The benefit of Camp Kooch-i-ching and outdoor education

By David Sieck (Marissa's Dad)       


Forty years ago was the last summer I spent swimming in the neighborhood pool.  George Simmons worked with my father and had insisted for the past year that my parents send me to a 600 acre island outside of International Falls, MN for my entire summer break.  George’s family had been going for generations and it would be a “perfect place for me.”  I was not sure if I was being punished or rewarded; I was TEN.

        Why was it “perfect” for me? I was all boy in a different world than the one we know today.  I would wake up, eat breakfast and head out on my adventure of the day.  This would include hiking through the woods on the other side of the bayou and rerouting a stream with rocks because the damn just would not hold back the water.  I got in my share of trouble: throwing rocks through the neighbor’s window and shooting water guns at a passing police car.  Even with my antics, Mom never worried because I always came home at the end of the day ready to eat anything and everything.  I was easy care- grab the hose, rinse me down in the driveway, feed me and I was out for the night.  How was I to know then that this island and the camp “Kooch” would become the backbone of my character development from a boy to a MAN.  Kooch gave me the opportunity to learn what I needed to be successful in life: courage, work ethic, honor, kindness and the ability to “seek the joy of being alive.”

        It was June 6th, 1974; eleven year old boys do not really have a grasp of the world and certainly are not aware that they are starting to make choices affecting their future character.  My role model, to that date, was my father; who spent most of his time working hard in the office and in the yard. To the man who had the wisdom to send me to Kooch and found the way to make it happen for 10 years, I am eternally grateful.  I always thanked him, but more importantly I have tried to honor him through my actions by being the son, husband and father of which he would be proud.  It was up to Mom to help me pack and guess what I was going to need during my adventure in the wilderness to the great north.  Living in Houston, TX does not prepare you for the very different world of the Boundary Waters.  For the summer, I brought sheets for my bed. (Really?! I only brought sheets for my bed!)  Houston in June, July and August has temperatures ranging from 100F that get down to 75F at night.

        I left the house at 5:30am to catch a 7:00am flight from Houston to Minneapolis where I would change planes and later fly to International Falls with a bunch of boys from all over the U.S.  So much for a simple trip, the plane to “The Falls” had a problem so we flew to Duluth where we caught a bus to the border.  We arrived at the boat dock at 10:00pm to catch a barge for the 1 mile journey to the Island.  Good thing I was exhausted, because I had NO idea where I was, why I was on a barge loaded with gear and what to do until they told me to grab my stuff and head to Cabin Four.  Thankfully, Simmy and Ole (my counselors) were there with flashlights to guide me over the rock outcroppings, through the trees, up the hill and into a cabin with a hand painted number four on the plaque next to the door.  Everyone in the cabin knew I had finally arrived when the spring loaded cabin door slammed loudly behind me.  They showed me my bunk and told me to grab my stuff to make my bed and hit the sack.  In 10 minutes I was covered in my sheets and in 15 minutes my teeth were chattering so hard that Ole immediately knew how to quiet the noise, three wool Hudson Bay 4-point blankets later and I was sawing logs.  It was an early lesson in the communal lesson of survival in the Great Northwoods.  I had pride knowing I actually managed to travel 1500 miles across the United States from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border in one day.  I arrived in one piece with everything on the packing list for the eight weeks of camp fun, wilderness adventures and all of my sheets.  

        The first step in my journey was complete. Time to grab the knife and matches! George was right- this was a place for boys.  In reflection, Kooch was a place where young men are given examples of honor and hard work then are provided with incentives and opportunities to put them to practice.  I was taught the proper way to handle, care for and use my new survival tool.  We all took the responsibility seriously and did not cut ourselves or each other in play. My matches were soon covered in wax to protect them from the elements and a canoe flip during our trips.  I am not aware of anyone ever burning down a cabin.  I was having so much fun that I did not realize I was learning these lessons.  The lessons were ingrained in my memory like the life lesson tapes our parents provide us: “go to the bathroom before we head out on a long drive” and “gentlemen always hold the door for a lady.”  At Kooch it was “The law of the woods” and it is amazing how many times in the past 39 years I have repeated the phrases over in my head.  During several key events in the summer Little Council and Grand Council a larger central fire was set  up with four arms each with 3 fingers to walk us all through;


From the Great Central Fire,

I Light This, the Lamp of Beauty.

Be clean- both yourself and the place you live in.

Be strong- understand and respect your body. It is the temple of the spirit.

Protect all harmless wildlife- and be ever ready to fight the wild of the fire in the woods.

From the Great Central Fire,

I Light This, the Lamp of Truth.

Speak true- word of honor is sacred.

Play fair- foul play is treachery.

Be reverent- worship the great spirit and respect all worship of him by others.

From the Great Central Fire,

I Light This, the Lamp of Fortitude.

Be brave- courage is the noblest of all attainments.

Be silent- it is harder to be silent than to speak, but in the hour of trial it is stronger.

Obey- obedience is the first law of the woods.

From the Great Central Fire,

I Light This, the Flaming Lamp of Love.

Be kind- do at least one act of unbargaining service each day.

Be helpful- do your share of the work.

Be joyful- seek the joy of being alive.

This is the Law of the Woods.

These words helped me through many incidents in my life when I was unsure how I should act.  They helped me in high school, college and business.  I was able to apply them on our wilderness trips and with my football teammates.  When I was introduced to the Honor Code at Princeton, it was already a familiar concept to me: “Speak true- word of honor is sacred.”  The Wilderness trips gave us many opportunities to apply the lessons.  There were times when the days got long, the weather was bad, the insects were devouring us and when we finally made it to the campsite we needed to dig down and find the will to find wood, set up the tents, prepare, serve and clean up the meal and finally stow everything for the possibility of foul weather passing through the night.  These were the times that tested our character, our ability dig deep and complete the task; help others who needed an extra hand (you can not finish a portage if one person is stuck in muskeg at the beginning of the trail) even though you finished your task you could “Be kind- do at least one act of unbargaining service each day.”  During one of my trips down the Bloodvein River we came across a tree burning from a lightning strike during the previous night, we did not hesitate because we knew we had to “Protect all harmless wildlife- and be ever ready to fight the wild of the fire in the woods.”  

        I wake up every morning, thankful for the many opportunities and blessings I have received.  Never forgetting my favorite Law from the Flaming Lamp of Love, remember to always:

        Be joyful- Sieck the joy of being alive!