Six canoes, 3 coolers, 2 water filters, and a Coleman stove. Sixteen dry bags, thirteen paddles, 3 tents, and 2 tarps. A nurse, a counselor, and ten kids. Three days. One river.
We call it the St Croix Trip because it follows the St Croix River along the Canadian border in Downeast Maine. I had led this particular trip 6 years ago for Chop Point and loved it, so I was rather excited to be going again. But as always, I had a strange mix of kids - 7 American, 2 French, 1 Spanish, ranging from 13-17 years old - and I was a little apprehensive about the many factors involved. Would the campers get along with each other? Would they participate in making and breaking camp each day? Would they get grumpy and lazy if conditions weren't perfect? Would they follow me and my co-leader well?
The first day was idyllic. It was sunny and warm, the rapids on the river were exhilarating, and the kids were happy to be under way. In the late afternoon, we stopped and made camp for the night. The campers did their jobs cheerfully and willingly, but with as easy a day as it had been, we weren't surprised.
In the evening as we sat around the picnic table, I started asking the kids questions about their lives and about faith and God. It was a risk; of the 10 campers around me, only 3 were openly interested in faith. I wondered if they would become goofy or ask to be excused, but instead, they all answered seriously and listened respectfully to one another. When it was late, I suggested that we pray, and to my surprise, they all agreed to pray out loud. We held hands and each prayed in his or her native tongue. It was beautiful.
Our second day dawned grey and wet. By 9am, it was raining steadily so we packed up our camp site quickly and headed onto the river in ponchos. We certainly didn't stay dry, but so long as we kept paddling, we were warm. I started watching for the spirits to droop, ready to turn on my fake "Mary Poppins" cheerful nurse routine to salvage the day, but incredibly, the kids didn't lose their smiles. They sang songs, they threw things from canoe to canoe, they hid behind the reeds to scare one another, they raced in the rapids, and they teased me. Even when we stopped to eat soggy tortillas and peanut butter for lunch, they stayed joyful despite being cold and soaked to the bone.
We went far that day because it seemed better to paddle in the rain than to sit at a campsite in the rain. When we stopped for the night, once again, the kids did their jobs diligently and soon we were all able to rest. Most of them fell asleep on the one dry spot we had: a tarp I'd laid under a tree.
That evening, I wasn't going to initiate deep conversation but one of the kids turned to me and said, "Ask us those questions, Kez." So again, we had a long time of sharing our hearts and thoughts with one another, and again, we all held hands and prayed aloud.
Our final day started misty and cool, but by mid-morning, it was clear and warm enough to spend an hour playing on a rope-swing we found by the shore. We were very close to our destination, so we took our time, telling stories, eating snacks, skipping rocks and making adjustments to the map.
Six years ago when I led the trip, my campers enjoyed it, but they were thrilled to be done, eager for showers and friends back at camp. So when this crew posed for their final photo, I suggested they raise their paddles. "You know, act like you're happy that it's over." They gave me a blank look and said, "But we aren't happy that it's over."
They gave me the pose I asked for, but they followed it with this one, the sad-face photo, to show how they really felt about our 3-day adventure coming to an end.
On the ride home, one girl looked at me with serious eyes and said, "Kez, when we get back, can we please keep meeting and praying together like we did on the trip?" The kids were all nodding their agreement. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud with joy!
Until camp ended, our St Croix crew met every day to pray together. Sometimes it was brief; other times we were able to share prayer requests, worries and joys. Always it was the highlight of my day to hold their hands around that circle and to see the vulnerability and the trust. I do not know what magic happened during those three days on a river, but for a group to bond so well and to seek so earnestly for Truth, I have a hunch that God had something to do with it.
I sent them each home with a Bible verse, a group photo, a letter, and a copy of our team song (yes, we wrote a St Croix song). We will continue to "meet" via the internet and God willing, when I see them next year, it will be clear that what we gained during our time together was not lost. Until then, we have continued prayers and countless memories.