by Jean Mann
At this time of year, I often think of summers past, mostly those of my childhood. And some of my best memories are the three summers I went to Camp Wapanacki up in the hills of northern Vermont. It was run by the New York Institute for the Blind, a school in Bronx, N.Y. Many of the campers were from the New York City area, but others of us came from all over the country, Canada and Puerto Rico. There were two four-week sessions, one for the boys in July and another for the girls in August.
I went to the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, N.Y. for my four years of high school, and one of our bus drivers and his wife drove us up to camp and back each summer. We would leave from the school early in the morning, pick up a few other girls at stops along the way and eventually stop for the night in a little town in northern New York called Tupper Lake. The next morning we continued on, taking a ferry across Lake Champlain to Burlington, Vt., and drove on until we reached the camp, which was outside of another little town called Hardwick, Vt. We always stopped for lunch at an A&W in Hardwick. A&W was known for their root beer, but I remember the cheeseburgers and ice cream!
Since August was girls’ month, there were mostly female counselors, usually two for each cabin, but there were a few men around, and one was assigned to each cabin to go on overnights and take part in other cabin activities. Most of them were in college and not too much older than we were. There were probably 10 girls who had a crush on each one.
We did all the usual things at camp; swam in the lake, went out in the rowboats and paddle boats and canoes if you were a good enough swimmer (I wasn’t). We cooked over an open fire, learned to tie knots and put up tents, and other campcraft activities. We sang after every meal, at campfires, and every chance we got. Sometimes we took overnight trips or slept outside our cabin under the stars just for the fun of it.
Every Tuesday afternoon we hiked six miles into Hardwick to buy junk, so there were parties in all the cabins after “Taps” on those nights! And we stopped at that famous A&W for ice cream on the way into town. There were hot dogs and beans waiting for us when we got back, and the rest of the evening was supposed to be set aside to write letters home, but that didn’t usually happen!
Sunday nights were our Council Fire nights. At the beginning of the session, the cabins were divided into two tribes, the Algonquins and the Iroquois. Each tribe was led into the council fire ring by their “princess.” I got to be the princess of the Iroquois tribe my last summer there. Accomplishments for the previous week were recognized at these meetings and badges were handed out.
During the four weeks there were competitions between the two tribes and the individual cabins. We had skit nights, talent shows, games and athletic competitions. At the end of the summer there were boating and swimming competitions. There was also a relay race, where each camper was assigned a task, and they couldn’t start until the person before them had finished theirs. My tribe won the year I was the princess, so I received a trophy at the final banquet, which I returned before I left the next day so it could be used again the next year. My cabin won best all-around cabin two of the three years I was there.
Campers were sometimes selected for special trips. I was chosen to climb Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, two years in a row. After the first trip I said I’d never do it again, but couldn’t resist the challenge of climbing it again when I was picked the next summer. We camped out in a lean-to at the base of the mountain. The steak we cooked over the fire those nights was the best I ever ate. One of our counselors brought his guitar, so we sat by the fire and ate s’mores, sang folk songs, and told ghost stories.
Another time I took what was called the Canadian Hike, a 50-mile trek from camp to the Canadian border. It took us two and a half days. We carried our packs on our backs. One night we slept in a stadium and the next night in an old barn on the property of somebody known to the camp. No steak on that trip. The counselors bought food on the way and we ate sandwiches and drank water. Lots of water. It was hot! One of my fellow hikers and I actually ran the last quarter mile or so. I wish I had some of that energy now! We all went to the camp infirmary when we got back to have our blisters attended to.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and before we knew it the month was over and it was time to return to the real world. Our bus driver and his wife came to get us, and there were usually many tears shed as we drove away from camp. But we always stopped crying in time to ask them if we could hit that A&W for lunch for one last burger and ice cream cone. Then we reversed our route and arrived home late the next afternoon, just in time to head back to school.
Years later, probably because colleges were starting earlier and counselors couldn’t stay as late in August as they used to, Camp Wapanacki shortened its sessions and changed them to younger kids and older ones instead of boys and girls. They started holding a week-long session for adults after the kids went home. We couldn’t wait to go back.
We did many of the same things we’d done years before. We hiked into town. Somehow the hills were a bit steeper than we remembered and the A&W was gone. We camped out, but the ground was a little harder than it had been. We took trips into Stowe, Vt., where we went out to dinner, bought souvenirs and visited the Ben and Jerry’s plant. We went back to Mount Mansfield, but rode the chair lift up the mountain this time.
At night we sang, just like before, but we were in what was called the counselors’ cabin, and the songs we sang and the jokes we told would not have been appropriate for young ears to hear. The beverages we drank would not have been served to us in our younger days either.
The last time I went to Camp Wapanacki was in August of 1990. Because of the terrain and the rustic nature of the camp, it was becoming more and more difficult and expensive to maintain and it was not accessible to children with multiple disabilities. So it was closed and eventually sold to the Girl Scouts. It’s still standing, but in disrepair. I don’t know who currently owns the property or what will happen to it.
I am amazed at how many people I’ve run into during my travels over the years who attended Camp Wapanacki and how much of an impact it had on all of our lives. It was one of those places you either loved or hated, and most of us loved it. Camp Wapanacki was the best!