Summer at Camp
Even as iPods and cell phones invade our kids’ lives, Maine summer camps maintain a timeless connection with nature.
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill
For more than a century, families from across the country and around the world have transported their kids to Maine for a summer spent outdoors — learning to canoe and build campfires, making friends, and discovering their own independence. In that time, the heart of Maine camps — traditional skills developed in a natural environment — hasn’t changed. And yet the rest of the world has. As the newly coined term “nature deficit” so aptly describes, more kids now spend their time staring into video screens and cell phones than winding their way up mountains or down sun-dappled streams.
It’s a trend camp directors are well aware of as they seek to minimize the influence of technology while holding true to the traditions that have made Maine camps so enduring.
“A lot of the traditional Maine camps, their values and experiences, haven’t changed,” says Garth Altenburg, director of Chewonki’s camp for boys and president of the Maine Youth Camping Foundation, a nonprofit marketing group with 115 member camps statewide. “They’ve stayed true to their core. What has changed is the gap between camp life and home life. Kids are being asked to leave behind things that campers, even twenty years ago, didn’t have.”
At Chewonki, a ninety-five-year-old camp in Wiscasset, boys still sleep in rustic, open-air cabins with no running water or electricity. Like many Maine camps, the emphasis is on nature, so campers are asked to leave cell phones, iPods, and MP3 players at home.
“We are totally unplugged,” Altenburg says. “Parents really want that for their kids. Camp is a great opportunity to learn to do things you are not doing at home: to learn how to paddle a canoe, not just so you can, but because you are going to need it on your canoe trip, to learn how to build a camp fire, because you’ll be cooking a meal on that fire when you go on a trip. These are the opportunities camps offer.”
In an era where parents often feel pressured to sign their children up for extracurricular activities aimed to boost athletic or academic skills, traditional camps offer something richer, Altenburg says: the chance to step back into a community where people are focused on their interactions with each other and the world around them.
“We need the next generation to be in tune with that and to recognize there is a valuable natural world out there,” Altenburg says. “Because they experienced that [world] at camp, they’ll want to reconnect with it later during their adult lives.”
Despite the ups and downs of the economy, interest in Chewonki — like other Maine camps — has remained high, so high that Chewonki recently opened a similar camp for girls, one of only a handful this year to receive accreditation through the national American Camp Association (ACA). While roughly two hundred state-licensed summer camps exist in Maine, only seventy-seven have completed the rigorous ACA accreditation process by meeting more than three hundred best-practice standards. That makes Maine fifth nationwide in the overall number of ACA-accredited camps.
“Maine is synonymous with summer camp,” says Lucy Norvell, director of public relations for the American Camp Association, New England. “In fact, when many people think of summer camp, the image they have is Maine.”
Open space. Fresh air. Abundant wildlife. Those are the qualities that spawned the first summer camps here in the late 1800s, first for the disadvantaged, such as the Boston newsboys and bootblacks who came to escape tenement houses and street jobs, and later for the wealthy, who came to take pleasure in primitive living and to connect with the outdoors. As the popularity of camps grew — particularly during the first half of the twentieth century — the model that formed here was replicated across the country.
“Maine has an enormous and inspirational presence,” Norvell says, noting that the benefits of a summer spent in nature is just as valuable today. “Camps are one of the primary providers of environmental education and feeling connected to the earth. A lot of research is saying it is part of normal childhood development that children need to interact with nature and have their hands in the earth, whether getting their hands in a garden or trailing them over the sides of a canoe.”
That’s not to say camps are completely devoid of technology. Camp marketing and registration is increasingly online. Kids post their favorite summer photos on camp Web sites. Most camp offices include computers and Internet access for staff members. And while the Maine Youth Camping Foundation’s Web site features photos of kids kayaking, horseback riding, and swinging from a tree, a recent presentation featured a lecture on “cyber-safety.”
“There are times [when having] the technology is fantastic,” says Peter Kassen, director at Hidden Valley Camp, a traditional arts program in Freedom. “Our dance teachers have enormous libraries of songs on their iPods. We have a lot of videos posted on YouTube, but they are [the camper’s] own artistic creation. There are ways the technology can support a great artistic experience, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm it.”
“Accepting email,” says Steven Sudduth, co-director of Wyonegonic Camps, which was established in 1902, making it the longest continuously running girls camp in the nation. Girls who arrive at the facility on Moose Pond write letters by hand, but not so their parents. “We still encourage the soon-to-be lost art of letter writing, but if you’re from Madrid or California, we print off emails from parents and include them as part of our roll call.”
Of course, there are subversive activities that camps can’t control, such as kids bringing “dummy phones” to turn in to councilors, only to stow an additional cell phone for private use. The joke’s on them, though.
“The batteries would run out pretty quickly,” says Altenburg, of Chewonki. “There is no place to recharge them.”
Another recent compromise is the length of camp sessions. Campers, who once arrived by train or bus, typically stayed all summer. Now many Maine camps offer shorter sessions to accommodate “calendar creep,” the decreasing length of summer vacation and kids’ increasingly busy schedules. One that has maintained a traditional summerlong season is Camp Wawenock, an all-girls camp founded in 1910 on Sebago Lake in Raymond.
“This might be almost unbelievable, but it really hasn’t changed that much,” says Sally Kemp Atkinson, of San Francisco, who first arrived at Wawenock as an eleven-year-old nearly four decades ago. “It is a uniformed camp. When I went, they had bloomers and these really stiff shirts. Now they have shorts, and their T-shirts are a little more roomy, but they are still the same colors.”
Girls who were once transported across the lake by the steamer Songo now increasingly arrive in the state by plane — like Atkinson’s own two daughters who have spent every summer here from the time they were eleven and are now training to be counselors. But not much else has changed. “It is a lot of the same songs, the same landscape, the same nature,” Atkinson says. “All these traditions have been passed down forever and ever.”
For those who’ve never spent time in the Maine outdoors, the experience can be a turning point. Lily Whitehouse, a high-school junior from Massachusetts, had never slept in a tent before last year when she enrolled at the YMCA Camp of Maine, a traditional, ninety-five-year-old coed camp in Winthrop. She and her brother found the camp online.
“We were just looking for a good summer camp, and it looked really cool,” says Whitehouse. “I went camping. I went to an island for a night. I tried so many new things I’d never done before. I had so much fun that now I’m applying to be a counselor.”
Just what effect such an experience may have down the road is hard to quantify, but the state’s wild places without a doubt play an important role. Many programs extensively utilize the state’s parks, such as the weeklong backpacking trek through Baxter State Park in which Alexander Hadik, 18, of Woolwich, participated several years ago.
“We’d spend a couple nights in a couple different locations, and then we’d move on,” says Hadik, a Boy Scout who entered a contest organized by the Friends of Baxter State Park to participate in the program. “At each place, experts came and worked with us. Mount Katahdin we hiked with a geologist, and a local member of an Indian tribe spoke about traditional Indian practices and how they apply to the park today. The program really opened my eyes to what careers are available and the heavy-duty conservation work in the park and around the world.”
The exact number of kids enrolled in Maine camps is hard to pin down, but roughly half are Mainers. The other half is literally from everywhere. A recent plane bound for Boston was filled with rows of elementary-aged children attending camp from Japan.
“The gist of it is there are many families who are still purposefully seeking what we offer,” says Sudduth, of Wyonegonic, who was preparing to meet with alums on a whirlwind tour of the East Coast. “Thankfully, there is a wide enough variety that as long as parents do their research, they can find the right fit.”
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill