Lauren R. Stevens: Ideally, the camps will rise again

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Cancelling this summer's sessions due to COVID-19 is only the most recent in a string of indignities suffered by summer camps. By "summer camps," I mean the real kind, sleeping in tents, tripping by canoe or on foot over the water and through the woods. I mean camps that have offered exposure to and respect for the natural world; camps that have played their part in creating an environmental ethic.

In the 1950s I attended a camp devoted primarily to canoeing the Allagash River in Maine. The camp, on Moosehead Lake, wasn't accessible by road and relied on a generator for power. The counselors had to turn off every light in order to have sufficient power to show the Saturday night movie. By my third river trip, these practicalities had already caught up with and closed the camp, but a couple of former counselors borrowed its canoes for a last paddle from Northeast Carry to Fort Kent.

College summers I was a counselor at Camp Keewaydin, on Lake Dunmore in Vermont, mostly leading canoe trips in the Adirondacks. In the dining hall hung the birch bark canoe that inspired John McPhee to write "The Survival of the Bark Canoe," 1975. McPhee, author of dozens of environmental books, was a camper and counselor there just before my time.

I sent children and grandchildren to a day camp, Sarsaparilla, in Pownal, Vermont and, as they grew older, to YMCA camps Becket and Chimney Corners, in Becket. Neither Keewaydin nor the local camps mentioned are open this summer, due directly to COVID-19.

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But changes over the past 70 years assaulted summer camps before COVID-19 temporarily stopped them. School summer vacations used to run more or less from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a period that easily allowed for six weeks of camp. Now both secondary schools and colleges encroach on one end or the other, affecting both campers and counselors.

With some campers and staff able to stay only for half the season due to school schedules, additional pressure comes from athletics. Many secondary schools and colleges came to begin sports practice sessions in mid or even early August. Again, the encroachment of what was once summer vacation affects both campers and counselors.

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Outdoors, camps have also faced increased competition over recent years from specialty camps. There may seem to be little real world pay off for canoeing Raquette River, whereas training with computers will clearly prepare for college and employment. Even sports camps may seem to have a more tangible reward. Soccer players do win college scholarships after all.

Then, of course, camps are hit by maintenance costs, insurance rates and health and safety regulations — all more stringent in recent years. We could consider water supply, which once may have been fairly casual: swim in the lake, take drinking water from the lake. But now water for swimming and water for drinking have to pass frequent and rigorous inspections.

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Camps must get along with their neighbors in areas growing more crowded. Keewaydin, for example, traditionally held a pre-breakfast skinny dip until someone a half-mile across the lake complained about indecent exposure. She maintained that our nudity offended her — through her binoculars.

Camps provide lessons in health, exercise and self-reliance. Let McPhee's inspiring writing stand for additional benefits of summer camps. The truth is that many important — and many more not-so-important — environmentalists caught the spark from their campfire while camping by canoe or on the trail. Call it camp; the best kind of. I hope camps will rise again.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens is a writer and environmentalist.


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