Sneaking Into Heaven

This past Saturday, I did a little bit of trespassing. That sounds dramatic, daring, juvenile, but it was for a good cause. A good, selfish cause.

I used to go to summer camp at Moose Lake, near Bonnyville. Decent sort of Alberta lake–not too big, not too fancy, but it is home (apparently) to several different summer camps. The one I thought I attended was Moose Lake Gospel Camp. Given that it had been a good two decades or so since I attended it, I was fuzzy on the details. I remembered a chapel and Jesus talk. So I looked up the website for the camp, found the map, and planned my trip. Since it’s late September and schools are back in, I didn’t expect the camp would be in session. But I didn’t know if anyone would be in the nearby lakeside cabins who might find my wanderings a bit suspicious.

It didn’t matter. I’d face that when I got there.

The reason for my decision to revisit this specific point of my childhood was brought on by a creative writing assignment for one of my classes. A setting piece, specifically. From there, we would write a character piece, a dialogue piece, and then a story using the setting, characters, and dialogue. I decided to base my story in this half-forgotten summer camp–choosing places of childhood is a common thing for writers of setting to do, or so I hear.

Thus I set off with a notebook and pen to soak in the details of this long lost memory. The drive was about two and a half hours–manageable, if a bit boring by myself. I was kept company by the golden leaves hanging from roadside tress, still stubborn enough to hang on for another few weeks of Fall. Gradually the radio would quiet to static, first only when dipping into low roads between hills, and then the occasional chirp of a recognizable tune when in open spaces, and then nothing but white noise. By then, I was pretty much there.

They still had signs up, directing me to the camp, and where to park. Pulling into a clearing that looked vaguely like it could pass as a parking lot, I unpacked my notebook, stretched my legs, and began wandering.

Nothing looked familiar. I would occasionally see a building that I could trick my memory into remembering, but it was usually a stretch. There were dozens of little, coloured, steepled houses–dorms, presumably–and a few bigger buildings for the church, dinner hall, gym, and so on. Other than a truck with a camper parked near the camp and some bikes tied to posts, there were no signs of anyone else. It was spooky, but the effect was lessened due to being in the middle of the day with birdsong everywhere.

The whole camp was spread along the lakeside, and I walked down through a clearing to find a T-shaped dock, tied back by yellow rope, screeching and rocking as it was buffeted by waves. There was a yellow bench bolted into the dock. I sat on it. Dogs and seagulls barked somewhere in the distance. The lake was bluer than I remembered. It’s funny when cynical nostalgia turns out to be wrong, rather than rose-coloured nostalgia.

I tried opening a few of the dorm cabins, but they were locked. When I found the chapel, I investigated the lock on the back entrance and found it was not bolted shut, so I went inside. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d walk in on a Satanic ritual or something and wind up a blood sacrifice. I also remember thinking, “Oh yeah, this is right. This was the chapel I went to.” There were two rows of pews and a little stage with a mic and some sound equipment scattered on the ground. Some folded-up tables leaning against the stage. At the “back” of the church, which would be at the front entrance, was a keyboard and sound equipment. Nearby there were old black and white and brown photos of what I supposed was the camp in its earliest days. There was a big white tableau hanging on the wall, scrawled on by countless coloured markers, proclaiming a love of the Lord, etc. And a fake fish plaque just above the entrance. It looked rather out of place.

The thing that stuck out the most in the church was the cross, standing just to the left of the stage. Two crude logs made into a t. It would always be in view when looking at the stage. Never forget His sacrifice, kiddos.

The only other building I went into was a big gym/storage garage. There were basketball hoops on the walls on either side, and speedboats were stored at the back. The door for the gym was wide open, and since it was near the truck I saw earlier I wondered if someone would be inside. Nope. But I still felt concerned as I walked across the inside of the building that someone would shut the door on me and I’d be lost in darkness.

I remembered that the camp was within walking distance of my friend’s grandparents’ cabin, but I didn’t know from what direction. So I got in touch with my friend and asked to point my way. As it turns out, I was at the wrong camp entirely. That explained a lot. But there was something familiar and compelling about this place, and I wasn’t sure I’d want to let it go. Regardless, he gave me directions to the real camp, and off I went.

This one was harder to find. There were no road signs. I ended up in some kind of Ukranian summer camp, with a big Private Property – No Trespassing sign. I drove in, parked, and looked around. My friend’s grandparents were Ukranian–maybe this was the place? But I didn’t recognize it either–especially all the Ukranian/English signage. When I saw some people milling about the area, I turned around and–as casually as possible–walked back to my car.

Eventually I found the place, but it was fenced off. So I parked in front of the fence and climbed over. It wasn’t some kind of huge, barbed-wire thing, but rather two logs swung to be pointing at each other, secured with a chain and lock. It was easy to step over. Climbed was the wrong word.

Ah! This was it. Yes, I remembered those white buildings, the long, narrow dorms. And I remembered the path to the beach, and the cabin, and so that’s where I decided to walk (largely because of seeing yet another camper truck parked nearby and I wanted to avoid it). I made it to the cabin, walked around to the back of it where the beach was. No one seemed to be living there, nor in the nearby cabins. I stepped into the water, unintentionally chasing geese away. The water was freezing, and there was a cold breeze, so I opted not to swim. I spent very little time at the real camp. I preferred my fake, imaginarily-remembered camp. So I ran (I felt like running–I’m not sure why) back to my car and drove home.

I have many pictures, but this isn’t a picture blog, so I won’t post them. I wrote a lot of things in my notebook, but I’m not looking at the notebook now. I’m sure I’ll use many of the details I found in my story, but all in all, it was a fun sort of escape for a mid-September weekend. And, like the first camp, I prefer the comfort of my imperfect memory to concrete facts.

– H.

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