Summer Camp at Night

Last summer we sailed our boat to Catalina Island. After a week ashore, including three noisy nights in Avalon, we retreated to the island’s quiet northwest corner to prepare for our jump to Los Angeles.

We moored in Howland Landing with only one other boat, a red sailboat owned by a harbor patrolman. A few times each day he’d pull alongside in his Boston Whaler, take his break aboard, and then get back to work. But most of the time, we had the cove to ourselves.

To port, a slanted rock outcropping separated Howland from the island’s west end. Swells rolled in parallel to the shore and filled tide pools at the base of the rocks. Having just read John McPhee’s Assembling California, I was mesmerized by the crooked layers of rock. We took the dinghy to get a closer look, but I realized there’s not much a layperson can learn from looking at rocks.

A couple hundred yards behind us, a summer camp for kids was set up on the beach. We watched campers and counselors move around the camp, from cabins to beach to mess hall and back again. “Lucky kids,” said Michelle, who grew up at summer camp in northern Wisconsin. “How cool to come out here and have your summer camp on an island in the Pacific.”

Around 8pm, after dark, we were cleaning up dinner on the boat. I glanced astern and noticed bright lights on the beach. “Hey, check this out,” I said to Michelle.

We sat in the cockpit and watched. Was it a ceremony? A game? Were we seeing flood lamps illuminating the camp for safety?

One by one, more white lights appeared along the beach in a horizontal row. They were aimed our way. We weren’t blinded, but we couldn’t discern anything around the lights either.

Then the lights started to move. They bounced and wobbled and grew larger. What were we seeing? And then it clicked.

The camp kids were holding flashlights and walking into the water! We heard splashing and shrieking and chatter and laughter. The counselor’s raised voice echoed across the water, and we listened as she instructed the campers: put on your mask and snorkel, make sure your flashlight is on, don’t forget your buddy, watch your step.

The lights disappeared one by one into the water. But we had no trouble tracking the group as they splashed past our boat, just 50 feet from our transom, and toward the rock outcropping and tide pools. Lucky kids, indeed — night snorkeling was part of the program at their summer camp.

We were just about to go back inside when we heard the counselor’s voice again. She was speaking in that loud whispering voice, the straining way people talk when they want to be heard but they don’t want to be loud.

“Okay kids… Don’t freak out, but… there’s a baby shark swimming down near the bottom.”

The kids freaked out. Their flashlights bobbed and scattered. They kicked and splashed. They strained to get a look underwater.

I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing the shark didn’t stick around to see them.

—JZ

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