Drinking up life at Jõekääru this summer
Through the heart of Jõekääru runs a dark brown river. It moves quietly, largely unnoticed, but is forever in flux. Catching its current you feel at every moment something passing and arriving. This gentle meandering watercourse, which knows only constant change and movement, is an apt symbol of the spirit of Jõekääru. A place, that at a glance can appear frozen in time, is, however, always transforming, and is mysteriously a catalyst for change, physically and spiritually.
Anyone with kids attending the Jõekääru Suvekodu knows this. No matter if the stay is long or short, campers returning home are enriched with deeper and meaningful friendships, and a greater appreciation of the Estonian culture. The growing up seems to happen at a slightly faster pace during camp than the rest of the year. Despite the modest facilities, Jõekääru Suvekodu has been a wonderland for powerful and rich life-changing experiences that most recall vividly for all the days of their lives.
The living was easy at Jõekääru this summer. The days were nearly always intensely sunny, bitingly hot and, at times, oppressively humid. The rain, which fell mostly at night, was often accompanied by dramatic flashes of lightning and thunder. Many times this summer Jõekääru Suvekodu campers, disturbed from their sleep, would stagger from under blankets and press their faces against old single-pane glass windows to watch in awe as electrified skies transformed the night into a ghostly day.
Not surprisingly, late night thunderstorms created day-time power outages. One morning, after an electrical storm had killed the power in the Jõekääru Suvekodu kitchen, ice cream, and lots of it, was served following a morning meal of fruit, milk and cereal. “That was the best breakfast I ever had,” many a camper was heard to say. Head cook Jüri Kimsto, camp kitchen leader for six years now, said, “It’s no fun when a hundred ice cream bars melt in the basement freezer. … Better the kids eat it, than let it go to waste.”
During these power lapses the camp turned to the local Jõekääru community for help. Milk and other quick-spoiling foods were speedily transferred to nearby cottage and home refrigerators. Eerik Valter kindly lent his gas powered electric generator, which kept two large refrigerators operational and saved hundreds of dollars in food that otherwise would have gone bad.
The Jõekääru community is mostly Estonian and cottagers still out number full-time residents. But clearly the community is not the same as it was 30 years ago, nor has it become what Jõekääru founders had envisioned. “Even though the demographics of the area are changing, the pride in the community and the environment remains constant,” says Estonian Summer Homes Association president Jaan Schaer. The exodus of Estonian property owners continues, but the cultural drain has slowed of late as another group of young and old Estonians start to buy properties for recreation and living year-round. Jõekääru is no ordinary rural community. Within its borders are about 200 acres of forests, fields and streams, jointly owned by the Jõekääru Suvekodu Selts and the ESHA. This land is dedicated solely for the enjoyment of the Estonian children’s camp and Jõekääru property owners. There are few places you can buy an acre and then have nearly unfettered access to wide expanses of nature. This land is open for walking, bicycling, running, canoeing and, my favourite, cross-country skiing. Not motorcycling or snowmobiling.
The ESHA held its Annual General Meeting at the end of May. Association members gathered on a Sunday morning behind the Jõekääru Suvekodu kitchen as pretty white clouds slowly made their way across a warm blue sky. Erik Joa chaired the meeting. Jaan Schaer noted that Erik Joa and ESHA director Ruudi Karjamaa have worked in “leadership positions” for the Jõekääru community for more than 50 years. The two men were given a very generous applause.
This year’s AGM heralded an important change. For the first time in ESHA history the meeting’s business was spoken in Estonian and English. Past AGMs were strictly Estonian affairs. The change is welcome news for non-Estonian dues paying ESHA members, and to non-Estonian spouses married to Estonians. Many ESHA members and other Jõekääru residents say the change has been a long-time coming. Credit for the move to a bilingual meeting goes to Jaan Schaer. Xenophobia is alive and well among some long-time Estonian ESHA members. Issues surrounding the opening of the ESHA to non-Estonians have been divisive at times. Jaan Schaer has done well, as ESHA president, maintaining the peace between well-meaning but disagreeing Association directors and members. It comes as a welcome relief to many Estonians at Jõekääru to see the ESHA move toward openness and a democracy that includes all property owners.
The meeting’s banter was a very pleasant back and forth from Estonian to English and back again. This was the first Association AGM where virtually everyone understood everything that was said. A vacancy in the ESHA directorship needed to be filled and full-time Jõekääruresidents Lana Esken and Linda Tae vied for the position. The vote was conducted by secret ballot. Both are clearly devoted to Jõekääru and share a concern for its future. Linda Tae was declared winner. Pizza, pop and beer were served at the end of the meeting.
“One highlight of the summer was the appearance of black bears in the composts of property owners,” says Jaan Schaer. “A bear was seen running down Kalevi.” In fact, local nature observers believe the animal population in general is on the rise. Wild turkeys, rabbits, coyotes, possum, rabbits birds of prey, even wolves are some of the animals folks at Jõekääruclaim to have seen this summer. Environmental issues are an increasing concern for the people of Jõekääru. Heading up the physical management of the land are ESHA directors Ilmar Kaljurand and Linda Tae. Open fields are no longer mowed. Now there are fire breaks consisting of 12 to 20 foot swaths of cut grass surrounding field perimeters. “It is now a natural habitat that can support wildlife,” says Linda Tae.
The ESHA plans talgud or a community work day for Saturday, Oct. 14. Participants will meet by the pool at 9 am. Talgud will finish with a community BBQ at Jaan and Maimu Schaer’s place, 29 Narva Ave. The BBQ is free for talgud participants and their families, for all others it is $10 per person. BYOB. RSVP to Jaan Schaer at (705) 228-8113, or .
The end of summer can bring on the blues, especially for Jõekääru Suvekodu campers. Parents know well the signs of this youthful malaise. On the one hand the kids are grudgingly happy to be home. Home, where the kasvatajad no longer roam. Home, with its toys, TVs, video games, computers, sadly is not Jõekääru. It is strange how young ex-campers long for that certain deprivation only Jõekääru provides. Perhaps it’s the glaring austerity of the place that creates friendships that so very often end up lasting a lifetime. Strange too are the many adult Estonians that still pine for the long hot buggy days of summer at Jõekääru. Do not despair. There’s always next year, when former campers can volunteer their services to Jõekääru.
Make mine a laager