Rick Mercer rant: The meaning of summer camp

How attending camp changed my life, and gave me my start in entertainment

By: Rick Mercer

I loved summer camp.

I know for many kids going away to camp means exploring a part of the country that is new and exotic. For me, not so much. My summer camp was in a meadow located about three miles from my house. I could have ridden my bike.

The camp didn’t own the land; it was either borrowed or rented every year. The entire camp was set up at the beginning of the season and trucked out of there at the end.

Rick Mercer rant: The meaning of summer camp

There were no cabins. Campers slept in army surplus canvas wall tents without floors. Luxuries included his and her outhouses, a few old aluminum canoes, a rotting dock, some archery equipment, a fire pit, a tetherball poll, and numerous Coleman stoves.

At summer camp I finally found something I was good at.

When it rained, there was a lot of mud. Also, if anyone touched the wall or roof of the tent, the water poured in. Someone always touched the walls of the tent.

Looking back, I think that on any given day, my summer camp resembled a scene from a civil war re-enactment.

There was no running water; I can’t remember where we washed.

This is what I do remember.

I remember epic games of capture the flag that went on for hours. I remember learning how to swamp a canoe in the middle of a lake, and more importantly, how to safely get back in a swamped canoe if you ever find yourself in that situation unintentionally. I remember how to make a ring bandage and secretly hoping I would someday be called upon to properly attend to someone with a branch embedded in their thigh. I remember everyone in my tent being woken up by a camp counsellor in the middle of the night, being told to grab our sleeping bags and follow him outside. We laid on our backs and watched what seemed like thousands of shooting stars.

I remember thinking—”who lets kids out at this hour? This is madness! I love that there are no adults here, adults would never do this.” To this day, it is still the best collection of shooting stars I have ever seen.

And this may be cliché to say for a guy who went into show business, but I remember getting my first laughs. Every night during campfire, each tent was tasked with performing either a song or a sketch. It was a very haphazard talent show. Some tents took this job seriously, others not so much. I took this part of camp very seriously.

I never won a race or ever scored a goal in soccer. I was the kid in the outfield looking for four leaf clovers and praying the ball would never come my way. But with the talent show I found my place. 

I never won a race or ever scored a goal in soccer. I was the kid in the outfield looking for four leaf clovers and praying the ball would never come my way. But with the talent show I found my place. I wrote my first sketches for those talent shows and I cast the parts. Every night we killed. When it came to the forced rivalry that existed between tents, we weren’t the best at tetherball but killed at the talent show.

It’s a dangerous thing to get your first laugh. For some kids, things are never the same again. But summer camp is rife with danger. You do things you never thought you would ever do, like swamp that canoe or stay up all night staring at the stars. For me, that big risk, that big dangerous gamble was standing up in front of everyone I knew, telling jokes that I wrote and doing an impression of the camp director. At summer camp I finally found something I was good at.

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my professional career. I have played some of the nicest rooms in the country.

I have played theatres and hockey rinks all across Canada. I have played Roy Thomson Hall and the National Arts Centre and walked out on stage on Parliament Hill for Canada Day in front of what the police estimated to be an audience of 80,000 people.

That’s a long way from a talent show at Camp Caribou, but I can’t help but think that without one, the others wouldn’t have happened.

—Rick Mercer is a political satirist and TV personality. His show, “Mercer Report,” airs on CBC.

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