Campfires, Key Logs and How


At last night’s council fire, we talked about acknowledging and respecting the Native American heritage that is such a rich part of the Northwest Wisconsin history. We have always believed that it was our responsibility to educate the campers about the Ojibwe and Chippewa peoples who lived in this region. Along with our discussion about the Native Americans who first inhabited the area, we also talk about the loggers who came to Wisconsin, then about how this piece of land was used as a resort, and finally when it was turned into a camp.

Back in the days when the lumberjacks first came to what was then totally uncut forest, some of the tree trunks in this region were bigger than trucks, reaching 200 feet in height and 40 feet in width. The lumberjacks had a long work day, starting at dawn when the cook yelled, “daylight in the swamp,” which meant that the sun was rising and it was time to get to work. The lumberjacks typically put in a few hours of work before their first meal of the day and worked all the way until sunset. The lumberjacks worked all year long; in fact winter was their most productive time. In order to move the massive trees, they used teams of horses to tow the cut logs down long chutes made of snow and ice. The lumberjacks would leave the logs along the banks of the rivers and in the spring when the thawing snow would flood the riverbanks, the overflowing current would pick up the logs and float them downstream.

Sawmills were located at many different points along the river, where logs would be branded with the logging crews’ logos, ensuring that they would be paid for their haul. So for the lumberjacks, ensuring that their logs made it to the sawmill was a big priority. Among the thousands of logs floating down massive overflowing rivers, one log would often get stuck and create a log jam. These logjams could stretch for miles and include thousands of logs; only the bravest lumberjacks dared to try to find the “key log” that was holding up the entire river. This was a very dangerous job–the lumberjack would have to walk from the bank of the river to the key log, a distance of a quarter mile in some cases. All the while, the lumberjack would have to tread on slippery logs, so that the lumberjacks would sometimes hammer nails through the bottom of their boots to get a better grip on the logs. Carrying a “peavey,” which was a long wooded pole with a metal hook at the end, the lumberjack would use this peavey to push the key log under water and un-jam the rest of the load.

Once the key log was freed, however, the thousands of other logs would come rushing down the river, charging toward the lumberjack, who would have to run across all the logs and make it back to the bank. Most of the time, these lumberjacks would get stuck in between the logs or drown in the freezing cold river, unable to race against the deluge of water and wood. Indebted to their brave friend, the surviving lumberjacks would return to the bunk house that night to toast their fallen brother around the campfire, each man taking their turn by sharing a story of his bravery and courage. They called this tradition a “key log ceremony”.

During our council fires at camp, which are an important time for the whole camp community to reconnect as a group, we honor this tradition by giving a “key log” to one of our fellow campers or counselors as a way of showing appreciation for an act of kindness or friendship. When a camper wishes to say thank-you to someone for doing or saying a kind thing, they pick a small stick or twig to throw in the fire while explaining who the key log is for and why. Staff members participate in this tradition as well, thanking their campers and co-workers for a wide range of good deeds. This kind of healthy role-modeling helps children learn the value of friendship and the benefits of turning feelings into words. So many of our campers give key logs to their parents for sending them to camp, showing the kind of appreciation that helps cultivate maturity and a respectful nature. Though you may not get to see these things, I’m glad to report that all of you back home are not far from the minds of your daughters and that they truly appreciate the gift you are giving them in allowing them to come to camp.

The best part of the key log ceremony, for me, is that I get to hear about all the good deeds the kids are doing—small acts and words that I might miss during the hustle and bustle of daily camp life. Key log ceremonies are a great way for kids to learn how to recognize and thank their peers, acknowledging positive behaviors in a really meaningful way.

We also practice this kind of special praise at announcements after every meal, when campers have an opportunity to stand at the microphone in front of the entire camp and give a big “How” to a fellow camper. Among the many bits of specialized BT lingo is the word, “How,” which we use in place of applause. In fact, we never clap after a successful event or performance. Instead, the entire camp yells “How” in unison as a show of support. So, when a camper witnesses a friend getting up on water skis for the first time, reaching the top of the climbing wall, or walking with a sick friend to the health center, they can stand before the whole community to make that good deed known. This is not only beneficial for the “How” recipient, who feels the support and acknowledgment of the whole camp population, but for the giver as well. Let’s not forget that for a shy, quiet child, standing up in front of nearly 300 people and speaking into a microphone can be a pretty big accomplishment.

We all know how good it feels to do something nice for someone we care about, and to be acknowledged for it. But we often forget, in the chaos and commotion of our busy days, how good it feels to do the acknowledging.

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