It was already one of those grey-sky Wednesdays where you couldn’t quite tell if you wanted a coat or not when I got to Primitive Pursuits at the bright hour of 9 a.m. I rolled in a few minutes late, having caught every single red light on the way. As I stepped out of my car, I was greeted by the excited shouts of a group of campers from the Kestrel group trying to catch their counselor’s tail. It was the most intense game of tag I had ever seen. They whisked me in, pulled me up a log, began to tell me all about what they’d learned the day before. With the yells harmonizing in the background, I listened as a six-year-old told me all about her week so far. She didn’t let me sit anywhere else but by her side when we joined the circle of sweaty, panting campers, finished with their game of tag and ready to start the day. “He’s a hundred years old,” she said, leaning in to me and nodding knowingly at the counselor, Ian, who sat telling us about Indigenous peoples’ connections to the land. Soon enough, we were tossing a bandana ball around a circle to introduce ourselves before tramping off into the woods, following a faint trail through the underbrush. But here at Primitive Pursuits, a walk to camp is never just a walk to camp.
“Flash flood!” Ian cries, and we all scramble to get both feet off the ground. Some campers balance precariously on rocks, while others cling to trees like koalas. The “flash flood” passes, and we continue. Before long, Ian warns us of a predator, and we have to walk as silently as we can through the forest, wincing every time we snap a twig underfoot.
When we finally approach camp, the kids settle down for a snack, and I head off to find the next group. Judging by the yells I can hear due west, that’s the direction I want to go. Pretty soon, I run headlong into an intense game of capture the flag. Their intensity never wavers, eyes narrowed and focused, seeing only the red and green bandanas and the other campers in their way. The landscape offers unique challenges for them: one team has set up their “nest” right behind a small swamp, and the other team’s “nest” is uphill. The forest gives them a chance to sneak and hide. I watch one girl, swathed in camouflage from head to toe, creep silently from tree to tree. I hold my breath as she gets closer and closer to the enemy “nest.” They still haven’t noticed her. A few more steps…
Instead, she bends down and scoops something up. “Don’t run into me, I have a snake,” she yells to the team who has finally seen her. She takes the snake back to her own base to show her teammates, and then when one of the counselors, Sean, calls a break, she gently brings the snake over to us. It is a garter snake, one of the cutest I have seen. The kids sit in a circle, allowing the snake to slither through gentle hands. It licks my thumb, smelling the sap of the tree I had clung to only half an hour ago. The snake is released back to the spot where it was found, and the kids chatter excitedly as Sean reveals our next activity, archery. We scoop up our things and head to The Hemlocks, where Sean teaches us bow safety and points us at a rotting stump to practice our aim. After hearing the first few dull thunks from arrows snapping into punky wood, I say my goodbyes and leave, heading deeper into the forest in the direction of a vague shape I saw moving.
Sure enough, it’s the third group of campers, and I walk into a ring of fire. Literally. There are approximately seven groups of two, hunkered down near the ground and attempting to start fires with a handful of wispy sticks and a match. They’re all successful, and small trails of smoke rise toward the clouds far above. Once the fires are all extinguished, we shift to making small, waterproof shelters. Two of the girls grab my hands and drag me into their group. “We’re going to build a fairy house,” they declare. We set sticks, leaves, mud, moss, and rocks to form the roof of a shaky A-frame. The bandana ball barely fits, since it’s a lot larger than the fairies we were expecting, but we make do. We add some extra moss for décor and one of the counselors comes over with a jug of water. “Do you really think that’ll hold out the water?” he asks the girls. “It’ll hold fairies,” they say defensively. “And there’s lots of leaves to keep out the water.” He shakes his head and brings the rain, shaking the water jug down over the small house. It is not the torrential downpour he’d mentioned at the beginning of the activity, but a medium-to-light rainstorm. The girls scream in excitement as they pull the completely dry bandana ball out of the A-frame. We leave the hut for the fairies to find and head back to the central circle, where I say my goodbyes. The girls beg me to stay for just one more hour, one more day, and their counselor tells them to get their rears in gear to their sit spots, where they’ll have the chance to sit and look and listen to the nature blooming around them.
I am deep in the woods. I point my toes in a direction that I think is home and pick my way through the forest, hoping to find my car, but also hoping to get a little more lost before I have to rejoin the fast pace of the real world.