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County girls canoe to confidence

MIDDLEBURY — When the five local girls who attended the Keewaydin Temagami summer camp in Canada last summer get together, they can trade stories for hours — their favorite boats (which they know by number), their best wildlife sightings, and the close calls they had in turbulent northern waters.
The girls — Dani Totten, 19; Rachel Carter, 15; Nathalie Ingersoll, 14; Dorothy Punderson, 13; and Amelia Ingersoll, 11 — have all spent summers paddling long distances in wood-and-canvas canoes, returning to base camp on the shores of Lake Temagami in Ontario at the end of each trip. And though most were on different trips, the girls’ section of the camp is smaller than the boys’ section, and so all of the girls spent time with each other between trips.
In a group conversation last week, the five paddlers described their wilderness experiences over the past several years, describing the challenges they faced on the trips and the ways in which they had all grown in confidence and maturity.
Though the 117-year-old canoeing camp is up north, Keewaydin Temagami has its offices in Salisbury, and is a sibling camp of Keewaydin Dunmore, Songadeewin and Keewaydin Environmental Education Center. The current director of Keewaydin Temagami is Bruce Ingersoll, who himself attended the camp for 10 years as a teenager, and whose daughters, Nathalie and Amelia, seem poised to do the same.
Last week, Nathalie explained that when her father took the job as director five years ago and she found out she’d be spending summers in Ontario, she decided to enroll in the camp.
“I decided that I wanted to do canoe tripping because it would be better than staying at base camp the whole summer,” she said with a laugh.
That summer, Dani, who is from Salisbury, was also a camper. Since then, she has led two summers’ worth of trips, and this past summer marked her seventh year at Temagami.
After Nathalie’s first summer, there was no question about what she was doing the following summer. Before her second summer canoe tripping, she convinced her friend Rachel, a Bristol resident, to go along. Rachel has been going ever since — she and Nathalie were on the same six-week trip this summer, on which they went on five-day, 10-day and 21-day canoe excursions.
This summer also marked Amelia’s second year at the camp. Her six-week session included several canoeing trips of five and 10 days each, and Dorothy, a friend of the Ingersolls from Weybridge, also took part in a three-week session.
And while the girls all agreed that it was sometimes hard to appreciate the experience of carrying a canoe across rough ground in the pouring rain, all five agreed they’d learned plenty in their time at Keewaydin Temagami, not just confined to canoeing techniques. Without hesitation, the quartet chimed out those lessons:
“How to sleep in a tent,” “how to deal with people,” “how to work hard and take care of yourself,” “how to be chill in situations that you can’t control.”
“It can be really hard and frustrating at times, and you do some really difficult things,” Dani said. “I credit anything good in my personality to Keewaydin.”
Dani said that the smaller group of girls who attend the camp makes for an especially close-knit experience.
“You trip with the same people every summer,” said Dani, who has been leading trips for three years now. “By the time you do your (Hudson) Bay trip, you’re with girls you’ve known for five years.”
And while the older girls are going farther away from base camp each summer, they have all developed an attachment to the waters right around base camp. As Amelia described a specific bend in the river, the other four smiled in recognition.
The girls’ program at Keewaydin Temagami is much younger than the camp itself: While boys have been taking canoeing trips for 117 years, the girls’ program just marked its 12th season. The trips are separated by gender, but all campers experience the same general structure.
Groups of campers, usually around eight, head out with two or three trip leaders on canoeing trips ranging on the shorter end from five and 10 days, returning to base camp in between, to trips that are out in the field for seven weeks. The most advanced trips paddle hundreds of miles north to the Hudson Bay.
While the girls’ program is much younger, Ingersoll said that all of the campers take part in the century of stories and camp tradition.
“The thing hasn’t changed in 117 years,” he said. “It’s all pretty much self sufficient — they’re carrying their own food, their own tents.”
Temagami trips still use wood-and-canvas canoes, and though for the most part they’ve upgraded from using canvas tents to more lightweight ones, the girls all scoffed at the idea that they would use a camp stove. Instead, campers cut wood every night to cook their meals.
As a trip leader, Dani said that watching the 12- to 15-year-olds on her trip learn the traditions and techniques of long-distance canoeing this summer made it clear just how much of an effect the wilderness experience can have in just a few weeks. Not just in building physical strength, she said — though seeing a 100-pound girl carrying a 70-pound canoe by the end of the summer is rewarding. She also noticed a difference in their attitudes.
“It was like they were different kids,” she said.
Ingersoll has seen that change very clearly in his daughters.
“It’s given them confidence, courage and strength,” he said.
Though summer vacation only ended a month ago, the girls last week were already thinking hard about whether they would be attending Temagami next year, and Nathalie, Amelia and Dani were already planning on canoeing trips.
“It’s an experience you can’t really compare to anything else,” Dani said. “I cried when I left every summer.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
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