In the summer of 1999, I was twelve years old. I had just finished sixth grade, and I was looking forward to a long and lazy summer. My plans involved Lake Poinsett and pretty much nothing else. That is, until Mom broke the news: I would be spending the first week of June at Norwegian camp in northern Minnesota.
Yes, Norwegian camp. That’s a thing. My grandma Lorraine, a full-blooded Norwegian, decided that she would be sending my eight-year-old sister and me to a week-long Norwegian camp. We didn’t know enough about our heritage, she claimed, so it was time to get down to business.
I was not thrilled. This severely interfered with my lake-going plans. Besides, I was already slated to go to church camp in July. Two camps in one summer just seemed unnecessary. Unfortunately, there was no getting out of it. Grandma had already gotten us scholarships from the Sons of Norway, so that was that. Darrah and I packed our bags for Norwegian camp.
Norwegian camp was a part of a number of other language and culture immersion camps located in northern Minnesota. I remember flipping through the brochures for other camps and wishing desperately that I’d been sent somewhere less dorky, like Korean camp or French camp. There, I’d at least learn Tae Kwon Do or get to eat croissants.
The drive to Bemidji was almost six hours long. We arrived in Bemidji with some time to spare, so Mom took Darrah and me to the little science museum on main street. It seemed like a “last supper” of sorts… the last fun thing we would do in a week, perhaps. Darrah and I got to hold a boa constrictor and buy little necklaces with seashells on them.
But then, harsh reality set in: it was time to check in at Norwegian camp. We converted our American money into Norwegian kroner (to be used to buy Norwegian chocolates or shirts with Norwegian sayings on them). We chose Norwegian names to be used for the week (mine was Charlotte, but it was pronounced crazily… Car-low-ta, I think). We also went through our suitcases for contraband: no American music or books in English were allowed. Go Norwegian or go home.
Mom and Grandma helped us drag our suitcases to our
respective cabins. Each cabin was named after a major city in Norway, and they
were separated by age. I was on the second floor of the Trondheim cabin. Upon
my arrival on said floor, I was hit with a noxious stench. Turns out one of my
roommates had barfed on the floor in the not-so-distant past. The windows were
wide open and the fans were blowing, but the camp staffers were hard-pressed to
get that smell out of the room. It was going to be a long week.
|Unfortunately, "go home" wasn't|
a viable option.
I don’t remember everything I learned during that week, but one thing has stayed with me throughout the years: Norwegian food is god-awful. There were all sorts of strange fish products, and goat cheese reigned supreme. After the first day or so of Norwegian camp, they expected you to know the Norwegian word for all of your food. There was a counselor stationed at every table, and unless you could ask for your food in Norwegian, you weren’t getting any. When the only Norwegian food you know is “lutefisk,” believe me, it’s better to go without. The only meal worth eating was breakfast, and even then, I made sure to stay away from the mystery sausage.
I remember sitting through a crash-course in Norwegian mythology, which is actually kind of awesome. We played Norwegian games (many of which just involved running up and down a big hill) and tried our hand at Norwegian crafts. We put on a “play” to show off our Norwegian speaking skills – I held up a paper crustacean and said confidently, “Jeg er krabbe.” There was even one evening when we dressed up and learned Norwegian folk dances. My grandma would’ve loved it.
Darrah and I survived Norwegian camp, a few pounds lighter and not much wiser. The absolute kicker, though, came after we got home: I needed to make a speech at the next Sons of Norway meeting and thank them for the scholarship. No problem – except I had to put on Grandma’s Norwegian costume and pretend that Norwegian camp was the highlight of my life.
exactly what I did, and I made dozens of elderly Norwegians very happy.
However, I did draw the line when they asked me to folk dance.
Now that Norwegian camp was out of the way, I could look forward to my upcoming week at NeSoDak: a church camp located in Waubay, South Dakota. It wasn’t necessarily the camp itself that I was looking forward to: all of my friends were going to NeSoDak, so it was mostly an excuse for a week of canoeing on Lake Enemy Swim.
Waubay is only an hour and half away from Arlington, so the trip was an easy one. Unlike Norwegian camp, we were allowed to bring books for “quiet time,” but you’d better make darn sure that one of those books was your Bible.
NeSoDak ended up being simply bizarre. The counselor in my cabin was an angry girl named Laura who wore nothing but Veggie Tales t-shirts. There was a competition each day to see who would have the cleanest cabin, and the winner got to keep the “golden plunger” for the day. If I am not mistaken, my cabin (the Bethlehem cabin, no less) won at least once. The camp was overrun with frogs, and my friend Sarah spent a good deal of time trying to catch one to name the Gipper. I did go canoeing once, but Lake Enemy Swim was completely overgrown with weeds. You couldn’t go swimming for risk of getting tangled in the weeds and drowning. Yes, this was a horror movie in the making.
Of course, we had all the normal church-campy activities: outdoor Bible study, guitars ‘round the campfire, goofy dinner table Jesus jingles. We did, though, have this “day of silence” where no one was allowed to talk from sundown one night until suppertime the next. We were supposed to use this time to “reflect on Jesus’s sacrifice,” but honestly, asking a bunch of twelve year olds on summer vacation to be quiet for 24 hours is absurd. We didn’t use our quiet time to reflect; we used to it pass notes and try not to giggle aloud. I don’t know if they expected us to have a life-changing spiritual revelation or what, but seriously, we were TWELVE. Plus, a whole camp of silent middle-schoolers is really creepy.
Anyhow, I survived NeSoDak… only to be shipped off to Klein Ranch the following summer. Klein Ranch is a part of the same system of camps as NeSoDak, but Klein Ranch was geared towards slightly older kids. My friend Sarah and I went to Klein Ranch during the summer of 2000. Her parents, Bill and Sharon, drove us the five hours to west river Isabel, SD. As we pulled into the camp, a gangly guy with blond curly hair came bolting out the car, waving like a maniac. Bill turned around and said to us, “Here comes Jose!” Sarah and I about died laughing. Why Bill had decided to call this guy Jose, we will never know. His real name was Nate. He was the camp cook and spent a great deal of time trying to convince us that prairie monkeys are real (they’re not).
Klein Ranch was, as you might’ve suspected from the name, a ranch. Its big draw was that you could ride horses. Sarah and I had not spent a lot of time on horses, so we thought this would be great. We each signed up for a beginner horse: Sarah was assigned a horse named Berry, and my horse was called Jake. Jake was old and stubborn: he would always stop and eat grass, so I was always the last one down the trail. Plus, he farted all the time. The guy who was in charge of the horses was a skinny little wisp of a man who had a speaking voice identical to Michael Jackson’s. Sarah and I never learned his name, so, of course, we called him Michael. Michael led us on all our riding adventures, including the sunrise meditation ride. That was a delight, as you can imagine.
Since Klein Ranch was way up in the Badlands, water was a precious commodity. We were informed that we would have ONE SHOWER. FOR THE ENTIRE WEEK. We were teenagers who would be spending the week riding horses. Limiting showers to one for the week seemed like a terrible idea, but what do you do?
It didn’t take long before Sarah and I realized that we’d made a huge mistake by going to Klein Ranch. Both of us enjoyed a daily shower, and we quickly learned that horses were not that great. By day two at Klein Ranch, we had already counted the hours until we could go home. When things at camp got particularly lame (like the hay ride on the 100 degree day), we would remind each other that there were only 83 hours left until sweet, sweet freedom.
Without the reprieve of our riding group, Sarah and I surely would’ve lost it. We were each assigned to two groups: a cabin group and a riding group. The cabin group was simply that: the people in your cabin. The riding group was also self-explanatory: it was the group of people with whom you would ride horses. The cabin group was females only, but the riding group was co-ed. We didn’t do anything with our cabin groups except clean the cabin, but we spent a great deal of time with the riding group. Sarah’s and my riding group leader was a skeezy guy named Eric who hated his job. He had a disgusting goatee and looked like he didn’t mind the one shower a week rule.
As the slacker group, we actually kind of lucked out by having Eric as our leader. When we were supposed to be participating in an all-camp game of freeze tag, Eric let us hide in the hayloft and answered the teenage boys’ questions about sex (yes, this really happened). During designated Bible discussion time, Eric steered the conversation toward movies. Eric also sweet-talked the kitchen staff into letting our table eat first on more than one occasion.