Mosquitoes, Six-legged Canoes, and Someone Who Cares

by Janet Thomas

Assistant Editor

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    Learning survival skills, making new friends, and discovering gospel truths are all a part of girls’ camp.

    Sleeping bags and pillows are piled in a heap mixed with backpacks and duffle bags stuffed nearly to bursting. Black dutch ovens and sturdy camp stoves are stacked against an array of ice chests. It’s just after dawn as girls, stifling yawns, gather in the parking lot of the ward meetinghouse. They are headed for camp. “I love camp. I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” says one of the older girls. The younger campers, going for the first time, grin at each other in anticipation.

    Whether the group is headed for the mountains, a lakeshore, a meadow, or a wooded grove, girls’ camp is something to remember. No matter the location, most girls’ camps seem to have a few things in common.

    Mosquitoes. These buzzing irritants create some impromptu contests among campers comparing the number of bites on one arm or the number of bites between the ankle and knee. The winning numbers are often in the dozens.

    Snipe hunts. Sure snipes exist, just look them up in the dictionary. Gullible first-year girls are given paper bags and detailed instructions on how to catch these elusive creatures.

    Neatness awards. Competition for this coveted award causes flurries of activity just before inspections.

    French braiding. Since hair dryers and rollers are left behind, any new way of keeping hair neat and in place is welcome.

    Confidence. There is nothing like succeeding at something difficult to build self-confidence. The five-year Campcrafter program teaches skills that can be used not only in camping but also in emergency situations throughout life. And earning each certification level builds confidence.

    Friendships. Since girls in a stake are often scattered among several schools, they don’t always have a chance to get to know each other. The friendships made at camp often carry over into other stake activities and seminary. Camp friendships are made in tender, caring moments—struggling together to get a fire started without matches, helping to carry a pack for one with blistered feet, a shy girl teaching a group how to build a lean-to, and a girl who thinks no one really cares finding a little gift and an encouraging note from a friend.

    Of all the activity and growing that take place at girls’ camp, perhaps the most important and most long-lasting are the testimonies that are developed. As many girls express in the testimony meeting that caps the last day of camp, they have become more aware of the beauty that the Lord created while coming to understand that they too are beautiful creations of God with unique talents and abilities.

    Different areas of the United States and the world naturally have different climates and environments. As a matter of necessity, camp activities are adapted to local conditions. This variety is good and makes camp a vital and valuable experience. Girls’ camps from Alaska to Florida, from Chicago to Dallas are as different as their climates, yet in basic philosophy and goals, they are the same. One thing they all have—girls learning to love and understand themselves, to love and appreciate each other, and to love and revere their Father in Heaven.


    A small plane flew low over the trees and buzzed the camp. It was a signal, and several campers knew who the message was for. “Hey, your dad’s here. He just flew over.” One girl needed a warmer sleeping bag, so her father was going to drop it by, literally. Several girls ran out into an open area waiting for the plane to reappear. It came in low and slow. As the plane reached the playing field, a black plastic bag was pushed out a window and landed with a soft plop. No one seemed particularly amazed by this unusual way of delivering a forgotten sleeping bag. After all, this was Alaska, and many families own small planes. It’s almost a necessity if your work or home is away from a city.

    Camp LaDaSa, used as both the girls’ and boys’ camp for the Anchorage stakes, is on the shores of Kelly Lake near Willow, Alaska. Originally a homestead, the land and the lake were purchased by members and donated to the Church for a youth camp. Out behind the lodge, a railroad track runs right through camp. Twenty-two girls and their leaders from the Eagle River Ward and Chugiak Branch flagged down the train in their communities, loaded their camping gear, and had the train let them off right at the camp’s doorstep. Any good Alaskan train will stop for anyone standing alongside the tracks and will let him off anywhere he wants.

    The 70 girls and leaders of the Anchorage Alaska North Stake stay in wooden cabins complete with curtains on the windows. The camp accommodations are a little misleading. It hardly seems like roughing it in cabins until you discover the reasons. It’s not unusual for a bear or moose to wander through camp, making the protection of wooden walls appealing and necessary. Girls are asked not to keep any food around their cabins that may attract bears. Someone carrying a gun accompanies girls on all hikes because of the danger from animals. Also, summer is the rainy season in Alaska, and camping in tents directly on the ground would soon lead to soggy bedding and chilled campers. The curtains are not really for decoration. They are used to keep the light out. It never gets dark during summer. This round-the-clock daylight makes it possible to have all camp meetings, including skit night and evening meetings, in an outdoor amphitheater without having to worry about being able to see. Nobody even brought a flashlight.

    The first full day of camp was sunny and warm for Alaska. Whenever the sun came out from behind the clouds, the girls headed for the lake. Although the water was not many weeks away from being ice, these girls, many having been born and raised in Alaska, enjoyed swimming and diving. “Whenever the sun comes out,” said Jenalee Frazier of the Eagle River Ward, “everyone drops everything and heads for the lakefront. You learn to love the sun here.”

    The nice weather continued for the all-day canoe trip, a trip which would involve portaging canoes over trails between a string of lakes. The girls expertly lifted the canoes from the carrying rack and inverted them across their shoulders. The shiny canoes seemed to have sprouted six legs apiece as these outrageous-looking centipedes made their way to the water. None of the girls needed to be taught how to handle a canoe. Most had been canoeing many times with their families. Some even paddle across lakes regularly to catch school buses or to attend early-morning seminary.

    The water is clear and cold. If you get thirsty, just dip a cup over the side. There’s no pollution here. On one bank, a moose eyed the girls with disdain. When one canoe came too close, it turned and ambled off. Moose are so common that they get into yards and gardens.

    The girls seem very much at home in the outdoors. They enjoy learning to cook over a fire, and their enthusiasm for lashing results in a bevy of wash stands, tables, and clotheslines. Everyone has a pocketknife and knows how to use it. The camp certification skills are a continuation of things the girls are already learning living in this outdoor state. But as Janie Fullmer said, “I love learning new things at camp. Then I can outdo my four older brothers.”

    The camp is conducted by the fourth-year girls serving as junior counselors. They run a tight ship. Anything left out of place in camp is confiscated and returned to the owner only after an appropriate song is sung by the offender before the evening meeting. The junior counselors conduct the meetings and plan the activities, while individual ward leaders help with certification. One junior counselor, Susan Walukiewicz, a nonmember, has completed her four years of certification in the Young Women camp program. She’s at camp as a counselor and has continued coming back each year because it is something unique. “Being with a Mormon group feels different; it feels good.”

    The Anchorage Alaska Stake gives its girls a more rigorous camping experience. This year 98 girls hiked over the 23-mile Old Johnson Pass trail. As Cam Bohm, stake Young Women president explains, “We wanted to give the girls a true survival experience. We wanted them to have to know how to build fires and cook meals.” An ambitious undertaking, the yearly backpacking excursion has become something to look forward to.

    Although the backpacking camp is quite rugged for some of the girls and leaders, the daily chores of pitching tents, gathering wood, and cooking meals are broken up with campfire singing, special speakers, and impromptu fashion shows (the hit of the show was a walking sleeping bag).

    On the last evening of camp, everyone gets together for a testimony meeting. It’s the night that most girls look forward to. One young girl who had just moved to the area stood and with tears in her eyes said she had been very lonely because she was the only one in her family that went to church. Before coming to camp, she worried about being accepted, but she found people who comforted her and understood. Another girl told of her struggle to know for herself if the Church was true. The warmth and caring expressed to her at camp helped her in her search. Many were touched by the concern shown them by a leader or friend. It was a time for sharing feelings of love.


    “Did you hear about Big George? Last week he ate a German shepherd in two bites.” Big George?

    Big George is an alligator that infests the water of the Loxahatchee River, where the West Palm Beach Florida Stake girls planned their all-day canoe trip. A ranger would lead the way, so the girls were assured that there was no real danger from Big George or any other alligators. Still, the thought of such a creature possibly being near added a little thrill every time a canoe tipped over.

    Florida’s wet, hot climate is not ideal for hiking because of the danger of heat stroke and the lack of suitable places to go. The West Palm Beach Stake selected as an alternative to have their girls go on a 14-mile canoe trip. The Loxahatchee River is only about 20 feet wide, but it winds through cypress knees and under dripping junglelike foliage. Everyone had a course on canoe and water safety before the trip, so the first miles were devoted to learning to manipulate canoes around tight curves, under low-lying branches, and over submerged logs. There were shouts of laughter as a canoe crew learned the wet way what happens when you both lean the same direction to go under a branch. And everyone watched carefully for spiders when slipping under brush or trees.

    The river is slow moving, so the girls had to paddle all the way. There’s no riding the current here. After a break for lunch and a few swampy portages, camp was in sight. The race was on to see who could be first on the beach. Those who had learned to paddle together had the advantage. Dawn Queen said, “Before we stopped for lunch, we were the last canoe, because we kept arguing with each other. But when we learned to work together, we passed everyone and finished first. It worked better when we encouraged each other.” A lesson about canoes and a lesson for life.

    To augment their river trip, the girls went on nature hikes to learn about the eatable plants in the area such as the guava, palm apples, and palmettos. The camp that the stake had rented also has an abundance of animals that can be trapped. The ranger treated the girls to a Beast Feast when he trapped armadillo, raccoon, and rattlesnake, which he prepared and cooked for them. There were leftovers.

    Much of the certification for the Campcrafter awards was done in small classes conducted by the junior counselors. The fourth-year girls held a skills Olympics, where teams were required to compete in a variety of events: fire building, knot tying, and first-aid bandaging.

    Water sports are a natural part of the lives of these young girls in Florida. Swimming and boating are year-round family activities for most. At camp, water relays, sailing, and canoeing were popular and a welcome relief from the heat.

    This camp had tent platforms for the girls. A few tried to brave sleeping in a lean-to shelter for one night, but they were so severely bitten by insects that they had to have their bites bandaged to prevent infection.

    Looking around at the girls, the stake camp director was able to point out some real success stories. One junior counselor had been reactivated into the Church because of camp. She had been so shy that she wouldn’t participate in most Church activities. But as she learned the camping and leadership skills taught in the Campcrafter program, she gained the confidence and know-how to be a junior counselor in charge of teaching skills classes and conducting camp activities. She started attending her other Church meetings as well.

    “For girls the most important thing about camp,” said Charlene Holmstrom, stake camp director, “is getting to know their peers. They learn to get along with each other, to get along with people who do things they can’t stand, to change flaws in their own personalities, and to get along with adults.”

    Every night the camp directors made the rounds of the tents and tucked everyone in with a hug and a little treat or note. The girls appreciated this enthusiastic attention from their leaders, and the leaders used it as a nightly bed check to make sure all the girls were where they should be.

    During the week, special seminars on dating and self-improvement were held. Girls got together and helped each other learn how to deal with dating, family, and gaining a testimony. In a stake where there are only a few Church members in each high school, the girls needed each other’s support to learn how to face difficult situations. At the testimony meeting at the conclusion of the week, one girl stood to say, “I didn’t come with the best attitude, but I changed. I am grateful for all the love that is here.”


    “Be sure you have a canteen. Make sure each girl has water.”

    No one knew how ironic that advice was going to be as the girls from the Dallas Texas Stake set out on their certification hikes. Because the camp was in a farming area, the hike was confined to the outer perimeters of the camp. In the 100-degree heat, plenty of water would be essential.

    The group had no sooner walked to the farthermost point from camp than a thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of rain. Sliding down the trail that had in moments become a stream, the girls broke out into song about Noah’s ark and headed for camp. Drenched to the skin, water running down their faces, the girls discarded soggy lunches, poured out full canteens, and tried to find dry clothes as their hike ended rather abruptly. Although backpacking is not a common recreational activity in this section of Texas, the Adventurers fill their requirements by being dropped off outside of camp and hiking in along farm lanes carrying all their gear.

    No matter where the Dallas Stake chooses to hold camp, it is always known as Camp Sariah. The girls have written a special song about their camp named for Lehi’s wife, who had to leave her home and comforts to live in the wilderness. In past years, the camp has been a primitive camp where girls must not only pitch tents but dig latrines and improvise showers. They alternate primitive camping years with a rented camp with a swimming pool, where they conduct full-fledged water safety and certification programs as outlined by the Church Activities Committee. By the third day, every girl had made progress in her swimming ability, including those who had started the week as nonswimmers.

    Girls are divided into units of six to eight with Yearlings, Mountaineers, Inspirators, and an Adventurer represented in each group. The Adventurer girl is unit leader and is in charge of making assignments for such chores as cooking, cleanup, and fire building. She also encourages and helps the younger girls in her unit to pass their certification. Summiteers serve as youth camp directors for the whole camp. All breakfast and dinner meals are cooked by the girls in their units. They are given the dry staples for the week on the first day of camp, and perishable items are distributed before each meal. Camp leaders suggest a menu for using the food items given out, but the girls are free to use their own initiative if they want. Because of the over 100-degree temperatures, a cold lunch is served in the lodge rather than having individual units suffer through building fires to cook in the heat of the day. The girls became rather proficient in dutch oven cooking and tried their hand at such delicacies as peach cobbler and cake.

    Camp Sariah has a tradition known as Legend Night. Here the fourth-year girls are honored, and all those attending camp for the first time are welcomed by honorary big sisters (the second- and third-year girls). Becoming an Adventurer and a unit leader is the goal of the girls of the Dallas Stake.

    What is the best thing about camp? Melanie McKnight doesn’t even have to think twice. “Making friends. That’s the best thing about camp. This is the place you make your best friends. Camp is a place where you can be loved and accepted.”

    Camp is also a time for examining growing testimonies. The evening that is looked forward to with anticipation is the last night, when a testimony meeting is held. There girls express to each other the feelings of friendship they have developed and the assurance of learning that their testimonies are growing. Marion Colby, youth director, said, “This gospel is true. If you haven’t found that out for yourself yet, you will. Only you can do it. You have to pray and ask for yourself.”

    As the bags and equipment were packed away, a few tears were shed as week-long friends went their separate ways. The closeness that exists at camp seemed to be more intense than usual. One of the adult leaders had to laugh at one group of girls saying good-bye. “They were crying and hugging each other, but they were all from the same ward and would be seeing each other the next day at church.”


    It was an incredible morning. The sun was an orange ball, crawling over the horizon behind a row of larch trees. As the warmth of the sun melted the ground fog that came off the river, girls from the Wilmette Illinois Stake gathered for the morning flag ceremony and a few minutes of vigorous calisthenics.

    “How was your first night at camp?” It was a common enough question to ask a group of Chicago girls—girls used to the sound of big city traffic at all hours of the day and night. “We couldn’t sleep,” they answered. “The birds were too loud.”

    Soon it was time for breakfast. But first everyone had to learn the assigned knot. “Where’s my rope? What knot are we supposed to learn?” This was a common conversation before every meal. On the first day of camp, each girl was given a length of rope and told she had to learn a new knot before every meal. All week long, girls simply wore their “meal tickets” around their necks and helped each other learn the knots that would gain them admittance to the mess hall.

    The Wilmette Illinois Stake is a diverse stake with girls from downtown Chicago to girls living in rural areas near the Wisconsin border to girls from two Spanish-speaking wards. Yet they come together at camp to learn from and about each other.

    Veronica Cousino, from Chicago Second Ward, is back for her second year at camp. She worked hard last year to pass her certifications. This year she was asked to come to camp as a counselor in one of the Inspirator tents. She loved learning how to cook outdoors. “The hardest part was speaking English all the time. It was a great experience for me. I loved it. That was the reason I wanted to come back this year. And,” Veronica added with surprise, “they wanted me to come as a counselor.”

    The girls are allowed to choose one friend to stay with. Then they are assigned by skill levels to tents. Each tent has a leader.

    Before coming to camp, the girls and leaders attended certification camps. They were able to go on their certification hikes right from the door of their stake center in downtown Chicago. The stake center is within a mile or so of a forest preserve. The preserve is a large section of wooded area set aside for recreation. The hike to and through the forest preserve was a good test of the girls’ endurance. Indeed, hiking is a good sport for the city dwellers because the forest preserves are set aside with trails for that purpose. They were also able to build fires and perfect some of their cooking skills. One stake member is certified to teach CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) classes, and most of the girls in the stake were able to pass that course as part of their first aid.

    Since camp was located near a wide river suitable for canoeing, the girls worked on canoe safety in anticipation of making a canoe trip. A canoe was placed in the swimming pool, and each girl had the chance to learn to get into a canoe after falling out and how to empty a swamped canoe. Friends lined the sides of the pool excitedly waiting their turns and cheering as each one made it successfully back into the canoe.

    The Wilmette Stake camp leaders added a new twist to the usual cooking assignments. Each cabin of girls had to cook a certain number of meals in their own area. Instead of simply being given the ingredients, the leaders had made a large chart with a list of foods and individual prices per serving: egg $.07, orange $.20, biscuit mix $.15, hamburger (1/4 lb.) $.40, etc. The girls were told they had to plan a menu for their cabin that cost $1.75 per girl. They placed their orders with their leaders, who took the opportunity to talk about nutrition, budget, and meal planning. The leaders were able to do this type of impromptu meal planning because they were close to a town and were able to go for supplies and be back before the evening or morning meal.

    As in most girls’ camps, no radios or stereos were allowed. Evelyn Amundsen, with a smile that could light up a room, liked it that way. “I like to get away from the radio and listen to natural music.”

    Since the Wilmette Stake takes in such a large area, many girls in the stake don’t get to see each other very often. Jennifer Wilding lives in the northernmost area of the stake. “Camp is a chance to make friends from the other wards,” said Jennifer, “and since my family goes camping a lot, I want to be certified.”

    A positive, confidence-building experience for most, girls’ camp often provides an environment, away from the demands and distractions of town, where young women can be influenced by the loving concern of their leaders and of their Father in Heaven. As Lorraine Ward of Dallas said, “Everyone comes with her bag packed with problems and blessings. We help each other out.” Girls leave camp with a duffle bag full of dirty clothes but with something more valuable—a love for each other, a love for the beauties of nature, and a growing love of the gospel.

    Photos by Janet Thomas

    Loading the buses for the trip to camp is a time for singing, talking, and getting to know new friends. It’s a time to leave the comforts of home for a week and learn the skills of living with nature.

    Flagging the train is one way of traveling to camp in Alaska. Turkeys stuffed with hot rocks and wrapped in newspaper and burlap are cooked to perfection in a pit oven. Smiles come easy even though arm muscles ache after a full day of canoeing. The perpetual ice of glaciers feeds the Alaskan waterways.

    Harmless snakes are week-long companions at camp for Florida girls. Ducking fallen logs is just one challenge of the canoe trip. Practicing on each other helps girls learn first-aid skills. Water relays add to the fun and are a relief from the heat. Lush foliage grows in Florida’s warm, humid climate.

    Autographing shirts is a tradition of Legend Night at the Dallas Stake camp. Crafts are a favorite diversion from outdoor activities. Learning water safety and swimming skills is a plus when the camp has access to a pool. A wooded grove often serves as a location for girls’ camp in the farmlands of Texas.

    Drifting down a quiet river, girls learn paddling strokes on their way back to camp. Canoe safety is practiced in a swimming pool. Girls learn to spot and avoid poison ivy. A new knot is demonstrated before each meal. Even in downtown Chicago, camp certifications are passed with flying colors.