Reflections on Songa’s Early Years
In celebrating 70 years of Keewaydin programs for girls Songadeewin initiated its own history project. A part of this included having campers interview some of the charter campers and staff about their experiences in the early days of Songadeewin on Lake Dunmore. What follows is a portion of Courtney Mulcahy’s interview. She was a charter member of the Songa staff in 1999. Courtney was on campus for ten days in 2014 to fill in for the Camp Mom position.
Interview conducted by campers: Paloma Garcia, Trixie Stewart-Frommer and Eliza Bowman
How did you first find out about Songa?
CM: I found out about Songa from Theresa MacCallum, who still works in the Foundation office. My family has a house on Brown’s Bay, so I grew up coming to Lake Dunmore. The summer of 1998 was the only summer that I had ever been away from Lake Dunmore and I was very sad about it. When our neighbor, Theresa, told my mother that Keewaydin was starting a girls’ program on Dunmore in 1999 I paddled over to Annwi in my kayak, where Ellen Flight was the Wigwam Director. I introduced myself and told her I was a lifeguard and that I had taught riflery, sailing, kayaking, canoeing and other things. I think Ellen was very excited to have someone who could teach all of these activities and had camp experience as she started to plan for a new camp.
What is your memory of the first time you came to campus?
CM: That’s a good question. I think it was probably very similar to what a camper feels; a little nervous about what it would be like. I had never worked in an all-girl environment before. We were a pretty small staff that first year. There were only 13 cabin staff. I do remember going on our first trip school and learning how to load the trailer, put up a tent and tie knots. I remember that as a group we bonded really quickly. We were very excited to be here and to be part of this new camp. And then when the campers got here it was even better. We only used cabins up to Hemlock… I think Hemlock was the oldest campers. I was in Goldenrod that first year with Stacy Allen. She is from the UK and we are still friends to this day.
What other different roles at camp have you had and what you enjoyed about those?
CM: When I first came I was cabin and trip staff. I was only 20, so I was an assistant trip leader. I did that until the first year of the Leadership Team, which was 2003. At that point, Ellen asked me to take on the Program Director role. So I did what Sally Stoll does now; organizing activities with staff and running Circle. When I was cabin staff I loved being in the cabin with the campers, getting to know our Longhouse, working with my co-staff and just being part of a team. I had some pretty crazy cabins over the years, but it was always fun and sometimes a challenge. I loved, loved, loved tripping. Because we were a smaller staff I got to do some of the bigger trips – Temagami (one of our longest and most challenging trips at the time) and Verendrye – I led the first Verendrye with a couple other staff. I missed tripping when I became Program Director – that was a piece I had to give up. As Program Director I got to know the staff a little bit better and I liked building the program so that it was more consistent.
When you had the job that Sally Stoll now has, did you do things like puzzle of the day?
CM: We didn’t. At that point we just came up with the board. It used to be that the staff just stood and said what they were doing and the campers would have to remember what the staff were offering. I don’t remember the way we used to pick – we didn’t do the OD cards as well as they are done now, so it was kind of a crazy circle. Not as organized as it is now. I love all the little images for the different activities on the board now. It’s really neat to see how it’s evolved. We did sing at each circle.
You already talked about this a little bit, but what are your first memories from your first trip school?
At our first Trip School, because there had never been a girls’ camp on Dunmore, two Keewaydin Dunmore guys were the leaders. I remember eating Spam for the first time and realized I like it extra crispy. Other memories…we went to Putnam Pond. Ellen came with us and taught us everything the new staff still learn. I think that trips and trip school are the two things that have been the most consistent since we started camp. Trips are very safe and everything is well covered in Trip School. Attention to safety is one of those things that hasn’t changed at all.
What are your memories of the first trip you ever led? How did you feel?
I was just telling a camper this the other day. The night before I went out on my first trip I got a little camp-sick – really nervous about leaving and taking these girls out on trip – using fire and axes and thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong. I remember walking with Ellen, back from the dining hall, she helped ease my fears, told me that I was trained, that I knew what to do, and that I was going to be fine. She did what the staff do for a camper – she was there to say I was going to be great, I was going to be fine, and it was going to be just like Trip School. And it was. It was a great trip. We had a really good time.
So you were the first trip leader for Verendrye? What was that like?
That was my favorite trip. I was a co-leader with Mel Joyce and an assistant, Laura Patch, Steph Patch’s older sister. It was actually hard to come back to camp after being out there for so long. We had an awesome group of nine hard core trippers. They knew exactly what needed to be done in campsite. We did a lot of portages and some rapids. We would go days without seeing another human, – something I had never experienced before. A lot of good memories from the first Verendrye.
What was it like having such a small camp and such a small staff?
CM: The advantage is everyone knows everyone; it was like a big family. We used to all fit in Neshobe’s Nest for meals. The hard part of having a small staff means a lot more responsibilities. There wasn’t a Camp Mom, a Head of Tripping, or Head of Waterfront, so we each had to take on several different roles. If you were a lifeguard you were always down at the waterfront.
When you came back to camp in 2014, what were the big differences you noticed?
CM: The Harter Lodge and The Fraser Dining Hall. Willoughby used to be behind the Wangan Room – we called it Tent-a-villa.It’s more than the physical differences though. There is better communication and a lot more processes to help things run smoothly. It’s still the same – a magical place for girls.
So what was in the area where the Longhouse Willoughby is now?
CM: There was nothing there – it was just open. Even those trees weren’t there, Ellen had the vision from early on she would want to put tents there, so she started planting the trees many years ago.
If you had been a camper here, what do you think you would have loved doing?
CM: I love that question – I always wanted to be a camper. I think I would have liked Arts & Crafts because I don’t do a lot of that in my regular life. Anything at the waterfront –swimming, diving, kayaking, and sailing – I loved sailing as a staff. I also loved riflery and canoeing, especially whitewater canoeing.
Final Question, what keeps you returning to Songa?
CM: (laughing) The people, and there is just a spirit about this place that’s awesome. I think campers may not realize it until later, but for staff it was like home. I didn’t care what I looked like; I didn’t put on make-up and dress up. It was nice to just be yourself, be accepted and be supported. It’s amazing to come back into the Dining Hall and see my former campers as staff. That’s awesome. Some of my best friends today, are girls that I met when I worked here. I love Ellen and she’s always been amazingly supportive. Songa is a wonderful supportive place to come back to for a week and be part of it still. I like how both Keewaydin and Songa are multi-generational. Here you have college kids, as well as, older staff and there is support for everyone.
Final, final question: What is one of your fondest memories here at Songa?
CM: I remember a Carnival with a big slip’n’slide. I remember the joy on kids faces – running and getting ready to do the slip’n’slide. And the trips – Verendrye was a great trip – I remember paddling back to the Songa shore, how excited and happy we were, and the big reunion/celebration we had when we returned. Lots of little memories.