BIG BEAR CITY — Millie and Caren hiked awhile, stopping frequently to forage in the underbrush for stubby branches or pine cones they could add to their already abundant collection.
Caren drew a small, prickly cone from beneath a scrubby pine and showed her hiking companions how the squirrels had plucked away the nuts.
Later, the pair tried archery. They squealed in delight every time an arrow pierced the target.
At night, they sat under a sky full of twinkling stars and joined others in belting out favorite old tunes in the soft glow of a roaring fire.
As summer camp goes, Millie and Caren had the kind of experiences that give youngsters a lifetime of warm memories. But Caren Roberts is 72, and Millie Keairns won't say how old she is except to acknowledge that she is older than Caren.
They were among about 30 Long Beach retirees who spent a restful four days last month at Camp Oakes, a YMCA-operated facility nestled at 7,300 feet of elevation on the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest.
The seniors signed up through the Long Beach Senior Center to participate in the three-year-old program, which has become so popular it is being offered twice a year. The session was scheduled before the first busload of regular young YMCA campers arrived, giving the camp staff an opportunity to work with the seniors and a group of handicapped youngsters.
The seniors did not engage in such summer-camp frivolity as short-sheeting the counselor's bed. And no one was thrown from a pony.
There was, however, a wild burro that kicked over the trash can in the wee hours outside Merle and Lee Harlan's cabin window. And few will soon forget how energetic leader Howard H. Hinds set the alarm on his watch an hour too early, and awakened the group at 5 instead of 6 for morning calisthenics. (As a result, however, all of them showed up on time for exercise at 7, Hinds pointed out.)
The camp schedule listed such activities as canoeing, horseback riding, fishing, archery, hiking, shooting, swimming and even a senior track meet.
But it did not work out that way. Workmen were resurfacing the empty pool. Seniors said the Jacuzzi was on the blink. No one fished--there were rumors that the fish in the camp's lake had died. The shooting range was not yet open for summer. Horseback rides cost $10 extra, and no one wanted to risk breaking a bone anyway. The track meet was canceled because of a scheduling conflict with the boat ride.
More ambitious campers, such as retired barber Dorine Maze, took long hikes around the camp. Caren Roberts was the first to try the bow and arrow, but she said a stiff breeze interfered with her aim.
Clear Blue Sky
Most seniors, however, were content with group activities and relaxation in the pine-studded camp ringed by mountains and set under a crystal blue sky.
"We are absorbing this beautiful air," said Hinds, leaning back in a lawn chair on a bright morning just moments before he lit a cigarette and took a heavy drag. The popular 73-year-old fitness instructor led the group on a boat trip around Big Bear Lake and sang old favorites, such as "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," when campers sat around the campfire.
The seniors played games and worked puzzles. They read books and talked and painted plaster figurines. By day, they went on a narrated nature walk. By night, they went to a small observatory.
"We looked through the telescope at Jupiter. Is that the one with the rings around it?" asked Merle Harlan, a 64-year-old retired machinist.
Jake Kepr, a retired butcher, was not content to just pet the horses. He chatted with them as well. The bright-eyed 73-year-old said: "I like horses. I came to talk to the horses."
Eager for Food
One of the most popular activities was eating. "The food here has been fabulous," Hinds said before the group dug into plates of tacos and burritos for lunch. "Everyone has been showing up for all three meals and eating like they were starving."
The seniors were not entirely on their own at Camp Oakes. Katherine Hamilton, 28, tagged along as a camp counselor. An employee of the Long Beach Department of Parks and Recreation and certified lifeguard, Hamilton said the biggest problem she had encountered was snoring by some of the seniors who shared the same room in the bunkhouse.
"It's not hard. They're on their own," Hamilton said. "I can't tell them what to do. It's like telling my mother what to do."
Hinds said the group was a little smaller than on past outings because the price had increased to $65, but he had fewer gripes. While the seniors slept in staff cabins, rather than the three-sided airy cabins where legions of YMCA campers have stayed through the years, he said some considered the accommodations a little primitive.
"They expect the Ritz Carlton and they don't get the Ritz Carlton," he said.