This essay about Camp Hayo-Went-Ha in Traverse City is written by New York Times bestselling author John Bacon, originally published in the November 1998 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine under the title “A Safe Place to Be Different.”
Pat Rode has worked hard to give bored kids adventure, forgotten kids attention and just about everyone a sense of belonging.
I didn’t want to go to camp.
Although I had spent all my summers on Torch Lake, the idea of going to Camp Hayo-Went-Ha didn’t interest me. I preferred playing baseball, riding bikes and going to the Traverse City hockey school with my best friend. I figured the kids at Hayo-Went-Ha either couldn’t play baseball or didn’t have many friends.
But by my 16th birthday I couldn’t play baseball either, thanks to the curveball. Far sadder, my best friend had died in a car accident.
With nothing else to do, I went to Camp Hayo-Went-Ha. I was humbled to find the kids there were tougher than most of my hockey teammates; plus, they went on trips all over North America.
I signed up for the canoe trip. In just 16 days, we paddled and portaged through 250 miles of Ontario wilderness. It was the hardest thing I had ever done—and still is.
The man who has choreographed these life-changing experiences for 10,000-some brave souls during the past 30 summers finally stepped down in August. Pat Rode, 69, wants to take his wife on their first summer vacation, and enjoy breakfast without 200 campers looking on. No on will notice their absence until next summer, when it will be impossible to ignore.
The 640-acre camp has the rustic yet tidy look of the “Swiss Family Robinson” movie set, but camp sessions play out more like episodes of “Fantasy Island,” with newcomers hoping this place will help them find what they’re missing. Rode has worked hard to give bored kids adventure, forgotten kids attention and just about everyone—campers and counselors alike—a sense of belonging.
He has tried to make Camp Hayo-Went-Ha “a safe place to be different,” and it is. Although I was outgoing at school, I met a friend at camp who showed me how to be quiet without being uncomfortable, and how to be sincere without feeling self-conscious.
I also learned how important it is to be needed. When a camper lost his mother in a car accident, I told him what it felt like when my best friend died. I was surprised this helped him—at the closing ceremony he gave me a teary-eyed hug—and even more surprised how much this helped me.
Rode has suffused camp with his belief that we can’t get through life alone, but there are plenty of people willing to help.
As a child Rode was sickly, his father was frequently absent, and his mother was buried on his 12th birthday. “But so many people went out of their way to help me,” he says, “that, well, you’ve got to give back.”
He has. In addition to his time and energy, Rode has given former campers money to pay for rent, college tuition, plane tickets and even bail. All but one has paid him back.
“I believe in second chances,” Rode says.
That is why, when my brother was searching for direction 16 years ago, I suggested he come to camp and join Rode’s staff.
“Absolutely changed my life,” he says today. “Being responsible for the kids made me think about what’s real. It made me realize my abilities. And I made my lifelong friendships there. That’s what camp did for me.”
After Rode helped restore his confidence, my brother climbed Mt. Ranier, earned his degree and got a good job. And when he got married, Pat Rode was there.
Rode has been deluged with letters, calls and visits from old campers and counselors. At the farewell ceremony, a dozen alums flew in to thank him.
As always, Rode lit his candle and those of his staff members, who then lit their campers’ candles, until the dark hall was bright enough to see the tears streaming down the faces of Pat Rode’s campers, counselors, and the old camp director himself.
Then everyone blew out their candles, returning the big room to its original darkness, and listened to Pat Rode say goodbye. My brother draped his right arm around his wife, and his left arm around me. After 16 years, I still felt part of something special.
That’s what camp did for me.
John Bacon is a New York Times bestselling author who worked for the Detroit News when he wrote this essay for Traverse, which ran in the November 1998 issue.