Jilly D.

Summer of ’77

In Pictures and memories on November 3, 2011 at 2:21 pm

The Mecan River Youth Conservation Camp in central Wisconsin hired me to work the summer of 1977, the year between my freshman and sophomore year of college. My major wasn’t biology but the job suited me like my favorite faded black t-shirt and Levi 501 jeans.

Aldo Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac, and the natural habitat and wildlife he observed came from this landscape. Required reading in junior year American English, I’d loved listening to Leopold’s voice as the words of wisdom popped off the page into my head. I jumped into this bubble of pretend to live Leopold’s legacy.

The Civilian Conservation Corps under Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Mecan River campsite and the Youth Conservation Corps kept this federal program running to put at-risk urban youth to work during summer months. The Wisconsin Youth Conservation Corps ceased to exist in 2003, but I remember that April afternoon in 1977 looking in the college Career Office for summer job opportunities. In the same moment of reading there was a gut sense of recognition; I wanted this gig.

What the job actually entailed proved to be advanced babysitting. Keeping track of urban high school girls and acting like drill sergeants during the day on environmental restoration state work projects did not require any literary appreciation of Aldo.

Each of us camp counselors had to drive a van or a school bus to take crews out on work locations. During the day, for example, we would rebuild trout stream habitat. We’d start by felling tamarack trees and stripping the bark off. Learning to use an ax, sharpening blades, handling saws, these weren’t skills most of these girls would use in their future, but the sense of accomplishment lasts a lifetime. Two to a log, I’d assign pairs to remove the bark as they sat on either end, like the tree was a teeter-totter. We’d lay the skinned poles end to end reshaping the creeks edges into tight curves. Hours of filling in behind the logs with rocks, then dirt, and finally grass seed built up the side of the bank. Twelve girls and I offered rainbow trout habitat for breeding. Working in the sun with our shirts off and bandanas around our brows to catch the sweat, we felt strong and good.

Crews came back into camp by 4 p.m. and participated in sports, “farts and craps” (arts and crafts), skit rehearsals, card and board games, and writing letters home. Mess hall served sumptuous healthy meals after morning and afternoon flag ceremonies. Girls spent two weeks at the camp. The weekends in between groups, counselors had free. The weekends the girls spent in camp, the counselors organized activities.

I signed up to take a busload of girls into the nearest town, Princeton, Wisconsin; a tiny outpost with a five-and-dime, an A & W, a bank, a public phone booth, and not much else of interest to teenage girls looking for thrills. Never having driven a school bus before, I took my lessons during the week from several other counselors who had already driven these big stick-shifting monster vehicles.

Saturday morning the campers climbed on board my big orange Bluebird and we set off for town. It proved a bumpy ride down the highway with boisterous sing-alongs. I’m headed for the A & W and requesting window service. These girls worked hard all week.

I pulled into Princeton and kept the bus in second gear. Then I coasted towards the big parking complex of the A & W rootbeer joint off to the right of the highway. I applied the brake and ever so gracefully came to a stop with the overhang roof of the building atop my big orange school bus.

That wasn’t the last of my driving lessons. One morning the camp director asked me to take the Farmall wagon into Portage and drop it off for repairs at the State Department of Natural Resources garage. He told me the brakes were going and be careful. So I was very careful.

I pulled into the back of the barns and found a row of vehicles parked along the edge of a lot across from four big bays of a garage with all the doors up and open. Slowly I pulled in between two other dark green state vehicles and came to a full stop. I got out of the car and walked towards the garage with the keys in my hand; proud of myself for accomplishing another dangerous driving mission.

Three guys across the lot came out of their work bays into the sunshine and started waving at me. I waved back.

“Hi. I’m delivering….”

Crash. Slide. Crash. Pop. Hiss.

“This vehicle from Mecan River,” I said.

Three guys started running right at me. One waved his red grease rag at me. I turned around to look behind me and saw tall pine trees 200 feet away swaying gently, but there was no breeze. Then I noticed the Farmall: gone.

I ran towards the empty parking space and then forward I followed tire tracks to a precipice. Down 100 feet below in the creek bed lay askew a very wrecked Farmall.

I didn’t get the job again the following summer. I didn’t even get to drive the schoolbus again.

The bonfires and stories of Indian lore, the legacy of Leopold, hearing the loon and seeing the wild blue heron and identifying the natural species, geological formations underfoot, recreating a wilderness space, transforming minds and bodies with good hard work, and swimming and bathing in the small gorges of springfed creeks: my Mecan River.

  1. Hi Jill, I was at camp that same summer of 1977. I was one of the highschool girls in cabin #2 with Miss Leuker. I have fond memories of my days at camp. Your description is pretty much how I remember it. I am still not crazy about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after eating them every day for lunch! 🙂 Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.
    Tracy Alexander Jorgenson

    • Hi Tracy, Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I don’t eat PB&J sandwiches either after getting my fill the summer of ’77. Glad to know someone else reflects on those summer memories.

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