Written by Glenn Begly
It’s a clear, cool, dark night in early August. The Milky Way seems so close; it feels that if you reach far enough towards the millions of stars in the sky, you could grab a big, shimmering handful and put them in your pocket.
Hundreds of staff and campers sit on the gentle slope of the hill in the Senior Village, right on the shores of the perfectly calm lake. Down below, you see a teepee decorated with Native American symbols. The largest campfire that you’ve ever seen is waiting to be ignited by the lit torches in front of the teepee.
A number of Indians – or are they staff, dressed up like Indians? –
are aligned by the torches, standing perfectly silent. The silence of the crowd helps to set a dramatic tone. Suddenly, there’s a shriek, a mad entrance by a screaming medicine man, the beating of drums, and the fire set ablaze as if by magic.
And that’s just the beginning!
The Alawatchakeema Campfire (or just “Big Al,” for short) is one of Echo Lake’s enduring traditions. Anyone who has ever been to camp knows how important traditions are. They bind the camp community together, not just during the summer, but through the years and even across generations.
As hard as it might be to believe, “Big Al” didn’t always come every twenty four moons to test the purity of the spirit of the Echo Lake tribe, and to assure that it stayed that way through symbolic sacrifices by campers and staff alike. For you more metropolitan folk, that’s every two years. We North Country people still measure time by “moons.”
Every camp tradition has an origin that lies behind the myth it creates, and Alawatchakeema is no exception.
Back in the mid-1970s, Camp Echo Lake was less than two-thirds of its current size. Many of the traditional camp events that we love today (Group Sing, Tribal Break, Apache, Sachem, Friday Night Services and Carnival) were already firmly in place. But at camp, there is always room for more magic!
“Big Al” had its origin in the Boy Scouts.
I arrived at camp as a counselor only a few years earlier with Reber Whitner, and though both of us had been at “camp,” we had never attended a full-summer camp. Our experience in camping came strictly from many years as Scouts.
One night, Reber and I were discussing our Scout experience and comparing it to camp. As we reminisced about the Order of the Arrow tap out ceremony, we simultaneously had an epiphany. We both agreed that, with a few “minor” modifications, we could bring something even better to Echo Lake!
In those days, camp was a bit different; if you had an idea and you knew the right people, you could put your plan on a fast track. In the interest of time, we decided to involve only the head counselors, telling no one else what we were up to, including Morry and Amy Stein, since we had big plans for them. Today, of course, such an idea would require going through the program staff, the head counselors and directors.
With the utmost secrecy, Reber, Dave Abbey, Jeff Ackerman and I began to plan and orchestrate a ceremony at Echo Lake that would be the mother of all tap outs. This was no easy feat when you consider that keeping a secret at camp is like trying to gather lake water with a sieve.
We wanted the ceremony to be fun for the staff and kids, but it was just as important to us that it remained true to the values of Echo Lake. The goal was to send a message, and to give the kids and staff another memory they could hold onto forever.
Our first challenge was finding the right location. There was no Senior Village at that time, and at any rate, we needed a site that we could prepare quickly and secretly.
Trek was ideal for the first “Big Al.” Although it didn’t lend itself to the dramatic entrances that we have today, we needed a place where we could prepare without anyone knowing. We didn’t tell anyone, aside from the key players, what was happening, so the cast of characters was much smaller than it is today. The evening program simply said, “Campfire at Trek.”
Now, no “Big Al” is complete without Native American music. Remember, back in the day, there were no iPods, computers or portable speakers, but we weren’t the least bit worried because we had a secret musical weapon – Steve Finkle.
Steve was a “one-of-a-kind” character at Echo Lake, eclectic and talented. There has never been anyone like him before, and I suspect that there never will be anyone like him in the future. “Slightly maniacal” is also an accurate character description of Steve.
He was really into the whole plan, from start to finish. We told him that we just wanted him to beat a big drum at the campfire. That was not good enough for Steve. He decided to park himself deep in the woods, invisible to all, and alone, except for the million mosquitoes keeping him company. It was the perfect plan!
Nowadays, we have sophisticated and beautiful Native American outfits, acquired and saved over many, many “Big Al” campfires, but back then, it was a bit more rustic. Since Indian gear was not on the list of ‘recommended clothing” that you received in your staff camp mailer in May, we had no choice but to improvise.
We journeyed to Lake George, went into a few gift shops, and literally bought everything that we could find. Of course, we charged it all to camp! It wasn’t fancy, but along with a good deal of war paint (“appropriated” from the theater department), the benefit of surprise and the cover of darkness, we were pretty impressive…if I do say so myself!
The night was cool, dark and beautiful. Very few of us knew what was going on. The curiosity and excitement of the staff and campers exhilarated all of us as we hid in the forest awaiting the arrival of the entire camp.
The campers and staff arrived and sat down and waited, and waited, and then waited some more. Not that any of us were accomplished actors, but we knew that if we made the camp wait and fidget, the end result would be even better!
As soon as the crowd began to murmur, the Trek staff lit the fire as Steve (deep in the woods), went to work on his drum. He was magnificent! He kept drumming as the three chiefs, and then “Big Al,” arrived. I was one of the chiefs, and it was only natural that Reber should be Alawatchakeema. He was a larger-than-life personality, a camp character if there ever was one, and he pulled it off without a hitch, even though he was the biggest, bearded-est, blondest Indian chief that I have ever seen.
The chiefs made brief speeches about their mission and were then called upon by “Big Al” to select campers and staff to make the “sacrifices” that we use to this day: no speaking for 24 hours, no eating until noon the next day and sleeping out under the stars.
Naturally, those called out to accept the sacrifices and affirm the spirit of the Echo Lake tribe were most likely those who spoke nonstop for twenty four hours a day, ate twenty pancakes for breakfast, and shied away from any overnight not held at the mall. No one demurred. They couldn’t, because when “Big Al” wants you to do something, resistance, as they say, is futile.
The chiefs were solemn and completely in character throughout the entire ceremony. They met any attempt at humor on the part of those selected with an Indian rebuke. With every selection came howls of laughter from the assembled camp. And of course, there was the “Triple Whammy” –the special honor reserved for a select few who had to complete all three sacrifices! Who got that? Well, I could be wrong, but as I recall it was Morry and Amy!
We marched the chosen ones away in silence to a meeting area, where they were surprised to learn that we were completely serious! The camp was left to make its way back to the bunk line to ponder the wonders that they had seen. And Morry, who smiled all the time, had the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen. He was ecstatic, overjoyed and giddy! “What an idea!” he proclaimed. “A fantastic idea! How did you ever think of it!?”
Morry went on and on with enthusiastic praise.
Needless to say, in Morry’s eyes this couldn’t be a one-time thing, since it said so much about camp, and of the responsibility of every individual to uphold the values of the Echo Lake community. It was also just about the most fun that anyone had ever had.
I think pretty soon thereafter we had a meeting in which we affirmed that “Big Al” would continue forever. We knew that we needed someone who was, and always would be, Alawatchakeema. Only one person was nominated. In a unanimous vote, Morry Stein was named “Big Al.”
I just realized I sort of left you hanging back there at the beginning, since I stopped describing the ceremony right as it begins. I think I’ll just have to leave it that way. Come see for yourself. Once you do, you’ll never forget it!