Exploring a postwar childhood tradition

My Paddle’s Keen and Bright: Summer Camp Stories
by Rika Ruebsaat

Vancouver: New Star Books, 2023
$24  /   9781554201884

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve


Every year around July 1st the campers arrive on our island by bus or boat or private cars. They are known to lurk in woods above Berry Point Road, are occasionally spotted marching along the road by the shore, singing as they go, or paddling kayaks towards the lighthouse. Two weeks later they leave amidst tearful farewells. A new lot arrives, and the cycle is repeated until the end of August when Camp Miriam goes quiet. The island has two other camps, or campgrounds, one owned and operated by the Regional District, the other privately owned, but they are destinations for families, couples, and lone adults with bikes or boats or a need for an economically feasible place to pitch a tent or park an RV, preferably with trees and waterfront. Camp Miriam and the other camps featured in this book are for kids whose parents have sent them there to experience … what? The question is explored as a background topic to Rika Ruebsaat’s collection of reminiscences shared by several generations of summer campers, including herself. One thinks of the Lost Boys, with camp counsellors and administration in the roles of Peter Pan and Wendy.

Author Rika Ruebsaat lives in Princeton and attended summer camp in the West Kootenays and on Gambier Island

I am trying to get past the title.  Noticing the book on my table, my son recognised the first line of a song learned at YMCA and Scout camps forty years ago.  Reading the book, I waited for this song to pop up.  It didn’t – not on a second reading either.  Ruebsaat and her sources refer to many songs, but not this one.  As the book lacks an index, I can’t be certain that it is not mentioned somewhere, but I don’t think so.  Resorting to Google, I found that “My Paddle’s Keen and Bright” is often sung as a round with “Land of the Silver Birch,” that it was not written by Pauline Johnson (who did write “The Song my Paddle Sings”) but by the much less famous Margaret Embers McGee, who may not have written anything else. Videos – and my son -suggest the song may be a lot of fun to sing.  However, it has fallen victim to allegations of racism, at least in Toronto. So why did the author, or more likely the publisher, choose this title? I have no idea, unless they wanted to send a pedantic reviewer on a wild goose chase. Or maybe they thought that anyone interested enough to read the book would take the song for granted.

I never went to summer camp, possibly for financial reasons, but I don’t recall wanting to.  I was not good at sports and games and I cannot sing. However, my husband and my children attended Scout camps, church camps, Y camps, and music camps.  One of the children wrote on his second day “I made a big mistake coming here,” but by the time I received that letter he was having a wonderful time and clearly did not wish I was there.

Rika Ruebsaat can sing. With her partner Jon Bartlett, she tours British Columbia bringing to life Canadian folk songs and campfire songs, with lively concerts and recordings. The couple also passionately champions the telling and preservation of local history. Their own bailiwick is the Princeton area, but they are often to be found in other communities, my own among them, encouraging small historical associations, museums, and archives to keep up the good work. That work involves not just digging up the distant past, but keeping fresh our own more recent memories.

An important part of Ruebsaat’s personal past was summer camp at Camp Galilee in the West Kootenays in the late 1950s and Camp Artaban on Gambier Island in the early 1960s. Convinced that the experience which mattered so much to herself must also have mattered to the other campers, she interviewed 53 of them, and had herself interviewed. The result is a collection of lived experiences and reminiscences which one can imagine being told around a campfire. It does not pretend to be a scholarly analysis of the camping phenomenon, but it could be a valuable resource for someone attempting such a work.

The introduction, brief remarks at the beginning of each chapter, and the concluding “Personal Note” glance at camp origins in movements at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, intended to counter the changes in society and childhood brought about by industrialization and urbanization.  Prominent youth organisations included the YMCA and YMHA, the Boys’ Brigade in Britain, Wandervogel and, yes, Hitler Youth, in Germany, Ernest Thompson Seton’s League of Woodcraft Indians in the United States, and the Scouting movement, begun by Robert Baden Powell as a “potent combination of militarism, Christianity and engagement with the natural world”.  Many church denominations have their own camps, most open to non-members of the host church with Christianity serving as “an ethical underpinning” rather than anything dogmatic. Camp Miriam is Jewish, and Ruebsaat refers also to camps based on communist and labour ideals.   In British Columbia, where nature was more obviously part of life than in other parts of the urbanised continent, the formation of summer camps reflected  “a desire to propagate the sensibilities of the more ‘civilised’ parts of the Empire.”

Ruebsaat with her recent title. The author interviewed scores of summer camp attendees to gather their “lived experiences.” Photo Rika Ruebsaat

Many aspects of the engagement with the natural world looked for inspiration to Indigenous practices – real or imagined. Ruebsaat remarks: “None of the people I interviewed identified as Indigenous and almost all of them attended summer camp before First Nations issues formed part of public discourse.” She remembers that much of the “playing Indian” was “actually informed by and respectful of local First Nations.” She is up front about the book’s viewpoint. Despite differences in ideology, all of her interviewees are White and their perspectives are those of Canadian settler society. She does not apologise. That’s just how it was. The book is not about colonialism, imperialism, or indoctrination.  It is about “lived experiences.”

Each chapter addresses an aspect of those experiences, from deciding to go, and arriving, to facilities, foods, counsellors, camp folk culture, faith, singing, and sex.  While this arrangement gives a feeling for the camp ambience, it also points to the lack of an index. It is challenging to follow a particular camp or location through various topics, or even to be sure the camp one cares about is mentioned more than once or at all. 

Do the camps have a future? Many events fondly remembered would not now be acceptable.  The First Nations references would have to go, and supervision would be stricter. One former camper and counsellor ruefully laments that now “You have to protect the kids’ delicate psyches.” Ruebsaat does not labour that point either but leaves it as an open question. That approach in itself qualifies the book as a contribution to public discourse.

She concludes with a “Personal Note” as epilogue. Born in Germany and in Canada continuing to live “in a family where German was spoken and German traditions practised” she remembers summer camp as “one of the places where I became a Canadian.”

This collection of lived experiences is one way of looking at childhood in postwar Canada. People who attended summer camp, or who wish they had, or who, like myself, sent their children to camp, will enjoy the shared memories. They may wish for a few photographs or even line drawings.  Scholars of social history might find the book helpful – and here I belabour a point – were it not for the lack of an index.


Phyllis Reeve

Phyllis Parham Reeve was born in Fiji, grew up in Quebec, and has lived most of her life in British Columbia. Her most recent publication, in Dorchester Review #25 (Spring/ Summer 2023) revisits the history of pre-colonial Fiji in the writings of her paternal grandmother Richenda Parham. Editor’s note: Phyllis Reeve has recently reviewed books by Doug Harrison, Dave and Rosemary Neads, Robert G. Allan, Mother Tongue PublishingLara Campbell, Michael Dawson, & Catherine Gidney, and Donald Lawrence, Josephine Mills, & Emily Dundas Oke  for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

One comment on “Exploring a postwar childhood tradition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This