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Camp is a Magic Place

Just when I thought I was back on track posting columns on a more regular basis… its been almost three weeks since my last column. Sorry.

Just when I thought I was back on track posting columns on a more regular basis… its been almost three weeks since my last column. Sorry.

I had intended to write one after getting back from Camp, but… life has this annoying habit of getting in the way.

In my last column — “Green Acres” — I mention how much I enjoy being out in the country, and how I would choose a rural life over living in the City, if I could.

Coming back from Camp only intensifies that feeling.

I have to admit, for as much as I love Camp, I just wasn’t getting into the mood in the days leading up to my departure. Then again, working practically seven days a week, and stressing over juggling bills and making ends meet probably didn’t help. 

I was packing the night before, still throwing stuff together that morning, and got to camp to find I had forgotten more than a few things. But…

Once I got to Camp, the stress just seemed to melt away. It’s an indescribable feeling, getting out of the van and breathing in that first lungful of fresh, pine-scented air. It's almost as though there was magic in the air.

It’s as if every care in the world just goes away, and the only thing that matters is being at Camp. Yeah, there’s a routine, and being the co-ordinator for the Arts Camp and the Chaplain, there were tasks to be done and things to organize. But it’s Camp!

A lot of people have very fond memories of their own summer camp experience. Many from the area have attended Camp McDougall over the past  50-some years, as well as other area camps such as Wakaonda, Galilean, Bil-o-Wood, Aush-bik-Koong, and John Island.

As well, many people worked — either as volunteers or paid staff — at these and other camps.

We tend to think of summer camp as being for the kids, and that’s as it should be: there are kid’s camps. But camp is not just for the kids.

If you’ve spent time at a camp, whether as a young person or an adult, you’ll know what I mean.

If you’ve never been to camp, I’ll try and explain it as best I can, but… it’s one of those things that is hard to put into words. There is something intangible about the camping experience.

First of all, it’s a community; it’s nothing like being at home.

Yes, there are Counsellors and other staff who supervise activities, and in a sense act as “parents” to the campers. But while the safety and well-being of the campers are of paramount importance to everyone there, they rarely act like parents.

It’s almost like boarding school. If, like me, you’re a Harry Potter fan, then you’ll understand the comparison. Your cabin is like your House, the Counsellors are the Prefects, and the Senior Staff/Activity Leaders are the Professors. The Camp Director and Programn Director are the Headmistress and Assistant Headmistress.

You are split into activity groups — classes — and everyone eats together in the Dining Hall. (The difference here is anyone can sit at any table, further enhancing the community aspect of camp.)

The kids make new friends, and are re-acquainted with friends from previous years. There a camaraderie that comes with being a part of camp. During the year a camper may run across a fellow camper, or a Counsellor or other staff — say, at the mall — and for a few minutes it’s like a class reunion.

Even years later, running into someone you went to camp with is a big deal. Sometimes, just seeing someone wearing a Camp McDougall t-shirt is incredibly uplifting.

Yes, camp is for the kids. The activities, the routines, the songs and games, the traditions. It all makes for a truly memorable and, in many cases, life-changing experience.

I don’t want to stereotype anyone, but you can tell when kids don’t have much in the way of chores at home. 

I don’t know if all camps work the way McDougall does, but our kids have chores to do. Each day Cabin groups are assigned one of four tasks:

Jumpers: are called to the dining hall 15 minutes before mealtime. There are one or two campers assigned to each table, depending on the size of the group. 

Their job is to set out the chairs, set the tables and deliver some of the food to the table (ie: veggie trays, juice and water jugs, etc). During the meal, if something is needed (more water) their job is to fetch it for their table.

At the end of the meal, they clear the table and wipe it down, and then stay behind to sweep the floor.

Lodge: if you haven’t been to Camp McDougall, you should know that our 33-acre property consists of about 30 acres of Canadian Shield granite, and 3 acres of sand. The Lodge must be swept daily.

Campfire: one Cabin group is assigned the enjoyable duty of planning the evening’s campfire. They select the skits and songs that will be performed, and will lead the group in these.

Grounds: one Cabin group is signed to police the grounds — picking up garbage, lost/dropped/left behind items, and generally trying to keep the camp’s appearance neat and tidy.

After supper, everyone gets to go back to their Cabin and clean it thoroughly: pick up clothes off the floor, put their stuff away as best the can, sweep the floor (3 acres of sand…) and perhaps spruce things up a bit with decorations and what-not to impress the staff who will judge the “Cleanest Cabin”.

The Golden Dustpan is presented every evening at Campfire.

And it’s not just the chores, either. 

Our activities stress co-operation and teamwork. Whether it is a Rec session, Swimming or Canoeing, Arts & Crafts, Music, Drama… whatever! campers are expected to show respect to one another — and this behaviour is modelled by the staff.

Chapel sessions obviously are an important time, too, and where there is the greatest opportunity to address the issues of being a community and caring for one another.

It’s interesting to watch the progression during the week. We start off with a mix of old-hands and newbies, and routines take a day or so to establish. But it isn’t long before you start to notice the change…

• Campers asking for something to be passed to them at the table, rather than just reaching for it.

• Manners become much more obvious, not only at mealtime but during activities and generally throughout the day.

• Empathy develops, as campers learn to respect each other and try to put themselves in another’s place.

I’ve watched as campers have noticed another who seems a bit shy, not really participating in an activity, and who have invited the individual to join them.

I’ve watched as a camper goes to sit and talk with another who seems upset or withdrawn.

I won’t say there is never any teasing, nor that there aren’t cliques that form. But the staff does an excellent job of being aware of these and nipping things in the bud,  encouraging more positive and inclusive behaviour.

I’ve seen campers arrive at Camp shy and reticent, trying their best to stay on the periphery of things, only to find themselves getting more and more involved to the point where, on the last day, they can truly say they enjoyed camp.

As I said, for some, it can be a life-changing experience.

A fair number of our campers are referred by various social service agencies, and are children who really need the time at Camp. They may be in foster care, or may just have a tough home life.

Once they are at Camp, they find they are the same as every other kid there; they find that they can just go ahead and be a kid and enjoy themselves with the others.

The hard part for me, with these kids, is that you’d like to see them come back the following year, but often most the agency has a limited budget and there is a waiting list of kids who want to come to Camp.

Still, I know we’ve given every camper the best possible experience we could, and I believe it is a memory that will last them a lifetime.

I mentioned earlier that camp is not just for the kids.

The young people and adults who work at Camp — again, whether as volunteer or paid staff — receive as much benefit from their time at Camp as do the children.

As with the campers, staff run into each other in the mall or elsewhere, and have a mini-reunion.

Again, years later, it only takes a picture on Facebook, or someone wearing a t-shirt or even just mentioning Camp McDougall, and others will chime in with their own memories of their time at Camp.

Almost everyone I know who has ever worked at a camp has wanted the experience to last forever. But almost everyone eventually has to “find a real job” and can only treasure the memories of their time at Camp.

We’re at the point now, fifty-plus years down the road, where children and grandchildren of former campers and staff are attending Camp. Not all the original buildings remain, but many of them are able to find their parents’ or grandparents’ names written on the inside walls and ceilings (not sure how those names got on the ceilings, since climbing the rafters is not allowed!) on the ones that were there “back in the day.”

We often have parents dropping kids off and saying, “Yeah, I remember coming here when I was a kid.” It’s neat to watch a parent giving their first-time-camper kid a tour of the camp, and then listening to them commenting on what has changed, and not changed, over the years.

Of course, being at Camp for a number of years has its poignant moments, too. Watching as a camper gets out of their vehicle and you recognize them as someone who has been coming for several years, and seeing how much they’ve grown makes you pause for a moment — and even more so when that camper returns as a staff member.

There are a lot of things a person can do in their lifetime that has a huge impact on a child, and working at a summer camp is most definitely near the top of the list.

Again, you all know I’m a big Harry Potter fan. And while I will acknowledge that the magic described in Harry Potter is make-believe, I am certain that there are two forms of “magic” that are very, very real:

Music, and Summer Camp.



But… that’s just my opinion.