Camp Onyahsa: It’s The Only Place For Me

I took a ride around the lake the other day and what I liked most was visiting the places that loom so large in my memory.

It’s like taking a ride through time and finding little pieces of my childhood tucked away in coves and bays and patches of wood.

I went to Camp Onyahsa in the summers when I was growing up and to my 10-year-old self, the place felt endlessly big to me.

The walk to the water sometime around 6:15 in the morning to take a dip and earn my polar bear badge seemed like a hundred-mile pilgrimage, shivering in my bathing suit with a beach towel from home wrapped around my shoulders as I tried to get a read on my own resolve. There were mornings I just stayed in my sleeping bag in my cabin bunk where it was warm, forgoing the badge, unwilling to have the rest of my body feel as cold as my nose was.

My more mature self is mad at the younger me who hated to be uncomfortable. I wish I had grown out of that, because even this morning I’m wrapped in a blanket with my coat on in the second week of May.

Back then at camp, if you got three letters from home on the same day, you’d have to get up at lunch and sing a song standing in the front of the mess hall to what felt like hundreds of thousands of campers.

When it was my brother’s and male cousins’ week to go to camp, I’d mail each one of them three letters on the same day, sprayed with perfume and with lipstick imprinted all over the envelopes. I think they all did a lot of singing during their week – thanks to me – and when I pulled into Camp Onyahsa the other day, I listened for their voices in the walls.

The recent renovation to the camp is really wonderful, and although it looks a whole lot spiffier, I could still point to the cabin I remember staying in the most, where my trunk sat at the end of the bunk beds, full of shorts and T-shirts and the ubiquitous flashlight and aluminum can of orange bug spray.

I am so thankful for the weeks I spent there when I was growing up, making boondoggle key chains and eating grilled cheese. I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow and how to right a canoe and sail a sunfish. I pictured myself on my recent visit running around with an orange life preserver tied under my chin, my long hair wet and tangled, my feet blistered; my shoulders slightly red.

I wonder, do parents write letters to their kids at camp anymore?

Since I can no longer remember what I went downstairs for, it behooves me that I still know every word to every camp song – especially the words to “Camp Onyahsa,” and how it’s the only place for me, and if I pay the rent I can share a tent and when I hear the whistle blow, it’s double one and all for Camp Onyahsa.

And there was the song about meeting a bear in the woods, too, which I’m certain, if pressed, I could still do it some justice.

Nighttime was my favorite time at camp, when the bonfire spit orange embers into the darkness and we chased fireflies across the big field, scraping our flip flops against the dewy grass to remove the remnants of sticky marshmallows.

We’d turn on our flashlights and hike back to our cabins for our sweatshirts, and rush back to the bonfire so we could sneak looks at the cute camp counselor, his face aglow in the firelight. We’d sing our hearts out into the night, our voices piercing that Lake Chautauqua silence, and when it grew quiet, all we could hear was the lapping of the waves against the shore.

That lapping is what I remember most from my childhood. It is the sound I yearned for when I returned here.

“This place used to seem as big as Buffalo to me,” I told my mom when we pulled into the camp the other day.

I sometimes dislike the way our perspectives change as we get older. A favorite poem of mine is by Wordsworth when he writes about how things seem so much more magical when we are young, and how adulthood eventually steals it from us.

But, I’ll tell you something: pulling into Camp Onyahsa, if I squinted my eyes just right, I could see through the mist of the many years that have passed and almost reclaim them.

I remember well that little girl who went off to camp in July.