August 16, 2014 by Doug Webster
This is the place to share your favorite memories of Otter, your experiences and what Otter meant to you.
Here are some guidelines:
1- If you create a file in word processing, whatever your software, save it in Rich Text Format (rtf) and name it YOUR NAME OTTER MEMORIES
2- Send us a photo of yourself today (if you wish to include significant other(s) that’s fine.) If you have a good photo of yourself at camp back then, send that as well.
Send your files to dweb823 AT aol DOT com.
CURRENT CAMPER MEMORIES
Rachel & Charles Rogers, Bernie Clarke
George Walker (Hudson Bay Trip)
Jim “Bogie” Boguslawski
Jim Boguslawski and close friend - the late James "Moose" Ewert at Otter
I want to give special thanks to Charles Rogers for giving me five nights of detention when I was his student in high school. After serving my time in the Detention Study Hall, Charles then awarded me the privilege of working at Camp Otter as a counselor.
Camp Otter offered me the experience and opportunity of a lifetime. I met many wonderful people, made many friends and gained fond memories that Bill Gates can’t buy with all his wealth.
One thing that camp instilled in me was that there was no turning back. By that, I mean when I took my first Wolf Lake Portage, there was only one way to go, no stopping and no double portage. In my lifetime, when I encountered difficult challenges such as The Peace Corps and living in slums, I said to myself, “I am going home!” Then thinking about the Wolf Lake Portage, I changed my mind and said, “There’s no way I am turning back.” Camp Otter helped me in more ways than one to fulfill my dreams and accomplishments.
A very special thank you to Charles Rogers, Berner and Rachel for making my life so meaningful.
John Conkling – 1944-49
John Conkling attended Camp Otter from age 9 to 14 (1944-1949) and as you will see, in those days, there were cabins at Sandy Beach:
When I was nine my mother had contacted Howie Ortner about my 12 year old brother Bill (now deceased) going to Camp Otter. We lived in East Aurora and Howie came and talked to us. I must have gotten excited and my mother and Howie said that I could go also. That decision really changed my life as I came to love the outdoors, camping, and especially canoeing.
My brother looked out for me; I was in the cabin on Sandy Beach near the water with counselor Mort McShane from Hamburg and campers Chipmunk and Squirrel. They were brothers, though I do not know their real names. It was great down at Sandy Beach. I remember we could hear wolves howl at night for the first 3 years (1944 to 1946)
I loved playing tennis and badminton. Basketball was OK. Later, Howie was my basketball coach in high school at Nichols in Buffalo. I liked the church service outside in front of the dining hall. Canoe trips were great.
Bill Crewson was tops; he was like a father to us. My mother arranged to keep us after camp and hired Bill Crewson to take us on canoe trips for maybe three years. Mother wanted to keep us out of the polio problems in the Buffalo area at the time. We, of course, loved it.
My big joy was winning canoe races in Dorset against the local boys and also at Bigwin Inn on the Lake of Bays, and the Camp Otter canoe races for my age group. I would often spend the afternoon paddling around the lake by myself. One time I wrote home and told about paddling way west of the docks and seeing a bear. In my letter I said “the bear went into the woods and then…, love your son, John”.
Sometimes after lunch I would skip nap time and take a canoe and paddle across the lake. If I could not get a canoe, I would walk around the lake and on into Dorset. There I would go to Clayton’s store just over the bridge. I would go to the back of the store and order two blueberry pies. I’d take one pie to the docks, watch the boats go by and eat the whole pie. Then I would buy some Nelsons candy bars, pick up the other pie and head back to camp. Sometimes I could hitchhike. Other times I would have to walk the whole way back.
In the early 50’s my stepfather and brother bought 200 + acres and a mile-plus shoreline on Hardwood lake at the end of the portage from Otter. Bill Crewson had told them about it. In early January 1961, my wife and I plus our 100-pound malamute dog went up to stay in the camp on Hardwood. It was below zero and after two nights we moved in with Bill and Jessie Crewson. I learned that you cannot heat an old camp with a fireplace.
Anyway we still canoe and we recently did a 100-mile canoe trip on the Allagash waterway in Maine. It was about our twelfth canoe trip. We went with a guide and seven canoes, and had a great time. We have learned to paddle in rapids and I used to stand up in the canoe to scout for rocks. We use 17-foot Old Town trippers, the Rolex of canoes. They slide over the rocks. At 79 and 76 years old, that may be our last canoe trip. I owe it to Camp Otter, Bill Crewson, and Howie Ortner for learning those skills.
We have gone to Lake Temagami with my stepdad to fish several times. It’s a huge lake 100 miles north near North Bay, Ontario. We would use a motor boat and tow a canoe, but the Allagash waterway in Maine is the best…great camp sites and only quarter-mile portages. The fishing is lousy, but in September we see a lot of moose, bald eagles, and ducks.
Howie ran a great camp. It was not rigid and the canoe trips where great. I still remember being at Sandy Beach when the news came that the war was over…must have been 1945. I feel very lucky to have had a Camp Otter experience.
Rachel Rogers Clarke, Charles Rogers & Bernie Clarke
Peter Crandall – 1932-34
Peter Crandall only attended Otter for a few years, but the memories were so strong that he self-published his own book about those times before he died.
It’s not only a fun read, it also includes some great old photos of camp including a shot of Bill Crewson out on the lake in the winter getting ready to cut ice for the icehouse. Peter made another trip back to Dorset and Lake Otter in 2006 with his wife and his journal includes photos from that journey.
Martha Otis – 1956-58
YOU CAN’T GO BACK
I used to tell people my philosophy – that you can’t go back, as much as you may want to.
Don’t even try. Hold the memory, that’s all you can do. If you try to “go back” you will be disappointed.
I TAKE IT ALL BACK. We Camp Otterites DID GO BACK. Not only in place – to Dorset, to Otter Lake – but in spirit. More than I ever imagined possible, I became my camper self – Tiddlie. Not all at once, but little by little as we gathered together for meals and presentations, sharing memories and our present lives.
When the old camp register was produced, I saw my signature, written by my teenage self, proving I was not in a dream. On Saturday we gathered at Camp Otter. The new residents greeted us kindly and allowed us to walk around on the banks, paddle around in canoes and swim. The weather had been cold, but on Saturday, the 6th of September, the sun shone and sparkled on the water. We sparkled. All was right with the world.
It was not easy to pull away, just as I remember, back in the day, not wanting to leave the Main Lodge at night and return to the cabin. I loved our evenings by the campfire and in the Lodge as much as daytime activities. Games, skits, story telling, dances – the Rogers had an unending treasure trove of fun things to do. We supplied our own little dramas and romances. Eight weeks never seemed long enough.
In my memory the canoe trips merge together as a series of deep experiences– with a spritual feeling that comes from closeness to nature and animals (bears. moose, beavers.) We learned to trust others and ourselves. Going to sleep with the Northern Lights dancing overhead is unforgettable.
A thrilling memory is my training to swim a race in the Dorset Regatta under the patient coaching of Bob Swanick. The 440? Is that what we called it? For me a very long way to swim. I could swim across the lake – a whole mile, but then I could take my time. This was supposed to be FAST, the first half against the current, swimming under the bridge to some marked spot and then returning, thankfully with the current.
Pretty soon I realized I was not going to actually WIN but that just doing it, completing the race however I could, was what mattered. On the return towards the end, as I approached the bridge, I could hear and then see the whole camp cheering me on, standing on the bridge as I swam under. There was at least one swimmer behind me – I swear to it. I was not the last, but it would not have mattered. I was greeted with cheers. Rekindling this memory afresh gives me strength today for whatever lies ahead.
The last night of the reunion, we gathered again at the community center – it was beginning to feel like the old dining porch. Long tables and noisy as we talked nonstop and ate and drank (wine , a new kind of bug juice…Read Doug’s blog entry for the details.)
“Sadie Hawkins” ended up in Bogie’s pocket and he brought us “home” with a rousing “Do Your Ears Hang Low” which somehow, we all remembered complete with hand motions. After dinner and cleanup we wandered down to a camp fire in a park that “our counselers” (you know who you are) had prepared, by the lake. We really “went back” as we sang camp songs – through our tears – accompanied by guitar, following printouts that Larry Rublee provided.
Finally small candle boats were passed out – Bogie and the Ortners must have been working all day. We carried the lit candles down to the lake and set them free, just as we did so many years ago. It was a memory I hold in my heart. I never dreamed I would do it again.
I can hardly find words to express the warm joy of being reunited with my camp friends and finding others who had been little kids, but now, share these experiences and the love of a place that we know continues. The banks of Camp Otter are there today, and beautiful as I remember. I want to thank all who made this reunion possible. These are some of my memories, blended with the fresh experience of a most wonderful reunion.
Martha (Tiddlie) Otis – 1956-1958. (14-16 yrs old, I think… approximately… except I have never left!)
Larry Rublee has served on the Reunion Planning Committee and played a major role in helping to reconstruct our master database of living alumni….essential to reaching out to all of you. Years ago, Jim Boguslawski was Larry’s first counselor at Otter and last fall, he and Bogie, along with Doug Webster, traveled back to Dorset as part of the planning process. Here’s a then and now comparison, followed by some memories from Larry.
One memory I have is of one particular canoe trip. We were near the end of the portage into Grassy Bay and we came upon a group of Boy Scouts (no disrespect to the Boy Scouts as I was once one of them). The scouts were in the process of making multiple trips across the portage to carry all their gear. They carried the canoes, right side up, frequently stopping to rest. We set in and drifted out a few yards from shore. Then one of our crew had an idea. He said, “just imitate what I do”. He then inverted his paddle and started to stroke with the handle in the water and the blade in the air.
The lead Boy Scout shouted “What are you doing? Don’t you know how to paddle?” Our leader said, “Oh, this is a new way of paddling, much more efficient, must less resistance in the water.” When we looked back at the scouts, all their eight canoes now in the water and loaded with a ton of gear, and all the scouts were now paddling using the new “improved”method!!
My favorite lake in Algonquin Park is Macintosh Lake at the end of the Ink Lake portage. Perhaps because the Ink Lake portage was mostly through swamp, on two-log bridges and quite treacherous. If you slipped, you went into the muck up to your hips. Not a fun portage. But Macintosh Lake was worth the effort. Almost round and about a mile in diameter, it had a very low-lying shoreline. I remember just lying on my back in the bottom of a canoe tethered to the shore, looking up at the stars on a moonless night. I have never felt such peace. A special place.
George Walker – The Hudson Bay Trip – 1967: 500 Miles in 5 1/2 Weeks
I had always heard about the ultimate Otter trip….from Camp to the southern end of Hudson’s Bay, but never anything more than the broad outlines. So recently, after receiving a package of materials from Mike Duffy, including a post-trip newspaper clipping about the journey, I e-mailed all the participants I could contact (George Walker, Parke Rublee, John Berner, Tom Sanderson, and Daniel Barth – Pete Kenerson is still among the missing) and asked them if they had any pictures or old narratives of their trip they could share.
George Walker said he had an old journal (and he is still looking for it) but he took the time to write down the following and we are hoping that with that to jog memories, the others will add to it and it will grow as memory jogs memory jogs memory.
Here is George Walker’s starting contribution and we hope it will grow with additional input and with luck, some more photos from the trip:
GW: The Hudson Bay story starts, of course with Park Huber. I arrived at Camp Otter at barely thirteen years of age and was, like most first year campers, scared and callow. But as I settled into Cabin 1, I noticed a cluster of boys huddled around Park, who was pointing to a map posted on the wall of the Otter kitchen and outfitter’s room. I hustled out there to find out what the excitement was about. Park was saying that someday he wanted to lead a trip to North Bay and then. . . . then . . . someday. . . a trip to “Hudson Bay.” The guys started clamoring: “Can I go with you, Park?” What did I know? I joined in: “Me, too! Can I go, Park?”
It was my first day. I didn’t even know how to paddle a canoe. Such was the magic of Otter.
I think I was sixteen when Jim Day led a trip to North Bay, and I was lucky enough to be chosen for it, although Jim and some fellow campers alike had doubts about my abilities. I worked hard to show them I was worthy.
A decade of glorious Otter summers passed. But my heroes, the counselors who I thought would surely lead the “great trip.” (Hyperbole always prevailed. The trip wasn’t even going to Hudson Bay; it was going to James Bay. OK, that’s the southernmost tip of Hudson Bay, and we took the train around a part of the Abitibi River deemed too dangerous to paddle. But still . . .) Charlie Rogers had died; Park Huber had moved on to other adventures, and I was stunned when Rachael and Bernie asked me to lead the trip. I had paddled with trippers I knew to be far superior to me and so I asked the Clarks, “Why me?”
Rachel said, “Because we know this is a dangerous trip; and we know we can trust you.” (I think the truth was that they just wanted to get me out of camp, because I wouldn’t grow up and I wouldn’t leave!) I told Park the reason they gave for choosing me, and told him how perplexed I was that they hadn’t picked him, years ago. “It may have been a trust issue,” he wrote to me. “Leading one trip throughout an entire night, in total darkness, may have hurt my chances.”
Barb and I married the Christmas before the trip, and she very legitimately asked me why I would leave her for such a foolhardy adventure. I told her that if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be the man she fell in love with. So she let me go, and we haven’t left each other’s side for any significant length of time since the day I got back from that trip.
A whole year went into preparation for the trip. I scouted the route after the 1966 camp season was over, hitch-hiking up to Cochrane and taking the Polar Bear Express (train) all the way to Moosonee. That winter, Bernie purchased two Grumman aluminum canoes and I set about recruiting a crew, with a booklet, as I recall, filled with a description of the trip and a personal invitation to each of them to join us.
What a team! They were and are magnificent and there would have been no Hudson Bay trip without them. They were Dan Barth, John Berner, Peter Kennerson, Park Rublee, and Tom Sanderson. The rest of the story is theirs. Their skill, their endurance, their courage, and their energy were unmatched
We paddled off to the cheers of Otter campers like soldiers marching off to save our country’s freedom, for heaven’s sake! What a rush! What a bunch of hype! And how frightening! There were more than a few who thought we’d never make it. One fellow Otterite asked me if I had prepared myself to handle the return to camp when the challenge had beaten us. Yes, we were scared. But as I said, the rest of the story belongs to my fellow trippers. Here is a handful of miscellaneous memories:
I’ll bet that in every Hudson’s Bay tripper’s vocabulary to this day is the phrase, “‘Course, I did it.” That sentence was spoken to us at Kiosk, when we were about to paddle north on the river Amable du Fond. (I found a photo of the Amable du Fond in a Canadian calendar and now have that picture framed and on my office wall, because it became iconic to Hudson Bay trippers.) The statement – “‘Course, I did it.” – was made by a local who was watching us head for the river. And it was preceded by the words, “You boys lookin’ to get yourselves killed? You can’t go down that river. It’s too dangerous.” [Pause.] “‘Course, I did it.” He scared us, but we made it – wading at times, towing the canoes through rapids with ropes from the shore, portaging around a gorgeous waterfall; but we made it. And as we paddled out of the river’s end, I remember John Berner grinning ear to ear and shouting, “You boys lookin’ to get yourselves killed? You can’t paddle that river! ‘Course I did it!” We shouted and said it over and over, and our courage grew.
I remember shooting rapids and watching Tom Sanderson, seeing a jutting rock just ahead, execute a cross-bow rudder that not only saved them, but made me hoot with appreciation, like I had just seen an Olympic star at his very best.
I remember, since we would be far away from provisions for a long time, making what we ended up calling “Hudson Bay Lead Bread.” It was a pan-fried, unleavened flour mixture that had to pass for bread. It had sugar in it, which made it pleasant going down, but then it sat in your belly like a lump of lead. But Dan Barth liked it, and actually wrote me for the recipe when we got home. I sent it to him, but reminded him that he had to season it generously with twigs, pine needles, and dirt.
I remember a four to five foot waterfall that wasn’t marked on our maps, and was around a bend, further exacerbated by a fallen log, which forced us into the center of the river. Whoosh! There we were, in the midst of it, water gushing in over the thwarts. “Paddle!” I shouted, calling on some instinct I wasn’t aware of. I think it was Park Rublee in the bow, obeying but responding incredulously, “Paddle?!?” “Paddle!” I repeated, and somehow we got through it, totally swamped, everything soaked, but right side up.
We pushed to shore and looked back. The guys in the other canoe – I told you they were amazing – had often avoided a sudden water shoot or rock by powerful back-watering strokes, actually overcoming the raging river and repositioning themselves for a better path. This amazed me, but alas, they tried it on this waterfall and did not succeed. Their canoe capsized and came out of the waterfall empty. My memory fails me, but I think it was Tom Sanderson and John Berner, whose heads popped up first. Then – in the single most terrifying moment of my life – Dan Barth’s hat floated by. But before I had time to react, he rose to the surface, spitting water, but smiling by the time he reached the shore.
I remember Dan as the master coffee maker. I remember Park Rublee as the always smiling, always steady tripper, and a great cook! I remember Peter Kennerson as the gentle, competent, good guy, who took it all in stride. I remember that John Berner left for the trip very reluctantly, because he had fallen in love. I was scornful of his wanting to give up such a trip, and we would have missed him greatly. But he had read his heart correctly, and has been married to that girl for decades. I remember Tom Sanderson’s perfect paddling and cross-bow rudders.
I remember all five of them, when Jane Wardwell met us halfway along to bring provisions – and Barb – with whom I interrupted the trip for a night in a hotel for a conjugal visit. When they drove away the next morning, I stood on the dirt road for a long, long time and when I turned around, I found 5 guys who had been standing there, that whole time – glaring at me. A bit of embarrassment then, but no regrets!
And I remember the day we paddled up to the shores of Moosonee, our trip over. I broke good canoeing rules and stood up in the stern of the canoe, and gave an impolite salute to those who said we’d never make it. It was a passing moment of humor that didn’t last long. What has lasted a lifetime is the moment when I stepped out of that canoe, because at that moment and forevermore, I knew who I was.
Barbara Webster Tannen – 1960-1965
I first went to Otter when I was 9, following in the footsteps of my father, Ed Webster (in the 20’s), cousins Lin and Dick Webster (not sure what years), and older brothers Doug, Tom, and Chuck. While I was excited to go and had all of my brothers there, I was soon homesick and wrote to ask to come home even before the end of the first month. My attitude changed and I ended up staying the full 2 months and went back for five more years. I suspect my parents got in touch with the Rogers to help me adjust and I also remember a wonderful conversation with Bill Crewson that helped me settle in.
Bill told me about the first year my dad came to camp from Ithaca, NY around 1925. My grandfather arranged for him to ride up with the two “colored” kitchen boys in the back of a pick-up truck along with a wood cook stove. What my grandfather had not considered was what the customs officials thought of this trio as they crossed the border at 3:00 am! Apparently a phone call back to Ithaca cleared the way and they arrived the next day where the road ended at Bill’s farm. Bill then paddled my dad and his gear across the lake to the camp. And while Bill always called me “Dearie” as he did with others, it made me feel special.
So many of my memories were about canoe trips. My first one was the 3-day “Round Lake” trip that left from camp and my brother Doug was one of the trip leaders. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he saw a suspicious lump in my rolled-up sleeping bag. He allowed as how I could not take my favorite feather baby pillow with me on the trip. As far as I was concerned, he got off on the wrong foot when he couldn’t find one of the portages and I think we had to go back without making the full circle trip.
If my memory serves me right, I went on the same trip either that summer or maybe the next year and Bob Swanick was one of the trip leaders. Because of my first experience and the anticipation of a 3 mile portage to Livingston Lake, I got myself all wound up and complained of a stomach ache, thinking that it would somehow get me out of having to go. The strategy had helped me get out of going to school in the past so why shouldn’t it work this time? Bob’s theory was I just needed to throw-up and then I’d feel better. So he stuffed raisins down my throat to make me throw-up, but all I did was gag since I hated raisins. I realized then that I had no choice but to put on my pack and get going. As it turned out, I was the first one across the portage and was very proud of my accomplishment! It was one of many positive experiences I had through the years at Otter.
Other canoe trip memories include the time we were on campsite on a point on Burnt Island across from an island where a group of about 25 Girl Scouts were camping. Larry Rublee and I think Jane Wardwell were our trip leaders. We were hanging out in our tent after we had cleaned up from dinner when they came to tell us to pack everything up immediately because a bear had raided the campground and taken our bread pack. We loaded everything into our canoes and went to the island to spend the night, only to find out that there was also a bear on the island. Larry offered to stay up all night to keep a fire going, though we all figured he just wanted to meet the Girls Scouts who were taking turns staying up to fend off the bear.
Larry was also the leader of the longest trip I went on up to Cedar Lake the last year I was at camp. For some reason we ended up with only one working flashlight by the time we got close to the last portage into Cedar. We were also somehow behind schedule so Larry led the way for groups of three of us at a time across the portage, and then went back to get the next group while the rest of us waited on the beach. He enjoyed freaking us out by showing us a cross that marked where someone had died trying to run the rapids we were portaging around. We then paddled in the dark over to the town dock in Brent where we settled in for the night. We were awakened early the next morning with waves splashing up through the dock and by people stepping over us. Fortunately it was a rest day because the wind and waves were so strong we couldn’t have gotten back across the lake.
Other canoe trip memory snip-its: The dreaded Ink Lake portage, not wanting to have to be the one to carry Jane Wardwell’s beautiful paddle while she portaged a canoe for fear the paddle might get dinged, paddling the never-ending Grassy Bay, the time I forgot my bathing suit so had to swim in a big man’s shirt that was see through when wet, but finding a bathing suit at a campsite which saved my teenage honor because it was the same day an Otter boy’s trip passed by, mosquitos and black flies the size of B-52 bombers that resulted in the need for a blood transfusion by the end of the trip, Rangely (today called gorp) – with the raisins removed, Spam (only edible when fried), making big dough boys that were usually burnt on the outside and raw in the middle (resulting once in Drew Kale yelling at me “Webster get your doughboy out of the fire!”), bug juice, soaping pots in an effort to make cleaning the burned-on black soot “easier” to clean off (didn’t help much), dreaded leeches, conversing with loons, learning not to be a lily-dipper but loving to paddle through water lilies, crying on portages but saying how much fun we had at the campfire back at camp, falling over backwards like an upside down turtle and not being able to get back up when trying to rest on a log with your pack on, plus many other great memories.
Back at camp memory snip-its: summer romances with occasional matchmaking help from Rachel, going to the camp store after lunch to get a Burnt Almond candy bar, washing our clothes in the lake and having them get even dirtier when they fell off the branches they were hung on, ice cream on Sundays but not getting an extra serving because we didn’t get the clean cabin award, lugging buckets of water to pour into the latrine, needing a letter home to get into Sunday dinner (see the one I sent in ’61 – I think I learned that technique from brother Chuck)
Getting “dressed up” for Saturday night dances, trying to get as tan as Joanie Fernbach but getting burned instead (and probably the reason I have so many age spots now), swimming to the raft, Woodsman Day, archery and softball games at Sandy Beach, craft activities that involved a lot of boondoggle but never finishing the paddle I started, singing songs in the dining hall and campfires, learning the words to the folk songs the counselors heard on their days off in “civilization” (Four Strong Winds, Blowin’ in the Wind, Where Have all the Flowers Gone are some I remember), Sunday church service on the main lodge porch led by George Walker, skit nights, Mr. and Miss Otter Contests (I think brother Chuck won that one year or at least competed wearing a 2-piece bathing suit [was it Cathy Fernbach’s?]), Christmas in July my first summer and giggling uncontrollably as I sat on Santa’s lap –knowing it was my brother Doug, being afraid of the snapping turtle that lived near the canoe dock, skinny dipping when the boys camp was sent to town, pumping water from the well by the lodge and the metallic taste, and setting lit candle “boats” on the lake after the last campfire of the summer and crying because the summer was over.
I would have gone to Otter for several more years but took an opportunity to go to England for a summer study tour after 10th grade not realizing the implications. I found out the next year that that meant that there wasn’t an available counselor job. I was very sad.
I have always said that my experiences at Camp Otter made me the person I am today. I was a very shy, scared little girl when I first went there. But the challenges, friendships, and sense of being part of one big family played a huge part in my development. I proudly tell my stories about spending two months every summer for six years with no electricity or running water and going off into the wilds for up to a week with the oldest person only a teenager. None of this could happen today and that is unfortunate. We were blessed to have had such a great opportunity!
Doug Webster – 1955-1960
Memories of Camp Otter? Wow…I could easily write a decent sized book of my memories covering the six wonderful years I spent there.
As I noted in another memory post about the Rogers and Berner Clarke, my father had gone to Otter and worked as a counselor in the 30s. In the mid-50s, the family was living in Lafayette, IN where dad worked for Purdue University. I’m not sure how, given the fact that this was well before the ease of finding things on the Internet, (I am now guessing that as a Cornell graduate, he saw regular ads about Otter in the Alumni magazine) but he got in touch with either Howie Ortner or Rachel and Charlie Rogers and as summer began, I was on an eastbound train out of South Bend with a steamer trunk full of stuff. The contents were dictated by a detailed list of “Things to Bring” supplied by the Rogers, and all of it was carefully identified by sewn-on cloth labels with my name on them. As I remember, those labels were small and my mother was not super excited about sewing them on.
I stayed overnight with the Rogers in Buffalo and the next day boarded a school bus full of campers for the day-long ride to Dorset. In those days, the main roads in Canada were not as developed as they are today and you had to get around Hamilton with its big lift bridge to allow passage of ore ships into the harbor, so chances were you could wind up in a major traffic jam en route. I do remember that we arrived at camp late in the afternoon. The bus stopped out at the main road and we hauled our gear up a path to the cabins and found our bunks before heading to the main lodge for dinner. Fittingly, I recall, the main elements were bologna sandwiches and powdered lemonade, better known in the language of many summer camps, as “bug juice.”
I really didn’t know much about Otter or its traditions when I arrived and everything was new to me. Things sort of happened in a first-year blur of activities….baseball games at Sandy Beach, tennis on the court next to the Main Lodge (always an adventure given the large amounts of sand in the soil and the constant battle to create some semblance of a level surface using calcium chloride and lots of raking and rolling.) And of course, water activities, leading with canoeing, swimming and sailing. You had to pass a swim test first to qualify for everything else and after that you got lessons in canoeing including learning how to use the J-stroke, and how to recover if your canoe turned over, plus water rescues and the fireman’s carry.
Canoes were king at Otter because the camp placed great emphasis on canoe trips. Depending on your age, you could expect to go out on anywhere from 1-2 trips ranging from overnights on one of the Lake Otter islands, or two or three day loop trips in the area or in Algonquin for the youngest, to longer adventures of a week or more as you got older and had more experience.
In those days, continual summer travels by Otter trips directly out of Lake Otter meant that portage trails were open to adjacent lakes like Kawagama via Little Otter. We could also start with an initial portage right out of camp and up the lake road to Hardwood and then venture over routes via Wolf Lake into Algonquin and its myriad of routes.
These were magical times. We of course didn’t have the lightweight camping gear available today. Instead of tents, we carried canvas tarps that were stretched across a pair of overturned canoes to provide shelter during rainy days. Food was powdered, dried or canned and we carried lots of cans in those days. We ate off enamel-covered plates and bowls and woe betide you if one of those got packed wrong and wound up stabbing you in the back across a portage. Food was cooked over open fires, and we drank water right out of the lake with no worries about giardia or other bugs.
Of course the water often got flavored….everything from powdered milk for breakfast cereals to bug juice, Kool Aid or (for a mercifully brief time) a flavored Alka Selzer-like tablet called Fizzies. Kool Aid packets were not pre-sweetened, so we carried lots of sugar in cloth sacks to sweeten it.
It was a tradition that at lunchtime on canoe trips, whoever made the Kool Aid for the meal got the first cup full and usually at that time we had been paddling hard all morning, so we were very thirsty. On one memorable occasion, fellow camper Tim Heasley was the drink mixer and as soon as he stirred the pot, he grabbed a mug and had downed about half of it before he suddenly realized that he had grabbed the wrong bag and “sweetened” the whole batch with salt instead of sugar.
On that same trip, and actually on that same day, as I recall, Tim (who was a big burly guy and a high school football player) was paddling strenuously against a very strong headwind as we labored towards Kiosk Lake when suddenly, his paddle snapped. So there we were, nearly as far away from Otter as we were going on this journey and short a paddle. But in one of those inexplicable quirks of fate that sometimes happen, on the very next portage, Tim found a perfectly good paddle lying in the middle of the trail. (See sister Barbara’s tale of forgetting a bathing suit and finding one during the trip.)
Anyone who has done much canoe tripping will tell you that when you are on a long lake, it isn’t long before you start wishing you were on the next portage. And once you were on the portage, you quickly began dreaming of the next lake. In the course of our summers we crossed literally thousands of portages ranging from just a few yards around an old logging chute to legendary hauls like the Bonfield – Dixon in Algonquin at about 3.4 miles.
Now 3.4 miles might not seem like a lot and it isn’t, until you stop to consider two things. We were carrying either packs or canoes and in some cases both. The better 16-foot canoes at Otter were hand-built, canvas-covered, and ideally suited for tripping….usually with a slight keel for tracking, and a wide and deep hull to carry three people and two packs comfortably.
However, over the course of the summer, as canoes went out on a succession of trips and dozens of campers climbed in and out of them from wet and muddy footing on shorelines, water managed to soak its way into ribs and planking and the weight increased from around 65 to 75 or 80 pounds.
As noted, we didn’t have lightweight camping gear. Everything went into large canvas sacks called Duluth packs with shoulder straps and a tumpline. No frames, no waist belt, no chest strap….just a big canvas sack into which you jammed everything you needed for the trip: extra clothing, food including sacks and cans, cooking gear, utensils, first aid, and of course bulky sleeping bags and canvas tarps. With a typical trip, the crew usually consisted of six or 9 including campers and a couple of counselors and two or three canoes. That meant we had either four or six packs in which to pack everything we needed for trips that lasted 7-10 days, and in some cases two weeks or more and sometimes went from camp to the northernmost end of Algonquin and back.
Clearly, that was a lot of weight. I remember on my second or third summer, getting my baptism of fire on the Bonfield – Dixon. It was hot and my pack was so heavy that, if I fell down with it, I could not get back up without help. It also had been packed poorly and I quickly began feeling the edge of a tin plate tapping my spine with every stride.
The tumpline was a leather strap, attached to the top front of the pack and you adjusted it so that you could grab it with both hands, pull it forward, and place the wider center part of it on the top of your head periodically in order to shift weight from the shoulder straps. Carrying weight on your head, on your shoulders or a combination of both by pulling on the tump with your hands to carry some of the load helped shift the centers of “agony” during non-stop portages.
Worse yet on this particular passage, a major thunderstorm had swept over the portage at some point prior to our trip and we found ourselves having to work our way around and through a pick-up-sticks maze of blow-downs. And to make it all especially wonderful, it was the height of the bug season and that meant both mosquitos, and flies that could hurt when they bit. If you were carrying a canoe, especially in the rain, the bugs loved to join you underneath the canoe and feast on you while you tried to swat them away. You could slather on bug “dope” but it wasn’t much help when you sweated and the dope then washed down into your eyes and stung like crazy.
We quickly learned that at Otter, there was a code we followed, and that meant non-stop portages regardless of the length. You were allowed to rest your pack on a log for a bit, but if you took your pack off, en-route, that wasn’t non-stop. The same code held true for those carrying the canoes.
Otter’s tripping canoes were surprisingly light compared to many such craft available…a feature of their expert construction. But they were still heavy when you were carrying them on your shoulders. One of the skills portagers were encouraged to learn involved “flipping” a canoe up onto your shoulders. Done properly, you gripped the gunwale rail in both hands and tipped the canoe on its side, hoisted it onto your bent knees, and while holding the upper gunwale with one hand, slipped your other arm underneath, and in one motion lifted and flipped it onto your shoulders.
To carry the load, two paddles were laid across the center thwart and the handles pointed forward to rest on the front seat or thwart. It was common for portagers to rig up their own lashings, using sash cord, so that paddle blades could be slid in between the center thwart and the cord on the middle with the handles tied to the front seat or thwart. That way, paddles could be placed into the lashings before the canoe was flipped and would be held in place as you slid your head between the blades to rest on your shoulders. By leaving spaces across the center thwart from a center lashing, you had room to move the blades outward or inward slightly during the portage to ease pressure on sore spots and lesson the “agony.” A sweatshirt thrown over the shoulders provided some level of padding.
The view from under the canoe, while portaging, was limited, and you had to continually raise the bow slightly to see the path ahead, adjust for rocks and roots and downed trees, twists and changes of elevation in the trail and the occasional swamp. A camp legend recounts one memorable swampy path between lakes known lovingly as “The Kaibo” which, we were informed in whispers, was the word the Algonquin Indians used for “poop” (to be polite.)
The path across the Kaibo featured a series of man-made “walkways” consisting of a pair of logs nailed to cross logs at either end and strung together into a crude path above the muck and stretching for hundreds of feet. The only problem with this contraption was that when it was wet or muddy (which was most of the time) it was very slippery, and the chances of plunging off and finding yourself standing knee deep in the muck was pretty high.
One day, according to legend, an Otter counselor found himself in just such muck after a long struggle to control his canoe and then his temper, and from underneath the canoe he launched a stream of invective, laced with profanities, that threatened to remove the bark from the nearby trees.
At just that time however, and unbeknownst to him because his vision was obstructed, a girl’s canoe trip from another camp came across the trail from the other direction. As the head of the trip walked by she reportedly said, “I agree,” and kept walking.
The bug season could be truly awful on canoe trips and we all longed for that magic moment, usually in late July or early August when the first cold snap swept through the region. One cold night was usually enough to bring the stinging and biting bugs down to reason and eventually their departure. Because we lacked tents, we could find ourselves lying out in the open in a bulky sleeping bag on a very hot night and trying desperately to protect ourselves from attack. But whether it was wrapping towels around your head, burrowing into the already too-hot bag or swatting, getting sleep was a major challenge.
One summer I was in such a situation and wound up convincing another camper to join me. We grabbed one of our canoes and our sleeping bags and paddled out into the middle of the large lake we were camped on, then lay down in the bottom…blessedly bug free..for a couple of hours of sleep. But in the middle of the night, we awoke to find ourselves back against the shore and again under attack, so we paddled out one more time and slept until dawn.
Long portages, swamps, bugs, heat, rain, heavy packs……we’d bitch and moan about it during the trip, but when we got back to camp and told everyone about our trips, those became the primary sources of humor and part of the memory of tripping. We’d also remember the things that stuck with us for the rest of our lives: paddling through a stretch of beaver ponds in the Otterslides so early in the morning that we found ourselves coming right up behind a beaver swimming in the channel in front of us, or awakening a great blue heron on a beaver dam as we pulled up. Seeing the morning sun shining through a large stand of fog-shrouded birch trees on a hillside that looked like ranks of organ pipes, or watching a moose grazing in a marshy bay, oblivious to our presence. Green river grasses swaying under the currents of the crystal clear Petawawa River. The remnants of turn-of-the-century logging operations in the north woods.
And always, the quintessential sound of the Canadian wilderness….the call of loons at dusk……their “laughter” and the long drawn haunting wail of beauty and isolation and loneliness that continued to echo from shore to shore in the twilight.
And there were the adventures….a two-week trip to Kiosk at the northern edge of Algonquin including a “blaze your own path” journey into an overgrown section of the park below Radiant Lake. Getting caught in a sudden squall line along the Canadian National railroad tracks just after emerging from a jumbled section of recently lumbered forest, and facing winds so strong they lifted counselor Park Huber and the canoe he was carrying off the ground before he let go. The canoe tumbled like a leaf over 20 feet in the air before hitting a pine tree and dropping to the ground, fortunately suffering only a tear in its canvas which we quickly repaired.
(This was part of a two-week trip in Algonquin and we returned to camp in the midst of a two-day downpour which meant all of our gear and our clothing was soaking wet. Our return to Otter was the same day that campers needed to send home any large trunks that needed shipping. In my case, that meant shipment back from Dorset and Huntsville to home in Lafayette, IN.
“Get those trunks packed,” we were ordered, and so I did — throwing everything, including the wet and decidedly rank clothes I had been wearing on the trip, into the trunk, locking it and labeling it for shipment. It got back home about three weeks later and during the journey, the contents created a new species of mold. My mother opened the lid, reeled backwards and promptly dumped it all into the trash.)
Camp life also included occasional trips to Dorset or even Huntsville (where I went on a day off to see Bill Haley and the Comets at the height of their “Rock Around the Clock” fame.) There were trips to the Dorset fire tower and of course to Clayton’s and Robinson’s stores. It was always a mystery to us how a town as small as Dorset could support two general stores, but it did….perhaps because of the summer campers who surged through to buy Macintosh toffees, ice cream, drinks and fruit.
My brother Chuck (who also attended Otter along with brother Tom and sister Barbara) was famed for an exploit one summer involving both stores. According to the story, he marched into Clayton’s one day and bought a cantaloupe from them….then marched across the bridge to Robinson’s and sold it to them for 5 cents more. It may have been vice versa, but the legend endures and so does Chuck.
Lots of campers over the year remember Bill Crewson and his name and exploits are part of many stories posted here. His tenure covered a very large part of the camp’s history and the camp and its operations and its buildings and systems continued to operate through those years because of his skills.
And even as he was working every day, adding to, altering or repairing those structures and systems, Bill still had an influence on everyone whose lives he touched. He was big and he was very strong and he had skills we all deeply admired from carving paddles to building log structures to gliding his canoe across the lake with a seemingly effortless stroke. Campers rode his horses, ate corn from his farm, and listened to his stories. His name will endure as long as the memory of Otter endures.
We forget today that skills with an axe and a saw, knowing how to cut ice from a lake, and build and stock an ice house and cut enough wood to keep camp stoves cooking all summer and clearing deep snows from cabins in the winter, were what kept Otter going and kept Otter Otter.
He started his married life with Jessie living in a log cabin at Sandy Beach and raised his family there before moving to the farm property on the south shore of Otter where he lived the remainder of his life and was part of the life of Otter.
There are memories captured in words and phrases….Tam-o-shanters….(the wool caps that were the rage one summer among campers) mukluks…(.the leather boots with felt innersoles that were popular another summer.) Fizzies, operation flush, smoking pipes, summer romances, the Dorset Regatta, lifelong friendships, Klim (powdered milk), Red River (a cereal that looked like it was made from bird seed), PB&J (to save space we mixed it all together for canoe trips), love of the outdoors, and camping and exploration.
Otter provided them all. And for so many of us those years had a profound impact on our lives in a very positive way. It was a primitive camp….no electricity, water from a pump (and it was cold and delicious), no refrigeration – just the ice house, wood and then gas stoves, screened cabins for sleeping, swimming in the lake for showers. Everyone did everything together, and everyone learned the Otter rules of life: You can do more than you think you can, you can endure more than you think you can. Take time to stop and enjoy what is around you. Find humor in adversity. Teamwork.
Nobody handed you a book or a sheet of paper with those rules. You learned them just by being there.
I’ll bet a good many alumni secretly wish, as I do, that Camp Otter were still operating and that we might go back once more. But time passes, life changes, and you can’t always go back to the way it was before. It would be almost impossible today to run a Camp Otter under the old systems, without amenities, and in the face of the rules, regulations, laws and requirements that govern our lives today, and there is the rub. There should be a way because all of us who went there know that it worked. We weren’t deprived at all.
WE were blessed!!!
Dave Walker and Peter Dustin 1960
August 17. 2016
I have taken up the “challenge” to find something for you to post on the website Camp Otter, Dorset, Ontario, Join Around the Campfire.
In my eleven years at camp I never took a photo, keeping the visuals deeply within the medial temporal lobe of my brain. Keepsake objects kept were also few: a Camp Otter banner, donated to the Dorset museum, a cherry paddle I made, which developed a crack in the blade and was stitched with copper wire and that was later stolen at Marsh Creek Reservoir in PA, and a hat and zipper-up notebook from Jane Wardwell.
Posted before were some things Jane had bequeathed to me. She, as we know was well organized and had an infectious, distinctive laugh. While inheriting from her the role of Outfitter, I also inherited her notebook and organizational tools for outfitting canoe trips. Without her assistance I would not had an easy start. Thus, I still have some records of canoe trips taken in 1965 that I outfitted. The remains of the records I have in Jane’s notebook are not complete; I have rearranged them hopefully with some accuracy, and include images of them along with this letter.
I suppose it is fitting that the Outfitter role eventually fell on my shoulders. As a young camper Parky Huber nicknamed me “Peter Eater”. I will not mention the amount of hot dogs and ears of corn-on-the-cob I wolfed away on a couple of Sunday cookouts at Rocky Point, only to say it was staggering. There was the time when I, as a young camper, was “punished” at the end of breakfast for complaining of not having had enough to eat. Rachel marched me, along with two counselors, Parky Huber and perhaps Dick Winters, if I recall correctly, off to the kitchen. She placed a full box of cereal, a pitcher of milk, and a plastic bowl with a flat bottom, which was larger than what the whole box a cereal could contain, in front of each of us. We were directed to eat all of the milk and cereal— which we did. I was never part of the prune crowd, however. There was a group that included my brother and Dave Pohlman that managed to take all the bowls of stewed prunes, put aside by the many who did not like prunes, and to finish the lot.
Thus it is I came to preparing quantities of food and setting menus for canoe trips. If memory serves, trip leaders had some say in what types of food they would like to have included. That was the start of menus prepared for them. They were also charged in bringing back equipment in good order and were required to return cooking ware fully cleaned, ready to go for the next trip. Jane’s hat, by the way, I kept and wore, for a while, on the canoe trips I continued to take post Camp Otter.
I apologize if I have put any of these outfitting records out of order. Jane would be proud of any disorder. As she included in one of her printed works, Roberts’ Rules of Disorder, a sample of a vocation of hers outside of Otter and one of her interests being in the various forgotten printing type fonts:
“Sifting disorder from one place to another is a great source of satisfaction”.
In the spirit of Rick Rider’s The Inspection Song, where it is expressed, let’s keep the cabin clean as a bribe to the management to get more ice cream, my brother and I had the benefit one summer of not having to consider bribes. We worked as kitchen help in the post camp family week. One benefit was free access to the ice house, where we would help ourselves to as much ice cream as we wanted at the end of the days’ chores.
In the Introduction to the little pamphlet, Roberts’ Rules of Disorder, Jane writes:
“I discovered at age nine the folly of attempting order. In school at the end of the day we had to sit quietly with hands folded on clean desk tops before the class would be dismissed. Out of nowhere appeared a pencil. I couldn’t put it in my desk as it wasn’t mine so I picked it up and threw it. You can guess who it hit. She was my favorite teacher, too: let me write left-handed all year.”