Splash: Memories arise as Camp Grow’s future is uncertain

Marc Dosogne points to the only piece of graffiti at Camp Grow he didn’t clean up when he was the camp manager: A heart he and his summer of 1972 sweetheart, Joannie, carved into the post of the cabin where Marc lodged as camp lifeguard from 1971-73. Marc called the cabin “his home” during those long-gone years. Maic D’Agostino photo

by Maic D’Agostino

It was the stuffy, almost rank scent of the little a-frame cabin’s knotty pine.

That was what sent me back to many childhood summers in the far reaches of eastern Ontario, Canada.

But that day, July 18, I was here, in southern Green Laker country.

Marc Dosogne and I were traipsing the grounds of Camp Grow, 40 acres sandwiched between Big Green and Spring lakes.

The creak of the screen door — as we ventured into one of the cabins in what Marc called the “a-frame village” of the camp — probably sparked the first firing of neurons in my brain carrying the sights and sounds of summers 15, 20, 25 years ago.

“This is definitely bringing back some memories,” I told Marc. “The smell, just the smell of the cabin.”

Marc agreed that memories are perhaps the longest-lasting and most powerful takeaways from summer camps like Camp Grow, meant to be moments of tranquility and peace among natural beauty in the brief years of our youths.

Camp Grow has been officially known as Fred A. Grow Memorial Camp since it was purchased by a Chicago Baptist organization in the late 1950s.

(Did you know the camp is named for a person — not what might happen to campers while visiting?)

Now the religious group has put the property up for sale, and Marc wanted to show me what the camp is like, fearing it might vanish after this season.

He’s been a part of Camp Grow for 46 years, beginning when he worked as a lifeguard for the camp. He took me to see the cabin where he stayed during those early ’70s summers.

“This was my home for three years,” he said as he peered in the door.

Turning, he ran his finger over a carved heart on the cabin porch’s center post.

He explained that when he was the camp’s manager, in 1993, he started cleaning up years of graffiti inside and outside cabins and halls around the grounds.

“The only graffiti I allowed to stay on the camp … was the heart I drew, me and my camp sweetheart. Joannie and Marc, summer of ’72,” he said.

Campers making their own memories were gallivanting around the open spaces that bright day, surrounded by acres of woods and wetlands.

Marc seemed to know every counselor by name, recalling their family connections to the camp.

He stopped Nate, a lifeguard this year, and told me the young man’s grandfather had once managed the camp, while Marc himself remembered Nate’s father as a camper.

He pointed out Nick, who he said was running the camp for the summer and attended as a kid.

He shook hands with counselor James Ethington, explaining that his dad, Ripon pastor Paul Ethington, once ran the camp himself.

Those seemed to be the recurring themes with everyone I ran into that day: generations, and coming back for more.

“Working with the kids, getting to know them, it’s just been really fun,” said camp counselor and Chicago native Colleen Christian, who added she’s been coming to the camp for eight years.

Her family owns property on Green Lake, and her dad, Rich, once worked as a counselor and even created a video promoting Camp Grow.

Aubrey Spears, another counselor  connected to the First Baptist Church of Chicago, told me he started serving as a counselor to work with kids and has been coming to the camp for 10 years.

Marc regaled me with stories of youngsters — including himself — who’ve found deep and meaningful experiences at the camp over its many years.

“Kids come and pretty soon they let everything go: they let all the city stuff go, they let all the electronic games go,” he said. “… That’s really what this is intended for.”

When Marc was growing up Catholic in Chicago, he noted that a nearby Baptist church had a “way cooler” youth ministry program, and so he got involved in that.

After a scuffle during a youth basketball game, the Baptist youth pastor suggested he get away to a camp on the shores of Wisconsin’s deepest lake.

The rest is Marc’s history.

“We would like to see if there’s a way to have the property saved and continue on as something for kids and families,” he said. “What that looks like, I don’t know.”

Walking through trees and staring over lakes on that gorgeous summer evening — which also happened to be Marc’s birthday — I couldn’t help thinking of my own experiences at a family camp.

There were generations involved there, too.

In the 1950s, my grandparents took my mom, aunts and uncle up to the camp in Combermere, a tiny Canadian village about 300 kilometers — er, 185 miles — northeast of Toronto.

The camp was run by a Catholic organization called Madonna House, which had been founded by one-time Russian baroness, Catherine Doherty.

Later, my mother lived with the group for a period of time; after my parents got married, she and my dad began bringing me and my siblings to the camp.

As Marc and I looked at the fire pit at Camp Grow, surrounded by round log benches, I told him it reminded me of the fire pit I spent hours by in Canada.

I remembered lying in the grass after a bonfire had been extinguished, looking up into the northern night sky and seeing clearly for the first time the Milky Way.

Marc pointed to the steps of Camp Grow’s dining hall, where campers and counselors were laughing and talking.

“I saw the Northern Lights for the first time on those steps,” he said.

What memories of summer camp do you have?