Summer camp can be scary. Away from home for the first time, kids are treated to terrifying ghost stories; encounter counselors who say things like, "If you touch me while I sleep, I'll kill you—it's a reflex action, part of my Marines training"; get wicked wedgies from boys bigger than they are (one little guy actually had the back of his briefs hung over the tennis net post); and try not lose digits or limbs while learning how to wield an axe. At least, those were some of the scarier things about my summer camp up in the North Woods, which in spite of them, was a wonderful place to spend eight weeks dodging mosquitoes, eating mystery meat, swimming in an ice cold, leech-infested lake, and—the best part—heading out on canoe trips that took us into nearly pristine nature far away from civilization. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a million-acre wilderness preserve in northern Minnesota (bordering Canada) is one of the most beautiful, still unspoiled parts of the world. Younger campers (swampers, loggers, and axemen) took sawbills—six-day canoe trips—and sometimes stacked them back-to-back to spend a dozen days paddling and portaging, sunning and skinny-dipping, cooking spaghetti carbonara over campfires, and dragging around the hulking Duluth packs that contained all the supplies. The highlight of becoming a lumberjack (your rank during your final year of camp), was Big Trip—a 12-day sawbill that, when completed, was commemorated with a plaque in the dining hall that displayed the name of the trip (agreed on by the campers) and a list of its participants.
I share all this to provide the backdrop for a most memorable sawbill taken during, I believe, the first year I attended camp (age 12). Most of the trip was uneventful, but on one of the portages (for those of you not conversant with canoeing, a portage is a stretch of land separating two proximate lakes, measured in rods, over which you carry your canoes and packs), a contingent of campers (myself included) got cut off from the counselors when we took what turned out to be a wrong turn on the trail. As it dawned on us that we were lost in the woods, one of the campers panicked.
"Omigod, Omigod," he bawled. "We're lost! We're lost! We're all gonna die!"
As he sob-screamed his lament, I took stock of the situation.
"Michael," I said to him, "Calm down."
"WE'RE...ALL...GONNA...DIE!" he blabbered, releasing a rush of shallow breaths between each word.
"We're not going to die." Finally, I had his attention.
"No. First of all, we have the map, which the counselors need for the rest of the trip." One of the other campers displayed it, safe in the clear plastic pouch hanging from his neck. "And second, we have the food." Another camper pointed his thumb at the heavy green canvas sack on his back. "So," I said, "the counselors are going to find us."
And soon enough, they did.
I have told this story to many people, including my kids, offering it as an example of how clear, rational thinking is the best way to counteract panic.
Michael fell into a state of fear not because there were no options to ensure our survival, but because he didn't know what to do. Feeling powerless, he flailed about and allowed his anxiety to block his brain from assessing the situation. It never occurred to him that simply waiting for the counselors to find us was the safest course of action with the greatest chance of success.
I'm not patting myself on the back for being the one to figure it out. I've panicked plenty of times in my life over things major and minor, stressing out needlessly when a clear head and calm demeanor would have served me better. I'm offering this tale as a reminder to myself and an example from which we can all learn how to be more effective under pressure. Because the thing is, young Michael was right. We are all going to die—eventually. So if we can learn to take life's inevitable surprises in stride, we can live better—and enjoy life more—in the time we have here.
Originally published on tomaplomb