Walking the Dusty Road of Humanity to Camp Antler

Camp Antler, Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, August 1969 | N-1995-002-4185_REF
by Catherine Dook

Before iPods, before the Commissioner’s Ball, even before television that lasted longer than four hours, the social event of the year was the Territorial Young Campers’ Association Walkathon. Twenty miles long, the route snaked out toward Giant Mine. The walkers were expected to take all day. You collected pledges for Camp Antler – a youth summer camp – and organized your friends. Then you packed a lunch, sprayed on bug spray and donned your most comfortable shoes, and off you went…laughing and shouting and running, all in the dry, dusty sunshine.

The association always organized the walkathon in July. I remember it being rained out only once, when my parents drove out to rescue me. Some years the organizers offered chocolate bars and Kool-Aid at five-mile intervals. Every year there were cars driving up and down the route, offering rides to the dusty, the disconcerted and the done.

One dignified elderly lady walked every year, taking her pretty white terrier with her. Teenagers crowded around the start line dressed in T-shirts and slacks, chattering excitedly, and then we started out, exuberantly at first, then more slowly, and finally we plodded through the dust and dragged our weary selves home – sunburned and full of happy feelings.

The walkathon was for a good cause. I knew that well before I became camp director in 1973. The Young Campers’ Association ran summer camps at Camp Antler for children from as far away as Fort Simpson.

The camp was located on the bank of the Cameron River near tall spruce trees and water-rounded rocks and a sandy beach, and every night you could hear the wolves howl a mile down the river. One sunny morning when a wolf wandered into camp, 25 little warriors from Fort Providence spotted him simultaneously and took off after him, whooping and yelling. You’ve never seen so terrified an animal in your life. He ran right past me, plunging left and right in panic, his eyes rolling and his tail streaming behind him.

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Every morning you would find every First Nations girls down at the river washing her bluejeans and the bluejeans of every male member of her family. “The boys should wash their own,” I told them, but the girls were shocked at the suggestion. The children could all make a tipi out of three sticks and a blanket in less than a minute, and I’d never before met seven-year-old girls who could chop kindling like lumberjacks, only probably faster. The boys analyzed moose tracks and waged intent and complicated war on each other. Many of the campers chewed snuff.

And what did we do for the campers? We gave them meals and marshmallows and taught them playground games like flag. We taught them the “watermelon spitting chant” and scores of politically incorrect campfire songs.

We had an inexhaustible supply of construction paper and glue, and enough scissors and paint to satisfy the most voracious appetites for elementary art.

We canoed for miles up the river and snared rabbits and had fun.

Some of the children came with headlice and impetigo (I’d had them as a kid, too. They were the scourge of the North and spread like wildfire). We started with headlice fumigation, and I tended the impetigo three times a day before every meal. Treatment consisted of a wash with soap and warm water and an application of Polysporin.

In those days you didn’t need a medical-grade antibiotic.

I loved those children. They were full of bush-knowledge and wisdom and fierce loyalties. They were smart and traditional and stunningly self-sufficient.

They had more initiative than many adults I’ve met since, and a quiet respect for adults and nature. Even wolves.

I’ve often wondered who benefited most from the Territorial Young Campers’ Association? Was it the walkathon participants who had such fun, the campers who learned to enjoy silly songs, or the white counsellors who caught a glimpse of the rich and fascinating Dene culture through the eyes of wonderful children? I think maybe everybody won.

N-1995-002-4190_REF

 

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