It was on an early autumn afternoon while visiting my brother that I asked my 14-year-old nephew, who was playing Wii basketball in the living room, about camp at Kretinga that summer.
“We weren’t last in the clean cabin contest, which was a good thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV on the wall.
“We ran around in the woods like maniacs, there were bonfires every night, and it was awesome to hang out with all my friends.”
“I didn’t write any letters to my dad, either,” he added, laughing.
My brother must have noticed something in my face.
“It sounds just like Ausra to me, too,” he said.
We both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was originally known, starting in 1961, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s. We waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later saying goodbye to our friends felt like summer was over, even though it was still mid-July. It was only when we grew older than the age limit for campers that we were compelled to stay home for the summer.
Founded in 1957, Ausra was a Franciscan, Lithuanian, sports and cultural camp all wrapped up in two weeks on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand and forest.
The sand got into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day of camp and stayed there until you got home. The forest is what we disappeared into for two weeks.
The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp 90 miles north of Toronto was longer then. We were so excited about going we couldn’t sit still and the highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. To this day I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father always traveled with a compass and a plastic St. Christopher figurine on the dashboard.
In the 1960s we slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister came to camp wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in twin barracks. In between were the sports field, parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs for songs, skits, and a nightly lauzas, or bonfire.
Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a box of matches and a gallon of gasoline to light the bonfire.
Our days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often starlit and cool. At seven in the morning we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. After raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags – sometimes preceded by lowering underclothes hoisted in the night – we rushed to breakfast.
After porridge and sandwiches we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass on a makeshift altar.
Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day: going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and t-shirts and trekked through a copse of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to our spot on the coastline.
Whenever we could we broke ranks and snuck into the store for bottles of Orange Crush and bags of Maltesers.
Bruno, a vadovas, or camp supervisor, who unlike most of the others wasn’t a parent or a young adult, led the formation. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and sported a black beret. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during WW2 and every summer thought he knew how to expertly assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scattering pell-mell as soon we neared the dunes.
Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.
“You’re getting us wet,” they would yell, even though they were in the lake the same as us.
What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played.
Returning to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back.
Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, the 120 to 150 of us served by eight volunteer cooks: burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.
Potatoes were a staple, as well as peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread.
Going to the lakeshore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. All feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old who was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk was given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks. He chose the top bunk, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-olds.
Two other boys did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, Konigsberg, and finally Kaunas.
That night, with the whole camp assembled at the larger-than-usual fire, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the exciting story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane came plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire.
It was the talk of the camp for days.
Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.
Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection purchased the land for Ausra from a parishioner for a nominal fee in the 1950s and operated the camp until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps: two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.
There is also a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain.
Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return to Kretinga. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”
“I love this camp so much and I have been going since FOREVER, “ a camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.
My nephew eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles.
I asked him if he was going back next summer.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, throwing the Nintendo Wii on the sofa.
“My friends and I have been together for five years in our cabin. It’s the best time of the year. I can’t wait to go back.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.