“I believe […] that every boy should develop some sort of hobby […] a pleasant pastime that you choose when the day’s work is done; a love of doing something for the thing itself.”
– Manny Vezie, Founder of Gold Arrow Camp
Chuck “Woody” Radke, a 20 year veteran staff member, has been researching Gold Arrow Camp’s history for a book he’s writing about Camp. Many of the stories Woody has gathered from GAC’s early years have come through interviews and writings from people who were there, including Manny’s oldest son, Krieg Vezie (1932-2013) and Smoke Signals, the Camp newspaper that was published three times during the summer of 1945.
Most of the activities Gold Arrow campers participate in today are in fact the same ones Manny’s first charges enjoyed over eighty years ago, including Manny’s favorite: canoeing.
Krieg reported that Manny had “wonderful canoes” and that since his time at Red Arrow, they were always “one of his great loves.” Campers learned to properly paddle and mastered all the different strokes, and though it wasn’t that popular, Manny always made it a primary activity at camp. One of the ways he made it more thrilling was to take the boys out of camp on “river running” trips, said Krieg: “In the thirties boys ran the San Joaquin and King’s River by canoes […]. Few were experienced in river running and a canoe was totaled each trip.” It got expensive to lose a canoe each time out and, of course, it was a bit risky, but no one ever got hurt. Manny also took a few canoe trips in Yosemite “just to see the waterfalls and the deer,” Krieg said.
There was also a sailing program with “two classes of boats,” said Krieg: 12-foot-long Snowbirds and “Snipes that had a main sail and a jib.” The first two years, Manny didn’t have a huge fleet, but by 1940, Krieg reported the program featured “quite a few sailboats.” Campers were given instruction on the rules of the lake and rights of way before they launched, and there was a series of tests boys could take and skills they could demonstrate to earn the designation of “Skipper.” Once boys piloted their sailboats skillfully, they were awarded a white officer’s cap that had the Gold Arrow Camp symbol on the front. “I think I wore that cap for years, all through school,” said Krieg. People would ask him what it was, and he announced proudly “I’m a sailing skipper. I have passed the solo test to sail in some heavy winds.” It was this kind of pride in individual accomplishment that Manny wanted all of his Gold Arrow campers to experience and take home with them.
Among other water activities, there was swimming, motor boating, paddle boarding, log rolling, kayaking, and something Krieg called “platter” boating: “These were small boats […] about three feet long, and the boys would kneel in the boat and move it with their hands.” On Sunday afternoons, these water activities were frequently on display at camp “water festivals.” Campers battled it out in the “two way inlet platterboat race” or the “one lap plunge swim,” with winners earning points toward all-tent trips to Lakeshore for sodas; no matter where they finished, all participants earned a hearty “two hips and a hooray” from the counselors for giving it their best shot. Finally, later in the forties, Manny introduced “aqua planing” to camp, a milder version of waterskiing. Krieg said that Manny was actually “very scared of water-skiing because he felt if a person fell, the water-ski would come back and hit him in the head.” With aqua-planing, campers just fell off into the water, and the injury risk was minimal.
When they weren’t playing around on top of the water, they were skulking around under it. The activity was called “helmet diving,” where Krieg said campers “put a heavy steel helmet on [their] heads and went underwater and walked around the bottom of the lake.” Camper Thomas Wyatt (1945) spoke of his experience with the activity:
At the close of our session, when there were few campers in camp, I was at the swimming area and was offered a chance to try the diving helmet. It was a shoulder-mounted affair, with a face plate. I was given a rope to tug on to signal for more air or less air from the person manning the air pump. Well, I started out and became submerged, and the forgot the codes for more air! So, I swam out from under the helmet! So much for my first underwater adventure!
Camper Chas Luckman in the August 3rd edition of Smoke Signals described it as an activity that required “trusty assistants at the air pump” as campers “descended into the darkness of the lake’s blue waters.” Those same assistants then waited for “a tug and then a tug tug at the rope” before pulling the camper up. Luckman’s account also tells of the courageous Bill Brown, the junior counselor who descended “some distance down” to rescue a megaphone a waterfront lifeguard had dropped. He resurfaced to a hero’s welcome, megaphone in hand. Wrote Luckman, “As the frozen diver was being relieved of his helmet he shakingly commented, ‘I am never going down in such deep water again.’” Suffice to say that helmet diving is not among the offerings for current Gold Arrow campers.
Back on land, archery was one of the “primary sports in the early days” of camp, said Krieg. Manny had set up a number of archery ranges with targets at various distances as well as pop-up targets of small animals and a deer that would dart across the stream on a pulley. “You never knew when that deer was going to cross,” said Krieg, “but when it did you had a chance to see if you could hit this moving target.” Campers were always thrilled to hit the deer and to earn merit pins on the range from the National Camp Archery Association. To liven things up a bit, Manny even considered a “flu flu” range, said Krieg, where campers could “shoot an arrow straight up in the sky and land it on a target below.” The counselors badgered Manny to do it, according to Krieg, but at least in this case, he felt it was too dangerous.
There was also riflery, of course, and campers shot .22-long rifles at targets set at a distance of fifty feet to earn medals from the National Rifle Association. All boys had to “take a special test” to use the rifles, and could qualify for awards under the NRA’s “Junior Marksman” program. Campers were given a rule book that described benchmarks like “Sharpshooter” and “Expert Rifleman” and bound them to a sportsmen’s code by which they promised, among other things, to “never allow the muzzle of [the] gun to point at anything which [they] do not intend to shoot.” Many a camper returned home with his prized riflery rule book and his scored targets to share with Mom and Dad.
When the boys weren’t shooting targets, they were likely riding horses, one of the two largest programs at Gold Arrow Camp. Smoke Signals editor Bob Shelton wrote that without horses, “half of Gold Arrow’s charm and color would fade into the afterglow.” It was a program that Manny insisted be a Gold Arrow focal point as he knew the appeal horsemanship and the romantic myth of the frontier had for the modern American boy. By 1945, Manny had twenty-nine horses in camp with “a dozen or so more […] scattered among the mountains,” wrote Shelton.
With so many horses available to campers every summer, it was likely that a few would get loose from time to time, said Krieg. To keep track of them all, the horses were branded, an event campers were invited to attend when camp opened in mid-July. “The kids,” said Krieg, “loved to smell that horse flesh.” The men in charge of the horses and the rebranding event were “Kit” Carson Shade and Jim Gordon, with “Doc McClure in charge of heating the iron,” wrote Smoke Signals staffer Mike Millikan. Carson “actually did the dirty work” but “only one or two horses seemed to mind it very much.” As a result, wrote Millikan, “the boys began shouting for their money back.” In the end, nine horses were branded in July 1945, indelibly registered with the capital letters “VZ,” which Millikan reminds us “stands for Mr. Vezie.”
Manny loved the horse program and frequently led campers on trail rides to the “Indian Swimming Hole” and Lakeshore, among other places. While on the trail, he shared a story with campers about two miners who were scared they’d be robbed of their gold, so they hid their stash in the mountains as it began to snow.
Upon their return, the miners couldn’t find their treasure: “I believe the gold is somewhere near Gold Arrow Camp, boys,” Manny would say. “Let’s see if we can find it.” It was a slow, methodical story, said Krieg, one that typically culminated in an open meadow, where one lucky boy would always spot a big canvas bag of gold-foil candy bars. “I found it,” the boy would yell, and Manny, in his slow, easy voice, would tell the boys that gold was not very good to eat, but candy bars sure were. “He handed the candy bars out to the kids,” said Krieg. “He told these stories all the time as part of camp.”
Additionally, horses were the centerpiece of the pack trips Manny took every year, beginning in 1935. One Smoke Signals artifact from August 15, 1945 (“A Hundred Miles of Rugged Beauty”) describes how Manny ran short overnights and two- to three-day trips during the regular camp season, followed every August by a two-week post-season trip for “campers who [had] proven […] able to acquit themselves with credit in outdoor activities.” These postcamp trips were big productions, with anywhere from twenty to thirty adults and campers taking to the Sierra high country. It can be argued, based on the verbiage devoted to them in Smoke Signals, that Manny’s pack trips were, in fact, the highlight of every boy’s summer. There, we read of the “mighty” Rangers’ trip to Coyote Lake, “where the natives use mosquitoes for can openers” and the lake glistened “in the westing sun”; of tent five’s first pack trip to Red Lake, arriving after a “tiresome ride” to a “meal of sandwiches and soup” followed by “snow fights” and a thunderstorm; and of tent four’s “short mile horseback ride” to the Indian Swimming Hole, where they set up camp and had a dinner of “brown potatoes, gravy, emerald string beans, and a whole watermelon,” before a “pinecone fight […] without a casualty” and a campfire with “ginger snaps and stories.” Indeed, the pages of the camp newspaper are full of descriptions that seem to come straight from the pages of cowboy adventure novels.
But before any boy could participate in one of these memorable experiences, they had to pass what Krieg called “test camp,” an area set up below the road, overlooking the lake in what is now called “The Ridge” (Cabins 23, 24 and 25). Boys had to go to test camp for one night to “make sure [they] kept a clean camp,” said Krieg. Boys did all the things they would do at a normal campsite, then counselors came the next day to check them out. If they passed, they were eligible to go on a pack trip. According to Krieg, there was no camper who ever failed test camp, but there was some sport in casting a shadow of doubt when the counselors did their final checks. “You left a paper over here,” they might say, or “You didn’t do the right thing over there.” It was all in good fun, said Krieg, and in the end, they all learned to be good campers.
Arguably, the post-season pack trips were Manny’s finest hours and perhaps the excursions from which he derived the greatest satisfaction. He planned the itineraries himself, changing them each year while keeping them under wraps until departure as a way to build anticipation in the boys. Invariably, he led the rugged company to places “in God’s Great Grandeur […] where the gold trout are seldom bothered by man.” All trips began with a truck ride from Huntington Lake to Mono Hot Springs where explorers found their horses and supplies waiting. Imagine the thrill the boys must have felt to have their own horses for two weeks. In one abridged travel log, captured in Smoke Signals, Manny led the group to Bear Creek before heading over Selden Pass, 11,500 feet “up to Heaven where the view stretches out a hundred miles over Marie Lakes on one side and Heart Lake on the other.” They camped and fished for three days at Sally Keys Lake before dropping for two days into Blaney Meadows, “where the fishing is fine and hot springs gush forth.” The final leg of the journey took them to Florence Lake, where the truck to take them back to camp awaited: “In all, we have been twelve days on a trail we will cherish forever”:
Mix this up with outdoor cooking,
And miles and miles of joyful riding.
And the smells of pine and fir trees,
And the chores of trail and camplife.
Flavor with friendship and brand new tales,
Told over the campfire nights on the trail;
And you’ll find you’ve done something
You’ll talk of for years!
– Smoke Signals, August 15, 1945
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a boy who—presented with glorious, untrammeled views, gushing hot springs, and his own horse on which he beheld it all—wouldn’t talk of the cherished experience for years. Manny wanted his boys, through the pack trip experience, to leave feeling like confident trailblazers and frontiersmen: “In all the pack trips,” wrote Shelton, Manny “never yet found a disappointed camper!”