Ye Old Menogyn Guides
"Reminiscences of Camp Menogyn"  by Don Peterson, Guide, 1960-63
(1)  "Reflections on Jim Gilbert"

My first experience at Menogyn was as a camper in the late 1950’s.  I met Jim Gilbert at a HI-Y meeting at Columbia Heights high school in 1958 .   He was the youth director at the Minneapolis Northeast YMCA branch and he introduced John Traver as our new Hi-Y Leader.  I knew John from high school and his family since his father was involved with our Cub Scout troop. But I had not met Jim before.

I still remember that first meeting, and how it led to some of the most valuable experiences and personal associations in my life.   Jim impressed me from the beginning as a very special person. He was one of a kind, a person of strong character with special qualities that attract and draw the best out of people – a warm, enthusiastic, personable, and fun person, one that you wanted to be around, a natural leader, one that leads by example and influences and molds people without them realizing it. He had a profound influence on my life and values. Jim encouraged me to become involved as a Hi-Y leader, Y’s Men, and then luckily a Menogyn camper and guide.

As background, it is interesting to note that three members of our Hi-Y club (Jim Arnold, Steve Thompson, and myself) became guides at Menogyn with Jim Gilbert as camp director and John Traver as trail director. Jim later became head of the Minneapolis YMCA and John Traver became head of the St Paul YMCA.  I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with such exceptional people early in my life.

(2)  "My Menogyn Trip as a Camper - 1958"

Jim suggested that some from our Hi-Y group sign up for a Menogyn trip. So Steve Thompson, his brother Dave, and I signed up for a week-long trip. Our guide was Jim Gagen who took us on a fairly long and rough trip (I thought) down the Granite River into Lake Saganaga, back down through Greer Lake, and over the long portage to North Lake.
The things I remember most from that trip are the astounding beauty of the lakes and forests as we traversed from Bearskin to Duncan to Rose, and of course the long staircase portage.  Rose Lake had a special beauty with the high palisades and sparking blue waters. North Lake seemed remote, mysterious, and serene with its many bays in the distance, and a misty haze above the hills on the far shore.

But we were paddling so hard and fast that we had little time to ponder each lake. Gunflint Lake seemed somewhat odd with the sandy shores, and foreboding as the usual strong winds of late afternoon blew relentlessly, splashing water over the bows of our canoes, and soaking us and our gear. And for every two strokes forward, we went one stroke back. I thought the lake would never end.

Our guide seldom stopped because the large waves could swamp the canoes. So we just tried to keep up. We finally made it to our campsite at Granite falls, setup camp late, and crawled sore and wet into our musty tents. So the first day was a good character building experience.

But the new dawn raised our spirits as we loaded our canoes and launched into the early morning mists below the falls. The trip down the Granite river was a like a puzzle as it wound down to Gneiss Lake and on to Lake Saganaga – sometimes appearing to disappear, other times swirling with white water, or changing into a small lake with no current. The rock shelves and wet, moss covered cliffs bordering the river were unlike anything I had seen.

I don’t remember much about that night. In the morning after breakfast, Steve Thompson and I had KP duty. Our guide kept sending us back to the lake to remove more of the black soot on the pots and reflector oven (as guides are prone to do). Unfortunately the spot we chose was a wide, slippery rock ledge that gradually disappeared into the crystal clear depths. The slippery rock slope, soapy hands, slippery boots, and flat aluminum oven sheets made cleaning a tricky business.  Needless to say, I lost my grip and some of the sheets started to gently glide down the rock slope. Besides the water being extremely cold, I really did not know how to swim very well under water.

So after the guide convinced me with strong words that I must retrieve these essential cooking items, I pleaded with my life-long friend Steve Thompson, to dive for the sheets before they disappeared totally into the depths. I don’t remember what I promised Steve in return, but I am still grateful for his heroic effort.

After the Granite river, I remember camping somewhere on Lake Saganaga. I had never experienced such dark skies filled with seemingly endless bright and dim stars - especially in the Milky Way swath of stars. On this night, I especially felt the remoteness and isolation of this wilderness.


The remainder of the trip seems a blur, but I will never forget the day we traveled from Lake Saganaga , through Greer Lake, and over the long portage to North Lake, and on through South Lake, and finally Rose Lake in near darkness at the end.  Our guide was set on camping at Rose Lake, no matter what time we arrived. It was eerie paddling in late summer twilight and then darkness across wide expanses of lakes. Luckily, none of our group got separated or lost. When we arrived at our campsite, it was totally dark, and I remember setting up the tent and eating a very late dinner. I am guessing that our guide had misjudged the time required for this leg of our trip.

However, we had a more leisurely morning, and an easy trip back to camp.  I was impressed with the knowledge, skill, and stamina of our guide. Guides tend to loom larger than you might expect in the eyes of campers if you haven’t first traveled as a camper. As a group and individually, we had proven our ability to overcome some tough times.  I was awed by the remoteness and beauty of this wilderness.  And I still reflect on my first encounters over these now familiar waterways.

(3)  "Spirit of the 60s"

To understand our experiences at Menogyn in the 60s, you have to understand the culture and mood of those times. JFK had just challenged and inspired the youth of our country (Ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.) This spirit was promulgated in the startup of the Peace Corp and evidenced in the growth of YMCA service groups such as Y’s Men and the Phalanx fraternities. Several of my friends in the Y organizations joined the Peace Corp. John Williamson (“Straight Arrow”) who guided with me in 1960 sent me a card with a picture of himself standing in the hills of a Laos village where he worked as a Peace Corp volunteer.

This enthusiasm, optimism, and spirit of service were further emphasized at Menogyn. It helped mold our outlook and attitudes as guides. The folk songs of the 50’s and 60’s seemed to fit so naturally with the spirit of those times - especially at Menogyn - songs by the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Woody Guthrie, and others -songs speaking our thoughts and concerns–songs about social injustice, adventure, and misfortune.  I still remember Bob Jacobson and Steve Goggin strumming away on the guitar while we tried to harmonize to such songs as “This Train Don’t Carry No Gamblers”, “This Land is Your Land”, “Four Strong Winds”, and “The Sloop John B”. These are still some of my favorite songs, and they bring back warm memories at Menogyn.

(4) " Work Projects of the Third Kind"

Before the arrival of campers, Jim Gilbert assigned assorted work assignments to the guides and other staff to spruce up the grounds and repair the structures.  Certain assignments required intelligence (laying out a nature trail); others minimal skills with a hammer or saw (repairing a dock), others were pure grunge work of the Third Kind (digging the garbage pit bigger.)

 Of course if you didn’t have any special skills, were just plain unlucky, or a slow thinker, you were liable to be assigned the Third Kind. In 1961, Jim Arnold and I were assigned to enlarge the garbage pit -- deeper and wider- unfortunately at the peak of the mosquito hatching and coincident with a hot and humid spell in early June. This exercise bordered on pure torture, but apparently it also strengthened our character, fortitude, resolve, and work habits. I also think we gained some immunity to mosquito bites.

 First we dressed in long pants, long-sleeve shirt, hat, and gloves; and donned a mosquito head net. Then we loaded the shovels and picks, climbed into the rowboat and made our way across the bay to the pit across from the boat house. That was the easy part.

 As we dug, the shovel mostly bounced off the rocks permeating the pit. Next we attempted to wedge the rocks up with a pick, and lastly used a long crowbar to apply maximum leverage.  Sometimes we did come across a shovel full or two of actual soil.  But the effort mostly involved lifting and moving rocks.

I was constantly thinking how much bigger do we have to make this hole to handle the large mounds of trash. Meanwhile sweat was seeping into my eyes, the head net sticking to my sweaty face,, and the little buggers were still getting through my protective gear. So much for character building!

(5) "Please Pass the Butter"

The next year I volunteered to repair the root cellar when assignments were handed out.  This assignment built on my skills with a hammer and paint brush. I repaired the door and latch, rebuilt the exhaust chimney that allowed ventilation to cellar, and applied a beautiful coat of creosote to preserve the exposed wood. I was generally proud of my work.

Then one day Jim Gilbert, I and other staff were sitting at a table for lunch. As usual we passed around the bread, butter, jelly and peanut butter for sandwiches. Then someone commented that the butter had a strange odor and taste. I tried it and was horrified when I immediately recognized the smell as creosote. Somehow the butter mostly, and probably other supplies had absorbed the creosote odor via the chimney. The ventilation went both out and in through that chimney.

Of course, I did not volunteer that I had painted the chimney with creosote.  And Jim never made a comment or issue of the odor, but he knew for sure from where it came. Subsequently, each time I ate at camp, I was reminded of my mistake by the butter which really did taste like creosote. Lucky for all, the bad taste diminished as the summer wore on, and totally disappeared the following year.

(6)  "Growing Up is Hard to Do"

There is an old adage (bible verse) that goes something like this: “When I was a child,  I spoke and acted as a child. But when I became a man, I abandoned my childish ways."  I know from experience that Menogyn helped me, fellow guides, and most importantly the campers grow up. There are for each of us moments of self discovery and revelation that are triggered by a simple comment, incident, failure, or success – awakenings or insight that can have a profound effect on our behavior, attitudes, and direction in life.

 At those moments, we may see ourselves as others see us, become more aware of how our behavior (good or bad) affects those around us, or grasp how our effort can help or impede the success of the group. These moments shape who we become and how we view ourselves and the world.

We as guides certainly affected and molded each other by our words and actions –mostly in positive ways. We gained insight through our work with the campers. And we had the opportunity to positively influence a camper’s self image, self discovery, attitudes, and view of his world. Not that we consciously thought about how to do this for each camper. But it happened indirectly through our action, attitude, enthusiasm, encouragement of, interest in, and interaction with each camper. The best leaders sense and seize on these opportune moments to influence, teach, mold, or correct the behavior and attitudes. And as guides we had such opportunities because we were looked up to and admired by the campers.

I remember one of my early moments of self discovery in seventh grade science class. Laura sat next to me in that class and we would share our test scores now and then. I thought I was a fairly popular, normal kid. One day after sharing our test scores, Laura looks at me and says “You’re such a smart kid, but you act sooo immature sometimes.”   Well, she was right. And then I realized how my foolish actions were viewed and how they diminished her opinion of me.

I had moments of self discovery at Menogyn. One was during my first break-in trip with Jim Gilbert and the guides. We were camped at Kiskidina(?) lake, had setup camp, and were getting ready for dinner and later a campfire. I was very exhausted and mentioned to a fellow guide that maybe I would lie down a bit. He looked shocked, and says “you can’t lie down; this is a break-in trip to see how you hold up and act when things get tough, how do you think Jim Gilbert would view you.“ Embarrassed – but enlightened, I realized that I had to project a positive attitude and behave as expected of a Menogyn guide. I was falling back to my childish ways

Another time I was paddling at the head of my group in a driving rainstorm on North Lake- trying to find shelter along the shore. In the distance, I saw Ken Weiss with his group paddling furiously in the same direction. Finally we both landed and took shelter in the old ranger cabin. Ken in his positive way says, “I was impressed with the way you encouraged and led your group to shelter in this terrible storm. “ I’m thinking, maybe it looked that way, but I was only thinking of myself, and trying to reach shelter as fast as I could.”  It then dawned on me that maybe I should have been thinking more about the group and done more to encourage them in spirit that Ken Weiss expressed.

Sometimes the revelation came indirectly from Jim Gilbert through other guides as intermediaries. Jim Gilbert would not criticize or question your actions and behavior directly. You wouldn’t even know he was upset or concerned. He would try to deal with the situation in a positive, proactive, and indirect way. A lesson for us all!

 As an example, one late summer day, I had returned as guide with a church group of fairly exceptional young people (men and women.) We decided to cap off that day with a bonfire by the volleyball court. In our enthusiasm, we acted slightly out of character, nothing inappropriate, but none the less somewhat foolishly - all having a great time. The next morning, a fellow guide approached me and said “Jim Gilbert seemed a little concerned about your behavior last night. He thought maybe you had been on the trail too long, and might need a break. Well, shortly thereafter, Jim suggested I take a short trip home to Minneapolis, not really tying the trip to my behavior.

Another night, I droned on and on at an incoming camper welcome session in the old dining hall. Jim had asked the guides to tell short stories that might interest the campers. For some reason, I proceeded to tell them almost everything story I had heard at a campfire. After the session, one fellow guide approached me and said “Jim Gilbert didn’t seem very happy about the way you monopolized the camper get together. And he added, “I thought it was extremely boring, and besides you used up all our good stories for campfires. “

Another guide John Williamson was much older, and much wiser than I.  He was a good mentor, a lot of fun, and tended to keep the younger guides in tow – especially in town. He had a special demeanor and presence that made you listen to his advice. His nickname was appropriately, “Straight Arrow.” I have many other stories of how Jim and my fellow guides influenced me, but I hate to drone on too long.

(7)  Special Places and Moments (To be Supplied)
(8) Favorite Routes and Trips (to be Supplied)
(9)  Recollections and Stories of Other Staff (To be Supplied)
(10)  Unexpected Connections to Early Menogyn - 1920s - 30s) (To be Supplied)