Things didn’t start off as we expected in Tall Pines Cabin when Great Neck North Middle School sixth graders arrived at the Greenkill Retreat Center on Nov. 7.
Our counselor gave us a 30-minutes lecture on expectations and protocols, then it was time to fight over the bunks and unpack. When everything was finally settled, we found out that girls had unpacked in the boys’ section and vice versa. After that, it was complete mayhem. People rushed around with suitcases, dragging sleeping bags behind them like bridal trains and kicking their pillows along the way. Occasionally there was a loud “Ow!” of pain and an accompanying “Sorry!” because someone stepped on someone else’s foot. By the time we settled down, we were late for activities.
Our naturalist, Nicole, calmed us down. She had wavy blond hair, sparkling hazel eyes and a warm smile. My eagerness was rekindled for the rope-circle challenge, where we stood in a circle with a rope at the back of our knees. We had to move the rope together across a field with perfect coordination, and the rope could not touch the ground. However, we didn’t have time to devise a strategy because less considerate people were having side conversations and some boys were acting like complete clowns, elbowing each other, singing off key and ramming into everything they saw—including trees, chairs and each other. Nicole had to pause every five seconds to tell them off. My enthusiasm quickly faded. I had to resist the growing urge to stomp back to my bunk and stare at a wall. When the sun set on Greenkill, I honestly couldn’t wait to go home.
On the second day, we woke up to the chirping of birds. I squinted at the distant green mountains, the pale sun winking through the steep slopes. The cabins were dotted around, glimmering with the reflections of changing leaves. Things were going to get better, right?
We started the day with fishing.
“Scoop the net up, and drag it toward the shore,” Nicole demonstrated.
I raised my net, and scooped it down. A few kids were fooling around and hitting each other with the nets. I ignored them and prodded around my net with a stick, looking for signs of movement.
“I found something,” I cried out in surprise. A creature as long as my fist was crawling, its legs twitching sickeningly. The kids horsing around came over to see what the commotion was all about.
I dumped the thing into a bowl of water. We all huddled around, rapt and wide-eyed with attention as we watched the creature in the bowl.
“Cool,” Nicole remarked amiably. “That’s a pollution-intolerant water scorpion.”
“Do they sting?,” someone asked, shuddering.
A boy asked, “What’s pollution intolerant?”
Nicole began to answer everyone’s questions, and I could see by the grin tugging at the corner of her mouth that she was pleased, for once, that people were listening to her instead of misbehaving.
“Pollution intolerant means that an animal can’t live in a polluted environment or else it’ll die. This water scorpion was found in this lake, which means that this lake isn’t polluted.”
There was a murmur of agreement, and we went back to catching fish—this time more diligently. In 15 minutes, we caught two minnows, three tadpoles and a water beetle.
Time flew. After dinner, we walked back to our cabin. The sky was a deep, velvety violet color, a splash of stars like tiny diamonds twinkling in the night. Up here in the mountains, the air was so clear we could trace the veins of constellations above. In my cabin, I fell asleep to the sound of my bunkmates’ snoring and the soft, drowsy hum of crickets outside.
The third day dawned bright and cold. It was strange how my body felt as frozen as ice and, in comparison, how trees with gold and red leaves seemed to be on fire. It was our last day at Greenkill, and Nicole had a surprise for us.
“Today, we are learning how to survive in wilderness,” she told us.
I could tell this piqued everyone’s curiosity, because all heads perked up. Idle conversation trailed away, and eyes were fixed on Nicole.
She started with building a shelter. We were dumbfounded. The shelter must be insulated, hidden from plain sight, able to keep out the rain and also have a doorway.
We huddled together to devise a plan and decided that we would build our shelter behind a large boulder with three sides, which not only made the shelter hidden but also the task easier. We worked together to lift up large logs and stacked them against the boulder.
“Let’s add a few rocks for decoration,” Lucy said.
“It’s not about making it pretty, it’s about making it durable,” Adam said.
We had some arguments and agreed that the best choice was to stick leaves onto the logs. After our shelter was done, our hands were freezing and numb, yet all of us were proud of our achievement.
Before we knew it, it was time to go home. I looked back one last time and said goodbye to the intoxicating scent of pine needles and fresh air. As our bus slowly pulled away, the counselors waved goodbye frantically from the side of the road. Their faces were pulled into huge smiles, and I couldn’t help but smile back. The three days went by like a blink of an eye, and I knew that Greenkill, with its winsome beauty and fond memories of time I spent with my fellow sixth graders, many more of whom I now could call my friends, would always have a place in my heart.