You may have heard the story of the innocent 15-year-old preppy who signs up for a wilderness course and is mistakenly lumped in with a bunch of at-risk youths. She tells the group’s leaders there’s been a mix-up, but no one believes her. She tells the other teens and is laughed at, cursed at and treated like just another juvenile delinquent. So, for the next three weeks, she does her time.
Well, four years ago, I was that kid.
Enrolling in the course was my father’s idea. He had recently returned from dog-sledding school in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and had loved every minute. What could build more character in his bored adolescent daughter than survival camp?
Reluctantly, I agreed to three weeks of canoeing, hiking and mountain climbing in those same Boundary Waters. And so, as soon as school was out in June, I boarded a plane for northern Minnesota.
I wasn’t allowed off the plane until a course counselor came to get me. I waited for half an hour. “Maybe my trip’s been canceled,” I thought. “Maybe I can go home and relax.”
Wishful thinking. I was claimed and escorted to the baggage area, where a hundred campers milled around.
“We’ll be leaving as soon as possible,” said a group leader. “Change into your trail clothes.”
I went to the bathroom, where other girls were changing.
“Put on lots of bug spray,” one said. “I just saw three kids coming back from the Boundary Waters. Their arms were covered in scabs from mosquitoes.”
I sprayed on some Off, thinking, “Yeah, right, mosquitoes won’t be that bad here.” More wishful thinking.
Outside the bathroom, a greasy boy sidled up beside me. He had no front teeth and a head full of chalky hair that looked as if it been dunked in a toilet bowl of bleach.
“Gotta tell you about my last birthday,” he said, firing up a cigarette. “I was at my dad’s shop and all his friends lined up and said, ‘Happy birthday, kid. We got you a present!’ They moved apart and there she was, this 110-pound.... “
I hurried off, not wanting to hear the end. I went outside and was assigned to a group. I asked the girls from the bathroom: “Are you in mine?” None was.
We all sat on the curb outside the terminal. After a while a van pulled up. Everyone was told to hop aboard. Everyone except me. I was told to wait for the next van, which appeared a minute later.
“Get in,” said the counselor in the front seat. Inside were Toothless and two rough-looking kids.
“Uh, excuse me,” I said to the counselor. “Can I switch to the other group?”
He laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “This is your group.”
I got in and sat beside the only girl. Short jungle-red hair peeked out from her bandanna, and a half-dozen tattoos crept from under her ratty camping shorts. Three were of hypodermic needles. The rest were of naked Lara Crofts with spiked dog collars around their necks. Hooked to the collars were things that looked like long noodles.
Just then another kid stepped into the van. He was tall, with a goatee and braided plaits in his hair. Goatee Boy sat passively, listening to a Walkman. Next to him was a kid with a dozen piercings in his cheek. He smelled horrible and mumbled to himself.
A criminal? Me?
The counselor leaned back and asked, “What were you all sent here for?”
I asked what he was talking about.
“Why were you in lockup?” he asked, annoyed.
“You know -- what was your crime?”
“Crime?” I asked, swallowing hard. “I’m not a criminal. I must be in the wrong van.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“No, really. I shouldn’t be here. There’s been a mistake. Just call my parents.”
“Sure thing,” said the counselor with a seen-it-all-before expression. “May I borrow your cellphone?”
“I didn’t bring one.”
“Well, isn’t that a shame, Princess. Neither did I. It looks like you’re stuck with us.”
The counselor turned to the other kids. “OK, so who’s gonna be first?”
“Weed,” said Toothless. “I got caught dealing it.”
“Crack,” said Noodles. “They caught me smoking it.”
“Arson,” said Goatee Boy, momentarily lifting up his headphones. “They said I burned down my house.”
“Mumble, mumble,” said Mumbles. I later learned he had bonked his stepmother on the head with a hammer.
The counselor looked at me. “And why are you here, Precious?”
“I wasn’t kidding!” I said. “I’m in the wrong group.” Five pairs of unsympathetic eyes fixed on me.
I was stuck. I took a deep breath and said, “I’d wanted to go to the Barbizon School of Modeling camp, but ... “
Noodles asked me if I’d ever done coke. “Sure,” I lied.
“Ever” -- Noodles lowered her voice -- “made love?”
“What a ridiculous question.” I laughed. I’d never had a boyfriend. But Noodles had. She showed me snapshots of her infant daughter.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” she said.
So this is lockdown
Two hours later we arrived at the Boundary Waters. I was a little scared, maybe a little elated. At least I’d have a wild story to tell my friends back home. If they believed me.
The counselor came back with our female group leader. We were marched to base camp, separated by gender and ordered to strip down to our underwear. After the woman ransacked my backpack, she searched me.
I was tossed a life jacket and shoved into the front of a canoe. The seven of us paddled through the dark waters to a campsite, and I got a taste of what the next 21 days would be like.
They were the hardest three weeks of my life. Canoeing upstream through heavy currents and shallow swamps was difficult enough. Portaging was worse. Already saddled with 90-pound packs of food on our backs, we also had to lug 70-pound boats from lake to lake.
That first night, l learned what “lockdown” was. A hard rain fell as Noodles and I put up our tent in the darkness. After 20 minutes of kvetching, we collapsed into our sleeping bags. The counselors had warned us that we could talk to each other for only five minutes. Naturally, we went over the allotted time. We were ordered to sit by the campfire in the rain. Silently. For an hour.
We served our sentences and stumbled back to our tent. Then Mumbles mumbled something to Goatee Boy, who laughed hysterically. We were all ordered back to the fire. This time we were ordered to stand. Another silent hour passed. We were drenched, freezing, exhausted.
At dawn the next day we were shaken awake and told to dress, wash up and get our gear together. In the Boundary Waters, personal hygiene was basic. We were each allowed two brushes -- one for our hair, the other for our teeth. No music, no zit cream, no deodorant.
A counselor brayed, “Be ready in exactly 10 minutes or sleep outside tonight.”
The worst thing about sleeping outside was not the rain, the cold or prowling wolves. It was the Minnesota mosquitoes.
Sometimes they swarmed so thickly I could barely see. My lips swelled up. When I returned home, my doctor prescribed three drugs to reduce the swelling.
The counselors wouldn’t help us with anything. Their purpose, they said, was to keep us from killing each other. That wasn’t easy. We fought constantly, screaming insults loudly enough to scare bears away.
On our first morning in the wilderness, Mumbles had his first meltdown. Over dried blueberry granola. “Mumble, mumble,” he said. “Mumble, mumble, mumble!” Mumbles hated blueberries.
The counselors had told us that if we didn’t finish all our food, we’d have to pack it out. Packed-out food gets moldy. Moldy food explodes in your backpack.
Mumbles still wouldn’t eat. We begged. We pleaded. But he threw a mumbly fit. Fed up, the male counselor pulled him aside and spooned some blueberries into his mouth. Mumbles took a few bites, then spat it in his face.
The rest of us paid the price. The counselors scraped Mumbles’ leftovers into our bowls, then poured water over the “treat.” We were told to swish the mixture around and drink it. It looked revolting, and I had to summon all my courage to take a swallow.
Everyone had pent-up feelings, and they erupted at least once a day. The counselors’ solution was a “resolution circle.” I requested only one of these. It was over Noodles.
On our first few days out, she was incredibly rude to me. Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I burst out crying, and a resolution circle was called.
Noodles denied everything at the meeting. But that night at the campfire, she tried to make amends. “I’m really sorry if I hurt you,” she said. “It’s just that it’s the only way I ever get my way. When my mom and I are together all we do is fight. I like my stepdad, but he’s in jail for attempted murder. It’s really good that I’m actually admitting to this. I never do. I’ll try to be nicer to you.”
On Day 15 we went solo. Which meant we were on our own for three days. Instead of a tent, we had a plastic tarp, some mosquito netting and a pair of shoelaces on which to hang them. We had only a small bag of raisins and peanuts to last us three days.
I was dropped off by a lake in a steady rain and instructed not to leave. Or talk. If I did or even motioned to another camper across the lake, I would be “breaking solo.” Which meant we would have to return to the campsite. Anyone who broke solo twice would not be allowed to speak or be spoken to for the rest of the trip.
I set up my shelter quickly. The rain was falling harder by the minute, and I was cold. I didn’t have enough shoelace to stretch between trees, so I improvised by tearing my bandana into strips. It took me almost an hour, but the makeshift rope held up pretty well.
Nestled within my damp sleeping bag, I eventually nodded off. When I awoke, the rain had stopped. I set my clothes out to dry. Rearranging them was my entertainment for the day. That and slapping mosquitoes.
My second night solo I met Harry. I had been tossing in my sleeping bag watching thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes dive-bomb the netting. Suddenly, something scurried over my face. Harry. The mouse scampered across my bag all night. I never missed Herman, my cat, so much.
The next morning, the sky was a hazy lavender. A mist hung over the lake. The sun came up like a glowing tangerine. I had never been so happy to be alone.
But the idyll was quickly shattered. In an attempt to get more food, Mumbles had swum halfway across the lake. The counselors rounded us up and ordered us back to the campsite. None of us ate that night.
The last few days passed. Slowly. Monotonously.
On the final night, we gathered in another circle to talk about our experiences. A bond had formed among us. Even Mumbles had become tolerable. I wouldn’t say we had grown together, but we had persevered together.
The next day I called my dad from the airport. “How’d it go?” he asked.
“Not bad,” I said. “I survived.”
Gogo Lidz is a sophomore at Bard College in New York. To compensate her for her ordeal, the wilderness outfitter refunded the course fee and plane fare and offered her another trip for free. She has yet to re-up.