“I want to go to overnight camp,” my eight-year-old self tells my mom. She was in shock. Send her only kid off to be taken care of by strangers? But she was supportive.
So on a sunny July day in 2000, my family drove me to a hockey rink in Markham, where school buses were waiting to take hundreds of kids up north, away from their parents – and their urban lifestyle – for three weeks. Fourteen summers at camp later, including six as staff, the rest is history.
Here are five reasons why I had a great time, and why your kid will too.
I didn’t know one person on that bus. But I was excited. My mom and grandmother were holding back tears. I don’t think I spoke to anyone the whole ride – I was a shy kid – but the nerves quickly disappeared. When we arrived at camp, we were greeted by these massive creatures called counsellors who formed parallel lines outside the bus door, cheering and tapping our little heads as we exited. That’s when the love affair began.
All of us seven, eight, nine and 10-year-olds huddled around a field. One by one, each of our names were called and we were placed in different cabins. About half the kids in my cabin from my second year ended up becoming staff, and I still keep in touch with some of them. And while friendships come and go, many of the ones I made at camp will last a lifetime.
Escaping the city
In the “real world,” change is rapid; at camp, everything seems a little bit stuck in time. There is nothing quite like gazing up at the stars every night, camping out at a spot on the lake and living without the Internet or air-conditioning.
During the postal strike of 2011, there was a brief panic: How would kids mail letters home? How would parents mail their letters to their kids?
Luckily, summer-camp technology is changing for the better in one regard: Many camps now post daily photo albums for parents and share updates on social media. Last summer, I was my camp’s media director – or in other words, the guy that helped calm parents’ nerves. So fret not, you’ll get to see your child’s smile on a regular basis.
Fending for yourself
“Dear Mom, I’m writing this so I can get tuck. Don’t miss you. Love, Arik.” (Tuck being the thrice-weekly snack we received once a letter home was mailed.)
Suffice to say I was enjoying my summer. But I wasn’t immune to homesickness. One year on visitors’ day, my family got lost on the drive and were one of the last to arrive. I remember pacing through the rows of cars, crying because every other kid was getting hugs, kisses and home-cooked meals.
When they finally did arrive, and after the hugs and kisses, they took one look at me and weren’t pleased: I was burnt to a crisp. My ears were like fried chicken and I had learned my lesson the hard way.
Camp brought me many firsts in life: my first kiss and my first favourite song (Bryan Adams’ Summer of ‘69). I learned how to canoe and I learned how to tip a sailboat – and then flip it back over. I became more outgoing and confident.
At camp you can dress up like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for the day and nobody would do a double-take. One of each day’s biggest worries is simply what lunch will be (and not that your clothes will inevitably suffer food stains).
My experiences at camp taught me things my mother or the school classroom never could. It taught me how to grow up without growing old.
It will stick with you forever
At the age of 22, this will be the first time in 15 years I am not spending my summer at overnight camp. Every year that I stayed, more and more camp friends moved on to working jobs in the city. Now I have done the same. But just because I’ve left doesn’t mean I won’t miss it.
Sometimes when I’m walking along a quiet dirt path at a city park, I close my eyes. I imagine walking down a different path, passing the wooden cabins and the tether-ball court. The smell of barbecue is in the air, bright red canoes are racked along the beach and dozens of campers and staff are swimming in the water. I am at Camp Northland, on Moose Lake, in the Haliburton Highlands. I am in Neverland.
So I want to sign my child up…
Convinced? It’s not too late to sign your child up. Many camps offer multiple sessions, which means you can send your child in late July or early August. Sessions can range anywhere from one week to the rest of summer. Some camps also offer trial weekends for first-time campers.
Here are a few resources to explore what overnight camp (or day camp, if you want to ease your child in) is the best fit:
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