Every year, starting with the summer he was going into 10th grade right up until the summer after his freshman year in college, Neel spent his time at a canoeing camp in the Temagami region of Ontario, Canada. Located 300 miles north of Toronto on Garden Island in Lake Temagami, Camp Wabun was founded in 1933 by educators and has been connecting kids with the brilliance of the Canadian wilderness for 80 years.
Neel was meant to go the summer before 9th grade, but his mom had just died, and his dad quite understandably wanted his boys close to home. Even a year later, Neel's dad was somewhat hesitant. As Neel puts it, "He thought I was going to die."
Why? Camp lasts six weeks. Six weeks in the Canadian wilderness. So far from home that it takes a flight to Buffalo or Toronto, an overnight bus ride to Temagami, a long bumpy ride down a mining road and then a boat trip to Garden Island. Younger kids go out for a few days up to a week at a time, making maybe three trips over the six week camp. Older kids will do a two week and a four week trip, and the oldest kids do what's called an A trip where they're canoeing the entire six weeks. Neel would say that those A trips (he did three) were some of the best experiences of his life.
I won't wax on at length about what Wabun means, even to me, by osmosis. I truly believe that place changed Neel's life and mended his broken heart after his mother's death. His years at Wabun are completely woven into the fabric of who he is as a man, and if you know Neel at all, you know that's a wonderful testament to a place.
I'm also not going to make this post a giant "I told you so..." However. We've lived here for ten years this month, and while we're not directly on the water (much to my dismay!), we are surrounded by it. I walk two blocks to the Elizabeth River in one direction and 4-5 blocks in another and I meet up with the Lafayette River. We have tidal inlets, marshes, the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean practically at our doorstep. I might have mentioned once or twice (or perhaps more) to Neel that a canoe might be a nice investment. A-hem.
Apparently it took getting in the water to help him see the wisdom of my words.
When we set out on Saturday, Neel took the stern and put Callum in the bow. (We joked that all I needed for my spot in the middle was a parasol!) He taught Cal how to set the stroke and let the bowman know when he was switching sides. We paddled along the waterfront under the numerous docks that dot the water and enjoyed the change in perspective that being on the water can give us. A dolphin skirted past us, mere feet from the canoe. Out of the water, Neel showed Callum how to portage and impressed us with his skills!
The next morning, Neel gave Callum steering lessons. Neel was in the stern in his years at Wabun and he soon had Callum maneuvering the canoe on the still waters of the Sunday morning Elizabeth River. Watching them together, out on the water, well, that was a good moment for our family, I think. And you know what's fun? Calling the "paddle" an "oar" over and over. That'll make the 13 year olds really happy. You know what else was fun? When Neel found his 25 year old paddle that he'd had fashioned specifically for Wabun after a Native American paddle they'd found in the woods, I asked him if we could get it wet. ;)
We've gone back and forth with the idea of Callum at Wabun. Of course Neel would love it if he went, and we'd love for him to go. But for a number of years he seemed like a different kind of kid who might need different kinds of things over his summer. That might have changed this weekend. It's early to call, I know, but we'll see. I think Wabun would be so good for Callum. I'd love to see him there.
In the meantime, I think we'll get a canoe.
And in the meantime of that? Here are some of Neel's pictures from Wabun, over 20 years ago.
I really do encourage you to take a look at Wabun's website. It seems like places like this are harder and harder to find anymore. From its history to the seclusion of the Canadian wilderness, I think it's easy to see what a special place this is.