By Leslie Kennedy Adams
When I was growing up, I was given a tremendous gift: for one month every summer I got to go away to camp. The camp I attended, Heart of the Hills Camp for Girls, is located about four miles from Hunt, a tiny town in the Texas Hill Country. It was only four hours by car from my parents’ home in Houston, Texas, but it was a world away.
My fondest childhood memories are of swimming in and canoeing on the South Fork of the Guadalupe River, a clear yet deeply green body of water that is as cold as that beer your dad used to get out of the fridge after mowing the lawn.
I was a camper for five years. After my first semester of graduate school, which nearly killed me, a friend asked me where in my life I had been happiest. The answer was immediate: CAMP! The friend suggested that maybe that was where I should go when the spring semester ended to take a much-needed respite from the rigors of the ivory tower.
I applied for a job as a counselor and was promptly accepted; one of my childhood counselors now owned the camp with her parents and was happy to have me back. As I had many years before, I went out and bought a trunk, dress white shorts, white t-shirts, and white Keds
tennis shoes for Sunday; 10 pairs of socks; 10 pair of underwear, 5 bras, two pair of pajamas; two bathing suits; the requisite number of pairs of running shorts; a pair of running shoes; twin sized bedding; 2 beach towels, a laundry bag; stationery; and stamps. I was ready to go – or so I thought.
All counselors were required to spend a week of orientation and training for their assigned classes before camp started.
Counselor orientation was a lot like I imagine boot camp would have been had I been so inclined. We rose to a recording of a bugle. We went to flag raising before breakfast and said the Pledge of Allegiance with our right hands over our hearts. We ate family style in a large dining hall, slept in bunk beds, and turned in at 10:00pm to the sound of Taps blaring from the loudspeaker. It was great! Nothing had changed from when I was a girl.
I had been selected to head up the canoeing department, so I spent orientation earning my Red Cross certification as an advanced canoeing instructor. During the day, I spent my time putting canoes into the water, paddling up and down the river, swamping canoes and then struggling to climb back into the righted craft, and putting the canoes and paddles back into their racks before heading off to classroom style lectures on camp traditions, rules of etiquette, motivation, personal speaking, and caring for children before doing it all over again.
Bruises the size of small dogs
By the end of the third day, thanks to canoeing class, I had bruises the size of small dogs on my thighs and forearms. It sounds awful, but it was the most fun I had in years. I spent my days in the sun on and in the cool waters of the Guadalupe. I spent my afternoons and evenings making new friends. I had no papers to write, no papers to grade, no errands to run. I didn’t have to go to the grocery store, pay rent, or clean my apartment.
For both terms that summer, I taught five canoeing classes Monday through Saturday. My favorite classes were in the morning before the heat of the day set in and the campers were rested and ready to go on an adventure. Very few cars went by the river during the day, so you could hear the birds singing, the frogs chirping, the voices of the waterfront staff and their campers in swim classes, and the rush of the rapids upriver.
Early on, we taught the basics
Early on, we taught the girls various basic strokes from the safety of the canoe dock. Kneeling on bright red square life jackets, the girls learned how to paddle forward, how to paddle backward (you have to lean a little to do it right), how to draw water towards themselves with the paddle, and how to push water away from themselves with the paddle.
By the end of the first week, the girls were tired of the canoe dock and were ready to get into the canoes and go somewhere!
At the start of each class, the canoes had to be taken down from their holding racks. My co-counselor and I would pair off the girls for that day’s lesson before taking the long, cool aluminum canoes off their racks.
We’d each pick boat up by the gunnels at the midpoint of the canoe and carry it to the water, always mindful not to slip on the mossy concrete of the dock. Once there, we’d flip the canoe upright and place it in the water before helping a pair of campers climb into it.
Getting into a canoe can be a dangerous business; we were always very strict about canoe discipline. My co-counselor would hold the stern of the canoe tightly against the rubber lining the dock while I held the canoe tightly at the bow. We would watch intently as, one at a time, each girl stepped lightly into the center of the canoe boat before bending her knees slightly and carefully walking slowly backwards to her assigned spot in the stern or forwards to her assigned spot in the bow.
This can be tricky when you are wearing a bulky life vest, but we followed the safety rules to the letter. No one got access to the dock until she had selected a vest off the long cypress racks and had picked up a paddle.
After both girls were seated in their positions, my co-counselor and would give the canoe a gentle push to get it out into the water and underway. As the saying goes, lather, rinse, repeat. We would repeat the exact same steps until every camper was in a canoe.
Selecting our crews
My co-counselor and I would join the campers in the last two canoes launched. We were always very conscious of gross weight and selected our crews accordingly, classed as a passenger in each girl’s canoe. We’d each lower ourselves into the center of the last two boats and sit cross-legged on its cool, smooth bottom. One camper was assigned to paddle up the river on the right side of the boat while the other paddled on the left. They would switch positions and sides on the way back.
After leaving the safety of the dock, the girls would turn their canoes around and paddle down river to Rat’s Bridge, a low river crossing that was essentially a driveway constructed across the river. When the girls got to within about three feet of the bridge, my co-counselor and I would walk them through the steps necessary to turn the boat parallel with the bridge. Then they would use the draw stroke they had learned to move the boat to the side of the bridge. Once there, I’d climb out of the canoe and hold it tightly to the side of the road while the girls clambered out.
The water was very shallow on either side of Rat’s Bridge and so clear that you could see actual dinosaur tracks left millions of years ago in the soft limestone. We’d sit and watch minnows swim about and water striders scamper across the water in the shade of the giant cypress trees. I’d help the girls select the flattest pebbles they could find and we’d practice skipping them across the glass-like surface of the water. After a few minutes of resting and playing around, it was time to head back to the canoe dock.
Once again, I’d hold the gunnels of the canoe tightly against the worn concrete of the road while the girls entered the canoe one at a time. The camper who sat in the bow on the way over to Rat’s Bridge paddled in the stern on the way back. She would enter the canoe just at the center next to me, placing her hand on my back for support before carefully placing first one foot and then the next on the silver rivets in the center of the canoe. Then, holding onto the gunnels, one hand on each side, she would carefully walk backward to her position in the stern while I watched, a mother with her cubs.
Then it was the partner’s turn. She would perform the same, slow ballet of short careful steps up the spine of the canoe until she reached her spot in the front.
Once the girls were in their spots, I would hand each of them her paddle before carefully climbing into the center of the canoe. I’d use my paddle to push us away from the bridge and then walk the campers through the steps of turning the canoe: one girl would make a wide sweeping motion with her paddle from bow to stern on her left while the other girl used her paddle to make a wide sweeping motion from stern to bow. Tiny whirlpools, created by the motion of the paddles in the water, spun harmlessly with each stroke.
Once we were back in the middle of the river, we’d head back, each girl reaching forward with her paddle to dip it into the clean, clear water before pulling it back, taking it out of the water, feathering, and then cocking the paddle for the next stroke.
The girls always preferred to ride in the stern of the canoe because the person in the stern is responsible for steering, making small corrections with her paddle to ensure that her boat did not end up on a crash course with the bank.
Back at the dock
All too soon we would arrive back at the canoe dock, where the girls would both perform draws on the far side of the canoe to push us sideways to the dock.
When the canoe was snug against the wood and rubber lined dock, I would get out of the boat and once again hold it steady while each girl carefully exited the canoe. No one was ever allowed to simply stand up, turn, and hop onto the dock. That spelled catastrophe. I’m proud to say that no one slipped and cracked her head open or slipped and fell into the river when getting in and out of a canoe on my watch!
I’d teach two classes in the morning before lunch. After lunch, to beat the Texas heat, all campers took naps during siesta. It was a very civilized way to live. After siesta, the bugle would sound and the campers would stream out of their cabins to the Village, where they would pick up the afternoon snack, a piece of fresh fruit, a granola bar, or even on special days, a Blue Bell ice cream treat.
I’d head down to the waterfront, walking through the long, high concrete culvert that had been installed under the highway many years before I was born to provide girls safe access to the river, which was located across the two-lane highway from the campgrounds.
Daddy Long Legs
The great great grandchildren of the Daddy Long Leg spiders who had lined the roof of the tunnel when I was a girl waited silently as the campers, rested and with veins awash with sugar, ran through the tunnel. It was a tradition to scream the entire way, although no one was really afraid of those spiders. I often ran my hand along the cold, rough wall; it never ceased to amaze me how cool it was inside that dark but safe space. After a few steps, you could see it: the vivid green waters of the Guadalupe shaded by the century old cypress trees. It was like a siren’s call.
Once out of the tunnel, I’d turn left, walk down the concrete path lined with cypress branch guardrails, and head back to the canoe dock, where I’d run through the morning’s lesson with the afternoon class. It was a wonderful time.
Harder than you imagine
Just this last June, I’m proud to say, my daughter spent her first year as a counselor at Heart of the Hills. She went to camp for seven summers; my sojourn was limited to five. This summer she taught archery, a sport she excelled in as a camper. Before she left, I told her, “You’ll work harder than you ever have and have more fun than you can imagine.” And you know what? She did. She signed her contract for next year before packing her car to head back home.
© Leslie Kennedy Adams 2016
Editor’s note: Leslie Kennedy Adams was five-year camper (Leslie Kennedy Madsen), who returned to The Heart as our summer office manager and then taught canoeing the following summer. She sent her own daughter to Heart O’ the Hills many summers as a child, and that child (Elaine Adams) has become a loyal counselor, too. Leslie is a Ph.D. and an adjunct faculty member at Houston Baptist University; she wrote these memories while teaching a creative non-fiction writing class.