It was May 1944. World War II raged, and we kids in Minneapolis had become accustomed to rationing and air raid drills, to buying war bonds and collecting scrap metal, to seeing a gold star flag in a neighbor’s window. I was 9 years old, and my family was moving from an apartment in Prospect Park to a house near Cedar Lake. It was a life-changing move.
Across the street from our new house was another only child, Mary, and thus began a continuing friendship. Mary and her mother couldn’t go “back East” that summer because of the war, so her parents planned to send her to a girls’ camp near Ely, Minn. My folks followed suit, and two months later Mary and I were off to Camp Kiwadinipi Up North for four unknown weeks.
Required to choose a nickname, I became Squirt; Mary became Butch.
Though I’d never been in a canoe, I took to paddling immediately. Our lake was really a widening in the Snake River, with good swimming if you didn’t mind the leeches. I had the time of my life! The following year, with war restrictions lessened, Mary and her mother returned to the Atlantic Ocean. I returned to Camp Kiwadinipi and to my favorite activity: canoeing. That was the summer the war ended, and I remember the counselors driving us into Ely in August and gleefully filling up the gas tank.
Next summer, 1946, unsettled many as a major polio epidemic hit Minnesota. I returned to camp, this time for a six-week session. Now 11, my favorite counselor, Cokie, recognized my love for canoeing and would arrange for the two of us to paddle the pond during “off hours.” Then, an amazing thing happened: I was invited to go on the older girls’ canoe trip for a week’s adventure, and I could take along one of my camp friends. First, though, the camp had to phone my parents for permission. My mom answered the unexpected long-distance call, fearing the worst. But the call was a request allowing Squirt to go on her first canoe trip. Perhaps relieved that it was not an announcement of polio, they said yes.
So off we went, two 11-year-olds along with the older girls, a guide named Tom, and our wonderful counselors. I don’t know where Tom slept, but the rest of us slept in the same tent. I remember some older girl covering my ears when they were about to tell a dirty joke.
They tolerated us, and I worked hard to do my part, paddling bow, portaging life preservers and other light gear. No Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in those days. We just put in at Moose Lake, and stopped at Prairie Portage for root beer, at Jack Knife Lake and other exotic places. I was in another world and I loved every minute of it, even when we had an enforced rain delay and played cards in the tent.
Our final night was near Winton on Fall Lake. It was our guide’s birthday, and we sang “Happy Birthday” when we heard him rustling our tent the next morning. Imagine our surprise to discover that Tom was really a bear! Hurriedly, we packed up and returned to Kiwadinipi, unscathed.
Thus began my love for canoe trips, be it the St. Croix River between Taylor’s Falls and Stillwater, where we’d find a spot to lay out our sleeping bags and hope for no rain; lakes in northern Wisconsin at a Y camp where one counselor and five kids took off for three- to seven-day trips, long before the advent of risk management concerns; varieties of Boundary Waters lakes with groups of women, a BWCA introduction for many of them; and the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, unknown to many of my fellow suburbanites. And how can you top the adventurous and diverse eight-hour trip down Minnehaha Creek, from its calm headwaters at Lake Minnetonka to frantically grabbing for safety as the falls draw near.
I’ve given up long canoe trips, figuring the others might have to portage me. But to sum it all up, at 81, as I continue to find life full of adventure, that little kid Squirt is right there with me.