Once upon a time, some girls from around St. Paul looked forward to summer because that meant going to Ojiketa Campfire Girls camp. Fifty years later, the group has expanded to include campers and counselors from over a period of about 15 years, and they still look forward to summer camp.
Of course the camping experience is a bit different today. The women jokingly call it “Camp Alice” because they get together at Alice Magnuson’s cabin up north (they decline to be more specific). “She hasn’t lost too much of that lip,” Julie Redpath quipped, referring to Magnuson’s position as an Ojiketa bugler. And yes, reveille is also sounded at Camp Alice.
To learn more or get involved, visit the Ojiketa Preservation Society’s website at www.ojiketa.com.
Ojiketa closed as a residential camp in 2006 after serving generations of girls (and later boys) since 1926. The prime land on the shore of Green Lake in Chisago City caught the eye of developers when the Campfire organization decided to sell it, but if the women have their way, the former camp with its lush forest will remain untouched and unspoiled for future generations to enjoy.
They’ve joined forces with the Trust for Public Land to see their beloved Ojiketa, meaning sweetness of life in the Ojibwe language, preserved as a regional park.
“When we got together at the last reunion there in 2006, some of us said, ‘We’ve got to do something,'” said Magnuson, of St. Paul. “Without the conduit of Camp Ojiketa, we’d never have met each other.” With that, the Ojiketa Preservation Society was born, a group of about two dozen women who didn’t all attend Ojiketa at the same time, but hold dear their shared experiences.
Magnuson spoke with enthusiasm about her camping experiences at Ojiketa-the s’mores, the singing, the campfires, the singing, the canoe trips, the singing, the cooking out, the singing, the Sweepy Bird award for having the cleanest cabin, the singing. And at Camp Alice, it’s much the same, she said. “We don’t run as fast, but I don’t think anything else has changed. That’s what’s so amazing. It’s [Ojiketa],” Magnuson said. “It’s the link that has created friendships and helped them last.”
The women can’t really pinpoint why their friendship has lasted so long when their only link initially was camp two weeks a year.
“It’s hard to put a finger on,” said Eleanor “El” Randels, 68, who was never an Ojiketa camper, but came to the camp as a counselor when she was in college. “There’s a relationship with the outdoors that we share. I don’t think there’s anyone in the group that doesn’t get excited over hearing the call of a loon, the moon rising over a lake, a sunrise,” she said. That from someone who was initially ambivalent about going to Ojiketa. “I’m from Bluff City, Kan., 60 miles southwest of Wichita. I grew up on a farm and had breathing trouble with the dust in the summer. In college I took an elective course, camp counseling, and ended up at Ojiketa. I was not too thrilled about the idea of going to camp; I was scared stiff there’d be a bear around some tree. By the end of the first week I was just enthralled.” So much so that she went on to direct a Wisconsin camp for six summers. “Of course I relied on my [Ojiketa] friends to come in and run the waterfront and lead canoe trips,” she said.
With the Ojiketa link as a starting point for the friendships, “we now have other friends and family to talk about when we get together.”
Brenna Murphy-Ditzler, 59, and Redpath, 60, have their own theory as to why this group of women formed lasting friendships with one another: budding feminism. “We grew up in an era when girls were programmed into certain niches,” Redpath said. “Girls’ residential camp gave us a sense of power. We were just discovering who we were and that we were capable people who could take care of ourselves.”
“Back then, it was ‘Let your brother do it. Ask your father to do it,'” said Murphy-Ditzler, of Minneapolis. “A boy might have been able to lift a canoe, but we could do it, too. It might have taken two of us, but we could do it. I really admired El Randels. She taught us to be independent and self-reliant.”
Redpath, who wasn’t a Campfire Girl, remembers her parents had to pay an additional $10 for her to attend camp. But there was family history at Ojiketa. “My mother’s sister went back in the ’30s,” Redpath said. “Her experience loving it there made it OK for my mom and dad to send their second-grader off to camp. I took to it immediately and looked forward to it every year. It was the first thing on my list for Santa-going to camp next summer.”
Along the way, tight bonds have been formed among the women. Carolyn Sorensen, 66, of Mendota Heights, was a bridesmaid in one fellow camper’s wedding and shared an apartment with another when they entered the working world. And now she and eight others get together every six weeks on Saturday, a senior citizens’ version of The Breakfast Club.
Interestingly enough, 20 or 30 years passed between the campers’ last Ojiketa experiences and seeing one another again, Magnuson said. They reconnected in the late ’80s when the camp started hosting reunions. “We’d gone years without seeing each other,” she said. “Then we picked right up where we left off. That’s the power of women’s friendships.” About 150 attended each reunion, held every three or four years until the last one in 2006, when the camp closed. “They traveled from everywhere for that one,” Magnuson said. One woman came from Hawaii. “You see, we have a serious connection with this piece of land. We were like kids again. We stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning, laughing and giggling. I’m still on the top bunk.”
Fearing that they would never have those beloved camp experiences again, “I remember saying, ‘We have a cabin; if anyone wants to come there, feel free,'” Magnuson recalled. “Last year we had 10; so far this year, we’re expecting 14. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”
“Whether you’re in designer jeans or Levis, you’re just campers,” said Nancy Nissen, 63, referring to the Camp Alice experience. Their friendship remains the same years later, she said, having ripened to reflect the brilliant autumn of their lives. “We developed our friendship over campfires, swimming and crafts. Only people who’ve had the camp experience understand, said Nissen, of Blue Water Bay, Fla., who attended the second Camp Alice earlier this summer.
“They say you can’t go home again, but when it comes to camp you can.”