Monthly Archives: June 2014

And He Did!

Two or three years after the Allagash trip I was back in northern Maine, this time for a father-son backpack trip in Baxter State Park. We planned to climax the trip by climbing Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. Though the climb failed, Katahdin gave us our most memorable campfire.

Our guide was Alton (Beaver) Wardwell, Christian Service Brigade leader for the Stockholm-New Sweden Baptist churches. He also led the Allagash trip. Tall, rangy, in his 50s, I admired his spirit and woodsman skills.

Baxter State Park is 200,000 acres of mostly-unspoiled forest, ponds, and trails. Moose and other animals abound. Imposing Mount Katahdin, the park’s centerpiece, is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  Thoreau explored the region and wrote about it, referring often to Katahdin.

Our hikers came from several New England communities. They rendezvoused the afternoon before the trip and set up camp by a small a cabin where the Brigade battalion met. Upstairs was Cap Matt’s room: a bed, a chair, and a rustic-curtained window. The boys hoped someday Cap Matt might sleep there, and I did. My long-running column in Venture, Brigade’s magazine for boys, made me something of a folk hero to some kids.

Campsites were assigned for each night in Baxter Park, controlling the number of groups to preserve the sense of wilderness and determing the length of each day’s trek. We headed for our first campsite Monday morning, a dozen men and boys. The oldest hiker was George, my 70-year-old tent mate. He had climbed the highest point in many states and looked forward to tackling Katahdin with his grandson. The youngest hiker was a red-haired, freckled lad of ten or eleven. His father, a small man, had never backpacked. We hadn’t gone far before both were hurting.

We enjoyed great weather and well-marked trails. The red-haired kid and his dad soon cheered up. My tent mate hiked with his grandson; I usually hiked with seminary classmate Bob Dishinger, now pastor at the New Sweden church. Bob had a philosophical turn of mind.

At one point our conversation turned to longevity.  “If we keep fit in mind and body, there is no reason we can’t live to 100.”  I proposed we get together on our 100th birthdays and reminisce, but Bob copped out. A few years after the hike, he died shoveling snow.

Daily Bible input followed a simple pattern: one brief Bible passage per day. During morning briefing, we explored the day’s passage asking, what does it teach? No preaching; just a simple search for meaning. You don’t dawdle over theology when you have miles to go before you sleep.

After lunch, dads and sons spent a brief time together, reflecting on the question, what does today’s passage say to us?  You put yourself in the story or passage. I taught a prayer technique I called Pray Back. Phrase by phrase you talk through the passage with God.

At evening campfires, we encouraged campers to share personal discovery from the passage and adventures of the day. Sometimes I told a story.

We reached our third campsite late in early evening; just time for a quick supper and the campfire. The skies were clear and we decided to sleep under the stars. Campers unrolled sleeping bags in random fashion. I picked a spot among them.

It was a beautiful, star-filled night. A half-moon reflected off the small lake bordering our camp. The campers had covered several miles, and silence soon settled over out camp. I settled in and slept. Well into the night, something woke me. I eased up on an elbow. At the edge of campsite stood a huge, dark form—a bull moose with a full rack. He eyed our camp then headed for the lake, picking his way among the sleeping campers. I watched him wade into the lake and drink. A page from God’s other book.

We reached our final campsite in good time. We would spend two nights there. Clouds thickened as we set up camp. In the morning we would climb mile-high Katahdin. At the evening campfire, Beaver Wardwell briefed us on the climb and told a sobering story.

Some years before, he was leading a group up Katahdin when his hikers came upon a tragedy. A lad from another party had taken a risk and fell to his death. Beaver volunteered to retrieve the body. Improvising a litter, he took his three biggest boys and followed a difficult route to the body. The lesson: stay close to your leader.

I had focused devotional times throughout the trip on the first part of John 15. We had reached verse 7:  “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” We reflected on that around the evening campfire and again the next morning. Then we organized to climb Katahdin.

The shortest route would take us through a steep jumble of huge rocks to a plateau. From there the going would be easier. Ahead lay the Knife Edge, a safe though scary trail to the top. Beaver led, kids followed like squirrels, and those of us more years and proportions to match worked harder.

My tent mate struggled, his 70 years showing. For his safety, we counseled him to return to camp, a deep disappointment, but safety is always paramount. As we climbed, the temperature dropped, bringing the cloud cover lower. We reached the plateau in dense fog. We could no longer see the peak. Beaver called us together. “Doesn’t look good, boys” he said.

Within minutes, a whiteout enveloped us, forcing us to abandon the climb. Visibility shrunk to a few feet. Admonishing the campers to stay close together, Beaver guided us along the plateau trail toward a safer return route. I brought up the rear. The whiteout made hiking slow and difficult. We dropped below the whiteout and worked our way safely to our campsite.

A trip’s final evening is always special. Campers have bonded. The park provided ample firewood and we huddled in jackets around the blaze, sharing thoughts on the trip and the hike through the whiteout, a first-time experience. We sang and said John 15:7 together. The red-haired man sat close to his son.

The fire was burning low when the lad spoke. “Cap, you’ve been teaching us about pray-back, talking the Bible back to God? Well, today I found out it works!”

“It got really hard to see and I was really scared. I stuck as close to my dad as I could, but I had to slow down and I got off the trial. I could hear the guys getting father and farther away. I didn’t want to yell. I wasn’t sure which way to go. Then I remembered what you said about talking the Bible back to God.”

“I prayed, “God, you said if I remain in you—well, I believe in Jesus. Then you said, and my words remain in you. Here they are, Lord; I know the verse by heart. You said, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. God, get me off this mountain!”

He paused and grinned. “And he did!”

 

 

A Light in the Night

A Light in the Night

It was our last day on the river and we were the last canoe. The Allagash was low, the temperature uncommonly high for Northern Maine—90 plus. My bow paddler was distressingly slow.  I’d yell hard right and we’d be on the rock before he decided which side was right. None of the campers wanted to paddle with Willie.

We’d been drifting, swimming, and goofing off for five days; a dozen boys and two men. I chose Willie for my partner out of compassion. I generally bring up the rear on the trail or water to make sure no one gets left behind, and Willie assured me that position.

He was 12, maybe 13, from a foster home. Short sandy hair, brown eyes, scrawny; he read poorly but could he talk! He chattered away, seamlessly moving from one topic to another, delighted to have a listener. “See that duck?” he said, pointing to the sky. “No, in the clouds.” I saw no duck, but I noted the clouds were thickening.

“Wish I had my camera,” said Willie.  “Why?” I asked, looking skyward. “No, down the river.” In the shallows stood a buck with a huge rack in velvet. He watched us approach then ambled into the woods. Willie paddled quietly a while.

“Cap, were you ever scared?” “Sure. Lots of times.” “I mean really, really scared.”  “I guess so,” I replied, wondering where this was going. “I was really scared today,” said Willie. I had paddled with him since morning and nothing I considered scary had happened. “Tell me about it.” “Remember when we stopped to eat and you asked us to tell about Jesus?”

We had rendezvoused on a sandbar for lunch and devotions. I asked the kids to tell what they had learned on the trip; then tell and how they met the Lord. Last-day excitement ran high; responses were meager. We loaded the canoes and pushed off for our last stretch of river with some distance to go. Nothing scary happened on the sandbar.

“I wanted to tell how I met Jesus,” said Willie. “I have a Bible but I don’t read good. I wanted to say something, but the kids always laugh at me. I got really, really scared.” That tore at my soul; a boy pouring his heart out to a friend. Guilt for my impatience swept over me. I wanted to hug Willie and tell him I cared.  We paddled silently a long time.

The Allagash runs north toward Canada. We’d enjoyed a following breeze throughout the trip. Now at late afternoon the sky darkened and a brisk north wind hit us in the face. Rain was certain. Willie wore cutoffs and a T; I wore jeans, a T, and a baseball cap. Our sweatshirts and rain gear were in a canoe far ahead. Thunder rumbled.

The front swept in, dropping the temperature 40 degrees in minutes. I dug with my paddle, fighting the headwind. Rain splotches turned into a downpour. Lightning cracked. Willie put down his paddle to hug himself for warmth, and I was as cold as I care to be. At one point we paused to dump water from our canoe. Willie shivered violently but there was nothing I could do for him. The river ran through deep woods in the gathering dark.

Then the front passed; the wind calmed and the rain stopped, but it was getting colder. Willie sat mute. Heavy overcast hastened night darkness, making it increasing difficulty to pick a course. I couldn’t risk a dump-over in the dark, and I had no idea how far we had to go. I called to Willie. “If we don’t reach the guys soon, we’ll have to pull out until daylight. It’s OK. I’ll keep you warm.” How I did not know.

We were both silent. I strained to see. Boulder-strewn water wound through the forest, carrying me toward the hard decision. One more bend and we would have to pull out. The bend came and beyond it a straight stretch. I thought I saw a glimmer. I paddled with renewed energy.

The glimmer became a Coleman lantern hung on a branch over the river and up the steep bank a campfire reflected off the firs. Hello camp! I called. Eager hands caught our canoe and helped us up the bank to hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags. I prayed with a great fervor that night.

I never saw Willie again. I’d like to find him and thank him for what he taught me that night on the Allagash.

 

Joe and the Gypsy Fortune Teller

Revisiting the past is a preoccupation common to us old guys. Sometimes we look back and wonder how we could have been so stupid. I seem to have more than my share of such memories. Among them was that evening at Center Lake Camp, the year Joe Burkhart served as director.

The summer of 1953 our family moved to Muskegon, Michigan to serve Wayside Baptist Church. Two years later Joe came to teach science at Lincoln School across from our church. He and his family joined our fellowship.

Joe and I both had Scouting in our backgrounds and we explored starting a troop at Lincoln School. Our community seemed ideal for Scouting. We contacted the Scout office and put out feelers for committee members. I suggested Joe as Scoutmaster and volunteered to be chaplain. Within a year, the troop had 60 kids.

Each summer Joe scheduled a troop camping trip. Our plan for 1956 was to circle Lake Michigan, with a five-day stay at Imp Lake in the Ottawa National Forest. The committee bought and refurbished a used school bus and we headed north in early June.

Following good days at Imp Lake, we drove south through Wisconsin, planning a day at Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist center; among the attractions, a Gypsy fortune teller. I sensed a story in that mysterious lady with her cards and red kerchief.

The following summer, Center Lake Camp near Cadillac, Michigan hired Joe as director. I signed on for young teen week, with evening campfires among my duties. As I pondered the first campfire, The Gypsy came to mind. I plotted with Joe.

A waning moon lit the sky as campers and staff gathered on the hill overlooking the lake. Campers and younger staff circled the fire, sitting on the grass. Folding chairs accommodated older staff members and visitors; among them, a white-haired   grandmother. Joe stood just outside of the camper circle, the fire between him and me.

After campfire songs, I launched the story. I told about the Imp Lake trip and the Dells. Then truth faded. I pictured me and Joe mingling with tourists at the fortune teller’s booth, not hiding our skepticism. The Gypsy stared at us, growing increasingly irritated. Suddenly, she rose, ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, and strode into the crowd. She thrust her face close to mine. “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note into my hand.

I paused and laboriously fished out my wallet, extracting a crumpled slip, slowly smoothing it. “Come to think about it, that was just a year ago today.” I slowly smoothed the slip. “I don’t know why I kept it this. I don’t believe in fortune tellers.” I pretended to study it by firelight. From the circle: “What did she write?”

“Ridiculous! Joe and I are the best of friends–” “What did she write?” I read slowly: “On this day another summer, one of you will slay the other.” That was Joe’s cue.

With a yell, he leaped campers and fire. Feigning terror, I hurled myself down the hill into the darkness, Joe close behind. We lay in the tall grass stifling laughter. That was one campfire the kids would remember! Little did we know.

At the fire circle, panic. Campers cried. The grandmother came close to a heart attack. Adult staffers grew angry. When Joe and I appeared, expecting applause for a masterful performance, our laughter turned to chagrin. Said one stern soul, “How could you!”

Good question.

 

 

The Legend of Pierre

The August night chilled under a full moon as scores of junior campers circled the campfire on the hill overlooking Center Lake; a perfect setting for a story. But I didn’t yet have a story, just a mossy prop.

While exploring the lakeshore by canoe in the early days of the camp, I spotted the remains of wooded boat half-buried in bottom muck. Obviously, it had been there a long time. I wondered why it sank; wooden boats ordinarily don’t sink.  Some campers had noticed the boat too. With that relic as a prop, I launched the story with not a clue where it would lead.

A story must have good guys and bad. The good guys would be Ojibwa and Pottawatomie villagers; the bad guy: Pierre, the cheating fur trader. I gave him the boat. The moonlit setting and crackling fire didn’t need much of a story.

We journeyed to the fur trade days and the first people who lived live near Center Lake. Pierre’s cheating angered the Indians, but they feared his rifle. For many days they tracked him, plotting revenge. One night, he camped on the very spot where our fire burned.

One moonlit night Pierre sat by his fire, rifle and fur bundles nearby. His fire burned low, as had ours. From the dark forest, Pottawatomie warriors watched, waiting for Pierre to sleep. A wolf howled in the distance.

A movement disturbed a great gray owl. It flew heavily through the forest and swept low over Pierre’s fading fire. Surmising something had disturbed the owl; he gathered his rifle and furs and stumbled through the dark toward the security of the lake.

Meanwhile, Ojibwa war canoes glided toward the shore below Pierre’s camp. , Pottawatomie and Ojibwa war cries filled the night. Pierre threw his furs in the boat and pushed from shore. Their foe fully visible in the moonlight, arrows flew from land and water.

In desperation, Pierre stood to leap overboard. An arrow stuck. Pierre fell, tipping the small boat. It slowly sank under its ill-gotten load, and there it rests today.

The campers sat by the glowing coals, caught up in the story. In a hushed voice I added, “On this very hill when the moon is full and the night is still, you can hear Pierre’s heart, beating, beating.

Then the hair on the back of my neck stiffened. Through the night came athunk, athunk, a thunk. I swear: Until that moment, I had never noticed the faint pulse of an oil rig a few fields over.

Guardian Angels at Snail Lake

(Scroll down to read the Ghost Story.)

In fairness to all, I must explain how the precarious circumstances described in the previous story came about. From 1942 through 1945 I worked on and off for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, owner of Snail Lake Camp. Through the school year I directed the Arthur H. Savage Boys Club in the downtown Mission building.  Summers, I filled various roles at the Mission and camp.

Each summer the camp held three six-day sessions: one for our downtown club; one for the Ober Boys Club, serving mostly Black kids; one for the Mission girls club. A camp week cost fifty cents—if you could afford it. Attendance was fair, though declining.

In 1944 legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane decided to merge the boys’ weeks, a nod to the growing demand for racial integration. Attendance dropped dramatically. Mac assumed blending the camps had caused the decline. He called me into his office for a lecture on the Christian imperative for integration. But I felt race was not the problem. We served an ethnic mix at the downtown club. I believed neighborhood tensions caused the low attendance Ober Club kids and downtown kids did not along.

To strengthen my point, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He would not hear of a bet, but he gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. With the club was closed for the summer, hustling campers was a challenge. But finding staff was a far greater challenge. Camper registrations began to pile up but I failed to nail down one staff person.

With time running out, I turned to our club basketball team: teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to come as counselors.  I had no time to train them, nor could I keep track of camper registrations.  On camp day, 83 boys stood in line at the Mission, awaiting a cursory physical.

Mac dropped around. Pleased to see the crowd, he asked if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He did not know the staff situation. Following the physicals, we bused the kids to camp.

Supper was noisy chaos and the first chapel brought trouble. My counselors failed to show. I found them at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere, so I told the boys to pack their gear. Bill drove them home.

Bedtime foretokened deeper trouble as several older campers showed signs of rebellion. It came to a head in the morning.

The only way I could manage that many campers was to form them into squads,  line them up military-like, count heads, and give instructions. I told the squad members to look after one another–wishful thinking. Then the rebels began to smart off. I told any camper who was not happy to step forward. Calling my bluff, about 25 did. Bill bused them home. That left me with 54 kids (one camper later ran off—I wasn’t even sure of his name).

Cooking took all Bill’s time, leaving me to be counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor, referee, and everything else. And I was hurting with an ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost.

I was totally irresponsible to allow the week to happen, but the Lord looks after fools. He must have commissioned a legion of angels to look after us. We had no major mishap, though I pulled one scared boy from deep water.

 

The Ghost of Snail Lake

I don’t believe in ghosts; never have. But for a few minutes one dark night in 1944, I came close to believing. The setting is Snail Lake Camp (now Gospel Hill Camp), an outreach of the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, where I worked during college years. The camp’s 17 acres included playfields, expansive lawns, a large garden plot, and wooded pastureland where the Mission sometimes kept livestock.

The lodge housed the kitchen and dining hall at ground level with the chapel on level two. The third level was a single-room dormitory that could sleep 90 or more. On the night of the ghost, 58 boys grades four through seven slept in the dorm.

I doubt that the annals of Christian camping ever recorded a scene more precarious.  There were 58 campers—and a staff of two. Bill Jansen was the cook. I was everything else.  I was 21 and had never directed a camp week. And I was hurting with an ear infection and fever. My only time alone came when the campers finally slept, allowing me to slip down to the kitchen for a snack. How all that came about is a story for another time.

We were nearing the close of the camp week and I was dog-bone tired. My sleep-inducing strategy was a long, spooky story, sparing no gore. My story concerned the Ghost of Scull Island, invented as I went along. Finally, boy sounds ceased and I felt my way through the dark down the wide wooden stairs—I had no flashlight. The outside, the misty sky showed only the faintest light.  Inside, full dark.

Half spooked by my story, I reached ground level and felt my way to the screen door leading to the dining hall. Then I froze. I heard heavy boots shuffling on the flagstone floor! My first impulse on was to run for Bill a city block away, but I eased into the dining hall.

Unfortunately, all light switches were at the other end and the room. Between me and the switches was a clutter of benches, chairs, tables, brooms, and mop buckets. A dash through the dark was far too risky. I called, “Who’s there?” The shuffling stopped. I backed to the wall and inched toward the light switches. The shuffling resumed and again I called, “Who’s there?”

I could just make out skylight through the upper part of the windows that lined the opposite wall. At mid-point, two concrete steps led up to a landing where double screen doors opened onto a flagstone patio. The shuffling seemed to be moving toward the landing, but nothing showed against the skylight. I thought I heard the boots climb the steps. Something brushed the screens, but still nothing showed.

Risking the clutter, I broke for the switch panel, flooding the room hall with light. That of course blinded me. When I could focus, I saw the room was empty!  Again, I almost ran, but I forced myself to the screen doors and looked out. Three young Black Angus steers, escapees from the camp pasture, looked at me curiously. Their hooves shuffling on flagstone echoed through the screen doors.  I made my way to the kitchen and collapsed at the table. I ate pineapple coffee cake and canned fruit with strong black coffee.

Had I panicked and fled, I would be telling you about the very real ghost I encountered that night at Snail Lake Camp