This week was Jeffrey's 5th grade camp trip. Having learned from my past experiences, I signed up to attend as a "visitor" on the second day rather than as a chaperon. This way I was able to observe all the fun without having to be responsible for other people's children or sleep on a moldy plastic mattress. I drove there with my neighbor friend Monica who also has a 5th grader, making it even more enjoyable. I am learning!
Fresh and rested, we drove a little over an hour, chatting so much that we almost missed the entrance to the Howell Nature Center and Camp. We made our way over the bumpy and gutted hills of the campground road to the building where our children were in the middle of a one-hour safety orientation. We greeted the overwhelmed and beleaguered looking chaperons, and I made sure to thank them for watching out for our children.
After the safety orientation was over we all hiked through the woods to the site of our first activities, which were the rock-climbing tower and "high ropes." The children were then subjected to yet another series of safety instructions. By now I was sure that they had received far more information than they could possibly retain, but I was pleased to observe the emphasis on safe practices given the dangerous nature of what they would be doing. They learned a detailed set of commands that had to be repeated whenever they were "on belay" when wearing a safety harness.
I once read about the purpose of these types of camp activities. It is to safely simulate the feeling of perilous adventure and create a bonding experience for the participants. The kids just think its fun. I was extremely proud as I watched my little Jeffrey scamper easily up to the top of the 60 foot climbing tower, a feat that only a few of them accomplished.
After lunch they were scheduled for the high ropes which is something I've never seen before and is quite amazing. The children were subjected to yet another safety orientation where they practiced the steps of transferring their safety hooks before they climbed high up into the trees to navigate across a course of ropes, wires and logs. I was again happy to observe my Jeffrey complete this with ease, and felt he was safe due to the ample staff and safety precautions they were taking.
After that they did canoeing and had dinner, and then it was time for the hayride. A tall man in a large straw cowboy hat came and told our group that one of the carts had a flat tire and they were going to see how many people they could fit onto one wagon. We squeezed our way onto the wooden benches along the sides of the wagons with the children on a thin layer of hay at our feet. The man stepped up onto the back of the cart and delivered what would be the fourth safety talk of the day:
"This wagon does not have any shocks, so the ride will be rough. Anyone with a heart condition or who is pregnant should not ride." Greg's dad jokingly started to get up, claiming pregnancy, and we all laughed. But a girl named Katie turned to me and said:
"That's how our teacher got her back injury last year!" I smiled dismissively at Katie as the hat man went on:
"Keep yer hands in the wagon cuz if ya don't they could get cut off. We'll be getting real close to some trees so the people on the opposite sides should tell people when to duck. And try to hold on." He looked down at the two kids sitting nearest the opening where he stood. "These two might fall out." I saw that there was no gate to go across that opening, and one of the dads stretched his foot out to partially cover it.
We all hollered as the man revved up the pickup truck that jolted the packed wagon into motion. I contemplated the total lack of restraints and the gaping space in the back of the wagon as I recalled the many crash videos that I studied in slow motion during my career as a seatbelt engineer. We used to fret over the tiniest details to make sure that the vehicle's occupants would remain uninjured in all possible situations. And here I was with all of these precious children as the man turned onto that bumpy camp road and revved the engine to what felt like 40mph.
The happy hollering turned to fearful screaming as the wagon flopped along behind the truck, and those tree branches started whipping us in the faces and heads. There was little to no reaction time as branch after branch sliced through the air and whapped the passengers hard and deposited leaves, blossoms, and possibly disfiguring scars all around. Monica, true friend that she is, took to screaming "DUCK" and smacking me in the back as she saw them coming. I bent into the "crash position" they recommend for descending airplanes: forehead to knees with palms to the back of my head.
We got a reprieve from the branch assault when the truck swerved into an open field and began driving around in circles. Centrifugal force slammed us all against one side and I saw Jeff's friend Nick clutching the side of the wagon trying hard not to throw up.
After another screaming tour of terror over the roads we finally lurched to a stop back where we started. As far as I know we didn't lose anyone or sustain any serious injuries, but my goodness after a full day of careful safety instructions I can't believe they subjected us to this. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done.
When Monica and I got off the wagon and looked at each other's crazy hair spiked with hay, leaves and branches we burst into uncontrollable laughter. It was a bonding experience.