 as a 14 year old I signed up for the first trip offered that summer:  The Little Manistee River.  By the numbers:  two days, one night, eight campers, two counselors, five canoes.  But don’t let the name fool you, she is a wretched viper of a watercourse.  On day one rain dropped in sheets all morning.  The soaked cotton Metallica t-shirt under the water-logged maroon poncho clung to my cold skinny frame.  Thick glasses streaked with rain water presented a clearly foggy green, brown, and grey wasteland.  Lunch was taken huddled between two canoes pulled up on their sides with a large blue tarp across them, which rapidly collected an inverted bubble of water that, when drained, poured down my very unfortunate spine.  By late afternoon the sun had come out, mist rose from leaves and grasses on the riverbank, and we swam and played in the shallow current quickly forgetting our certain disgust for all things damp, moist, or wet from the morning.

Day two brought us bright blue skies, a burn-ready sun, and a river swollen and uninterested in slackening its current.  The turns tightened, and the river developed a bad habit of placing large, unforgiving, straining branches and trees along the path of the strongest current and most obvious course.  The current rushed us toward these woody sieves allowing the water easy passage, but canoes and their occupants no such consideration.  My canoe partner Craig and I did battle with both river and snags.  One of a million low grabbing branches scraped my spectacles and Pearl Jam baseball cap away from me, in an unbalanced act of desperation I caught my glasses, but the river swallowed the hat as tithe for passage.  But one-tenth part did not seem to satisfy this deluge of coursing water, as we made a final turn, with the take-out point in sight, the river lashed out with one final strike.  There stood one last log to duck under, but unfortunately my battle weary brain did not see the complete obstacle.  As I bent back to avoid colliding with the large trunk hung low across the river I caught an unseen branch square in the nose and across the cheek.  Bloodied and ashamed I met the rest of my traveling companions on the far shore.

The van ride back to camp brought out many more tales of hardship along that final stretch of the Little Manistee River.  We had all struggled and flipped our boats numerous times but no one carried more honor than I for having given blood to the beastly watercourse.

When we arrived back to Camp Leelanau for Boys our misery had transformed into glory, though in my heart I knew just how deeply grateful I was to be sleeping in my cabin that night, I was even grateful to see Angus working hard with the sun and a magnifying glass.  As I walked up the stairs to the familiar dining hall I saw my cabin counselor Jon, my father-mother-brother-guide for the summer standing waiting for me.  Scar proud and brightly sunburned, I approached; he embraced me and whispered, “Welcome home.”