If it hadn’t been for camp…

If it hadn’t been for camp, I probably wouldn’t be working at the Winnipeg Free Press this summer.

Camp came into my life a bit later than it does for most people.

I was 20, getting through my English degree at the University of Toronto because I didn’t want to give up but spending most of it in my dorm room, staying up all night watching whole seasons of 24 and Lost and sleeping through morning classes. My grades were slowly going down the tube, from a 90 per cent average in grade 12 to a low of 2.8 on a 4 point scale in third year university.

When classes ended in early May, I had trouble finding a summer job. In late June, I finally got hired by Pizza Pizza to serve food at special events and sports games.

That same week, I got a second job offer, something I had applied for months earlier, a camp counsellor position at Camp Wannakumbac in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba. It was through Young Canada Works, a federal government program that gives students small grants so they can work in different parts of the country.

I only had a few hours to decide.

It sounded like an adventure, and the man who interviewed me on the phone seemed nice, so I took it.

A few nights later, after a two hour flight and a three hour drive, I was rolling into what seemed like a big green field broken up by a few wooden buildings.

But I was headed even further: a five minute drive into the woods, where other counsellors were practicing leading a “camp out” before any kids arrived.

They were nice, but I remember that as I lay in a tent that night after everyone else was asleep, feeling like it was all a mistake, I prayed to be able to last the whole summer.

But when the campers arrived, I got caught up in the whirl of activity. Camp ran non-stop. There was designated free time, but every minute of the day was thought out in advance, between games, sports, swimming, activities from archery to canoeing and camp-outs.

Every hour or two, the big camp bell would ring out through the fields to signify a change of activity.

Since we were on duty almost all the time, not having to think about what we were going to do next made sense.

What really turned my mind about camp, I think, were the Special Days when we would get visitors from far away. Batman came, and so did the characters from the Lord of the Rings. There was Archie, Veronica, Betty and Jughead, and even the guys from Anchorman. These visitors looked strangely like some of the councillors. I’ve been told Archie even looked a bit like me. They ate with us, led us through games and looked after the campers, but no matter how hard kids tried to convince them that they looked familiar, the visitors claiming never to have even heard the missing councillors.

Every night at camp, we gathered around a fire pit and sang. Campfires began with fast, cheesy songs, like “There was a great big moose (who liked to drink a lot of juice),” with ridiculous gestures, and closed with slow, beautiful folk tunes, like “One tin soldier.”

Sometimes the counsellor leading the song would make a brief introduction, and I always remember my friend and fellow counsellor Haylan Jackson introducing one by saying what really makes camp special is a sense of “magic”– a feeling of community, especially noticeable when the sun is setting and you’re around a campfire surrounded by people you’re close to.

At the end of the summer, I cried when I had to leave.

When I got back home, even though I ached to be back at camp, it was like colour had been injected back into my life.

At university, I joined the cross country ski racing team, a sport I hadn’t done seriously since high school, and a choir, something I had wanted to do for a while. I finally moved out of residence.

And I put more effort into my classes. My grades shot up to a 3.5 out of 4.

When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I went back to Camp Wannakumbac for a second year as a councillor.

Eventually, my improved GPA helped me get into the master’s program in journalism I’m doing right now, which in turn helped me get this summer internship at the Free Press.

It didn’t hurt, either, that my boss at the newspaper spent a lot of time at Wannakumbac as a kid.

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