On the south bank of Camp’s Lake Jake grows an enormous weeping willow. Oh, if that old willow could talk. For nearly the entirety of Camp Gray’s history, Lake Jake has played a major role in all aspects of the faith, friends, and fun at Camp Gray. That big ole weeping willow has seen a whole lot of Camp Gray history. Oh, if that old willow could talk…
Let me start by saying, I’m not sad. Honey, please, I’ve got a zest and joy for life the size of Walter, the gargantuan fish that swims in the waters just below my drooping branches. Unfortunately, for eons, my kind has been known as “weeping willows,” so there’s an assumption that we’re sad. I understand why the name “weeping willow” was given – my branches and leaves trail down at the ends, making me look rather melancholy. Trust me though, like Camp Gray is anything but grey, I’m anything but weepy. From here on out, think of my branches not as tears, but rather as beautiful dreadlocks, delightfully cultivated and manicured, full of life – a stunningly top-notch deciduous hairpiece. Cool? Cool.
Now that we’ve set the record straight here, let me get to my next point. It’s been almost a year since our elderly coniferous friend, the giant pine tree by the Athletic Field, eloquently wrote about his life soaking in the faith, friends, and fun of Camp Gray.
I read it. I like it. I thought, well zippity-do-dah, I’ve got a story to tell, as well.
Sure, I don’t have quite the life experience as ole white pine (I’d say I’m closer to middle aged than elderly), and I see less human traffic than he, since I’m rooted down here in the banks of Lake Jake, but yes friends, I certainly know a thing or two.
For roughly 40 years, I’ve seen some amazing things take place in, on, and around the body of water that’s come to be known as Lake Jake. I’m told that these waters that so magnificently reflect the fullness of my beauty weren’t around until 1964. I wouldn’t sprout for another 10 years or so, but I’m told that those in charge of Camp Gray back in the early 60s decided that in order to enhance the Camp, they needed a swimming hole. Initially there was talk of damming the creek that runs through Camp to create a 40-acre lake. Evidently, the DNR shot down that proposal.
Can you imagine a 40-acre lake at Camp Gray?! A lake that size would have certainly changed the look and feel of much of what goes on here (plus the Cassidy Games Chiefs would have a much longer paddle to glory!). However, it wouldn’t have changed Camp Gray, because Camp Gray is more than its physical attributes. Former Camp Director Phil DeLong is fond of saying that Camp Gray could be run in a parking lot. It’s about the people, he says. The buildings, the programs, even we trees – we’re nothing compared to the people. We may enhance the Camp Gray experience, but it starts with the people.
Instead of creating a lake by damming the creek, the leaders at that time found an area of camp that literally overflows with natural springs. A pond was dug, and I’m told that campers rejoiced! A diving board was positioned on one of the docks and water polo was played habitually. In those early days, I remember appreciating the overwhelming amount of joy I would witness on a daily basis – there wasn’t a face that lacked a smile. The people of Camp Gray were able to use the beauty of this area to impact the lives of the hundreds of campers that attended Camp Gray each summer.
In the mid-80s, a concrete swimming pool was built near the dining hall in the main area of Camp Gray, so swimming in these waters became scarce. Canoeing was still popular, though, as were those simple excursions down to the waters edge to soak in the beauty of the area.
Helping the pond regain its popularity was its expansion in 1998. The expansion doubled its size. Careful considerations were made to expand the pond in such a way that would create a safe environment for boaters and fishers. Of course, it was John Karsten who was responsible for the work to double the size of the pond (and its he who generously stocks the waters with fish every few years – yes indeed, I’ve learned a lot about generosity watching people like John Karsten.).
The swimming hole, formerly known simply as “the pond,” was officially renamed after its expansion. The name “Lake Jake” was chosen to honor former Camp Director, Jake Czarnik-Neimeyer. Jake was Director from 1994-1997.
These days, there’s no doubt I still appreciate greatly the smiles that are found on the faces of all that spend time around the Lake and me. However – perhaps because I’m older and wiser – I see and appreciate more than just the smiles…
I see and appreciate the friendships that are formed between two campers as they paddle around Lake Jake in one of Camp’s canoes. I see and appreciate the excitement and wonder when kids catch their first fish. I see and appreciate campers overcome their fear as they swing past my branches on the rope swing, squealing gleefully as they splash into the water. I see and appreciate staffers gather their campers in a circle on the dock in the evenings, to contemplate the enormity and the majesty of the heavens above. I see and appreciate the sheer craziness and pageantry of the Cassidy Games, and the culminating Lake Jake Relay Race. I see and appreciate the simple times, like when a staffer spends time alone on the dock, reflecting on a verse or praying for the grace to be a light to so many. I see and appreciate when the Hoeben’s or the Coakley’s spend family time around the lake on a colorful autumn day.
I may be just a tree, but in my 40 years on this bank, I can certainly attest to the fact that it is the people that make Camp Gray Camp Gray. I could have taken root somewhere else, soaking up the water of a stream or a pond or a lake far from the people and the joy that I experience here at Camp Gray, but here I am, and there you are, reading these words.
I’m certainly a lucky tree to be here, and in sharing this story, I see that truth even more clearly. I’m a weeping willow full of joy. Perhaps all weeping willows are anything but weepy. Perhaps not. Perhaps they’re weepy because they lack the view that I have – the view of thousands of beautiful people experiencing the faith, friends, and fun of Camp Gray!
Thanks for reading my story!
Friends! There won’t be a “Tuesdays with Topher” next Tuesday, April 22nd. We’ll be back on the 29th! God bless!