When this summer's camping season opened, my thoughts drifted back to my most memorable opening of summer camp. It was 1966. Outside the sleepy little mountain hamlet of Julian, Calif., was the even smaller and even sleepier hamlet of Lake Cuyamaca. Up in the hills, out in the woods, above the lake stood Camp WoLaHi (WOods, LAkes, HIlls). It is at this lovely Camp Fire Girl camp that our story will unfold.
Our Tan-da-Wan-Ka group from Vista was one of those selected to help open the camp that year, to make it a safe place for the younger girls coming for the later sessions.
Within our group was Debbie, whom I had known since we were 4 and one of us (I won't say who) was bedeviling our Sunday School teacher, the usually serene and apparently omniscient Mrs. Hicks. Debbie and I were now 12, and having completed the journey called elementary school, we were poised to enter the larger, more adult world of makeup and junior high in the fall.
That summer, we were Teepee-its, camping next to a native American-style triangular tepee and sleeping at night out under the stars.
Then we and the other group of Teepee-its opening the camp joined for a scintillating seminar with the local ranger on what to do if confronted by the local wildlife. After all, the wildlife had had the run of the camp for the past nine months and might be surprised to find out they (the bears, birds, snakes, and spiders) were no longer the owners of Camp WoLaHi.
When the ranger reached the part about bear safety, he mentioned that (a) bears were rare this part of the forest, and (b) that one bear could be scared off by a girl raising her arms over her head to make herself look taller, dancing around in a style never seen on "American Bandstand," and screaming at the top of her lungs. More than one girl screaming supposedly could turn said bear into an Olympic sprinter in his effort to get out of there.
Mr. Ranger calmly assured us that if we practiced these techniques, we could scare off any bear within a three-mile radius. After all, most of us were sopranos and could hit some really high, glass-shattering notes.
Secure in the knowledge that we were safe even from the largest of forest dwellers, we proceeded proudly through our day.
That summer, Debbie was into light reading: As long as she had light, Debbie was reading. Much of the time, she was delving into Edgar Allan Poe. Wanting to share her literary discoveries with us, she brought an anthology to camp so she could regale us with one story per night. Not exactly "My Friend Flicka" or "Mr. Popper's Penguins."
Anyway, that first night at camp, the sun had sunk behind the hill, the moon had come out – full, clear, and silver – and golden stars peeked through the black velvet of the night.
We sat on our sleeping bags and listened as Debbie read "The Masque of the Red Death," in which a vile plague wipes out every living thing it passes. The story was scary enough; the fact that Debbie, great actress that she was, was reading this in the silvery beam of a lone flashlight far up the mountain made it even scarier.
Our terror grew as the plague approached the castle of the last living people in this mythical kingdom. We knew that once it entered, each person would drop dead within 30 minutes. The plague approached, slithered under the castle walls, stalked its victims, who were loudly partying, and ...
At the backs of our throats, screams began to form, waiting to erupt into the serene summer night. We scrunched up our eyes, opened our mouths to scream, and – the girls down the hill screamed loudly.
We turned and stared at each other, puzzled. Had they been able to hear Debbie all the way at the other campsite?
And then we heard it clearly – in tones too frightening to convey with mere words, it was a single word that barely escaped from a single throat, "Bear!"
That single cry inspired others to scream with more authority, "Bear! Bear!"
Finally, in a chorus, many girls raised their voices as one: "Bear! Bear!"
Our group ran down the hill toward them to find that a bruin, a bear of teenage years, had ambled into the camp of preteen girls.
Quickly, we remembered what the ranger had told us. We screamed like a bunch of forest banshees. We waved our hands over our heads to make ourselves look taller. We danced around in styles not seen on any episode of "American Bandstand."
And apparently we did a good job of intimidation, because the bear bellowed a roar of protest and then high-tailed it back into the woods, never to be seen the rest of the summer.
We were proud of ourselves and of the girls down the hill because we knew that we all had made the camp safe for the summer. Mission accomplished.
We later learned that Boy Scouts camping three miles away had heard the screams and called our main office to find out if we were safe. Our leaders assured them that indeed we were and that the situation was now quite bearable indeed.