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By Cathy Newman
Among the after-lunch announcements at Camp Nokomis for girls was this news: There would be a dance that night at Camp Lawrence, the boys' camp on the opposite end of the island. Senior and junior girls were instructed to be at the dock at 5:15 for the 15-minute ride.
"Boys are normal creatures too. Try to be nice," suggested Debbie Parker, the camp director.
The seniors, of high school age, radiated excitement. The juniors, grades two to six, expressed doubt.
"Do they have fleas?" Kayla Szettella, a nine-year-old, wanted to know.
"I have two brothers, and I can tell you they do," vouched Meggie Lareau, her cabin mate.
"Do they bite?" asked another.
"If they do, that's your problem," deadpanned Debbie (although she is 67, she is "Debbie" to everyone, campers included).
For half a century, boys and girls have been attending summer camp on Bear Island, a Rorschach blot of wooded land three miles long, and at its widest point, three-quarters of a mile wide, at the northwestern end of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
In addition to the boys' and girls' camps, run by the Merrimack Valley YMCA of Massachusetts, the island is home to 184 privately owned cottages. Bear Island has no cars or roads, so travel is by boat or foot. The most exciting entertainment around is a heated game of Bear Island rummy, although in the early '60s the Reverend Sandor Farkas, a longtime summer resident, discovered chanterelles growing in the shadow of the island's pine, birch, and oak trees, thereby establishing a new summer sport—mushroom hunting. Things have turned so competitive that nowadays if some neighbors spot a clutch of mushrooms too small for picking, they cover them with leaves to safeguard the location.
Why come to Bear Island? For the girls of Camp Nokomis, it is the promise of archery, canoeing, camp songs, and, of sensing, as Maureen Corsetti, a counselor, explained, "the possibility of what can be."
"It's about finding a place to belong and friendships," said Lisa Honeyman, who has attended camp as a camper, then as staff and volunteer, since 1972.
"When things aren't going right, I crave this," she said, looking out over the lake. A breeze ruffled the water; sailboats skimmed the surface. "At those times I just want to sit on a rock and look at the lake. When I'm not here, I do that in my mind."
There is a time warp feel to Nokomis. It's always the summer of 1958, 1968, or whichever year you happened to be there first. You can return and find your way to the dining hall, lodge, or the Chippewa cabin where the youngest juniors reside—even if 25 years elapsed between visits. You still hear the slam of screen doors, the creak of the flag hoisted up the birch tree pole, the warble of the bugle blaring reveille. You still smell sweaty socks, campfire smoke, and the astringency of pine.
First as a counselor-in-training, then as a counselor, then for the past 25 years as director, Debbie Parker has been a part of Camp Nokomis, and has become the camp's center of gravity. When she celebrated her 50th anniversary with Camp Nokomis this past year, more than 300 alumnae showed up and showered such praise and affection on her as to bring a steady flow of tears to the eyes. "Because of Nokomis, whenever I catch a whiff of balsam my heart goes home. I feel centered," one alum wrote.
A good summer camp is a community. That Nokomis and Camp Lawrence are located on Bear Island, isolated from the mainland, makes them more so.
"This is a place of renewal, where one can drink in the silence," Debbie said one night as we sat on the dining hall porch and spoke about the choices we make in life—whether that choice is to grow up to become a doctor, lawyer, or camp director. Debbie's only son, Jimmy, made some bad choices. For 25 years he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Six months before Debbie and I sat and talked, just before Christmas, Jimmy died from cardiac arrest. He was 40 years old. Debbie intended to address the subject of choices at camp chapel on Sunday. "I will say that we make choices, and they determine the direction of our life. I think if I speak about my son it will have integrity."
I told her I admired her courage. "How unbearably sad to have had such a positive effect on so many children, yet be unable to save your own child," I said. "I don't know the answer to that," she replied. "He finally began to have a sense of who he was. Before he died, he said he was grateful that his father and I never turned our back on him. He always knew we loved him." She paused. "People say to me: 'I can't imagine what it's like to lose a son,' and I reply, 'It's true. You can't.'"
Some of Jimmy's ashes are buried by the lakefront, at a spot marked by a wooden cross, and from there, on days when the haze lifts, you can see the peak of Mount Washington.
It was 9:30 and taps echoed across camp. "You know," Debbie said, when I asked what made Bear Island special, "the loons will sing, the sun will go down, the lake will be like glass, and you can think about what's important in life." She went to the camp office to close up for the night. The haunting sound of a bugle lingered in the air.