When Building Bonds with Sons and Daughters Was a Dad’s Weekend Mission

Fondly recalling YMCA weekends of yore.

Ken Schlager on a boat with his young son.
Writer Ken Schlager on a weekend mission with his son, Steven. Courtesy of Ken Schlager

For New Jersey fathers of a certain age, there are no sweeter memories than those made with their kids on Indian Guides and Princess weekends of yore. The programs, run by local YMCAs, gave dads a chance twice each year to bond with sons (Guides) or daughters (Princesses) on weekends of hiking, archery, games, roaring campfires and rustic cabins. There were no moms in sight.

While the memories remain strong, the Native-American themes of those weekends now seem cringeworthy. In 2003, the national YMCA, in deference to changing sensibilities, renamed the program Adventure Guides. Clearly, it was the right thing to do.

My son Steven was not quite six when we joined a tribe (ouch) called the Apaches (more pain) on a chilly Friday night in April 1998 at Frost Valley, a sprawling Y camp in the Catskill Mountains. Part of the weekend routine was a nightly cookout. Not knowing how to provision ourselves, we had lugged only the survival essentials: juice boxes, Goldfish and fudge-stripe cookies. Thankfully, the group had an abundance of beef and beer. This band never went hungry. Or thirsty.

Fathers and sons around a campfire in the Catskills.

Fathers and sons gather around a campfire in the Catskills. Courtesy of Ken Schlager

In the morning, the group trudged down to the cable bridge, a suspension span across a rocky brook with a single cable to walk on and two for handholds. After the experienced boys scampered across, all watched and hooted as we tentatively navigated this rite of passage.  

A long hike and another cable crossing followed. In the afternoon, we launched rockets over the camp’s broad meadow. At nightfall, all the tribes gathered for a lakeside powwow (sorry). Stories were told, songs were sung, and a flaming arrow was fired into the lake. Later, back at our cabin, the boys competed to see who could stay up the latest.  

Ken Schlager's young daughter balances on a ropes course in the woods.

Schlager’s intrepid daughter, Hanna. Courtesy of Ken Schlager

Two years later, my daughter Hanna and I made our first Princess trip. In retrospect, our cheeky tribal name, Wasabi, seems enlightened. The girls proved just as rugged and energetic as the boys by day, but at night, preferred pillow fights in the cabin to watching the dads toss beer cans into the campfire.

Admittedly, we dads were not always on our best behavior. One spring, at a Y camp in Pennsylvania, a surprise Sunday-morning snowstorm prevented us from tidying up around the campfire. We were long gone when the snow melted, revealing evidence of our imbibing. The camp banned the Apaches for life.

Yes, we wore feathers and painted our faces. Yes, we greeted each other with a hearty “how-wow.” But I’d like to think that no disrespect was intended. In fact, the YMCA director who founded the program in St. Louis in 1926 is said to have been inspired by an Ojibwa guide who had taught him about the traditional mentoring of tribal sons by their fathers. 

Times change. Change is good. The bonds—and the memories—remain.

Ken Schlager is the former longtime editor of New Jersey Monthly.

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