I grew up camping with my family, but I never went to a traditional overnight, outdoor-focused youth camp as a kid. One of my favorite television shows was Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts, which featured a colorful cast of kids engaging in adventures and antics at Camp Anawanna. I was a Girl Scout for nine years and learned how to cross stitch, make macrame, and sell cookies. Nonetheless, I never went to camp or, like in the television show, saw anyone’s shorts run up the flagpole.
I grew up and went to college, and as the end of my freshman year neared, I decided I wasn’t ready to go home for the summer. My university hosted a summer camp employee recruitment fair with booths from dozens of camps around the country, and that’s how I ended up spending the next two summers as a counselor at a youth camp in southwest Michigan, two hours from my parents’ home.
It’s been about 16 years since I first stepped onto that camp property. I know myself better now and have learned it’s okay to be an introvert. I value periodic time to myself to recharge, so I’m astonished I lasted even one summer in what is possibly the most extroverted setting in existence. My teacher husband pointed out that a school is a highly extroverted workplace. “Yes,” I agreed. “But when you work as a summer camp counselor, the kids don’t go home at the end of the day.”
I worked with a lot of kids during those two summers. A new group of kids moved into my cabin each week and I was responsible for mentoring them and escorting them around to camp activities. We did crafts, played sports, swam in the lake, learned campfire songs, and roasted hot dogs and pie irons over said campfires. I helped a group of kids create a camp newspaper every week with fun counselor interviews and surveys about everyone’s favorite snacks in the canteen store (ice cream cones or slushees?). It was a Christian camp, and I led a few kids in the prayer of salvation, which was a high point.
Honestly, though, what stands out in my experience is how I grew to appreciate the outdoors, hard work, and simple living. Living in a natural setting, I felt like Thoreau on Walden Pond, except that famous writer wasn’t surrounded by people every moment of every day. I couldn’t walk to the bathhouse to use the restroom without kids tagging after me.
Summer is once again drawing near. Parents are preparing to send children off to various camps, and college students are going through counselor training. These are some of the images imprinted in my memory from my own time at camp:
The Wildlife. It was during these summers that I began to learn to identify birds and trees. I learned the difference between red-winged blackbirds and nuthatches. I picked mulberries and blackberries that grew wild along wooded paths, nibbled the stems of sassafras leaves, and sucked on sweet clover blossoms. I encountered harmless snakes on trails, raccoons (cantankerous, snarling things), turtles, chipmunks, and even skunks (from as healthy a distance as is possible when a skunk is in the clearing between your cabin and the bathhouse). At camp, I had my first taste of venison. During my second summer, I brought a couple of my dad’s field guides and his binoculars. I learned to appreciate wildlife, and not to fear bugs or animals.
The Night Sky. There are no words for the sense of awe a star-filled sky elicits. When I get away from city lights and really see the night sky, I simply stand and gaze in wonder. At camp, we used to regularly see meteor showers or “falling stars.” Sometimes we laid on blankets in a field so we could look up and watch. I remain convinced this sight is one of the most compelling evidences of a divine creator.
The Living Quarters. Some of my camp’s cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. in the 1930s, with nearly a century of wear on the wooden floorboards. There was no air conditioning and no plumbing, and we ran a lot of box fans on constant full blast. The first summer I worked at camp, I didn’t realize how hot it was until my mom mentioned afterward that we experienced record-breaking heat. No one really complained, and we stopped by the dining hall frequently for ice-cold water. I felt proud of the fact that I could rough it in a basic cabin.
The … Uh, Facilities. Most of the bathhouses were basic cement-block buildings with daddy long legs hanging out on the walls. We waited in line each morning for a shower that started up with a push-button. We couldn’t adjust the water temperature and had to push the button to restart the water every 10 seconds or so. One of the bathhouses was so primitive, the sink was an outdoor trough (we made cow jokes) with a pipe and spigot on a concrete pad under a roof. I appreciate indoor plumbing more as a result, but sometimes I miss stargazing while I brush my teeth.
The Walking. We walked everywhere. To the dining hall. To the pavilion where we had camp meetings. To the arts and crafts cabin and down to the lake and way out to the athletic fields. Southwest Michigan’s geography, at least where camp was located, was dominated by gently rolling hills. This was to our benefit considering how well the dining hall fed us. You didn’t miss breakfast on days when they served biscuits and gravy or French toast with strawberries and whipped cream. Anyway, we really did walk uphill both ways wherever we went. It helped build muscles and character, especially on weekends when I hauled my bulging laundry bag to the lone bathhouse with washers and dryers.
The Hard Work. If I wasn’t busy working as a counselor, I was helping in the kitchen running dishes through the dish washing machine or cleaning chickens in preparation for a camp-wide barbecue. I cleaned bathhouses. I painted cabins. I picked up trash. I swept the dining hall and wiped down tables. It helped me empathize with people working in food and service industries, and I learned a few useful skills.
After my second summer as a camp counselor, I moved on to other less exhausting and higher paying summer jobs. I soon graduated from college and started work as a journalist at a small newspaper, then went on to have a family and become a stay-at-home mom.
Nowadays, my summers are filled with tent camping trips with my husband and young daughters. I recently added to our collection of camping gear when I bought a like-new pie iron at a garage sale at a local private school. On my way out the school doors, several people complimented me on my great find, while others asked what the contraption was that I held in my hand. I explained how it makes grilled cheese sandwiches – or substitute your filling of choice (cherry pie, or pizza sauce and cheese, for example) – over the campfire. I also mentioned I used to work at a summer camp where we made them.
I sometimes feel a little nostalgic when my family goes camping, when we cook over the fire, when I set foot inside a humble bathhouse, and especially when I gaze at the nighttime sky. During our family’s pre-bedtime walk to the campground bathhouse to brush teeth, I can’t help standing still on the path to admire the stars for a few minutes while my daughters tug on my hands. Those stars still inspire awe and I always feel like I can’t look at them long enough and hard enough. They remind me that the most beautiful things are often the most simple.
Did you ever work at a summer camp? Will your children be attending summer camp
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