Mondamin Campers Hiking in a Gorge
Stairway Falls, Horse pasture
Twin Falls, Toxaway River
This much I know: it was mid summer of 1970, David Trufant and I were 15 years old, and we were in the middle of one of the most difficult hikes that camp did at the time, and still does: the gorge hikes along one of the rugged and beautiful rivers that plunge into Lake Jocassee - an area now known as The Gorges State Park. I liked David; he had a wild and manic humor and was tough as nails. Nothing seemed to bother him. This is still true, as anyone who has seen him lead a singing of “Little Cabin in the Woods” can attest. The rest is from memory, which we know is a reconstructed act, like a painting or a poem..
This is what I remember. Trufant (we all used last names then) and I were among the boys drawn to the gorge hikes for their beauty, difficulty, and, yes, their reputation as places where risk had to be managed carefully. We hiked most, if not all of them: the Toxaway, Horsepasture, Whitewater, Thompson, the Green Narrows, and further north, the Linville. Still serious expeditions, today. We packed light, with backpacks waterproofed with tightly tied trashbags, we taped our ankles, and we prepared to get wet, which we did. Gorge hiking involved equal measures of rock hopping, brutal bushwhacks to get around places too steep to hike near the river, and frequently, swimming across pools. Sometimes we used climbing ropes to protect ourselves on exposed slabs.
That day, we were in the midst of a hike connecting two gorges: down the Toxaway for a couple of days, then cross a ridge, and hike up the Horsepasture for a couple more: four days of tough travel in places of indescribable beauty.. Or it might be the other way around; I forget. Either way, we were in the middle of the four days. We were wet, tired, and at least not dirty because of the swimming. The crew had set up camp at a steep bank beside the river, and Trufant and I left the group to wade out to a flat rock in the middle of a calm stretch. We lay on the rock, looking up into the sky, as the dusk darkened. Nothing but the water sounds around us. Trufant suddenly asked me:
“Do you think we’ll ever be happier than we are now?”
I don’t remember my answer, or if I answered. Fifteen year olds are not known for their deep philosophical thinking, so I’m not sure HOW I would have answered. But that statement has stayed with me for the last fifty three years. The crew must have called to us for dinner, or some kind of group work, and we left that rock, never to return to it. I couldn’t find it now, since I’m not even sure which river it was on: the Toxaway or the Horsepasture.
After we ate, or perhaps during, a heavy rainstorm moved in, and we all dashed for our shelters. At the time, “tube tents” were the rage for minimalist hiking: a 20’ tunnel of clear plastic that you could run a line through, stake or weight out the corners and, voila! - instant shelter. They had many drawbacks - which will become obvious - but that’s what we had. Before that we had surplus army ponchos. We thought tube tents were the next big thing.
Trufant and I dove into ours out of the rain without the time to set up a line. We just dove into it together and gathered it over our heads for a little plastic cave. We must have thought we were clever outdoorsmen as we watched the rain sheeting down the plastic inches from our faces.
It kept raining. An hour or so passed. It was summer, temperature in the 80’s, in a temperate rainforest. An impervious plastic bag with two young men in it will condense rather rapidly, and it soon got hot inside, as well as condensing on the plastic, so it was questionable whether we’d be drier out in the rain, though we were certainly warmer. Trufant, bored and stir crazy in the sweaty plastic confines, produced a packet of Kool Aid powder, tore it open and poured a pile of the sugar powder into his hand. Warily, I said:
“Trufant, I swear to God…”
He laughed, an explosive snort that blew red Kool Aid powder over the interior of the tarp, which instantly became a sticky red paste that crawled down the inside of the tarp and dripped on us. I began laughing hysterically, shouting: “I HATE you!!!! I hate you!” The others could hear our gales of laughter and it spread around the campsite. I don’t remember how we resolved it: it couldn’t get any worse in the tarp, so we probably went out in the rain, reversed it to wash it off, and then returned to the tarp, wet but warm for the rest of the night. At the trip report at that week’s campfire, I didn’t mention any of this: just talked about how hard and rewarding the trip was and how it was worth it to see so much beauty. I sat down. Chief, from his seat, said:
“I like it when people tackle the tough ones and come back wanting more.”
That was music for me; all the praise I needed, and I’ve spent my life returning to such places, looking for and receiving more….
At camp, we have a lot of both “Type I” and “Type II” fun. Type I fun is, well, fun: a zip line, activities in and around camp like Disc Golf and Pickleball, sliding down a waterfall into a pool of breathtakingly cold mountain water…. Camp offers a lot of those.
Type II fun is the kind that can be harder at the moment; a hard pull up a mountain trail wearing a big backpack; a thin move climbing a rock face; scouting of a big rapid that looks scary that you THINK you can do but are not sure. Sometimes it’s just a memorable disaster: the tent collapsing in a downpour, burning the dinner meal, then laughing about it, as we did in the Kool Aid Tarp Tent Fiasco.
Our mission at camp, now as it was then: To be a community supporting adventurous activity on one’s personal frontiers. We play, we challenge, we grow. In Nature.
Trufant and I stayed friends - we still are, 53 years later - over five more summers of incredible fun and adventure as campers, then Aides and Counselors in Training, and then counselors, that profoundly affected our personal growth and character attributes that we have benefited from for the rest of our lives. We played hard out in nature, with the underlying effect of exploring our own human nature in personal challenges and living in community. After our camp time together, we both went our separate ways, but significantly we both went into education: Trufant was a commercial photographer for a decade before he and his wife Anne took over and ran the excellent camps Chosatonga and Kahdaleah, now run by his sons Jeffrey and Adam; and I into education at Nantahala Outdoor Center, North Carolina Outward Bound, and public, charter, and independent schools for over 40 years.
Our counselors go on to successful lives; here’s what they say about their camp years:
“My years at Mondamin were formative for me in ways I’m still discovering decades later.”
We all still are; we hope you send your sons to camp so that, in 50 years, their experiences will still resonate like struck bells, and the tones of self discovery will still ring.
Important Note: We didn’t have cameras with us in 1970. This is reconstructed from memory. Most photos in this are used with permission from the North Carolina Waterfalls site: https://www.ncwaterfalls.com/ . My thanks to site originator Rich Stevenson. Go to that site if you want to construct some memory and meaning of your own next time you visit us. And remember; waterfalls and steep rivers have serious potential consequences. We prepare our campers for these hikes, so exercise appropriate caution when you go, and remember there are plenty of waterfalls in western North Carolina that have easy or moderate approaches.