It was a super sad day for me, when I recently learned the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois (GSEIWI) are, in no uncertain terms, selling Camp Tahigwa.
Granted, I’m glad the camp is being entrusted to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources rather than some frac-sand mining operation. It’s also wonderful the property will, in some capacity, still be available to the public to enjoy.
While preserving the awesome beauty of the land is commendable, what will not be preserved, I’m afraid, is the magical essence which equals Girl Scout camping.
Anyone who has ever engaged in a conversation about camping knows it is a pretty black and white issue. No one “sort of” likes camping. You’re either someone who would rather die that use a pit toilet, or you’re a die-hard who spends your entire life trying to perfect the ultimate pudgy pie recipe. (Non-campers, look it up.)
I fall into the latter category. Without any reservations, I can say I learned many life lessons in the confines of a Girl Scout camp, many of which I still use today.
Growing up in Illinois, I first attended camp as a Brownie (kind of a junior Girl Scout) and then a Girl Scout. Even after I went away to college, I loved camp so much, I took a summer job there as a counselor, and spent six nights a week sleeping in a tent all summer long.
The list of fond memories is a long one, but it includes so many songs – some of which still swirl around in some corner of my brain; so many crafting ideas: God’s eyes, lanyards, macramé, sand candles, tie-dyed shirts, sit-upons; amazing recipes: banana boats, apple pudgy pies, pudgy pie pizza, ants on a log … the list is endless.
Without a doubt, camp is the reason I still know how to make a good campfire and correctly fold an American flag.
But it’s the intangible life lessons that I believe matter the most.
In 2004, when my dad was on his deathbed, I decided I needed a change and took a leap of faith, taking a job as the head wrangler at Camp Tahigwa in Dorchester. I didn’t live at the camp – rather, I commuted from my home in Decorah each morning.
The first thing that happens upon arrival at camp, is you choose a new name for yourself.
I took the name Rowdy, as in Rowdy Yates, Clint Eastwood’s character from Rawhide, a popular TV western (1959 -1965), that I watched as reruns back in the day.
That’s another thing about camp – no one uses her real name; Rather, they invent new identities, like Aurora, Mickey, Frog, Yellow, Peanut Butter, Sox and Tigger, just to name a few. Using an alias is a fun sort of equalizer, meant to be just that – fun. Choosing their own identity seemed to help the girls fit in … feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.
It was a tough summer for me, as my father ended up passing away just days after camp ended.
But instead of remembering that summer in terms of long trips to the hospital in Dubuque and conversations with doctors, I remember it fondly.
My favorite takeaway from camp was, no doubt, a lesson the girls are taught day one.
At camp, a girl is not judged according to her size, shape, level of fitness, color of her skin, socioeconomic status, price of their wardrobe nor school they go to. The point is that she is not judged at all.
“None of that matters,” Camp Director Aurora used to tell any girl who was having a bad day.
“What does matter is your amount of oomph.”
Oomph. As in energy, vitality, enthusiasm.
Thirteen years later, I still think about that advice, from time to time. And when things seem grim, I remind myself to remember that oomph, and the power of what it can do for all of us.
In closing, I’m reminded of the closing campfire song that thousands of girls over the last 49 years have gathered to sing the last night of camp:
Hmmm, I want to linger, Hmmm, a little longer, Hmmm, a little longer here with you…
Hmmm, It’s such a perfect night, Hmmm, it doesn’t seem quite right, Hmmm, that this should be my last with you….
Hmmm, And come September, Hmmm, I will remember, Hmmm, our Scouting days and friendships true,
Hmmm, And as the years go by, Hmmm, we’ll all look back and sigh, Hmmm, this is goodnight and not goodbye.
Rest in peace, Camp Tahigwa. I hope this is goodnight and not goodbye.