By Michelle Annette Tremblay
If there’s one gift I want to give my children this year, it’s the gift of camp. There are few things as Canadian or timeless as summer camp. Days spent swimming, sailing, playing tetherball, catching snakes; evenings around the camp fire with friends, singing favourite songs. It’s a tradition that spans generations. And it’s needed more today than ever.
“I have lots of bold claims, but I really think summer camp makes you a better person,” says Andrew Martin, better known as Marty. He should know. He’s a lifer.
Marty started as a camper, spending his summers learning to paddle a canoe, roll a kayak and start a fire. Like so many city-kids, he fell in love with the wilderness and freedom of camp, and returned, summer after summer, to play, learn, and connect with his camp friends. When he entered his teen years, he followed the leadership stream, graduating to camp counsellor, and then gradually moving into management. Fast forward a couple decades and Marty is now the director of Camp Can Aqua on Beaver Lake, just west of Bancroft. His whole life has been camp, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I bet if you polled the fifty most successful people in Canada, most of them would cite summer camp as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives,” says Marty. He’s preaching to the choir. I’m not exactly a lifer like Marty. But I went to camp as a kid, too, worked at one as a teenager, and have often thought about what a profound effect it had on me. My can-do attitude? Collaborative approach? Independent spirit? They all had their infancy at camp. And my old camp friends? We’re still in touch thirty years later. They are coaches, bloggers, business leaders, nutritionists, educators, athletes, designers, engineers, explorers … And I think Marty’s on to something. I’m confident every one of them would agree camp had a profound effect on the trajectory of their lives.
If you didn’t go to camp as a kid, I’m truly sorry. You missed out on that one. (Keep reading though, you may have a chance yet!)
Three decades later, I still remember the feeling of shuffling along a dark trail with my friends after campfire — June bugs and the milky-way all around us — as we followed the bobbing orbs of our flashlights back to the cabin. Our voices and hearts were giddy, despite wobble-tired legs.
My first week away from my parents was at camp. And my first time sailing. And my first crush. More than any of those things though, my first real taste of independence was at camp. It was my first job. My first full summer away. My first hesitant step out. And I was confettied in wholesome, goofy, adventurous, BFFs-forever support.
It makes sense that there are several summer camps dotted throughout Hastings County. We’re surrounded by lakes and trees, and perfect places to climb, run, and glide. Can Aqua is respectably middle-aged, having been brought to life in the 1980’s by late Director Louis Gyori. Others like Cedar Ridge Camp in McArthur Mills are relatively new, established within the last dozen years or so. And then there are the old oaks, like Camp Quin-Mo-Lac, on Moira Lake, which has been in operation for nearly 70 years. This year, in fact, Quin-Mo-Lac is celebrating the 100th birthday of Lloyd Shorten, one of the camp’s original founders.
But even though they were established in different decades and offer different activities, most of the summer camps in Hastings are focused on one core principal: helping young people thrive — both campers, and teenaged staffers. A big part of that equation is providing the right ecosystem for socialization, sense of purpose and happiness. And that ecosystem is decidedly devoid of smart phones and ipads.
Talk to any child psychologist and they’ll tell you that kids aren’t just addicted to screen-time; they’re overdosing on it. According to a survey commissioned for Participaction in 2015, Canadian children under twelve years old spend almost eight hours per day in front of a screen. That’s forty hours a week, the same as a full-time job. Research shows that too much digital and social media use is associated with depression and anxiety in young people, as well as decreased empathy and difficulty socializing and having authentic interactions.
“Camp is one of our last frontiers of our connection not only with nature, but also with each other,” says Marty. “I know every Fortune magazine says you have to put your kids into computer programs if you want them to be successful, but a lot of people miss the obvious; the obvious is that kids don’t know how to talk to each other anymore, they don’t know how to socialize, they don’t know how to play, and it’s because we’re accidentally taking that away from them by giving them so many opportunities to engage and busy their minds without interacting with other people.”
Parenting Practitioner, Echo Featherstone, agrees. It may seem ironic that she’s warning us about social media, given that her own brand, Modern Parenting, is completely web-based and was recently named one of the most influential parenting pages on social media. But Featherstone is a realist. She urges parents to accept that their kids are going to have online lives. It’s unavoidable in this day and age. But, while there are many benefits to digital literacy, it’s also important to set limits and to discuss the importance of screen-free-time.
“Kids long for interaction and connection, but it can be hard for them to grasp the vital difference between hanging out with friends online, and hanging out with them in person,” explains Featherstone.
“As parents we know there are some moments and memories that you just can’t make online. You can’t get uncontrollable, contagious giggle-fits from a ‘like,’ and you certainly can’t experience the butterfly feeling of holding someone’s hand by sending a heart emoji. We need to teach our kids that hanging out with friends online is a super convenient form of communication, but we also need to have real, face to face interactions.”
Marty says he’s definitely seen an increase in anxiety in people — kids especially, when they’re away from their screens or phones. He’s witnessed it first hand over the past twenty years. In the traditional summer camp environment, kids are away from their devices for weeks at a time. At the beginning of a week-long session, many campers yearn for their smart phones. At least once per session someone tries to smuggle one in and hide it, but within just a few days, they start to adjust. They find physical things to do. They discover shared interests with their cabin-mates. They relearn how to goof off. They make bracelets and learn new skills. And they form epic friendships.
My own kids have been fortunate enough to spend time at both Camp Can Aqua and Cedar Ridge Camp, and they literally can’t get enough. At the end of last summer, they were so disappointed that camp was over, that we signed up for Camp Can Aqua’s Family Camp over the Labour Day long weekend (and we will be attending Cedar Ridge’s family camp this year.)
Family Camp was very much like regular summer camp: we had a rustic cabin with bunk beds. We ate our meals in the dining hall with all the other families. We signed up for daily activities like sailing, arts and crafts and archery. I only looked at my phone once per day. Neither of my kids mentioned Minecraft all weekend. My daughter discovered that she loves, loves, loves playing in the mud, and it turns out my son is a paddle boarding natural. It was perfect. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was that relaxed and joyful.
Cedar Ridge and Quin-Mo-Lac also offer shoulder season stays. Cedar Ridge partners with groups like North Hastings Community Integration Association (NHCIA) to offer programming for neurodivergent kids, and is rented out for yoga retreats, church groups, weddings and reunions. The converted resort (with an amazing fireplace and lake view) is fitted with every comfort, but also has a ropes course, horse-back riding, mountain biking trails, and a pristine lakefront perfect for water sports.
Quin-Mo-Lac is open for school groups in the spring, traditional summer camp through July and August, and then during the fall and winter. It’s often rented out for the weekend. So, if you are one of those poor souls who missed out on camp as a kid (sorry!), don’t fret; it may not be too late for you after all. There are adult camps and family camps in the shoulder season.
“We keep our roads open all winter and rent out the camp,” says Quin-Mo-Lac Director, Trevor White. “Hobby groups love coming up and having the whole camp to themselves. It’s amazing how rejuvenating it is being in a remote space on the water where you can unwind.”
So, here’s to summer 2018! Here’s to starry nights and sunny days. Cannon balls and nature hikes. And if you can’t actually get yourself to camp, at least leave your phone inside, and head out of doors for a while. Let yourself get lost in a hobby. Canoe across the lake. Teach a kid how to build a fire. Roast some marshmallows. Getting outside is good medicine for all ages.