I spent most of my formative years at summer camp, with some pretty formative people, in some pretty formative places. Camp gave me the power to be creative, think independently, and defy my own limits. Many of my favorite stories are from camp. A particular favorite of mine involves a canoe and canned meat. If you were thinking that was all I was going to say about this story, I am sorry, there’s more.
Turn back the clock to 2002. Picture upstate New York, crank the humidity, in mid-July (crank it a little more), on a two-week whitewater canoeing and backpacking expedition in the Adirondacks. I’m with friends that I’ve spent most of my life with, my boat crew, Pete and Justin.
We spent our days canoeing, our nights on land, and we portaged every few days to jump rivers. Our staff entrusted us with a lot of responsibility, even as teenagers. We were responsible for making sure all of our equipment was in each night and stored properly. It was the early 2000s, so there wasn’t a lot of oversight. Our staff didn’t really check on the status of the gear and whether or not the appropriate steps were taken to secure it.
How were we supposed to secure the gear in the boat? Simple. There was a heavy-duty dry-bag with all our clothing in the bow and a hard case of foodstuffs secured in the back. In a moment of genius, one of us (you can guess who) struggled to fit the canned meats into the hard case of foodstuffs and decided to “secure” the cans by putting them in a plastic grocery bag and placing it underneath the case. Again, no one checked my work and we didn’t need to access this case of food until later in the trip.
After a week on and off the water, we transitioned to the backpacking portion of the trip. We began the tedious process of breaking down our boats and switching out gear. Pete was responsible for carrying the food while backpacking; he grabbed the food from the case and the grocery bag with the canned meat underneath, not thinking twice about the plastic bag being completely filled with water. He drained he water and tossed the bag in with the rest of the food.
We were nearing the last part of our hike and the food that Pete carried was the remaining food for the trip. Keep in mind, this is all the food the group has left. Pete unpacked his bag and reached in for the magical concoction now brewing in the case. He gently places the case on the ground. The buckle on the side of the container is opened. He lifts the lid. Cue: IMMEDIATE REGRET.
The meat canisters have exploded and their foul stench cascades out, and it is clear that the explosion has ruined just about everything in the case. Tortillas? Destroyed. Cereal? Soggy. It is a disaster.
Enter pure teenage rage. Our group loses their collective minds. Tears were shed. A fist was thrown. Words were screamed. Our counselors calm the group as the reality of the situation sets in. Our staff member, Josh, quietly asked how the cans got in this condition in the first place.
In fear of both being left out by the rest of the group and getting in trouble, I am quiet and don’t say I word. I think to myself, “Not me, I’m not getting caught in this right now.” In the end, everyone assumes it was an accident, even though our storage container was waterproof.
Fast-forward two days of solely eating pasta, we begin hiking back down to our bus. About halfway down, Pete casually brings up that the bag of canned meat was not in the food case, but rather underneath it. Knowing full well who was responsible for our canoe’s packout, I make darted eye contact with Josh who gives me the ‘I know’ eyes. At this point, I have started to fully freak out, wondering if I am going to have no friends after this trip.
When we get back down to the bus, the unthinkable happens. A camper on our trip comes up to me and apologizes for ignoring me the past two days. I hadn’t really noticed because we weren’t friends. After two other campers approach me to apologize in a similar fashion, it became obvious that people knew I mismanaged the packout. As it turns out, everyone saw me struggling with packing and did not stop to offer help because they were so focused on their own tasks. I didn’t say a word the whole ride home, which is incredibly rare now, and even more so then.
When we got back to camp, Josh pulled me aside to talk to me. I was prepared for a stern tongue-lashing, but what came was a lesson that has stayed with me to this day. Josh told me that you can always rely on your friends to notice the best and worst things you do. He said to never hide behind your mistakes and own them in front of your peers, and you’ll never feel ashamed in your life. What he also shared was that anyone could have offered to help. We were a team, and even though everyone had their own tasks to focus on, we were responsible to each other. Therefore, all were responsible when the canned meats were tucked behind the case
Ranch Camp’s supervision and standards are certainly ahead of where my camp was two decades ago. So is our intentional focus on responsibility, or acharayut, one of our core values. As a community, in camp or on a trip, we are responsible to and for each other, a lesson I learned thanks to a few cans of meat.
With that said, not everyone in the group knew that I was responsible, and this may be how they find out… Sorry!
Ryan Bocchino | JCC Ranch Camp Associate Director