The Infinite Value of Summer Camp

Summer camp. Quite simply,the best place on earth. I am who I am today because of summer camp, because of the friends I met there, because of the trust and faith placed in me there, because of all it’s infinite awesomeness.

Camp Kawabi Female Staff of 1998 sing at talent night.

I remember being dropped off my first summer for a two week stint at the ripe young age of six. I also recall clear as anything crying my cute little buck-toothed head off that I had to leave at the end of those two short weeks. I didn’t want to go home.

So the next summer (at age 7) I was shipped off for a month and thus began my career as a “July Camper”. I met amazing women who are friends to this day. I learned to water ski, canoe, build campfires, to portage, and to drink water from a paddle. I read Archie comics and shaved my legs for the first time. I had crushes on male counselors, looked up to and idolized the female ones, and I ate excessive amounts of cinnamon butter.

Being a “July camper” meant spending the entire month of July in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands at the now closed (tears!) Camp Kawabi. When I was done as a camper, I was lucky enough to come back as staff and spent five entire summers there, two as AC (assistant counselor) and three as C (counselor). In my time as staff my friendships with incredible people flourished, we helped each other grow up, become the people we are today.

I will never forget the first out trip as a full fledged ‘C’ at the age of 18. Me, along with my young AC, paddled away from camp with our group of eight 14 year old girls and as I turned around to look back at camp it dawned on me, “holy shit – the lives of all these people is my responsibility!” Holy shit indeed. The weight of that has never left me. I am, to this day, in awe of Skip and Nish (our camp owners/directors) and the faith they placed in people so young, like me. I wonder, do they know the value this faith has had on our lives and careers? I hope they do.

As staff I was head of waterfront, I taught swimming, water skiing, and canoeing. I remember who taught me to water ski – it was Fozzy. And I’m glad somewhere out there there are kids who remember Femur (that’s me) taught them to swim, to canoe, to water ski, and to sing loudly.

Camp Kawabi waterfront circa 1999

The trust placed in me as a counselor at summer camp had a profound impact on me and my confidence. And yet, looking back now I realize that trust was there from the moment I stepped foot onto camp ground as kid. We were all there without our parents, without the stability of home, or rooms with doors that closed. We had to get ourselves up, dressed, and to meals on time. We had to get ourselves to activities, participate, and play nicely with others. We had to try new things, learn new skills, and fail along the way. We had to live in tents with up to nine other people, and eat our meals with close to two hundred. As a young camper we were encouraged to be independent, to carve our own path, to be ourselves. We had to get our forest feet. Who you were (or pretended to be) in the city didn’t matter. Because camp is where it got real.

Each spring as it gets close to ‘camp time’, I itch to pack up my trunk, gather up milk crates (they do make the best of storage really!), and go to camp. I long to spend the summers in a canvas tent on a wood platform. To wake with the ‘morning bell’ and eat off melmac dishes. I long to drink ‘bug juice’ (basically kool aid) made in a giant garbage pail for easy scooping with our jugs. I long for yet another lip sync to Grease, and to run around playing buckets and squares. I long for dances in Squamish (our lodge in the woods) where everyone danced with everyone, we got sweaty, sang out loud, and danced like no one was watching.

day off shenanigans

And while I can’t go back, I am ever grateful to camp for the friends I made there. My camp friends are all over the place, yet never far away. These are people who are perfect in my eyes. Not because they are perfect (who is!), but because they are real. Whether it is weeks, months, or even years between our visits it is as though we saw each other yesterday. Camp gave us each other, but it also gave us so much more.

Then and now. Kyzmet, Frakus, Fro, Femur, and Twizzler.

I have lived a spoiled and blessed life, but the single greatest gift my parents ever gave me was those summers at camp. It was a gift of gifts. The gift of camp allowed me to become my best me, to gain confidence, to work well in teams, to make effing epic pancakes over an open fire, and to form meaningful friendships that will last a lifetime.

I recently popped on the Camp Kawabi Facebook group, filled with former staff and campers, and asked “If you could sum up the gift of camp in one word, what would it be?” and the response was overpowering and inspiring.

Words like empowering, friendship, independence, freedom, belonging, community, family, love, everlasting, home, laughter, and acceptance came up many many times (there were almost 100 comments). It was a great discussion and brought up so many great memories and sparked a fire of gratitude in my belly for all that camp has given each of us.

Recently, in that same group, there have been ‘reunion’ photos of staff and campers from all generations getting together with ‘their crew’ – a true testament to the strength of friendships built at camp. (It really is crazy to think at only 39 years young, I have known some of these women for over 30 years! Now that is a life blessed.)

Here’s our ‘crew’ at a recent axe throwing party. We dressed up, as any good camper does.

Archery period at Camp has got nothing on Axe throwing!

So now that I’m all teary and nostalgic for the good old summer camp days, I’ll leave you with some songs that will always take me back to camp. Honestly, the list of music I associate with camp is crazy long. There aren’t enough mix tapes to capture them all.

8 Comments

  1. by Robin Richardson on May 10, 2017  12:23 pm Reply

    that was truly beautiful and inspiring, I am crying thinking of all the joy and memories Kawabi gave me, things I will never forget. Thank you for writing this and sharing. I was a camper (month of July as well) from the time I was 6 till 13 - I regretfully never became a councillor - makes me sad to this day that I didn't continue on...damn me for being a rebellious teenager.....Robin

    • by Heather on May 10, 2017  12:34 pm Reply

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment and for reading Robin:)

  2. by Susan on May 10, 2017  8:12 pm Reply

    once a camper, always a camper.
    You won't recognize my name because I was a Calumet camper (down the road from Kawabi and also now closed) but I was one of those parents who trusted you with my kids. When I dropped them off their first summer in 2001, I hoped they would like camp as much as I did and you and your fellow counsellors delivered on that hope. The first words we heard when we picked them up were "can I come back for a month next year?" And many years followed.
    The best way to re-live camp as an adult is to send your kids to experience it for themselves.

    • by Heather on May 11, 2017  8:11 am Reply

      thank you so much for reading Susan:) So glad you too got to experience the joy of summer camp:)

  3. by Linna Chercover on May 11, 2017  11:15 am Reply

    Hello! Long time. Very nice article, Heather! You have reminded me of so many of my own Kawabi memories. That cinnamon butter was the best! I was a late start camper (only willing to try out overnight camp at age 14!) so I only had 2 incredible years at Kawabi. I am so grateful that I finally tried it out as the experience is one that I cherish. My daughter is reluctant to go at the age of 9 which I totally understand but I can only hope she will come around in the next few years. The infinite value that you have described is one that you cannot get from any other place. Thanks for sharing : )

    • by Heather on May 11, 2017  11:35 am Reply

      Thank you so much Linna:) I hope your daughter gets to experience camp sometime soon:) tell her I'll gladly go in her place:)

  4. by Nicolas Bayley on May 11, 2017  12:53 pm Reply

    Well look at this. I applaud the kind words and inspire blog. I am still best friends with many from that camp, 20 years later. Just incredible. All the very very best Heather.
    Hope our paths cross again.

    • by Heather on May 11, 2017  2:17 pm Reply

      ditto! although I do enjoy following all your adventures on Instagram:)

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