What Getting Thrown in the Lake, Rolled in Ketchup, and Stamped in Paint Taught Me About Real Life

If you have ever been to summer camp you will no doubt know the true meaning of 'getting dirty'. Not just 'it's been days and I need a shower dirty' or 'I've been painting dirty'. I mean, real, "the entire dust bowl from the A-field is resting on my face, Lake Kimball's finer bacteria have taken up residence under my bathing suit, mustard has pretty much sealed my eyes shut" kind of getting dirty.

You summer camp staffers, in particular, will know what I mean when I say a shower that comes out in only a dribble and provides no actual warmth might just be the most amazing shower you've ever taken. (Water pressure noise - now!)

There is a whole lot of mess-making going on during the glorious days and hours of Camp Henry summers and while from the outside, it sounds pretty awful and disgusting, from the inside it is truly something special. There is a magic in letting go of your clean existence and diving in to the dirt to fully experience the tastes (pancake from the gut bucket?), the smells (a mix of the "coral" and beef stew smoke in your hair) and the feelings (dried Indian campfire paint on your forehead) that make up what summer camp is all about.

Getting dirty is what gets us into the game, into the spirit of camp. It's what forms our memories and fills our pictures and becomes the foundation for the stories we tell over and over.
(Be honest, the only story you tell about the banquets where you dressed up instead of going in overalls or wild wigs was the one where you fell over a bench and pretty much face-planted in a giant bowl of spaghetti. Oh wait, that might have been me. And technically, that's pretty close to getting messy.)So why do we do it? Why do we cherish the mess so much when normal, non-camp goers, have enough sense to run away? What exactly does all this dirty-ness teach us?
I've come to find out in my years since Camp Henry that the answer is: a great deal. All those messes, layers of dirt and grimy tactile assaults, have actually been influential life lessons.

Six Things that Getting Messy at Camp Taught Me About Life:

1. The Bog Walk is not as scary as you think.
Upon following my counselor out beyond Kiowa cabin through waist-deep mud, all I could think was: deadly bugs, snakes, and rusty metal are about to attack my shins; how will I ever get the mud off my Keds?; why, exactly, is this 'fun'? Upon returning, unscathed, from that terrifying walk, and bragging to others about the adventure, all I could think was: I survived the fear of the unknown. I learned the value of risk-taking, and no matter how many times I faced a Bog Walk in my days to come - starting over in six new states, taking on a job I wasn't qualified for, even motherhood - I knew that I could slosh through and survive.

2. Potato Round-Up paint fades away but the collective experience does not.
Running around the A-field, being attacked by cold paint and semi-recognizable potato stamps may sound like a B-grade horror movie you want to watch and avoid; however it's a rite of passage not to be missed. The paint washes off - usually in the Red Area to the tune of "Scrub your head, scrub, scrub..." - but the experience you've shared with 100 other people does not. That paint bath is what binds you all together. It's better to be in the heart of the mess because that's where the friends are. Some of those I have smeared paint on are still my closest companions today. (And while older, we aren't above a good paint fight.)

3. A Good Laking is all in the release.
If you have the fortune to be a Camp Henry staff member you will undoubtably have the "fortune" of getting thrown in the lake. It is a bit frightening: four individuals stealing you -fully clothed - powder-donat-ing you through sand, swinging you closely over wood and then (hopefully) launching you high enough - right side up enough - to make a painless lake entry. But it's also a competitive challenge. If you're going to get laked, it might as well be the best laking yet. It might as well be exhilarating. You have to trust that you will clear the dock. You have to relax and work with the team so you get good height. You have to mentally assist so you put on a good show. All those years of lakings taught me how to lean into a challenge at work; how to soar when others were watching; how to remain limber; and how to go for it so the plunge was really refreshing and worthwhile.

4. The Dutch Auction is not really about you.
There is nothing like the experience of being chosen as the "Human Hot Dog" or "Human Squeegee" and being dragged across Idema Theater through ketchup, mustard, last week's cole slaw, sour milk and tater tots. But here's the thing, you are chosen for the honor. Campers want to see you at your finest, filthiest and I know because I was both a selector and a selectee. When your name is called at the Dutch Auction, you have the (mostly disgusting) pleasure of sacrificing yourself for the joy of others and in return, you get the pleasure of knowing that people care enough about you to see you submerged. This strange irony has occurred to me many times as a parent as over and over again you give in to the mess for the good of another person. Whether it be syrup down the pants or poo on your pants, it's all done in the spirit of love.

5. Mud Mud is always the best choice.
It's raining and you have a few options: friendship bracelets and rock painting in Arts and Crafts, charades in Idema, or ultimate frisbee in the mud on the A-field. The answer is this: it's ALWAYS more fun to go out in the rain. The mud is the vehicle for the reward not the obstacle. This nugget remains true about pretty much everything. Find the motivation and go out to play Mud Mud.

6. Your Indian Campfire face paint says a whole lot about who you are.
No memory of camp excites me more than the end-of-the-week Indian Campfire. That dark journey up the hill, the sound of horses and drums, the 'will the spirit of the fire be with us or not?' anticipation - there was so much to look forward to. But it's the face paint - and the costumes - I donned for the big event that stick with me the most. What you chose to put on your face represents your personality. Your creative vision. Your love of camp's sacred culture. I never took it lightly (nor under-appreciated Gretchen Carothers or Nick Koster and some of the artistic geniuses who transformed my face). I selected every feather, every color, for a reason and those days gearing up to be Summoner or Chief of Fire shaped my early sense of creativity, my fashion, my personal style. The Indian Campfire taught me that all of life is an opportunity for self-expression.

Now it's your turn, tell us your stories and memories. As a camper or staffer which messy moments meant the most to you?




Amy VanHaren is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.