No Longer Strangers

 By Miranda Tannahill

All names have been changed.

I was 17, in Toronto at the end of May, waiting in line with friends for our tickets we had ordered ahead of time to the biggest “nerd fest” we’d ever attended: Anime North. I felt the unfamiliar vibration of my phone in my pocket and looked at the text. It was from my mother: “Keep your phone out and expect a phone call.” I texted back asking why and was worried when the answer was “You’ll see.”

When my phone rang about five minutes after the text, I froze. It was a private number. Who was on the other end? Who would want to call me? One hesitant hello later and I had to walk away from the line I had spent the last hour in.

It was from the Ministry of Natural Resources and I was been offered a position as an Ontario Youth Ranger for two months starting in July. Did I still want the position after my initial rejection? After a stuttered yes and a promise that I was going to be emailed everything that had been discussed, I was more or less hired, though the process wasn't finished. All I had to do to make it official was fill out some paper work, have my high-school principal sign a document, get a doctor’s note and my pleasure craft licence before a certain date.

That date was June 20th. That way, if I couldn't successfully get everything in, someone else could take my place. I kept asking myself if it would be worth it. Would I enjoy a summer away from everything I knew and working a hard manual labour job for my summer vacation? Would I learn anything about myself? I pushed through the pleasure craft licence test and submitted the proof that I had earned it two days before my deadline; I'm glad I did.

When everything was filed away and I had a spot, I received a second phone call, this time, from my camp supervisor, Nora. She told me everything I should pack that wasn’t on the list that I had been sent: large reusable water bottle, Tupperware, a lunch bag, paper and envelopes for writing letters, my favourite books, and my music player. She said that I need to get off at a truck stop near Gogama and that I should mention it to the driver when I got on because he knew where that was and would put my luggage in a special area because there were other girls who were getting off at the same place.

I found out that six other girls were getting off there, but I didn't talk to them for the first half an hour of the two-hour bus ride. I was scared of them not liking me. A girl walked down the aisle, asking other girls if they were getting off in Gogama. She eventually found me and we talked for a bit. She was trying to get me to open up, but let me have my space when she realized how shy I was. I followed her example and went to talk to a girl that no one was talking to. I knew she was getting off at the same place because she was reading a nature book. When she introduced herself as Maddy, we talked and made friends easily.

Being greeted by a fifties dance crew was unexpected. They introduced themselves as our supervisors and loaded us into two minivans. We were a five-minute drive from there and camp was beautiful. Four cabins in a line, and on the left side of the food hall, the supervisors’ White House on top of a hill surrounded by trees. A gazebo sat in the middle. Everything overlooked a breath taking beach and beautiful deep red water. Our home base was called Dividing Lake Camp.

We were led to an area with other girls and told that now that we had arrived, we were to find our cabins. I was in Cabin Three, two away from the food hall. I opened it to see all of my cabin mates there already and had picked beds. I sat down on one of the last remaining beds, first one on the left side, and one of my cabin mates introduced me to everyone. I had a staring contest with one until we both realized that we actually knew each other. We were classmates, and since we never really spoke, we didn’t know that the other had applied for this program. I felt comfortable knowing at least one person.

The rest of the day was spent playing ice-breaker games and getting to know everyone in camp. We were told to enjoy today, because our endurance test was the following day and it was hard. If we failed it, Nora said that we were going to be sent home because we didn’t meet the physical requirements of the job. We were reminded that we had signed up to work as the maintenance crew for canoe portage and hiking trails and anything else that was asked of us in the Sudbury and Timmins areas. We were the camp that covered anything between those two cities along highway 144 because we were not stationed in a National Park, unlike most camps. Those camps had much stricter schedules whereas we were just to do tasks as they came to us. There were 22 of us at the beginning and none of us were scared, just nervous about it because they refused to tell us anything more.

Everything had gone well for the test: the 200-metre swim, the 10 minute free-swim with our work boots and life jackets strapped on, then the 20 minute treading water with no life jacket or boots. None of us were fazed by this information, until we were told by Megan, an assistant sub-supervisor, that it was a lie and that we were no fun. Our real endurance test was 40-metres with life jackets and work boots, and treading water was for 3 minutes without the boots and life jacket. Our third test was to put the soaked boots and socks back on, which was a challenge all in itself, and work as a team to get the swim raft into the water. All was well until one of us got a hand caught between her boot and the bottom of the 300-pound swim-raft, nearly breaking her fingers. This, of course, being me. I spent the rest of the summer with a nasty purple bruise and four lines on the back of my hand. It was my battle scar and I wore it proudly.

After that second day at camp, we were taught more than just how to properly swing a grass whip and how to cut branches off a tree for portaging a canoe, solo or not. We were taught how to work as a team in the field, we were taught that sweating is a sign of hard work and dedication and that a woman’s body does it too. We were taught basic safety, first aid, how to set up animal traps so that we could see how they worked and how to avoid them and also, how quickly you miss society. We were taught basic human decency is the easiest gift to give and how to use it to our advantage.

We also learned important things that can’t be taught. We learned how to tolerate everything about people, even if they were on your last nerve because you were stuck with all these people until the end of the summer, so shelf away all your prejudices and just go with it. We learned self-confidence, self-esteem and self-expression from the people who we had to live with in the six person, open cabins. If asked how we learned that, I could never answer it. Maddy and I learned how to love ourselves by throwing away societies views, because they couldn’t touch us in our little isolated camp. All 21 of us learned that if you wanted to meet a camp full of boys while wearing a cheap plaid shirt, suspenders holding your pants up and cream and coffee-grinds on your face, then do it; who’s going to stop you?

What we learned from having our phones taken away from us while in camp and only having one television that didn’t usually work was how to entertain ourselves without technology. Reading on the dock while others swam was relaxing and if you weren’t careful, you may fall asleep. The fire tower trail was amazing to hike up to and look out onto the private bay we were nestled in and take pictures. We were told that we could jog around camp, go canoeing or kayaking, we could swim at the raft and we were not allowed to dive or jump off the dock because of three large rocks that were there. They made excellent footholds for when someone grabbed on to your neck because they were losing their swimsuit. I learned this quickly.

Sometimes, it felt like we were 5 again; going to other cabins, knocking on the door and asking if someone was inside if you couldn’t find them around camp on the weekends; sitting around on beds or on the floor, talking about boys while playing with each other’s hair or making bracelets and just being free. It was easy to entertain ourselves on the weekends without internet, texting, or watching television because there wasn’t the temptation. We couldn’t do it, so we didn’t even think about it. We wrote letters to everyone we knew and we were excited when people wrote us back. I still write hand written letters to people to this day because I remember how happy I was that someone had taken the time to do this for me.

I believe that having those two months away from people who knew us, made us all flourish and thrive. The girl who took two showers a day went to never washing her hair all summer to make a point to herself. The girl who followed rules like they were laws broke the rules to save herself from possibly getting a job jar (a task you get because they caught you breaking the rules) to experience the thrill of it with no real repercussions. One girl went from never speaking to never stopping because people finally started to listen and even encouraged her to talk. We all had our moment of living that summer and we all hang onto that moment.

When I was asked what I wanted from the camp at the end of the first half, the answer was simple; I didn’t want it to end. I wanted that summer to last forever.

It didn’t. When I returned to school for grade 12, the cabin-mate and I, who went to the same school, never spoke again. We had returned to our social constraints and lived on as before. A month after it all ended, I realized that I would give anything to have those two months back. I wanted to go back to the first day, when I was sitting in a Greyhound Bus station in Sudbury, terrified out of my mind about what was to come. I wanted to have the same conversations on the bus there with Leslie and Maddy, I wanted to be confused again when I saw Zina on the bus and not be sure if I knew her. I wanted to be uncomfortable with correcting Mary’s mistake about who was the last girl on the bus, headed for The Water Shed truck stop. I wanted all the injuries I received, all the bad days I had, all the smiles back that made my face hurt, I wanted to singe my eyebrows again from sitting in the fire pit, and I wanted to relive that summer for the rest of my life.