The Happy Place
Virtual Walkthrough of Red Arrow
Written by McKenzie Beeby
Oftentimes, I find myself playing the same dream in my head. I close my eyes and think about when highway 51 narrows down, where the stout, steep red pines lineup, single file, along the road. I roll down the windows of an imaginary car so that the smell of the pines welcomes me. Excitement wells within me for what I know is just around the bend, and for the moment it reveals the staple that catches all eyes on the road: the red canoe. It stands just as tall and just as firm as I last saw it. Behind it, the row of pines stretches on, sheltering Red Arrow from a passerby, almost like Wisconsin is holding a card up its sleeve.
The car slows down almost to a complete stop and turns right as the cement transitions into light-colored, packed down gravel. On occasion, in my mind, I’ll find through the trees the herd of horses grazing in the pasture. I pause in front of the entrance into camp and reflect on all the times I’d begin to shout -
The van would speed under the sign with everyone singing -
“We’re behind you, Red Arrow!... With a ra-ra-RAC!”
I would hang another right where I can make out Cabins G and H down the road. I slow down to a stop in front of the many boulders forming a small parking lot behind the cabins. Just like that, I have arrived - Red Arrow Camp. I’d step out of the car and walk through the boulders to the Cedars. The porch wraps around to the quad, and I remember the many mornings and evenings I spent with former campers talking about their goals and dreams. I can almost hear the small, but high-pitched squeak from the thin green doors opening and closing while people walk into the office. I love watching campers right after classes finish for the day scurrying up to the small window in front, that way they are the first to grab a ping pong paddle. Some of them would be too small to reach the window so they climb up on the solid Cedars chairs hoping to be one of the lucky ones: ah, the hopeful innocence about that moment -- it makes me chuckle.
I’d walk towards the ping pong tables to the center of the Quad and travel back to the many hotly-competitive games played here. Looking around I’d see the boys darting to their cabins, frantically checking all of their swim shorts on the line to find the dryest one, then they’d hurry off for their next activity. It brings a smile to my face thinking of the campers calling out to me and running up excited to share their bullseye in riflery or how they dropped a ski for the first time.
One thing I love most about the Quad is its different moods throughout the day and how the weather helps it shift between them. The mornings glisten with the sun’s rays cutting through the branches and needles, reflecting off of the miniature rivers and lakes formed in the quad from the thunderstorm the night before. Boys try to jump or maneuver around all to prevent getting their shoes caught in the water. I remember all those times I watched storms approach over the pine-lined fence, revealing its magnitude over the field. The pines overhead start to slowly but surely sway back and forth, grabbing onto one another with their branches. On calmer days, those same trees are the ones that provide the necessary shade protecting us on those hot, sweaty afternoons before supper.
One can’t help but walk towards Cabin A and The 8 when arriving at camp, looking for that moment when the field opens itself up. I almost see the Soccer drills being conducted in the center; off to my right, I’d hear the basketballs being dribbled on the court or thrown into the medal trough before flag-raising. I could hear the table saw screech from inside the shop. Through the screen door, I’d see the electric sanders grumbling on wood that campers are smoothing out for their cutting boards or clocks. Soon, I’d reach Senior row, wishing I could walk into Manor, Chalet, or Chateau. I’d expect to see a pristine cabin with tightly made beds and scarfs with many stars, naturally displaying the wise experience and age of our senior campers. I walk past Chateau's window and I peek in, recalling the days I spent working on our Canadian paddle before the final banquet. Upon arriving at Chateau’s backyard I see the fire pit off to the far side. The many late-night conversations I had with my fellow cabinmates, alongside the necessary roasting of smores, firmly cemented our brotherhood, building friendships that still hold strong today.
I tend to kneel before the three towering pines protecting Lil Joe’s grave. At that moment, I revisit all those final nights with everyone gathered around, looking at the wooden cross only being lit with a single flickering candlestick. I can almost hear Runk’s voice as he shares the story of Lil Joe to the youngest of campers, or Bob shouting down into the grave hoping that Lil Joe would make himself known. Every summer, on the final night, tears form over my eyes as the whole camp approaches the lake to sing ‘Big Campfire’, everyone knows all too well that with the next sunrise we all had to depart. From here, I travel down to the mouth of Trout River - the most beautiful spot in the Northwoods. I can almost hear the river as it weaves its way over and around the rocks. I turn to my left and as the trees break away I get a glimpse of the rich depths of blue waters and the islands hurled out by Manitou those many years ago.
I hope to pull up a chair and bask in the beauty of this carefully painted dance of nature and man, watching campers try their hand in water skiing. On this dreamy train, my mind sends me through the shoreline trail towards the Swim Pier and stops in front of the Scuba shed. I’ve spent many hours barefoot on this wet slab of cement, prepping my gear and attempting to fit into the wetsuit I wore the summer before. The Swim Pier stretches itself across the shallow waters of the shore. If I look close enough I can almost see Sue walking up and down the dock teaching campers, calling out to them, helping them become more confident swimmers. One can hear the small stream of water falling off the bottom lip of the slide, which is towering over the water’s surface ready to launch campers, plunging them into the lake on a dip. I settle in on the bench that’s propped perfectly so that you can see Red Arrows kingdom dominating the south shores of the lake. In front of me, in the shallows, I can recall the countless canoe classes I had paddling from one dock to the other, learning my c-stroke, j-stroke, draws, and prys. Those special days come to mind of Aquagatta and the 4th of July, doing Red vs. Gray Tug of War, Greasy Watermelon, and relay races.
I arrive at the Boat Pier where many campers spent their mornings or afternoons rigging rocking sailboats, hoping a gust of wind wouldn't blow over the boat as it clipped into the dock. A call echoes out from the lake -
“At the catch!”
The War Canoe team in the midst of their morning practice, brutally paddling to the bowman's rhythm, everyone straining to retain our “undefeated” title. All of those previous victories come back to me then, and I can’t help but be struck by the memory of my own war canoe victory -- how I felt that I could have made my canoe paddle touch the sky if I really wanted to.
After a short climb up the steep hill towards the bell, I think back to what was: times before the bell rang when natives would trade, fish, and farm, or when lumbermen erected our Rec Hall and Mess Hall which still firmly stand their ground. The smells of the kitchen roam over to me. On the Mess Hall porch, I can see the few campers anxiously waiting before the bell, hoping to be the first to enter for a meal. I can hear the piano being played and echoing out to the lakes beyond, or campers learning a new song for choir or the play. As the door to the Rec Hall swings open, I’m overwhelmed with the many special moments these logs have kept inside. The stage, with the powerful red arrow, mounted above, housed many great shows, music, theatre, and talent. All the laughs can still be heard, and the hugs crowning achievements are still embraced. In the end, all eyes close as we end our good cheer with ‘Big Campfire’. I yearn to sit in the last row of benches, hoping to have just one more songfest or play practice.
The Mess Hall doors open to the bustling family-style chaos of a Red Arrow meal. I imagine all the campers sitting with their cabins, passing bowls, and baskets around the table. I look up and see the paddles marching upwards to the top of the roof. I search to find my paddles, my father’s paddles, and my uncle’s paddles. Although each is different in its color and paint strokes, they house a timeless connection between us that will remain in these walls long after we're gone.
Everyone needs a happy place, a place you go to in times of stress or strain. Red Arrow is that happy place for me. It stays with me even when I’m no longer there. Each night, when my head hits the pillow, I might as well be sleeping on the sand by Trout Lake or the grass by the river where I can look up to the swaying branches above and know that I have a true home in the Northwoods.
On my final walkthrough in the quad, I know there is one last place I need to visit. I continue through the parking lot and into a widened path. There is a clearing of trees on the horizon. My eyes are searching for campers scurrying to the small Tack House hoping to get their favorite boots for riding. I want to flip over one of those five-gallon buckets and listen to Fred as he lectures Cabin B on the ethics of “world peace.” Campers try and follow him, but are met with sheer and utter confusion.