"Adventure is activity on one’s personal frontiers."

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6/22/2023 Trip Report: French Broad, Section 9

“Adventure is activity on one’s personal frontiers.” - Frank D. Bell, “Chief,” founder of Camp Mondamin for boys and Camp Green Cove for girls.

It’s not just for the campers; it’s for all of us. It’s one of the most treasured of Chief’s aphorisms at camp, and I see it borne out again and again when I have adventures with children and adults in the camp community. A recent example:

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Ms. Abby Lane, mother of a Mondamin camper. Her son had been drawn into riding, mountain biking, and climbing. She herself had been a skilled whitewater kayaker, learning the sport at another of the excellent summer camps in our region (Camp Merri-Mac in Black Mtn, North Carolina) and getting good enough to paddle class IV rivers: the Chattooga, the Ocoee, West Virginia’s New River Gorge.

But that was 15 years ago; life, career, marriage, and raising a son had kept her out of the boat and off the rivers. She hadn’t paddled since. She wanted a chance to renew that challenge, and she contacted us at Mondamin. I said:

“Sure, come on up. I’ll go boating with you; French Broad Section 9 is very low right now, but rains predicted for next week should bring it up to a decent level.”

We made plans to meet at the river, and I would keep her posted on the level. The rains came and the waters rose and on Thursday, the French Broad was running a burly 5600 cubic feet per second (cfs). Normal summer flows when we take campers are 3,000 to 1,200. This would be bigger water, bigger than the Pigeon River that campers run, as big as the Ocoee (class 3+/4- rapids) - which is the top grade of difficulty that we run with campers. This is my home river, and I’ve paddled it hundreds of times. I know the levels and the lines through the rapids and knew that this was a reasonable proposition since I could give her 1:1 safety coverage.

We met at the take out at Stackhouse, and talked about the run as we left a car and shuttled to the put-in at. She was excited and a little nervous, as one should be when there is some doubt and some risk involved. At the put-in we discussed safety, and then paddled several hundred yards downstream to a big eddy by a jet of current where we could practice our rolls. Hers was solid, and improved with practice. We were ready to go.

The rest of the day was pure joy to watch her grow in confidence and delight, just as the campers in the summer do when they are apprehensive about something they really want to do, have some uncertainties, but engage with the activity and succeed. That growing incredulity of realization:

“ I want to do this; I can do this; I AM doing this!”

I watched her bounce through the rapids, the waves sometimes so tall that I lost sight of her helmet until she reappeared, her smile growing so big it looked like she would burst with happiness.

In the pools between the rapids, we drifted and talked of this process for the campers; the challenge, the doubt, and the joy. These pictures give you some idea of the day, but really, you have to experience it to know what she felt, and what the campers feel each summer in these situations.

On a Zoom call with camp alumni two days afterward, Charles Lapeyre of New Orleans, balancing his 1 year-old boy on his lap, spoke of the lifelong “tripping community” of friends who had learned their skills at Mondamin renewing those skills and their friendships on trips all over the county: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the Salmon River in Idaho, and many others. These lifelong skills and friendships are gifts that keep on giving, and those gifts are not limited to camp.

After the last rapid at Stackhouse, we drifted across the pool above the take out beach. Abby said:

“I really want to do this with my son, but if he doesn’t do it in whitewater, that’s all right; I want him to discover his own path to experiences like this.”

Abby and I ended the trip with the kind of deeper friendship that can only come from experiences like this; people who haven’t experienced it have a hard time believing it, but the people you share hardship, adventure, and joy with have a bond with you after a single day that you may lack with coworkers of a decade or more. And we wonder why summer camp friendships last a lifetime?

And that was Chief’s point about adventure. You need not be the best in the world; you only need to be willing to challenge and renew yourself through experiences in nature, again and again, with friends you trust, and have for life. These adventures are there for your children and for you.

What are you waiting for?

About Gordon Grant

I came to Mondamin as a 14 year old camper in 1969, and have followed what I learned here in adventure and academic education for 54 years: at Mondamin and Green Cove, Nantahala Outdoor Center, NC Outward Bound, Asheville City Public Schools, and UNC Chapel Hill. I still practice deep play in whitewater, rock climbing, and hiking, and am still working on my kayak roll…

I have worked closely with the Bell family in these years, from the founders of the camps, Chief and Calla Bell, through their son and daughter Frank, Jr. and Nancy Bell, and their grandchildren Andrew, Calla, and David. Each generation has taught me something.

My wife, Susan, is my partner of 40+ years; we have shared outdoor adventures around the world. Susan has headed canoeing at Green Cove. Our daughters, Rachel and Glenna, were Green Cove campers, and our granddaughter, Virginia Rugh, will be at August camp this summer. We intend that our grandson Grant will be at Mondamin in 2028. I am working with David Bell and the Mondamin staff to assure that he, and many other boys, will be having adventures on their personal frontiers at camp for years to come.

Gordon Grant