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Swamping all summer to a giggle soundtrack

August 10, 2004|Julie Lenard | Special to The Times

"One, TWO,

three, tip!" I crash into the water with three 10-year-old girls giggling and screaming. Despite my warnings, the girls haven't securely placed the paddles under the gunwales. They start floating away.

I have one hand steadying the canoe, the other reaching for the blades; with my legs, I'm trying to scramble into the water-filled boat. The girls are spilling out of the canoe, threatening the precarious balance, shrieking as we make no further progress toward shore. Paddling with our hands, we veer off starboard.

It's the first day of camp, and we have countless tip tests to get through before these newbies become master paddlers. OK, proficient paddlers.

A month ago I was a panic-stricken college graduate, thrust into the world with no more than a degree in English and comparative literary studies. I postponed reality for a few months and slipped back into my childhood summers as a camp counselor in Casco, Maine.

These girls from different states and countries converge to canoe and hike, learn how to build a fire and immerse themselves in traditions long absent from their Britney-centric lives. Deposited by SUVs, they trade tiny miniskirts and heels -- accessorized with cellphones and Tiffany's -- for the faded camp uniform: blue middies and bloomers. Cellphones are confiscated. After a dip in the lake, the makeup drips off their faces.

Three girls and I struggle to get to shore. They scramble up the beach, wielding their paddles like miniature pirates with daggers.

"Don't dig your paddles into the sand!" I plead. "Sand ruins the grains of the wood!" They stop short as if they've been shocked and lift their paddles into the air carefully.

"OK girls, you've all passed. Go get warm!" In a flash they are gone, sprinting up the hill before the last words escape from my mouth.

After the dreaded tip test, the first real day of canoeing begins. In the stern with three girls, I start with the basics. Fore water, feather. Backwater, feather. What happens when you draw on the port side of the canoe? Suppose you switched sides and tried the same stroke? They spend a lot of time doing broadside moves instead of turning. After they get the hang of it, Susie, another counselor, challenges us to a race.

"OK, round the canoeing dock doing a pivot turn, do three wide turns in opposite directions without stopping, and end up at the swimming dock. One, two, three, go!"

Susie and I quickly realize that we are the ones propelling the canoes, as the campers lily-paddle into the water. "Paddle girls, paddle!" we shout as we round the canoeing dock, almost crashing into each other.

"Julie, I feel dizzy!" shrieks one girl.

"This is cool!" yells another.

My canoe finishes slightly behind and the other canoe cheers.

"OK girls, you remember how to safely get out of a canoe right? Both feet at once so we don't tip over the boat."

"Yeeessss Julie," they chant. Two girls exit successfully but the third dangles one foot before the other.

"Wait!" I barely get the word out before I nosedive into the sand, canoe flipped over again, sprawled into the lake.

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