With handkerchiefs on their heads à la Willie Nelson and bug bites visible across their legs, a group of six boys whoops into the piney woods at Lake Kabetogama in far northern Minnesota. Their mission: Find the best new spot for a dig-it-yourself latrine.
The adults grin at their unexpected enthusiasm. It's amazing what friendly competition will do for the most dreaded duties at our camp on Voyageurs National Park's Big Sky Island. Or maybe it's a healthy shift of perspective.
Ditching daily comforts, rattling routines and rising to fresh challenges were key reasons we were on this family trip through Wilderness Inquiry (WI). Founded more than 30 years ago, the St. Paul nonprofit organization welcomes participants of all abilities, ages and levels of experience. Last year more than 16,700 people took WI trips, including outings designed for city youths, many of whom received scholarships and grants to get them into the outdoors. Every trip can be modified to fit a group's abilities.
Our group was all newcomers except for Laurie Davis of Minneapolis, who was on her fourth WI trip with her two sons. She first signed up when the youngest was only 4. They've since learned the wilderness ropes and tallied a wealth of inspirational experiences, such as seeing a teen trade a wheelchair for the graceful glide of a kayak and a fellow camper who had lost her eyesight get back on a bike with the help of a tandem rider.
"We like to celebrate everybody's uniqueness," says our leader, Max.
We meet as strangers on a warm June afternoon, introducing ourselves in a circle outside the Ash River Trail visitor center. It's always a grab bag seeing who comes together. Our group gets lucky with a concentration of six boys, ages 7 to 14.
Besides Laurie and me as Minnesota moms with boys in tow, we have Coloradoans Mary Ellen Anderson with two grandsons; plus her brother, Drex Douglas, with a reluctant grandson and 24-year-old son, Jeff. We later find out Jeff has a developmental disability known as fragile X syndrome. He shyly ducks from introductions and avoids eye contact, but warms up quickly as playful energy amps up among the six boys.
My son and I arrive with our own struggles. Jonathan, now 11, has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A steam locomotive stops faster than his mouth near bedtime, when thoughts and emotions pop out like firecrackers. At school and at home, he's constantly being told to calm down, stop breaking things and getting into trouble. It's a tough load to shoulder.
That constant energy and impulsiveness can shred relationships like cats clawing at furniture. This trip is our chance to heal, to enjoy some rare mother-son time away from twin sisters, and to escape the usual chaos of home life.
It's personal, too. I yearn for my children to see me as strong and adventurous -- not as a mom who naps and growls with middle-aged migraines. I also have pushed myself to new limits since 14 years of drugs, chemo-like infusions, where-is-the-bathroom vigilance and multiple surgeries finally cowed chronic Crohn's disease, a digestive disorder, into submission. I'm still wary of sudden setbacks, but feel confident these guides with their calm demeanor can handle medical emergencies.
That's not to say I'm keen on dig-it-yourself latrines -- even if the boys do find a dandy location. I tell myself to suck it up. This is worth it. And, really, it is.
Settling into a camp groove
It takes a full group effort to paddle voyageur canoes across Lake Kabetogama and unload our gear up a steep embankment and into the forest. As we make meals, gather wood and wash dishes, Jeff gleefully and repeatedly asks, "Are ya workin'?" with such comical zeal and upward lilt that it's like teens asking, "Are you ready to par-TAY?!"
Jeff's repetitive phrases cause a few exasperated groans while others make us laugh and become part of our camp vocabulary. The patience needed to repeatedly untangle his fishing line is offset by his determination to catch a fish and his absolute joy in everything.
My son, whose emotions can flare like a rocket, marvels at Jeff's calm and smiling face after Jeff accidentally slips in the lake while getting dishwater. He returns to camp soaked and doesn't seem to mind.
The six boys glom together quickly. They dare each other to jump into the dark, tannin-dyed water and try to show off their best campfire-building skills. They tear through the woods with imaginations fully fired. It leaves the adults with a few rare pockets of quiet time.
Big Sky Island's granite dome edging the lake pulls at us like magnets. It's a theater for nature's daily show and heavenly to soak in the sun. It's here where we most often swap life stories, chapter by chapter, taking stock of where we've been and where we want to go.
The beauty of camping isn't just the setting. It's the ability to declutter and distill life to the basics: Stay warm. Sleep. Eat. Look, listen.
I don't realize how mentally ragged I've been until escaping daily demands feels like dropping a heavy backpack from achy shoulders.
Excursions and stargazing
Mornings start with cowboy coffee. Our guides whirl the pot of boiling water and loose grounds like all-star pitchers doing a wind-up. Centrifuge acts as the filter.
Sipping that first brew, Mary Ellen places a hand on her hip, takes in the boreal forest and says, "God, this is so cool!"
She came to share her childhood passion for paddling with her grandchildren. She's an adventurer, too, who has taken them to Turkey and volunteered with them in Senegal. She offers impromptu tai chi lessons on the granite dome, reaching for the stars or out toward the loons.
"I love the enchantment and innocence of childhood, and it's here," she says. "The kids just go with the flow. This is a whole six-week summer camp in five days."
While Big Sky was our base, each day includes paddling excursions where we perfect our strokes, learn to rudder voyageur canoes and mentally muscle our way through brainteasers our guides offer for entertainment.
We wander an abandoned logging camp, collect wild blueberries and strawberries, set up a pasta salad picnic and enjoy a whitewashed outhouse with toilet paper on a roll. It feels like the Ritz.
Later, shrieks echo across Hoist Bay as our guide Max grinningly rocks and flips the huge canoe, dumping the boys with a splash and coaching them through the "tip test." They scramble to hang on, dog-paddle when needed, and get the canoe back afloat. Jonathan, who thrives on amped-up fun, asks to tip again and again.
Seven-year-old Jack has been our most reluctant camper. He loves his couch and video games at home in Colorado and wasn't thrilled about the itchy, unpredictable, wet outdoors. But even he warms up to life in the woods.
As group members fish, read or tidy the campsite, I spy Jack along the shore reveling in the one-on-one attention of our guide, Virginia, a sweet and cheerful college student. They playfully challenge each other to new karate poses, balancing and laughing on the ancient rocks.
Later that afternoon, as adults relax by the campfire and older boys chase through the pines, Jack stares up at a massive upturned pine root stretching at least 10 feet high. He scales it like a muddy climbing wall.
We smile across our coffee mugs, silently applauding Jack's can-do transformation. It's a thumbs-up moment.
Freedom and joy
At bedtime, families regroup in their own tents. We whisper about the day, play cards by flashlight, trade a few giggles. In the morning, the sun fights through clouds and out of the blue, Jonathan pipes up, "Thanks for bringing me, Mom."
I know the other boys feel the same.
For parents and grandparents in a digital age, it's grounding to see how little -- and yet so much -- can grab kids' attention and keep them happy. I feel a rush of gratitude, too, for my son's joy and the freedom to go, go, go. He releases explosive energy across this rocky, ancient island with few corrections or commands to stop, slow down or act like someone else. Yet there's gentle guidance and life lessons for all of us sneaked into daily camp life, tucked between chores.
As Mary Ellen says, "You give kids an 'aha moment,' and the 'aha' stays with them."
We leave our island with admiration for one another, gratitude for life's luxuries and a fresh appreciation for its simplicities.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based freelance travel writer and creator of www.10000Likes.com.