Ye Old Menogyn Guides
 Menogyn Stories by John Traver, Guide (1957-58) , Trail Director (1961)
 (1) "Jim Gilbert's Profound and Pervasive Impact on John Traver, Professionally and Personally"



I first met Jim Gilbert in 1956 when Jim was the new Northeast YMCA Program Director. I was a junior in high school and had no idea what an influence this man would have on my life.  In high school I was planning to become an electrical engineer, when Jim hired me to run a YMCA Candy-to-Camp sale. When the six week sale was over and we had paid for the Salt Water Taffy, credited the Camp Registrations for each of the over a hundred kids and still had $48.50 left in the bank account. Jim said, “John, you should think about becoming a YMCA Program Director, ha, ha”. Then in college, during the three summers with Jim at Camp Menogyn, for some reason I decided to change my major to sociology/psychology and then become a YMCA Professional Director like him. All the way from that Candy-to-Camp job to my retirement in 1999, Jim was my guide both professionally and personally. He had such a “soft coach” style of influence one hardly noticed the strong guidance he was providing.


Jim was always able to help put problems and failures in perspective as well to help celebrate achievements. For several years when we were the two CEOs of the Twin Cities YMCAs, Jim relished getting together to share experiences and help each other plan for the futures.


Wumpy and Jim observed and coached my four-year courtship of Bonnie which helped lead to our marriage 50 years ago. Wumpy and Jim also clearly demonstrated how a lasting married relationship could be cultivated and grow stronger through the years. Jim was always so humble, yet he was such an inspirational cheerleader, good listener, optimistic supporter, mentor and friend to everyone. He clearly exhibited the “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment and seemed to be comfortable with everyone he met. So many people have come to admire him and emulate his approach to life.

Below are some pictures of Jim and Wumpy in 1994. We were very fortunate to be with them in England to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the YMCA. Bonnie is next to Wumpy and the other couple is Shirley and Rich Schoffelman (Rich worked for the YMCA of the USA).

 (2) "J. W. Brown, More Than a Cook" (1956)

In the early spring of my senior year in high school, Jim Gilbert took me to the West Lake YMCA office which was in a Minneapolis office building across the street from Lake Calhoun. Jim introduced me to a man named Phil Brain (who looked kind of sickly – later Jim told me that Phil had been in the Baton Death Camp and was still suffering the effects of starvation). The two of them told me about a YMCA camp in Northern Minnesota near Grand Marais. That summer, Phil was going to be the Camp Director and Jim was going to be the Assistant Camp Director. I had no idea what a YMCA Camp would look like, particularly when they said we could only get to the camp by boat, it had no electricity and was a base for canoe trips for teenagers into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (about which I had no clue).

  After we had talked about the camp and its programs for about fifteen minutes, they asked me if I would like to spend the summer helping the camp cook, named JW Brown. They said he was a great cook, but he had a few quirks that would require some patience and understanding (whatever that meant). So, my first summer at Menogyn was to be an assistant to a man who they called JW. Little did I realize it would be the first time in my life for me to have a close working relationship with a black man. At first JW was quite stern about what he wanted me to do and not to do.

  The TO-Dos were mainly about keeping the kitchen immaculately clean, even when he was cooking and dropped something on the floor – it had to be cleaned immediately. And of course all the utensils had to be rinsed in boiling hot water, etc. When he told me to go to the boathouse and get an ingredient, it had to be done that instant whether he was cooking or not. The NOT-TO-Dos included a strict rule to “never get between me and the stove” in case he needed to get there quickly and move a boiling pot or add an ingredient at the right time.

  Within a few weeks, he seemed to lighten up and started to talk more personally with me about his life. To my surprise he started teaching me the songs he always seemed to be humming while he cooked. The one that sticks in my head went something like this: “Sometimes I wonder why I spend those lonely nights, dreaming of a song, a melody, haunts my memory, of loving nights with you, when our love was new, an inspiration, but that was long ago . . . . . “

JW was a great cook. He was very creative and seemed to be able to use almost everything edible. He seemed to never throw any leftovers away, but instead incorporated them into the next meal and spiced the dish up enough that hardly anyone would notice it was what we had yesterday. He was an artist with what came out of the number 10 cans, ham hocks and other government surplus things. And when JW would make fresh blueberry and other fruit pies, he would prepare some cinnamon/sugar pie crusts for the staff.

  He seemed to always enjoy after dinner going into the dining room and talk with the staff and the campers – I also believe it was to hear the compliments about his cooking.I will never forget him and his special dinner biscuits and breakfast pancakes. Near the end of that summer working so closely together, he started calling me “Cookie” which stuck with me the next year when I became a trail guide.

 (3) "Garbage Pit Bears" (1956)

As the “Assistant to the Cook” one of my daily duties was to haul all the garbage from the dining hall to the garbage pit located across the bay from the trail building. The tool to expedite this work was a small aluminum boat. So each evening I would dutifully haul one or two containers of unusable biodegradable stuff into the boat and carefully row the twenty yards to the other side of the bay. After securely tying the boat to a tree, I would make noise to scare the bears away by banging the paddle against the boat and the waste containers. Most of the time I would see one or two bears amble away from where I was dumping. It became a pretty monotonous routine until one evening a person asked if he could go with me to see the bears, (I am not sure if it was a young camper or staffer, I can’t remember).

I played it up as a pretty dangerous task and said I was not sure I could get permission to take him along. Also, to add to the drama, I went into the trail room and brought out an axe which I loaded into the boat. We rowed across the bay and sure enough there were two bears feasting on yesterday’s garbage on the east side of the garbage pit. So we each quietly took a container to the west side of the pit and dumped the stuff into a hole. We retreated about 15 feet to the north and sat down under a big tree to watch the bears for a while. We quickly noticed that the larger of the two bears was moving towards us. I said a few reassuring words about the bear just coming over to see the new garbage we had dumped.

All of a sudden the bear started running right toward us, so I picked up the axe, put it in front of us and took what I thought would be a defensive posture although I was still sitting down. As you may have noticed by now, I did not know what I was doing or what the bear was doing. He just kept coming. At about ten feet away from us, he jumped into air and landed in the tree above us. We screamed and ran like heck to the boat, rowed like heck back to the safety of the boathouse and kept our mouth shut about what a dumb thing we had done.

As an encore to the above “Garbage Pit Bears” story, here is a brief description of a much different experience I had with a black bear. One early afternoon when virtually no one was in camp, JW Brown sent me down to the boat house to get some pie dough. As I started to put my foot on the steps of the open side door of the boat house, I met a bear coming out of that door. We were virtually face to face, I screamed, he whirled around and ran out the open garage doors and I ran all the way up to the kitchen and told JW. He said he still needed the pie dough and made me go right back down there again. As I re-entered the boat house I discovered wet spots in between claw marks about every 6 feet all the way out the garage doors. Luckily, I did not loose my water like he had. Oh yes, I did get the pie dough out of the cage for JW.

 (4) "I Don't Want to Die" (1957)

We were camped out on the Northeast end of Gunflint Lake and the huge lake was mirror smooth. This was my second trip as a guide with eight high school boys who were anxious to cross the lake and explore the neat river that flows into the Quetico. They had heard from other Menogyn campers that there were places to jump off 20 foot rock walls into deep water, great fishing and good campsites on the river. As we loaded the three canoes and started to paddle, we noticed a slight head wind was building and small waves were coming at us. I reminded the group to “feather your paddles as you swing them back for your next stroke”. Also, we started singing the rhythm song, “Dip, dip and swinger back, slashing like silver, swift as the wild goose flys, dip, dip and swing”. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits even though the head wind kept increasing.

The bow man in the lead canoe was a huge guy who loved to carry the heavy food pack on every portage which demonstrated how strong he was. As usual, I was the stern man in the second canoe occasionally glancing back at the third canoe to see that they kept pace with us. We had paddled for about a half hour when the waves began to splash over the bow once in a while. Then suddenly a huge rolling wave came at us and deposited several inches of water in our canoe. The lead canoe got the worst of it and the bow man in the lead canoe bailed out of his canoe and swam the few strokes toward my canoe. He shouted, “I don’t want to die!” and as he grabbed the gunwales of my canoe he screamed “Let me get in your canoe!”

I responded in a stern voice, “You are not going to die!” “I will not let you die!”. Then the training Jim Gilbert had given us trail guides kicked into my head: STAY CALM, TAKE CHARGE, DELEGATE ACTIONS, ETC. So I sternly shouted to the other two canoes; “Just do the swamped canoe drill we did at camp!” and then I tried to reassure the young man in the water who was hanging onto my gunwales. So we got all the canoes side by side and together slid the packs out of the swamped lead canoe into our canoe. Then the third canoe pulled the flooded canoe upside down across the center of their gunwales to let the water out, flipped it back upright and helped the young man in the water climb back into the righted canoe as we held it steady next to our canoe.

Luckily we had not made much progress up the lake and headed to an island on our port side. Once on the island, we quickly stripped the clothes off our water logged young man, dried him off, started a huge fire to warm him up and had an early lunch. We waited until the wind died down to finish paddling the lake and of course celebrated our achievements of handling an emergency situation as a team and congratulating ourselves for handling such an ordeal.