A friend is traveling in the southern US and is currently in what he calls Bear Country and wanted to know about adventures with wildlife at camp. That might take awhile so here is the first installment.
At Tahquitz Meadows we had all kinds of wildlife, about the only kind we didn’t have at that camp were bears. We had deer, coyotes and gopher snakes and rattlesnakes. We had many birds including quail and thrashers as well as the usual suspects like Stellar Jays and Great Horned Owls.
At that camp we also had a barnyard, because we were working with kids from the inner city the YWCA who owned the camp thought that children should know where their food came from so we had several kinds of chickens , mostly the Phyllis Diller kind also really known as the Araucana , 2 goats, Romeo and Juliet, 2 donkeys, Jack and Jenny, 2 pigs, Pork Chop and Bacon, 2 sheep, Cupcake and Short Cake, some bunnies and Rhode Island Red rooster and a Banty rooster. We also had a lot of horses that people that lived in the desert donated to camp for the summer because it was too hot for them in places like Indio in summer. We also had some miniature horses about the size of collies.
The wild and the tame animals were not always a good fit. One morning we came out and there was blood everywhere in the barnyard and the 2 sheep were dead. The male goat was covered in blood and none of it was his. A coyote had gotten to the sheep which are incredibly stupid and just stood there and let the coyote eat them. Romeo on the other hand seemed to have protected the rest of the barnyard animals by the pattern of the mess. It looked like a crime scene and it was coyote blood the goat was covered in. I had a lot more respect for goats after that and a lot less for the sheep.
The Banty rooster was the bane of our existence and I hated that bird with a passion. He liked to sneak up on you from behind and launch himself spurs first into your calf muscles. I got really good at booting him across the yard but the stupid bird kept it up every time I was out there. I had one prayer that summer. “Please Mr Coyote, eat the Banty Rooster.” About 3/4s through the summer my prayer was answered to great Hallelujahs. I came out that morning and there were feathers everywhere. Who knew one savage little bird had so many? He was the only chicken we couldn’t ever pen up at night and he was gone! I was extremely happy that he had been that coyote’s dinner.
But I had some really glorious moments with the animals too. Our camp bell couldn’t be heard in two far units so one of the rotating staff tasks was to go wake those units up. It was about a 1/2 of a mile walk that we got to take at about 7 am and I used to volunteer for it sometimes because it was a special time.
One morning all was quiet and still and I was about halfway down the road when I heard a rustle and huge buck landed three feet away from me and just stood looking eye to eye with me. I have no idea how long we stood there looking in each other’s eyes. I got lost somewhere in the deep brown, wise depths of that buck’s eyes. He had a huge rack of antlers and was about the most majestic thing I have ever seen and so close I wanted to touch his fur, ticks or not. And then we blinked and he was gone down the embankment to the stream and I breathed and continued down the road in total awe of what I had experienced.
Another morning at about the same place I heard the metallic buzz saw noise that male hummingbirds make and shortly I was very glad that I wore glasses because there he was about 3 inches from my face and really pissed. One of the most beautiful ruby throated hummingbirds I’ve ever seen and he was flashing his throat at me to try and get me out of his territory. Finally, I buzzed him back and he took off and I went and woke up the units.
Out at the back of this camp we had an overnight outpost so the kids could spend a few nights outside under the stars and not in a canvas tent or cabin. We had taken our kids out there and were all arranged on tarps. The staff tarp was on the south side of the outpost at the edge of a very long grassy meadow. We’d been asleep for awhile when I got slugged by the counselor sleeping next to me. I heard. “Don’t move and sit up on the count of three. One…two…three!” and we sat up. There was a coyote standing on the foot of my sleeping bag looking at us. And he took off with a yip and like a shot he took off and we laughed ourselves silly. I guess he was trying to figure out whether we were big sausages all wrapped up just for him.
We had one bathtub in camp and it was a big old claw footed tub from the 1920’s and you signed up for the privilege of a real bath and not a shower. One afternoon great screams started emanating from the back of the cabin where the bathtub was. So of course, everyone took off running to the rescue. Good thing none of the guys were with in hearing distance because one of the female staff was standing naked as a jaybird screaming like it was Armageddon. It wasn’t unless Armageddon is an albino tree frog. He was happily swimming in an out of the bubbles in the tub. I picked up the pretty white frog and took him outside but I think it was the last bath that staff member ever took in that tub. I wished I’d had a terrarium to put him in because white is not an optimal colour for a frog outdoors that doesn’t want to end up a bird’s dinner.
Rain at camp is always a mixed blessing. It cools things off but you have to find safe places for the kids and sometimes you have to dig out.
At Tahquitz Meadows my first paid camp, rain tended to come in torrents and somehow always on a change day. That meant unloading buses and steering bewildered new campers around. Since most of our campers were inner city kids who often had never really seen rain and thunder and lightning or been out of the city, this could turn into rather dark comedy.
One rainy change day I got fed up with my muddy and soggy heavy shoes and rolled up my overalls and went barefoot out of sheer frustration. Some camps that wouldn’t be safe but Tahquitz was fairly hazard free in main camp and it was sure a lot easier. I ended up in a tank top and overalls and nothing else because it was so hot and wet and pretty soon I started a fashion trend. I think it took all of an hour for the other staff to divest themselves of the trash bag ponchos and just strip. The Camp Director was horrified that we were running around without gear but she finally agreed that since it was so warm we weren’t going to get sick and it was easier to dry off and change than the alternative. If you are going to look like a drowned rat, you might as well go all the way.
It also helped that Tahquitz even though high in the San Bernardino Mts was built in a flat spot and there was no real change in elevation throughout the camp. So we didn’t have floods running through camp, other camps we had to watch for flash flooding.
Camp Osito when it rained there was almost always thunder and lightning along with pouring rain. And it was where I got struck by lightning. Mostly the kids got stuck in the large dining hall and left to play games. That lodge was built with a high roof because of snow and echoed so you could usually find the staff in the staff house or outside on the porch to keep from going deaf.
One year, we got the remnants of a hurricane and we had kids out on a major backpack trip up Greyback (Mt San Gorgonio) and the rangers flat out refused to see if the were okay or try to rescue them. So of course we sent staff out to get the kid. They found them after a long search. (No cell phones in those days) They had to really look for them. They finally found them using a picnic bench and tarps and to make a makeshift tent. Because rain is fairly rare kids aren’t set out with tents because it’s excess weight that isn’t usually needed. But it was Girl Scouts to the rescue when they found them and stuffed the muddy and cold campers into the camp station wagon.
Camp Singing Pines was the best for rain. I don’t ever remember a really hard rain in the four years I was there. It was always either slow and steady or a 4pm cloudburst and done. The first two years I worked there we didn’t have a totally covered lodge. It was a small lodge that barely held the whole camp sitting and a tarp covered dining hall and then the kitchen on the other side. If it rained we had to put kids in the two unit houses, Arts & Crafts and stick some in the lodge and the counselors out under the tarps. That could be a bit iffy. You had to periodically empty the tarps by pushing the water off with a broom. If you pushed the wrong way and you got a very large dump of cold water on you. If you didn’t need a shower you got one anyway and we didn’t have hot water showers so you couldn’t go warm up that way. And you better not goof and send the water onto your unsuspecting friend standing at the opposite end of where the water was supposed to go. Usually, someone did get dumped on but took it in good spirits.
Sleeping on the concrete pad did make kitchen raids a lot easier. I can remember being sound asleep and having a fudgesicle stuck hurriedly into my sleeping bag and a harsh whisper, “Eat fast! Carrot’s coming!” (Carrot was the cook and hated the kitchen raids unless she had planned for it.) A sleeping bag is not the ideal place to eat a fudgesicle.
Rain at Pines meant Tajar Tales and popcorn. Afternoons of Winnie the Pooh and Rice Krispie Treats. Anything to keep the kids occupied and having a good time and if there was no threat of lightning or thunder you could still go in the pool and play rain games. Couldn’t go horseback riding because it was too hard on the leather.
Teresita Pines was more prone to huge downpours and flash floods. It was built on a mountain side on Wrightwood and slowly felt like it was slipping into the San Andreas fault that was out the back of camp and straight down. I can remember one afternoon rain that moved 3 feet of mud from the top of camp to the bottom. Some stellar brilliant soul had put the chapel at the downhill side for the awe inspiring view. This was good in theory and not so good in practice because the chapel filled with mud and had to be dug out and Mary and Bloody Sacred Heart Jesus rescued from their perches in the Chapel.
Rain at camp can be fun, it can be an adventure and it can be downright scary. You just have to be prepared.