Sunday, July 5, 2015

Reminiscing of summer camp

The awesome Baron
Every summer, when I hear the kids come into the library and tell me about their summer camp adventures, I yearn to be a kid again. I want to relive those magical summer days and nights; around the campfire, in the barn, out on the trails...every single precious moment that always ended too soon. The school year seemed so long as I waited for another three seasons to pass before I returned to the hills of Vermont.

Catherine Capers was heaven for me--a camp centered around horses, a mecca for horse-crazy girls who wanted to eat, breathe, and live with horses. I've never forgotten my first moment there as a camper when I realized I'd be caring for a horse every day for four weeks. Sgt. Pepper certainly taught me a thing or two; a seasoned camp horse who could be an ornery curmudgeon. From camper to C.I.T. (counselor-in-training) to counselor, I gained a wealth of knowledge at camp. Aside for all things equine, I learned to use a map and compass, build a fire, make doughboys, practice first aid (horse and human), and a plethora of silly songs.

It all started with my first breakfast ride as a camper when a Nellie, the trip counselor, woke me around 5:00 a.m. and asked,"Want to go for a breakfast ride?" Before the rest of camp arose, a selected dozen or so, retrieved their mounts from the pastures, saddled up, and rode off to meet a dropped-off breakfast, somewhere down the trail. Breakfast rides, supper rides, and my favorites, multi-day rides, filled my days.  My first overnight was on a horse called Doc--a roman-nosed bay. That was the year we had a barn full of bay horses whose names began with D on loan from nearby Fort Drum.

5 Day trip - campsite along the Mettawee at Aunt Eunice's

When I became a counselor at CC, my role was horseback trip leader. I spent enough hours during the school year at Hollins College riding hunters and practicing ring work. Summers, I let down the stirrups and high-tailed it for the hills, spending my days leading kids on adventures in the Vermont countryside. I took out trips ranging from two to three days. Our supplies would be dropped off at each night's location; food, tent, personal gear, horse feed, hay, water buckets, brushes, blankets etc. By August, cool nights required blanketing since the horse we tied up at night.

My mentors, Nellie Higgins and Sally Shaw, showed me the ropes over the years. I accompanied them on many a trip as a C.I.T., learning the maps, the trails, the campsites, and meeting the landowners. I remember being in awe of Sally, taking off on a ride bareback, with only a halter on the Shaw family horse, Nutmeg. I think the only "must haves" were heeled boots and a helmet, back then, with or without a chin strap!

Sally and the gang leaving camp

The honest soul, Spice
I became quite proficient at tying ponchos onto English saddles. I quickly learned D-rings and baling twine are your friends! A few horses were my favorite mounts and I'd try to give them a reprieve from ring work by taking them out on a ride. Spice was a favorite; such an honest soul. Some horses did better on the trail than in the ring, and more often than not, they went on most rides. And some were banned from the trail. After running away with his rider three times on Bullfrog Hollow, Snowball was relegated to staying in camp!
One summer, years after being a counselor, I got a call from Audrey, the owner. She needed someone to take out a 5 day trip with another counselor who was not as familiar with the territory. I jumped at the opportunity, a chance to relive some of those magical times in the saddle. My mount was Lewis, a dark bay gelding well suited for the ride.

Lewis--my mount for 5 days

We rode through some lovely land, although we did have to skirt a bull one day! I can still see the roads, trails, and maps etched in my memory. The local farmers allowed us to camp on their land providing we cleaned up, aka "leave-no-trace" camping.

Above Rush Hollow--before we met the bull!

 One of my favorite campsites was situated along Flower Brook in East Wells. I pitched my tent along the brook so I could listen to it burble all night long--or at least until I was woken for night watch.

Early morning sun along Flower Brook

But it wasn't all just trail riding at camp. Stable management, cleaning tack, caring for injured horses; all part and parcel of my summers. I probably fell in love with my first OTTB at camp. Newton, a skinny, hard keeper, gelding was in my care one summer. He probably ran at the old Green Mountain track in Pownal, Vermont, a hard-scrabble track for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

I have a soft spot for bay OTTB's, I guess. Newton needed doctoring on a stifle wound for most of the summer, as I recall. And he ate a ton. Knowing what I know now, he might have fared better with less grain and more forage. He was the "counselor project horse" that Audrey always seemed to have each summer. I wish I knew what his registered name was so I could find his history. I never thought to write down his tattoo.
Sally Shaw schooled him, and another riding counselor, rode him in the Combined Event. I don't think he was quite ready for the dressage ring. But he was a sweetie to care for....

Newton attempting dressage
Each summer, it seemed like Smudge, the giant multi-toed cat, would produce another litter of barn kitties, some who went home with campers, I believe. These two were part of her 1977 crop, cradled in the arms of a camper.

So next week, when another kid regales me with camp tales, my mind will wander away to the hills of Vermont. I'll smell wood smoke, horse sweat, and hear the babble of a brook. The sun will beat down on a string of girls on their horses, trotting along the dirt roads of Middletown Springs. Then they will wave at each other as they round the hairpin turn, heading for home along Lake St. Catherine, a trip song on their lips to sing that night to their fellow campers. Oh to spend my summers in the saddle at camp once again.

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