More about the Gräwel

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 16, 2019

The Camping Trip


The pump on the west side of our house was one of several gathering places for young males in our village.  It was located on a concrete platform with two steps leading up to it.  We sat on the steps and visited, often talking about adventures past and ones planned for the future.  One evening I heard the group gathering at the pump and went to join them.  The conversation had turned to an overnight campout along the Gräwel.


I was considered too young to go camping, but I desperately wanted to be included.  Then I had a thought.  What if I offered three old mattresses that would provide a nice cushy base in the tent for sleeping?  I made the offer with the stipulation that I could come along.  To my great delight, it was accepted.  Now came the daunting task of convincing my parents that I was old enough to go and that the older boys would take good care of me.  This was, indeed, my lucky day.  They said yes!  I knew that taking the mattresses would not be a problem, because they were already destined for the town landfill.


We did some serious planning.  What did we want to eat?  For supper we settled on pork and bean hash over the campfire.  Perhaps the next day some fish stew if we were able to catch enough minnows.  We decided to take lots of canteens of water to supply us for the duration.  Arrangements were made for a supply of wood.  The tent was borrowed from the local Boy Scout troop.  Everyone, including me, already had sleeping bags.


We had a specific place in mind for our campsite.  The problem was that it was not accessible by automobile and the mattresses were too large to transport in our parents’ cars.  So one of the guys volunteered to ask the local Farm Department for a horse and wagon.


On the designated day we hitched up the horse and loaded our supplies into the wagon.  There was a short stretch of road leading from the horse barn in the direction of our destination, but we were soon off-road.  Some of the terrain was rough, and we bumped along with some physical discomfort and mental trepidation.  But we made to our destination without breaking either our wagon or our bones.


We set up the tent for the night and trenched around it in good Boy Scout fashion, just in case it might rain.  Weather forecasts in those days were only someone’s best guess.  At twilight we started the fire and cooked our pork and bean hash.  After supper, we sat around the fire talking and laughing for about an hour before retiring to our cushy mattresses.


As we continued our conversation from inside our sleeping bags, someone thought he had heard a strange noise outside.  We fell silent.  Suddenly, the flaps of our tent were ripped open, and we were assaulted with skunk cabbage!  Three older boys who had their own little clique rubbed skunk cabbage leaves allover our sleeping bags and us.  We tried to defend ourselves, but their sudden attack caught us completely off guard.  The whole tent, we included, reeked of skunk.


Satisfied with their victory, the three headed back home, laughing as they went.  We opened the tent flaps as far as they would go, dragged out our sleeping bags, and let everything air out for a while.  Fortunately, the odor abated pretty quickly.  Back in our bags, we finally settled down for a night’s sleep.


“I think I hear thunder,” someone announced.  We all listened.  Sure enough, it was the unmistakable rumble of a distant storm.  “Oh, it’ll go around us, either to the north or the south.  They always do.”  This one didn’t.


Soon there was lightning all around us, with crashes of thunder that were too close for comfort.  We all agreed that we were wise to have set up the tent in an open area and not under a tree because of the lightning.  Then the downpour started.  We were hoping it would be relatively brief.  It wasn’t.


Our trench around the tent overflowed.  The tent had no floor, so the mattresses began to soak up the water.  “We have to pray now,” my companion to the left whispered in my ear.  And we did.


The ground around the tent was completely saturated to the point where the pegs on the ropes holding up the tent began to come out of the ground.  Our tent started to sag.  Two brave souls went outside in the midst of the storm to see if they could fix the problem.  They couldn’t.  They came back in, now completely soaked.


The sides of the tent started to come down on top of us.  We held them up with our hands as best we could.  There was nothing else to do now except wait out the storm. 


When the lightning finally receded into the distance and the rain diminished to a sprinkle, we felt safe enough to head for home on foot.  Our parents, who had begun to worry about our safety, were glad to see us, even if it was in the middle of the night.  My comfy, dry bed never felt so good.


It wasn’t long thereafter that the older boys decided that I was now one of them.  To make it official, however, I had to be initiated into the group.  My first task was to cross the Gräwel on a log that had fallen across it.  It was fairly narrow, so I wasn’t completely confident that I could do it.  There were some precarious moments, but I made it across without falling off.


Just off shore nearby stood a small grove of choke cherry trees.  The fruit they bore was ripening.  My second task was to eat a handful.  I can assure you that they were called “choke cherries” for a very good reason.


My third and final task was even more daunting than the log across the Gräwel.  There was an old, long-abandoned sandstone quarry in the same vicinity.  The drop from the edge of the quarry was about 15 feet.  Close to the edge was a huge old tree with wild grape vines growing way up into its topmost branches.  The largest vine, with the circumference of a silver dollar had been severed near the base of the tree.


My task was to grab the vine and back away from the quarry’s edge, so that I could get a running start and swing out over the edge.  As I backed away, I pulled on the vine as hard as I could, hoping it would come crashing down out of the tree, thus aborting any attempt at the task assigned.  No such luck.


With vine firmly in hand, I ran as fast as I could, lifted my feet off the ground and swung out over the edge as terror gripped me.  The vine held.  I relaxed a bit on the back swing, and almost enjoyed the ride back.  I had proven my bravery and had become an official member of the group.


A Gräwel Finale


The spot where we had camped that fateful night is now under water, as are the willow trees that provided Opa Rettig with switches for basket making.  The Amana Society eventually dammed the Gräwel to create a large farm pond for its cattle.  I mourned the passing, not only of that favored camping spot, but of the water iris, cattails, pickerel weed, and, yes, even the skunk cabbage that had populated the boggy area where the springs gave birth to the Gräwel


During most summer days, the Gräwel runs dry now.  No water flows over the spillway to give it life.  Cattle droppings befoul its waters when they do flow.  The minnows are gone.  It was, and still is, as if a precious gift had been ripped away.  My life is not populated with many sad stories.  But this is one of them.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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