By Nikki Mentges
Every summer when I was growing up, my family drove to Clubhouse, a pretty, compact campground in Marcell, Minnesota. Two loops with campsites, hiking trails, latrines, a beach, and a dock all lined a bay along the northwest curve of Clubhouse Lake.
We circled the loops in our Jeep, boat trailer rumbling on the gravel behind us, and hunted for a site that hadn’t already been reserved. The prime spots were lakeshore. Most of them were situated in the south loop, farthest from the beach and dock, but having a direct path to the lake and a spot to anchor our boat made it worth the extra trekking.
The campsites all shared a few common denominators: pine needles littering the ground, fire pits with charred logs and half-melted disposables beneath the heavy steel grilling grates, and piles of firewood—dead tree limbs salvaged from the woods, mostly, or sometimes leftover logs—courtesy of previous campers. The foliage was thick, and we hunted for a site with a nice brush screen to keep the neighbors out of sight, out of mind.
Once we picked our spot, we walked out to the entrance and crammed the weekend’s fee in the drop box. Then, we attached our “ticket” to the numbered wooden post jutting from the earth at the mouth of our site and devoted the first afternoon to setting up camp. We found a relatively level stretch of ground, plucked all the obvious rocks and branches out of it, and pitched our five-man tent—no glamping for us. Connecting all the tent poles and getting stakes hammered into the hard, gravel-pocked soil was an exercise in patience. Once the tent was sufficiently anchored, Mom enlisted my brothers and me as pack mules. We transferred an endless train of sleeping bags, pillows, and backpacks into the tent, where we were tasked with ranging them out on the canvas floor.
“I call the wall!” Mike said immediately, like we were contending for the shotgun seat in the car. He chucked his armload of bedding towards the far left corner under the screen window, where the whole bundle hit the wall and slithered down in a hiss of fabric.
“You suck,” Cody and I both said, but we didn’t protest further. Why bother when your opponent was over a foot taller and well-versed in the older sibling torture methods of noogies, the fireman carry-and-drop, and—my personal “favorite”—smack talk that employed the seniority card?
After that came a trip to the water pump. It was a circus, all of us kids trailing along down to the old-fashioned hand pump, buckets in hand, and then squabbling over who got to pump the water for dishes and hand washing. (I didn’t often win that battle. I considered it fair trade that I always ended up with the lightest bucket.) While we were gone, Mom and Dad strung the clothesline between two huge pines at the edge of camp. No matter how tight they tied it, it sagged in the middle like a basset hound’s droopy under-eyes.
With our territory established and camp readied, we were free to wander the campground. Mike, Cody, and I clambered onto our bikes and tore through the campsite, narrowly avoiding the lawn chairs that circled the fire like Wild West wagons. We coasted out onto the loop and pedaled hard to reach the crest of the first hill. Beyond that lay an undulating series of heights and dips. We spent over an hour on them, flinging rocks and spitting road dust, racing around both loops and occasionally swerving into the ditch to avoid oncoming cars. When we got bored, we were brave (or dumb) enough to graduate to the narrow, root-gnarled trails that snaked through the wooded hills. A few near-misses were normal while navigating the enormous old jack pine stand, bumping over roots sunk deep in eroding soil.
A couple hours on the trails were enough to wear us out and send us looking for a new focus. We swung by our site just long enough to grab fishing rods and a tackle box, and then the three of us biked down to the dock. It jutted out into the lake in a T-shape, and we could ride our bikes right out on it. Only if we went slow, though, since its long wheelchair ramp doubled back on itself a couple times.
I always liked reading the names, initials, and long-gone dates carved in its weather-grayed railings. Sometimes I’d trace the pocket-knife grooves with my fingertips. Other times, I leaned on the railings, which were plenty solid to support my four-foot-nothing, and peered down into the unbelievably clear water. Even at the deepest corner of the T, you could see straight to the bottom where algae and weeds accumulated, and the occasional school of minnows rolled through like an advancing storm system.
The only thing cooler than watching the fish, in my opinion, was trying to catch them barehanded. In the evening we went swimming, with Mom and Dad tagging along to ensure we didn’t drown or get devoured by a lake monster. (Sorry, Nessie!) The goggles we snapped on our heads filled up with water and little sand specks, creating the sensation of staring through the porthole of a half-submerged ship. We did our best to pounce on the slender perch and minnows flitting through the roped-off swimming area, but we failed to get within spitting distance, let alone make contact. We did have moderate success stalking the abundance of slimy-slick frogs gathered along the shoreline, though, by wallowing in the shallows and creeping along the sandy bottom, trying not to step on tiny, serrated shell shards from snails and mussels.
When the sun sank and a chill permeated the air, we slogged free of the water, huddled in our towels, and underwent the perpetual battle of getting our feet into shoes without a stubborn coating of sand. The walk back to our campsite helped us air-dry. We changed and, stepping gingerly on the campsite gravel that lay sharp under pale, bare feet, draped our sopping swimsuits and towels on the clothesline.
After that, with my hair still dripping and smelling of lake water, I helped Mom chop the vegetables for supper. The guys grilled steaks while we liberally salted and peppered foil veggie packets, topped them with pats of butter, and cooked them over the fire till everything inside was falling-apart soft and thoroughly drowned in butter and spices.
Everybody clustered around the picnic table and ate till we thought we’d burst: steak doused in ranch; foil packs of potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms; root beer and orange pop straight from the cooler. Overly friendly chipmunks invaded our campsite and bided their time under the relative safety of the lawn chairs, waiting for us to toss them blackened bits of carrot and mushroom.
As the sun set, we finished eating and crowded around the campfire in a bug spray haze. I huddled in my too-big sweatshirt, which was huge enough to tuck my knees under so the mosquitoes couldn’t bite. They still chewed my ankles up pretty good. I perched my chin on my knees and absorbed the campfire glow, which inevitably made me too hot on the front and left my back chilled. We speared marshmallows on sticks and hovered them over the fire, rolling them like they were on a spit. I roasted mine just long enough for the outer shell to bubble up golden brown, but Cody and Mike charred theirs halfway to a crisp. Gross. Constructing and eating the s’mores left a gooey mess on my fingers, and I scraped at the cooling marshmallow and chocolate as loon calls echoed across the lake.
Before bed, we grabbed our flashlights and headed up the hill, where the latrines stood dark and bland. No electricity and certainly no showers. Just a lone set of outhouses at the crest of the hill, ringed by brush and mossy-barked trees older than all of us kids combined. That hill always creeped me out, but that was probably more about the campfire stories Dad told than any genuine sense of eeriness. According to him, Bigfoot and the Goat Man both lurked in the trees, waiting for a chance to snatch and eat unsuspecting pre-teen campers.
Once everybody ventured to the latrines at least once, we brushed our teeth with bottled water, piled into the tent, and stacked our shoes by the tent flap. No sense leaving them out to be soaked by rain or dew.
Even though the shoes got to come inside, Mom and Dad enforced a strict “no food in the tent” rule.
(“We don’t want to attract bears,” Dad explained once when I asked why. “They’ve got noses like you wouldn’t believe, and they can smell when food’s around.”
“Like the chipmunks?”
“Like the chipmunks, but a whole lot hairier and smellier.”
Right then, I decided it was fine if I never got to see—or smell—a bear.)
Curled up in our sleeping bags, we endured a couple joking rounds of the Waltons ritual—”Goodnight, John Boy,” “Goodnight, Mary Ellen”—and then we dimmed the battery-powered lantern. Long after everybody else fell asleep, I lay wide awake, listening to Dad’s snores and tree branches scraping together in the late-night breeze. I could hear wind rolling through the woods like a tide, setting the trees a-sway. Sometimes sounds carried from the neighboring campsites—laughter, chatter, fires popping, dogs barking. Every minute shift caused rocks to jab my ribs through the tent floor.
I fell asleep at some point, though I didn’t remember drifting off.
The sun had already risen by the time I staggered out of the tent and slumped into a chair, sleepy-eyed and foggy-headed, to watch the guys get a fresh fire going. Pyros, every one of them . . .
Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal and hot chocolate made from our ancient, fire-blackened kettle. The water was hot enough to be uncomfortable through the Styrofoam cups, and I kept passing mine from hand to hand.
Later, my brothers and I biked down to the gut cans. They were metal trash cans with chained-on lids to keep the friendly neighborhood bears, foxes, and raccoons out. Ostensibly, we wanted to see what other campers had been catching, but it’d be just as accurate to say we were satisfying our own morbid curiosity.
After, as noon closed in, came the highlight of the trip: fishing from the boat. We cruised over to the boat landing and slid our sun-faded red Lund into the lake, which was calm and smooth. Mom smeared sun screen on my face, neck, and ears to protect the fair, freckled skin there as we prepared to clamber aboard. Next I was accosted with a baseball cap, sunglasses, and a mandatory life jacket. I donned all three with an air of resignation, and could hear Mike and Cody receiving the same treatment as I buckled the clunky plastic clasps. Finally, each of us climbed in—Mike at the bow, Dad at the stern, and Mom, Cody, and I on the two middle benches.
Out on the water, Dad maneuvered us through dense lily pad forests to reach our favorite spot, a tiny bay on the south end of the lake. I leaned over the side of the boat to trail fingertips in the water. They left tiny, V-shaped wakes. Fish flickered through the weeds below, scales silvery and metallic under the sunlight.
We twitched neon jigs through the water with shiner minnows or night crawlers on the hooks. In our family, baiting your own hook was a skill learned young. We hoped something huge would emerge from the depths so that we could set the hook with a small jerk and reel in supper. When we were lucky, we caught enough to fry up a stringer of pan fish, northern, and the occasional rock bass (whose devil-red eyes always gave me the creeps).
Hours passed on the lake, and the sky’s blue gradually leeched away, transitioning into a cloudy, cataract gray. That was our cue to head for shore; it was time for the inevitable rainstorm. Drops started to plink off the aluminum insides of the boat as we crossed the lake, veered into the campground’s bay, and grounded the boat downhill from our site. We roped the bow to a tree before scrambling up the steep, uneven path. In a flurry of action, everybody crammed life vests, lawn chairs, and the remaining firewood into the back seat of the Jeep.
Then, we cooped ourselves up in the tent for the rest of the afternoon while rain sheeted down, saturating everything. I curled up with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to pass the time.
“Every time!” Cody said as I flipped past the title page. The enclosed space magnified the volume of his voice.
“The forecast was clear, damn it.” Dad flopped down on his and Mom’s half of the tent to peel off his wet socks.
“It always is,” Mom said. She was right. A downpour seemed fated for us, though; it happened at least once every trip, despite weather predictions to the contrary. I didn’t mind an awful lot, though.
My family’s voices were soothing, a white noise backdrop, as I snuggled deeper in my sleeping bag and started to read.