Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Summer 2013
5 AM. There was a biting chill in the air at the edge of a wood-planked pier on Catalina Island. But fighting against common sense, I dove into an even more frigid Pacific. Every nerve ending was jolted to attention as a rush of exhilaration forced my limbs to move, propelling me toward the sandy shores of Camp Fox.
What would compel me, a kid more than 30 years ago, to go “polar bearing?” Peer pressure? Maybe. Stupidity? Probably. The pure rush of mad fun? Most definitely.
It was summer. I was at camp. And I was going to make the most of my week away from my parents. The expectation of making new friends, enjoying nature and having fun was a given. Little did I know that I would also be educated there: learn new skills, build self-confidence and be inspired to become a better person. This masked learning occurred with each successive camp, whether it was a traditional outdoor activity camp, Girl Scout camp, gymnastic camp or church camp, I grew, transforming for the better.
Megan McDuffie, in her 11th year of being a volunteer or camp director at YMCAs Camp Whittle, reflects on her experience there. “It’s powerful to see kids who came in through camp, giving back to the community… In an unplugged environment, it’s valuable to get back to nature while connecting with other campers.”
And for the last 152 years, children in America have been experiencing the multi-faceted thrill of overnight camps.
In 1861, an educator and abolitionist with Christian values, Fredrick William Gunn and his wife, Abigail took a group of children camping. The youth from “The Gunnery,” the Gunn’s school in Connecticut, went on a 10-day “Civil War-inspired training” that included swimming, fishing, hiking and boating. About 30 boys and 12 girls participated in the trip that would ignite a camping movement, making Gunn the “father of recreational camping.”
In the 1870s, the Gunn’s continued camp at Lake Waramaug. In 1874, the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) opened a camp for girls who needed rest from their non-stop working conditions, while a couple private camps sprang up in 1876 and 1881.
The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in New York opened Camp Dudley in 1885, the longest continually operating camp in the United States.
By 1902, Camp Kehonka for girls was founded in New Hampshire by Laura Mattoon, teacher and creator of bifurcated clothing for girls so that they could move more freely outdoors.
Eleanor Eells, social worker, camp advocate and camp historian, said of Mattoon in her 1978 publication Eleanor’s Vignettes, “She understood well the place women were to occupy in the twentieth century and the many ways in which the camp experience could be a preparation. Her ideas about camping education, and women’s role were in advance of her time.”
The LA YMCA started its first summer resident camp in 1912. In 1914, after the South Pasadena YMCA (later adding San Marino to its name) was founded, campers from the new Y joined the LA camp.
In addition to traditional camp activities like horseback riding, kayaking, archery and a ropes course, unique to the Y’s camp is the rag program of setting personal goals, which also began in 1914 by Thomas Caldwell.
“Ragging” a friend meant bestowing one of various bandana-like colored cloths around a person’s neck as an outward symbol for an inward commitment toward betterment. Lorenzo Frias, a Freshman at South Pasadena High School and on the leadership track at Y camps said, “It’s an amazing experience. It changes you. I even have a friend with anger management issues who just changed. He became nice!”
In 1910, the same year Boy Scouts of America and Camp Fire USA began, Alan S. Williams founded the Camp Directors Association of America, known today as the American Camp Association (ACA), standardizing camp quality for safety, staffing, health and programming.
The ACA helped take camps to a new level of excellence. “Educators are at the core of the camp community, professionalizing the field and raising the professional caliber,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.
Today, there are nearly 200 overnight camps in California (162 are ACA accredited) and close to 2000 nationwide (1,636 are ACA accredited). That’s more than 14,000 sessions in all!
Along with local traditional camps, like Catalina Island Camps (since 1922) and the YMCA’s Camp Whittle (since 1958), there are also popular interest group camps like Camp Cherry Valley on Catalina Island for Boy Scouts (since the 1920s), Winacka Girl Scouts camp in San Diego (since 1974) and a nondenominational Christian camp at Forest Home in Forest Falls (since 1938).
Currently, the colorful palate of sleep-away camps is mind-boggling. One can choose among an in exhaustive list of camps centered on: every imaginable sports activity, art, science, language and cultural experiences.
There are even technology camps that focus on computers, programming, iPads, iPhones, gaming and game design (internaldrive.com); then to rehabilitate from too much technology use, there’s a ranch and rustic living camp (jamesonranchcamp.com).
Some unique experiences include: secret agent, girl power, Hollywood stunt, rock star, flying trapeze, extreme action, fashion, DJ, broadcast, culinary camps and more (paliadventures.com). Or if astronomy and space exploration are a passion, there’s Astro Camp (guidediscoveries.org).
I don’t remember all the things I did at the many camps I attended, but I do remember my awe of nature, a force bigger than myself. I remember the people and how they influenced the way I felt about myself.
There were crazy fun counselors who did ridiculously silly things like rinse into a cup only to pass it on for the next counselor to do the same. There were campers who told scary stories about bores that would gore us in the night if we stepped out of our cabins and bees that could spit blinding poison into eyes. And there were “friends” who made me ask a boy to dance, leaving me humbled by the trauma of it even now.
I learned silly songs I can still recite perfectly today. I relaxed on logs, doing nothing but cultivate deeper friendships. The saturated weeks I spent with people proved to draw them closer than years of casual interactions. And if they asked me again to jump into ice-cold waters in the middle of the ocean, I just might do it.
Resources for local camps: camppage.com, kidscamp.com, ymcala.org
Special thanks to Stephanie Yuen at the South Pasadena/San Marino YMCA and Kim Bruno at the American Camp Association for contributing to this story.
History of camp credits: connecticuthistory.org, acacamp.org and summercamphandbook.com