I loved summer camp; she hated it. How about you?

By Caitlin Kelly

It's hard to appreciate nature if you never spend much time in it
It’s hard to appreciate nature if you never spend much time in it

Here’s a recent rant from The New York Times by a woman who hated her time at summer camp:

Here is the truth: I hated camp. I hated camp so much, and continue to hate it and to resent the fact that I hated it, that I’ve come to develop a grand, if wobbly, theory about it. The world divides into those people who despised camp and those people who loved it. What about those who never even went? They would probably fall into either camp if they had.

People who like camp, naturally (that’s a key word in this divide) are different from me in every way. Campers are outgoing; they are out-everything, really — outdoorsy, outward bound. They dart through bushes without worrying about ticks or slugs or sharp metal objects hidden in the undergrowth. They enjoy getting undressed in front of large groups of strangers. They know how to throw and catch Frisbees. They don’t mind bologna.

I loved it, and here’s some of my first blog post about why, from 2009:

You learn to pick your bunk, preferably the lower one so you can draw your knees up and kick the bum of the kid above you. You hope the kid above you does not wet the bed, snore or have an epileptic fit.

You learn to hoist a sail, build a fire, portage a canoe, gunwhale bob (and pronounce gunwhale, “gunnel”), twang a bow, pitch a tent, collect firewood from the highest branches (using a Melamine mug and long rope swung like a lasso.)

You get homesick, and get over it. You discover you’re really good at the J-stroke or singing Broadway show tunes in the summer musical. You learn how to cup your hands and imitate a loon call.

You learn how to spot a loon across a lake before he dives deep and disappears. You learn to find your place in a new community, amid the bed-wetters and thumb-suckers, the jocks and the artistes.

You realize, no matter how poorly you might fit into your class or your school or your neighborhood or town or your family, these people are genuinely happy to see you. The best counselors, and they are gifts indeed, want to see you thrive and grow. Your shoulders drop a little with relief.

Camp is definitely a North American thing, and usually for people whose families have healthy incomes.

For me, it was also the place I put myself back together again — emotionally and intellectually — after yet another year in boarding school being yelled at by old, fat Scottish housemothers and competing all the time for grades. There, I was often in trouble, being messy and scoring low marks for our room’s neatness, which then required that I memorize Bible verses (yes) in order to even be allowed off campus for the weekend.

I attended summer camp for all eight weeks ages eight to 16, and went to three of them, all in northern Ontario, each about three hours by bus from my home city of Toronto. Each camp was all-girl, and one of the things it taught me is that smart, athletic, kind girls rock.

The counselors who took us out on 10-day canoe trips through Algonquin Park, battling rain and black flies, were female. They kept us alive!

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

I doubt I’d have been as comfortable in a Nicaraguan dugout canoe without it!

Competence was expected and excellence often the norm. Those are powerful lessons for any young girl.

If you come from a happy family, and/or have a safe, calm and lovely place to escape city smell, noise and humidity during the summer, camp isn’t probably very appealing.

But if you don’t, and also hunger for a place where all your talents can thrive — and the best camps do — it can be such a refuge.

It was for me. One reason I’m still so deeply comforted by nature is having spent so much time in it there: canoeing, hiking, sailing, swimming and living in a wooden cabin with the sound of the lake lapping on the rocks below. Sharing space with four or five or six girls I didn’t know was normal after boarding school.

And only in the safe harbor of camp was I able to fully become all the things I wanted to be: a singer, actress, sailor, friend, and even a leader of my peers. No school or classroom, anywhere, ever, allowed me such freedom, or gave me access to so many people who loved me, every year, for the quirky and creative kid I was, and would remain.

Camp gave me the confidence I might never have found elsewhere, and the guts to survive three years of high school bullying. I am grateful beyond measure for having had that experience.

Have you been to summer camp? Or your kids?

Love it or hate it?

40 thoughts on “I loved summer camp; she hated it. How about you?

  1. I went to summer camps nearly every summer till I was 16. I loved it, though some of it I could’ve lived without (especially the food, on certain days). I wouldn’t mind someday going back to my old sleep away camp. We’ll just have to see what the future holds.

    1. Then you know it well. I have no doubt that — when it’s enjoyable — camp shapes us in significant ways. I think adapting to a large group of strangers is useful training for the rest of your life!

  2. I went to 3 day camp only once when I was in lower seconary school. It was an outdoors, adventure-style camp, SO different to anything I’d ever experienced. We learnt to light fires, cook stuff in tin implements…hell, cook stuff period, got covered in mud playing soccer in a downpour, climb rope structures and go hiking and learnt to use a compass. I had never done any of these things before.

    This doesn’t sound like much to anyone else but Singapore is urban. Uber uber urban, uber uber convenient, and skills like that are of little/no use here, for kids from all socio-economic classes, not just the higher ones. Also, most of us us kids were extremely cotton-wool-swaddled. I am the only Singaporean I personally know who’s ever climbed a tree in their childhood (I got swarmed by red ants, fell out of it and spent a good few days putting on a brave face cause it would have been HELL if the folks found out).

    But I digress. Camp = a whole new world.

    Despite nature being freaking uncomfortable, it was great. The only thing I hated was the few hundred other kids there, but even that soon passed. In an unfamiliar environment, not only did I need them, they needed me too. This made everyone kinder and more accepting of one another.

    This changed the moment we went back to regular life, but wow was that an eye opener.

    Loved it.

    1. Thanks for this — what a great perspective! It’s so true that the skills you learn, and that I now take so granted (how to light a fire and pitch a tent, to name only two) are unique to that environment, but show you that we can enjoy the outdoors safely. I love having all those skills.

      I once climbed a very tall white pine. Love tree-climbing! It does not surprise me we have this in common. 🙂

  3. I have two daughters– my younger daughter would be happiest if she could live in a canoe somewhere in the middle of the Canadian shield — my eldest hated camp with a purple passion.

    1. Ooooh, can I go hang out with your daughter? We were just up in Ontario on vacation and stayed, once more, with friends on a lake there. That landscape is so ingrained in every Canadian. Group of Seven! On my last canoe outing in Quebec, just a brief paddle alone, I came close to a few beavers. It was amazing.

      Sorry the other daughter disliked it. But I can see why. For everyone who loves it there are people who loathe it with equal passion.

      1. My camp-lover did a 3-week wilderness trip last summer. This year she is doing 4 weeks of leadership training in August. Her hope is to be able to work at the camp after high school.

      2. But you’d live well — in a tent! 🙂

        I learned about NOLS when I worked at the North Face as a retail associate; several of my truly outdoorsy co-workers were hoping to study there.

  4. rich

    I think I was 10 and there was a night we all camped out overnight in the woods. Most of the time we went home overnight. The counselor in training and the junior counselor got drunk and urinated on everyone

  5. Jane

    I went to the same camp for years, progressing through Junior, Senior, then Staff in Training (SIT) and finally Staff. I loved it, and I think it shaped who I am. I was one of a family of seven (five kids, two parents); living in “white bread suburbia”, everyone I knew was just like me. In camp, the girls (it was an all-girls camp) came from diverse backgrounds. Camp was sponsored by the Anglican Church, although some kids were not Anglican. No one was turned away if capacity allowed. The Church sponsored kids whose families couldn’t pay, although none us knew who. Although I had a lot, I learned to be self-sufficient, and to “make do” with as little as possible. Even now, if something doesn’t serve at least two purposes, it doesn’t go in my suitcase or backpack. I excelled at canoeing, eventually teaching it when I became staff. I was better than average at swimming. I sucked at crafts, and was worse at music. I learned the world is made up of a variety of skills, and society is stronger for it. If everyone was like me, skit night would have been painful!

    1. Love this! I agree that you do come away with a very different notion of your own competences (if it’s a good camp).

      We should go canoeing sometime! I love it. Nothing is as soothing for me as that gurgle of paddle pushing water…

  6. it sounds like your experience at camp was wonderful, caitlyn. it taught you about life and living and offered a support system. i only went once, to horse camp, and it was a challenge, because everyone else had been going for years and knew each other so well. they easily fell into their own friendships and patterns, and being shy, i felt left out. if i had been more confident at the time, it probably would have made all the difference, and i would have reached out a bit more –

    1. It’s tough when you’re new, for sure. I was lucky enough to have gone to one camp for four years in a row, so got to really know some other girls, and counselors, well.

      The support system I found there was tremendous and I’d love to have it again! 🙂

      1. They exist, actually. I went to one on a story….and hated it! It was really just a meat market for singles. Club Med (still in existence?) is the closest thing I know of…I went to one and loved it.

      2. well, i guess i was envisioning more of a spa/yoga/hiking/writer’s retreat with healthy food and a bit of adventure tossed in. perhaps this is just in my fantasy world )

      3. absolutely, i think there is a big need for it, and a ready market. by the way, i just went out to my mailbox and found your book waiting for me there. i can’t wait to read it )

  7. I loved going to Camp Fire Girl so much I spent my summers in high school as a camp counselor and then got my BA in Outdoor Education to work in sixth grade camps. My own children had their own camp experiences but didn’t dive into them like I did.

      1. Like I have time?! 🙂 But, perhaps. Many important data points are not accessible using the Internet. That’s why — for the moment — reporters still have some marginal value.

  8. I loved camp despite my initial experience being very difficult (an older girl sat on my glasses and broke them and I had to go through the rest of the week blind – it didn’t even occur to me to ask for help about this, because I thought I’d be blamed for carelessness rather than supported – also this was way before the era of Lenscrafters or other quick glasses – there wouldn’t have been time to solve the problem before I’d have to go home). But I survived and then went to this same camp again the following year and loved it (a really different set of kids and counselors attended that time, I must say!).

    I also went to another all girl camp for 6 weeks of 2 summers in my jr. high years and found as you did that competence, kindness*, and excellence were prized. We had so many activities to choose from and could fill our days with interesting experiences. It was way more interesting than being at home. I loved it.

    *for the most part… but see below~

    At camp, I found my spots as a singer, weaver, artist, and rifle-shooter (got NRA awards – my parents were surprised at how much money I was spending on bullets), but I also managed to create a writing role for myself, documenting the feats of my “tribe.” The camp was heavily into what I later learned was labelled “color war” in the camp world – not skin color, but in our cases, we white girls were assigned to tribes with names of real Native American tribes. I was a Chippewa. I was also assigned to sing a song called “I’ll Be Dar” (I’ll be there) in blackface during one of the camp shows. (There were no Black people at this camp.) I didn’t really like this role, but did my best to “perform” since I had been assigned this part – although I didn’t like my part, being a “good sport” was supposed to be a virtue and I was trying to fit in. Thus we see how oppressive attitudes are forced into kids! I had no vocabulary or political consciousness to draw on to resist this at the time (1961 and 1962, before integration had become law and therefore reached my world). I worked hard later to rid myself of the confusion and racism laid in by such experiences.

    But similar minstrel shows were a feature of “entertainment” in the south during my growing up years. Outside of camp, in my hometown, there were yearly amateur variety shows where adult white men told jokes in blackface. This was all seen as normal although I remember thinking at the time that it was weird and not really that funny. But it sheds some light on why some stiff old white men now don’t understand why real Native people don’t like having a football team called Redskins! And why others of us also think it’s time to change that name. Sorry to get off the general subject of camp, but your piece pulled up all those memories! The supportive and the oppressive… I didn’t go back to camp the next year.

  9. Summer camp changed my life! I am recently engaged to a man I met at sleep away summer camp when I was 16 years old. I had my first (and last) smoke out there, my first beer and several of our closest friends were first introduced to us at camp. All the fun stuff aside, spending a week away from my parents every summer taught me that it was OK to leave. My sister never went and when she left for college she struggled. I’m convinced it is because I was used to being away for most of the summer.

    1. Congrats!

      I have spent so little time with my parents it feels normal to be away from them most of the time. I forget that it can be a huge struggle for others to separate and individuate.

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