Summer camp: Missing a great American tradition

(CNN) — Rachel Adams-Kaplan knew the detailed schedule of summer camp long before she attended.

Her father started going to Camp Green Lane in southeast Pennsylvania when he was just five years old. When her brother started at age 11, her parents thought she, at age 7, was still too young. But her father talked about camp incessantly.

“We’d be sitting on the deck and he’d say, ‘Right now, it’s probably sixth period, so it’s boys’ swim,’ or ‘Now it’s canteen, and I can picture the kids going in to get an ice cream treat.’ He did that all day long.”

When the family visited her brother halfway through the camp session, Adams-Kaplan told her parents she was staying. “So on visiting day, I just entered a cabin, and I really haven’t left since.”

That was in 1986, and for the next 13 years, Adams-Kaplan, now 42, spent each summer at the same sleep-away camp that her father and brother attended.

She returned to work at the camp after college, and these days spends her summers as a supervisor. The Philadelphia-based kindergarten teacher understands why the camp made such a lasting impression on her father.

“Camp allows everyone to be their authentic self in a way that, for whatever reason, school doesn’t. You don’t feel the same pressures of the real world, especially nowadays. There’s no technology, it’s just about spending good time with close friends.”

Adams-Kaplan’s own children are the third generation in her family to attend the camp — this would have been her 10-year-old daughter’s second summer.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the United States, many summer camps, including Green Lane, have closed for the season, leaving campers bereft.

The rise of summer camps in America

Around the late 19th century, outdoor summer camps started to open in remote locales — Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, the lakes of rural Maine — allowing city kids to spend their summers surrounded by nature.

While Covid has forced many of these institutions to shutter this summer, in the years surrounding the Spanish flu pandemic, summer camps actually experienced a boom. Camps went from fewer than 100 in 1900 to more than 1,000 by 1918, as parents sent off their children to escape crowded cities.

Over a century later, the American Camp Association counts about 12,000 overnight and day camps in the United States, and while many offer updated facilities — more plush bunks, specialized activities, electricity — some stalwarts haven’t changed much from the first few years they welcomed campers. And whether modern or rustic, camp provides today’s kids with an outlet to be active and independent, step out of their comfort zones, make lasting friendships, and get a much-needed respite from the pressures of 21st-century life.

Below, seven current and former campers share their best memories, and explain why they live 10 months for two.

Martha Kowal, 77

Martha Kowal (far right) at Singing Eagle Lodge in 1959.

Martha Kowal (far right) at Singing Eagle Lodge in 1959.

Courtesy Martha Kowal

I started going to camp in 1955, when I was 11 years old. Singing Eagle Lodge, an all-girls camp, was founded in 1917 by Doc Ann (Ann Tomkins Gibson), a doctor from Philadelphia who wanted to expose girls to nature and independence and teach them to support and care for each other.

We slept in platform tents right on the water. You could roll up the sides, or down if it rained. We put on a musical every year: “Carousel,” “Oklahoma,” “Brigadoon,” “Annie Get Your Gun.” We had two teams, Pines and Birches. I was a Birch. I was very athletic; they had a lot of sports. I hated rainy days because you had to learn how to tie knots, or make art, and I wasn’t very good at that.

Most girls came from Philadelphia or New Haven (Connecticut) and we came from Poughkeepsie, New York. The girls from New Haven and Philadelphia would take a bus home and I would stand there with my mom and cry as all my friends boarded the bus.

Going to camp was the most important thing I did in my life. It was the place I found spirituality, and learned to be a decent person, to care about others, and to try my best. I also made a very close group of friends. There are six of us. (Nearly seven decades later) we still get together every year for the Parkinson’s Unity Walk in (New York City’s) Central Park.

Rachel Adams-Kaplan, 42

Rachel Adams-Kaplan at summer camp

In 1989, Camp Green Lane’s bunks were named after casinos. Adams-Kaplan (far right) was in Trump.

Courtesy Rachel Adams-Kaplan

When you’re at camp, you develop totally different relationships than you do at school. Even though it’s two months, and not 10 months, you are living with people, which is an entirely different beast.

Just being in the bunk with friends was my favorite part of camp — whether you’re putting on a lip sync, or doing each other’s nails. We used to have pretend weddings with all the girls, we would wrap our towels on our heads.

They serve the same meals now as it was when I was a kid. I would never eat this at home, but give me a camp sloppy joe with potato chips on top of it. I still eat turkey dogs to this day, and there was a meal called beef and bones. No 12-year-old girl is going to eat beef and bones.

I always wrote letters home. The first two letters were really homesick, “get me out of here.” And then there were a slew of letters that were like, this is the best thing ever. And then after that, you just don’t write home anymore. You’re immersed in camp culture and you really don’t care to tell anyone what’s going on.

We got packages. We weren’t supposed to have candy, so people learned to tape gum on the insides of magazines they sent. Or to take out the flashlight batteries and stuff some candy in there. They had to stop allowing packages in the last few years because it was too easy for parents to log on to Amazon and have it sent to camp. That many packages sent a day became too overwhelming for the tiny mail field office.

We used to call it color war, now they call it color days. They split the whole camp into green and white. It’s a competition; they wait for it all summer. If you find out you’re color captain — the night that they secretly pull you aside to tell you — it’s just as exciting as getting a college acceptance. It’s a real honor. It happened simultaneously for me and I remember being equally as excited about that as I was when I got into [University of] Michigan.

I don’t just keep in touch with my camp friends. We were in each other’s weddings. They’re the best friendships I have.

I want to acknowledge that summer camp isn’t accessible to all kids. So it’s a privilege to go. But it’s been hard on kids that can’t go this summer. It was pretty devastating for both campers and us parents. Not just because kids need to be outdoors and with other children, but it’s also hard to miss out on a summer of memories that you’ve been looking forward to.

Kyle and Blueberry Beeton, 42

Camp Mowglis

Kyle Beeton, seventh from right, front row, at Camp Mowglis.

Courtesy Kyle Beeton

Kyle: I went to Camp Mowglis from ages eight to 14, and then the summer after we graduated from Dickinson [College], my girlfriend, Blueberry, now my wife, and I worked there together as counselors. Coincidentally, Blueberry’s parents were counselors at Mowglis in 1967, when they graduated from college.

I started going to camp in 1986. It’s an all-boys camp, opened in 1903 and based on “The Jungle Book.” I have this memory of being homesick in the first week, but you’re so busy doing just the best stuff a boy could ever want — swimming, learning to shoot guns and bows and arrows, playing rugby, canoeing, woodworking and hiking. Tetherball was my favorite. At our camp, it was a tennis ball-sized soft ball, and the nets were handknit by a local lady.

Singing around the campfire was a really important part of the camp. It’s something that I’ve taken with me to my life today. I have a songbook, and I taught all our kids some of the songs. On rainy evenings, If we couldn’t have a campfire, we had an old eight-millimeter film reel and we’d all bring our sleeping bags and pillows.

Blueberry: What struck me when we were counselors that summer, was the amazing process of watching the boys overcome something that they were certain they could not do. We had a group of eight-year-olds who, for some, went swimming in a lake for the first time, and hiking and getting up early in the morning and making their beds. By the end of the summer, they were capable of doing these things. They go through this incredible growth, the revelation that, “I didn’t think I could climb that mountain, but I did it.”

Our three kids have been to the camp with us for reunions. The day that Kyle and I drove from Maine to Mowglis to start work, we spent the entire four-hour drive with Kyle teaching me the songs, singing them a capella to me in the car.

Jen Levi Gammill, 35

Camp Walden, Denmark, Maine

Camp Walden was the real-life inspiration for the camp in the 1998 version of “The Parent Trap.”

Courtesy Camp Walden

I started as a camper in 1994 when I was nine, and as a counselor in 2004, and then the head counselor, and assistant director in 2009.

One of the things that makes Walden special: It was founded by two women in 1916, in a time when women didn’t really own property. One of their brothers had to sign the land deed for them because they couldn’t buy land themselves. So they purchased this land and started a summer camp, and I think there were about 30 girls in that first summer. When they told their friends in New York that they were going to start this girls’ camp, some said, “What are you doing, you’re going to take care of 30 girls in the woods by yourself?” And they said, “Don’t be silly, we’re going to teach them to take care of themselves and each other.” And it’s true, we still do that.

I think we do a great job of teaching leadership, as I’m sure all camps do. It’s not me standing in front of kids telling them how to be a leader, It’s them looking up at the girls above them, year after year, and finally getting to a point where they can then pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

We’re right on the lake, in a really dense pine grove. It’ll be sunny and beautiful and you’ll be out waterskiing and then within five minutes, you’re in a crazy thunderstorm. I just remember running through the mud with pine needles splashing everywhere and getting cozy with your friends in the bunk to wait it out, playing cards. We don’t have electricity at Walden.

When I was younger, every Tuesday afternoon you got fudgesicles, and a lot of the campers would take Marshmallow Fluff and coat one side of the popsicle, and then flip it over and coat the other site with peanut butter for a decadent treat.

If you go swimming outside the swimming area you often get leeches, and we were taught to put salt on the leeches and they come right off. But about 20 years ago, some kid figured out that sunscreen works better, so anytime someone gets a leech, a kid will run and get sunscreen and pull it right off.

The final night of camp — looking back I kind of smile about it — but it was very miserable. We have all of the camaraderie and celebration, and then the campers stay up for a good chunk of the night. The buses would pull in at 4 a.m., and everyone is exhausted and sobbing. It’s so dramatic, the girls are all being pulled off each other and out onto buses. That’s my job — the hug and walk. Grab them and just walk with them and hug them and say, “I’m so sorry, we’ll see you next summer,” and put them on the bus. I remember there was one summer I had to prep the new counselors. I told them, this is a really traumatic experience. And that morning one watched me do this and said, “you are the meanest person in the world.” She compared it to the sinking of the Titanic.

Every five years we have a Walden reunion, when all of our alums are welcome back for three days. It’s really fun, we have a lobster meal, we sing all the old songs. These (virtual) campfires that we’ve been running this summer have been such a nice way to kind of rekindle that, as well. We’ve had a lot of women who were campers in the ’50s, and they’ve now just gotten in touch with some of their bunkmates after falling off the map. They’ve been on Zoom together, talking about their grandchildren, it’s been really very sweet.

The producer and the director of the movie “The Parent Trap” that came out in 1998 — their daughters went to Walden, so they based it on our camp.

There’s a slogan “Live 10 for two” and a lot of people feel that way. We feel that way too. So it was a hard decision to close camp this year, but it was the right decision. We’re doing weekly gatherings where the kids all come together over Zoom. In March, we started doing weekly campfires every Sunday night for campers and alumni, and we’ve had over 300 participants.

Sammy Darnell, 12, her brother Tyler, 8, and their mom Melissa

Sammy Darnell, 12, her brother Tyler, 8. Trail's End Camp, Beach Lake, Pennsylvania

Sammy Darnell, left, and Tyler, right.

Courtesy the Darnell family

Sammy: This would have been my second summer at Trail’s End. I loved last summer, it was the best experience ever.

Tyler: My favorite part of camp is the aquapark.

Sammy: I love s’mores night, and the cookies are the best treat.

Melissa: I actually tried to get the chocolate chip cookie recipe, but it’s top secret.

Sammy: We sent letters home, and got letters, but they don’t let you get packages.

Melissa: In Tyler’s letters, I would put a baseball card or two in the letter, and Sammy, some stickers, but there were no packages. I think that they also don’t want food because there are allergies, and then it’s, you know, a little keeping up with the Joneses, if one kid gets something … so I was happy not to.

Sammy: I really miss seeing my friends this year. We do Zooms once a week, and have, like, nine group texts.

Melissa: The kids have bigger smiles at camp and they just live more freely over the summer without any pressures of school or fitting in. They really mature and become independent people at camp.

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