When Cathy McGrath was a young girl, her extended family gathered at the end of every summer at her grandparents’ home in Danville, Indiana. Two of the older cousins, Betsey and Kevin Geraghty, came straight from Lake Morey, where they’d spend the entire summer at the Aloha Camps. Cathy noticed their simple uniforms, green shorts for Betsey, gray for Kevin, and how their duffel bags smelled somehow of piney woods and water. They seemed to have a song — and a prank — for every occasion. To the young girl, these cousins were “so cool” — perhaps especially because when she looked at them, Cathy could imagine herself in a few years wearing the same green shorts as cousin Betsey, singing the same songs, and joining in the family tradition.
It wasn’t just the cousins. Several of Cathy’s aunts came to the family reunion in Indiana fresh off far-flung adventures. These “very independent women” traveled the world, climbed mountains, and paddled wilderness rivers. The young girl understood that in some way her remarkable aunts had also been formed by going to Aloha.
Cathy’s Danville grandmother began the family tradition in 1918, boarding a train at age 16 in Indianapolis for a two-day journey to Lake Morey. Jeannette Wales donned the green Aloha bloomers and white middy. She slept in a canvas tent and sang at every meal; she paddled canoes and hiked mountains. In fact, she was on a hiking trip in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, six weeks into the summer, when a telegram from her parents reached her at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, ending her summer session.
Jeannette Wales, later Jeannette Blanton, never returned to Aloha, but the short time she’d spent in Fairlee, Vermont, introduced a bright thread in the fabric of the family. Two younger sisters attended Aloha in the 20s, and each of her four daughters, starting with namesake Jeannette in 1941, journeyed to Aloha in turn.
Elizabeth “Betsey” Blanton was third of those four daughters. Betsey remembers being old enough at last, 13 years old in 1945, to take the train from Indianapolis to Cleveland with 15-year-old sister Lucy, where the two girls joined a chaperoned Aloha traveling party. Betsey was folded into the warm Aloha embrace the moment she stepped down from the platform in Fairlee.
Betsey loved the trips — long canoe trips, climbing the Presidential Range and the Adirondacks — and the music. She enthusiastically participated in the camp’s Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. “For ‘Gondoliers,’ we arrived by canoe” at the Hale, she says now. She returned for four more years as a camper, then two more as a counselor. Her last summer at Aloha, in 1952, Betsey took Greg McGrath, whom she would soon marry, to the summit of Black Mountain and showed him the sweep of the landscape she loved.
Cathy, older sister Peggy, and brother Rob joined twice as many cousins at Aloha and Lanakila in the ’60s and ’70s. Much was the same. They sang Gilbert & Sullivan, learned to paddle a canoe, sail a boat, pack and cook over a campfire. Grandmother Jeannette helped pay their way. While she was a camper, Cathy discovered that she, too, loved “tripping” — in her case, wilderness backpacking. Soon she was leading trips, confident in her ability to figure out problems, like her mother, her energetic aunts, and her older sister, all of whom had first practiced their leadership skills at Aloha.
Not that she thought of herself as marching in lockstep with family tradition: She took up backpacking not through her mother’s influence but because Fred Downing, the head of the Woodchuck Hole, suggested it. Later she would see the threads that ran back through the generations, and later still, those that continued forward. But what mattered most then was that her experience felt different from everyone else’s, and that it suited her. She had found “my own Aloha.” And Aloha became a part of her.
In time, she built a house on Lake Morey. After all these years, she still loves seeing the play of light on the water, and the tang of pine and a lakey mustiness that enters drawers and clothes — smells that first intrigued her as a child in her grandmother’s house. As others in the family settled in Vermont — cousin Betsey, aunts Lucy and Mary Blanton, and Cathy’s parents, who bought across the road — the family’s geographic center moved closer to Aloha.
Cathy’s own children, Carrie and Eliza Kissick, are continuing the Aloha tradition started by their great-grandmother, though their trek to the camp covers a much shorter distance. As a measure of how much importance she places on an Aloha experience, Cathy says, “We pay for Aloha out of the college fund.”
Carrie and Eliza are two of about ten fourth-generation campers at Aloha, each with similarly intertwined family and camp experiences. Grandmother Betsey McGrath likes seeing how different parts of Aloha appeal to each of her grandchildren. Carrie Kissick has been drawn to kayaking, a sport not even offered when her mother and grandmother were campers. Cousin Sarah has found her place doing the same types of outdoor trips that her aunt Cathy and grandmother Betsey loved. Eliza has performed in the camp’s musical theater — though Broadway-style shows have replaced Gilbert & Sullivan performances — and is especially proud of being part of a long history at Aloha. She likes discovering her Aloha, which means in part that she’s been reluctant to advertise the camp to schoolmates: She likes having a different set of summer friends from around the globe.
Cathy McGrath cherishes the family’s long tradition at Aloha, but recognizes that it’s just a part of what makes Aloha special. She knows that when her daughters sit in the Hale and look up at the name boards from all the summers that have come before them, they can see family names on many of them. It connects them not only in a family lineage but also in a broader Aloha tradition. “Kids today live their lives minute by minute,” she says. “Communication takes seconds. Everything is right now. Camp can ground kids in a history — give them a long view — something beyond what’s happening this instant. It makes them feel part of something bigger, perhaps reminding them they are valuable because they’re part of more than just themselves.”
Cathy’s extended family no longer gathers in Danville, Indiana, at the end of the summer. In 2000, the house where Jeannette Wales Blanton raised four daughters and welcomed thirteen grandchildren was donated to the town of Danville. The house, along with more than fifty acres of wooded trails, is now a park and nature preserve. When the family held a reunion in 2009, they came to Aloha.
Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors. After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor. Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.