In 1985, long time Bear Paw staff member Bernie Schlafke penned a little song that has become firmly ensconced in the camp’s oral tradition. His light and inspiring performances echoed the infectious way that Bear Paw found itself a part of so many souls for decades. Inspired by a 60th Anniversary celebration Bernie partnered with BPSC Online in 2006 and trekked to the studio to put “Bear Paw, My Home Away from Home” to tape for the first time.
In the fall of 2006, Bernie sat with BPSC Online and told us the story behind “Bear Paw, My Home Away from Home” and its legacy.
BPSC Online – First of all Bernie, tell us the story behind the writing of this song.
Bernie – I wrote it in my little room in Gasthof Graf, a country inn in Steingaden, Germany, far away from Bear Paw. I was washing dishes there in the summer of 1985, the first summer in 11 years that I’d been away from Bear Paw. Though I loved living and working in the gorgeous alpine foothills of Bavaria, I dearly missed Bear Paw and my friends there. Even if it were just for a few minutes, I longed to be back there…Just about everyday I turned the clock back seven hours in my mind and imagined what everyone at Bear Paw would be doing at that moment. I’d brought my guitar with me, and one day after work I took a few weissbiers up to my room with me, grabbed the guitar, and out came the song! I can’t remember exactly how long it took for the melody, chords, and words to take on some form…that was over 20 years ago.
BPSC Online – So how was it received?
Bernie – I THINK it was received well when I sang it at the first Sunday night campfire in the summer of 1986, and then each Sunday night after that for the rest of the season and the next summer.
BPSC Online – And you ultimately sent the manuscript and music to the copyright office?
Bernie – Yeah, that was Neil Walker’s idea. It’s usually a good idea to take his advice. I never would have thought of having the song copyrighted on my own.
BPSC Online – The lyrics are very descriptive and paint a very specific portrait. Was there specific inspiration for the places and things you selected to represent Bear Paw?
Bernie – To me, Bear Paw has always been a welcoming natural refuge, and a place that teems with life’s subtle joys: life-long friendships among the staff, the excitement of creativity, the marvel of nature’s intricate work, the silent sense of place on the earth while looking out over Bear Paw Lake. More specifically, “Bear Paw” evokes images of the cool mature woods between Staff Lodge and Chapel Point, the warm atmosphere of gemuetlichkeit (cozy, friendly warmth) while singing or performing skits in the old Dining Hall after a meal, the laughter that bursts out of Staff Lounge, peering down at the drowned insects in the pitcher plants in the bogs, the mist rising from the lake on some cold evenings and mornings…
I’m sure I’m one of many who know that “Bear Paw” stretches spiritually beyond its physical demarcation in the national forest. Its spirit lives in the way I am as a teacher, a friend, a human on this planet. I’ve always likened Bear Paw’s spirit to the water that always trickles silently out of the ground around the camp road, and gurgles (sings) its way through the rocks and cedar roots of Baldwin Creek, then the Waupee, before flowing out into the Oconto, Green Bay, and eventually, the rest of the world. Whenever I visit Bear Paw nowadays, I always take a second to stop along the road and find my way down to the Baldwin Creek. There I sit for a while at the rocks, and take a pause from my life, to listen to that eternal, gurgling music of the water as it meanders through the peaceful cedar glade on its journey out into the world.
BPSC Online – And the big question, Where is Cedar Point?
Bernie – Cedar Point is the end of a beaver canal that leads from the woods near an old logging road down through a cedar bog to the shore of Waupee Lake. It’s a beautiful, quiet spot we found one year while we were marking a hiking trail from Bear Paw out to Butler Rock, for a new low-impact camping program. I remember seeing a lot of kingfishers out there.
BPSC Online – How did you react when you learned, almost twenty years after you left camp, that your song has become a beloved treasure?
Bernie – I felt deeply honored.
BPSC Online – Earlier this year you collaborated on a garage recording project and stepped in front of the microphone to perform this song once again. Tell me about that experience.
Bernie – It was great! It gave me the chance to re-visit the song, and brush up its chord structure a little, since I composed it before I formally studied music theory at the universities in Green Bay, Regensburg, and Madison. Working with Joel was wonderful, and it was amazing to see all the ways his computer skills could enhance my song. I’m grateful to him for the time he spent on this project.
BPSC Online – Do you have a favorite part of the finished recording?
Bernie – I just like the happiness that comes from hearing it, and the images of Bear Paw that the lyrics evoke.
BPSC Online – As part of this project you have published notes and music on paper for all. Do you have any tips for those who want to perform this song in your footsteps?
Bernie – Not really, other than recognizing the personal meaning that the song and its lyrics has for the performer, and then communicating this connection while you sing it. Oh, yeah, one more thing: Play it with a stronger backbeat–that helps keep the audience from rushing.
BPSC Online – At the Bear Paw 60th Anniversary staff reunion, we were all exposed to the folks we inspired and those who inspired us. Who were the guys who inspired you?
Bernie – Mostly all the zany guys from the Nature Department, but especially the Dorney brothers, Bryan Radue, Neil Walker, and Mike Mortell, as well as Bill Moran and Craig Zehren.
BPSC Online – What message would you send them?
Bernie – Thank you, and keep up the great humor!
BPSC Online – A parting thought for those who are Bear Paw today?
Bernie – Thank you for keeping the song alive in your mind and in the minds and hearts of those who hear you sing.
BPSC Online – Thank you Bernie for your time and your contribution.