We sat around the campfire, our shadows dancing in the trees circling the clearing. Above us the stars shown brightly, drawing the constellations and whirling them slowly in a cosmic dance. We were quiet, an uncommon thing for young pre-teens but we were caught in the drama of the moment. There was a bit of a chill in the crisp air three hundred miles north of Quebec city. Summer was just ending and we were getting ready to return to our homes back in the states, each of us anticipating a long train ride in a Pullman car.
A procession approached the circle with its fire and children. Two by two, men dressed as Cree Warriors in full costume padded silently into the circle. The Chief, the last to arrive, stepped to the front and called up to the night sky. “Ca you hear me, mighty Loup Garou? I have come to declare the honor and achievement of these braves you can see here. They have worked hard to learn the ways of the forest, the ways of nature, and the way of men. They have traveled far on their skill and wits alone. Do you recognize these braves Mighty Loup Garou?” In the distance we heard the lonely howl of a wolf. A cry that echoed in the trees around us. The Chief spoke again: “The Mighty Loup Garou recognizes the braves! Stand and be accepted as a man-child of the wilderness!”
As a group we stood and the adults in their garb applauded us. One by one the gave each of us a canoe paddle, its blade painted with a wolf howling under the moon. We received this honor because six weeks before we had arrived on trains, uncertain and a little frightened, yet looking forward to what our parents had explained would be a marvelous experience. This wasn’t camp. This was something else.
We spent two weeks being taught the skills we would need and then we were turned loose in pairs, unaccompanied and unsupervised, to find our way through sixty miles of dense forest, lakes and creeks to the north end of Lake Mistassini. This was not a populated area, in fact, none of us who made the trip saw another human being other than our partner for the week and a half it took us to make our way to the lake. Once there, we found a small Hudson’s Bay post with a pair of Mounties (RCMP) and a small collection of Cree that made their living fishing the lake and hunting in the forest. This was indeed the wilderness. We camped on the lake for five days and then bushwhacked our way back to Chibougamou and the headquarters of Mistassini Tours. It took just as long to get back as it did to go up. Along the way we ate fish we caught and squirrel and rabbit we snared. We ate the berries we’d been taught were okay and left the rest alone. It was an exhausting trip, a pair of 80 pound kids with a forty pound canoe, our paddles and our rucksacks. We carried a small tent, sleeping bags, military mess kits, a hatchet, three different knives, and a spare set of clothing with a flannel shirt and jacket, a poncho, some rope and wire, and a number of other miscellaneous items. We each carried a compass and a watch and a copy of an area map that was pretty sparse on detail.
When we nervously paddled away from headquarters we had basic training, but didn’t know what to expect. We came back confident, young men who weighed options because we’d learned through harship and terror that it was always best to have a plan. And a backup. And another backup. Standing with our ceremonial paddles around the fire we were recognized for our accomplishment, lauded for our success, but most importantly, we were ratified. Ratified as capable of achieving a difficult goal and not only succeeding, but having a great time as we did it. It was a rite of passage and it opened up a number of gates for me.
Without that experience, I doubt that my parents would have given me the latitude they did with my boat. We lived by the water of Long Island Sound on Butler’s Island in Darien, Connecticut. I had an 18 foot Boston Whaler, and at age fourteen took it by myself up to Cape Cod, and at sixteen I took it down the coast all the way to Charleston, South Carolina to visit family. These trips too were rites of passage in their own ways, but none meant more to me than being presented to the Mighty Loup Garou (Big Wolf) in the Canadian outlands. In a way, I became a man in some respects.
In life I would have other rites of passage. They might not be called rites of passage, maybe milestones or something unnamed as I grew, joined the military and went to fight a war. Later I would marry and have children, and each of these events would be visible markers in my life from which I could take my own measure. One of the things I learned in the Canadian north woods was that how I thought of myself was intensely more important than how others would see me, though it’s always nice to have your accomplishments recognized.
I believe that all children should be challenged, made to experience rites of passage. But to do so would mean that we need to dismiss the mainstream and focus on the accomplishments of the individual child, especially those who struggle with the societal tides. A rite of passage is a necessary barometer that helps us to take our own measure, to establish our respectable worth, and give us character in multiple dimensions.