Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Camp Easton

Beside the shores of Little Long
Where towering pines do stand
There is a camp called Easton,
The finest in the land.

The boys there are the straightest
That ever felled a tree.
All honest, kind good fellows
With hearts both bold and free.

And if I choose to wander
10,000 miles or so
I'll think of my Camp Easton
Whene'er a fire does glow.

Sunday afternoon, after Susan and I wrapped up a visit with friends at their cabin on Birch Lake, near Babbitt, we detoured on the way back home to Duluth to see if we could find Camp Easton, where I learned to canoe from ages eight to 16 (1958-66).

I knew where it was, tucked into the southwest corner of Little Long Lake, between Shagawa Lake (on the shores of which sits Ely, gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) and Burntside Lake, a major destination for resort seekers. The question was what remained of it.

Getting to Ely was easy (and yes, Zupancich's Grocery is still alive and well, selling pasties and hot bologna). From there we took the county road that circles Shagawa Lake, hoping to suss out which turn on the north shore would lead to Little Long. Our problem was decisively settled when we encountered a sign for "Camp Easton Road."

Turning in, I explained to Susan that there was a fork in the road up ahead that used to be marked by a pine tree in the middle: to the left would be the camp; to the right would be private cabins along the south shore of the lake. Twice a summer, the campers would race by cabin group from the craft shop to the pine tree and back. This contest was styled The Lone Pine Tree Road Race: 0.6 miles up and down the gravel road. Amazingly, the lone pine still stood, so there was no question where to turn, even though a sign indicated that we were entering the private property of Rock Ridge Camp and Outfitters.

It wasn't long before a string of familiar green painted bunk houses started appearing along the road on our right, with glimpses of Little Long poking through the trees. These buildings were the cabins for the Bobcats, Beavers, Eagles, Wolves, and Cubs, respectively. Sure enough there were still signs identifying a couple of them.

Though it was the tail end of summer, the camp's season was not quite over, and we met Mike on the road, as he was outbound in a pickup, towing a canoe trailer on a rescue mission to pick up some wind-bound canoeists on a nearby lake. Once he learned that I had once been a camper there—albeit 50 years ago—he told us to go on up to the dining hall and tell his wife that we were welcome to look around. He was part of a Christian Fellowship group that has been operating it as Rock Ridge since 1997.

As near as I can piece it together, the camp began as Camp Winter, which probably went back at least as far as the '30s. At some point Bill Easton (head track coach at Kansas University) bought it and changed the name. Bill's last year was my first: 1958. At the end of the summer he sold it to his Assistant Director, Doug Bobo (who wisely decided to keep the old name and not risk his endeavor being mistaken for clown camp). Doug ran it for the remainder of my tenure as a camper and at least into 1972. It's mysterious to me what bridged Doug's ownership to the Rock Ridge era.

To be sure, much had changed. There were buildings I didn't recognize, parking lots where there had once been only trees, and even a tarmac basketball court that didn't use to be there. But the road ended at the top of the hill where it always had, right next to the dining hall.

Walking into the mess hall brought back a wealth of decades-old images. Though the wall decorations had been altered, the wooden plank tables covered in oilcloth were just the same. The room looked smaller than my teenage memories, but I could almost hear echoes of the after-dinner singing.

When I had been a camper, there had been a string of plaques along the top of the outer walls, commemorating who had attended each summer's session. I had been hoping to show Susan the ones with my name on them, but they were not in sight. When I asked Mike's wife about them she offered hopefully that some had been relocated to the Trading Post (the re-purposed Cubs cabin), and others still were in a box in the next room. Alas, the artifacts boxed in the office were of too recent a vintage to cover my era. So we repaired to the Trading Post to see what we might discover there.

While those plaques turned out to be from years before my time we did discover this gem from 1952:

The eighth name listed in the Wolves Den that year was Guy Schaub, my brother (though the last two letters have been obscured by damage to the birch bark on which the names were recorded with a wood burning tool). Guy only went the one time, six years before his younger brother first ventured north to learn campcraft. While Susan and I weren't able to locate any of the plaques from my years, it was enough to have found my lineage still on display.

From there we moseyed down to the beachfront, an overexposed view of which can be seen behind me in the opening image. While there used to be two piers where there is now one, and the old roof-protected canoe racks are long gone, the sauna still remains:

All summer long, the sauna would be fired up every other day, with each camper required to avail themselves of the opportunity to get steam-cleaned, followed by a bracing, pore-closing dip in the lake. As you can see from the image, there were three benches, which allowed campers to find the heat level they could best tolerate. On the top bench, where I'm sitting, the temperature could reach 230 degrees. While the sauna is still wood-fired, They've now electrified it for interior lighting (it used to be illuminated solely by a kerosene lantern placed in the window that separated the sauna from the anteroom where the firewood was stored), but it's the same building, with decades of soot baked into the eaves. Just the smell was evocative of summer nights in the North Woods.

Overlooking the beach is the old lodge. Now serving as the Lakeside Chapel, in our day it was employed mainly as a hangout space on rainy days, as a library, and as the site for hotly contested ping pong games. While pews have replaced the gaming equipment, many of the old hardbacks still line the dusty shelves along the back wall.

Thus Susan and I spent a satisfying hour on a rainy Sunday, ringing down the echoes of the summers of my youth.

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