Summer’s most vivid escapades unfolded beyond the corners of our cozy camp. Setting out by foot or car caravan, we explored nearby paths, lakes, ridgetops, hamlets, horse trails, a roller rink, other camps’ softball fields and an abandoned house.
At an age when we pushed impatiently at many of life’s boundaries, these outings often were journeys of self-discovery as well as a break from routines. They brought physical challenges, eye-opening experiences, new skills and fresh layers of maturity, accomplishment, pride.
A weekly destination was Tilson Lake in the Pine Bush area, 15 or 20 minutes from camp and a place where we could swim longer distances and dive from greater heights. In that primitive age before passenger vans, we were shuttled to the lakeside picnic grove in woody station wagons and cars driven by senior counselors, the camp directors and their son Steve Bucky. The cargo included plastic vats of lemonade and Kool-Aid (“bug juice”), burgers and dogs to grill, and round tin Bon Ton potato chips.
Our waterfront retreat was a privately owned park with a muddy, man-made lake, shared with rural families and other vacationers. It featured a wooden bathhouse for changing (if you didn’t mind spiders) and a skate-rental rink where we’d come on evening excursions. But the main attractions, and tests of young courage, were beyond the water’s edge—a country lake with weeds, snakes, diving-board rafts and a seemingly distant shore.
Two rafts were accessible to all but novice dog-paddlers (the Guppies), while a third was a rite of passage to be earned, a challenge that separated camp veterans from newcomers. Swimming abilities were screened by instructor Paul Sarkisian, a slim, tanned crew-cut czar of the water (and also a block-away Inwood neighbor from Park Terrace West).
A handful of the strongest swimmers got to accompany Paul on a freestyle journey to the opposite shore during mid-afternoon as younger campers took a post-lunch break to read graffiti scratched on the bathhouse wall, catch spiders or explore the grounds.
The hierarchy of swimming achievements could be as important as the softball batting order or whether you were a wallflower or dance partner at the socials. “I was so proud when I swam out to the third raft,” Leslie (Cooper) Fox recalls from Princeton Junction, N.J.
For most off-property adventures, we wore more than bathing suits and nose clips. Some trips involved toting canteens and picking blueberries on the way to rocky lookouts known as Sam’s Point, Mud Lake and Lake Minewaska. Others were snack-driven strolls to a bungalow colony called Vienna Rest with a makeshift store, complete with slide-open soda cooler and coil-topped refrigerator that held frozen Snickers and Milky Ways. And some were post-dinner Treasure Hunts that required following clues typed on small strips of paper—each leading to the next, perhaps under a bridge or natural landmark.
The most frequent outing hardly seemed liked leaving camp at all, since we viewed the run-down farmhouse shell further up our dirt road as part of our extended playground—an unescorted destination for all but the youngest campers.
And as counselors, our sole off-duty day each week (we clearly needed a union) usually was spent in Pine Bush or Ellenville—reached by grabbing a ride with a delivery vendor or, more often, by thumbing our way in pairs or foursomes. Time was passed at a Dairy Queen, drugstore soda fountain, movie theater and luncheonette before we returned with magazines, candy, postcards, toiletries and paperbacks in brown sacks.
No one philosophized about any of this at the time, of course, but the simple destinations and activities weren’t what made these field trips so enjoyably memorable. As with the overall camp experience, the journey itself was most important—the testing, the achievements, the independence, the newness of it all.
We reached bigger rafts and diving boards, our pals were watching . . . and Mom and Dad weren’t around.