by Marisa Ikert
“How can a few short weeks alter the course of a lifetime?” writer Dominique Browning asks us to consider. Her response? “Two words: summer camp.”
In her article “My Favorite Vacation: Summer Camp,” Browning reflects on her childhood summers spent at a French camp in Vermont in the ‘60s and ‘70s. These summers represent for Browning one of the great focal points of her life, shaping her identity growing up and revealing many of her life’s passions. So profound was the impact of her camp experience, Browning finds that the life she seeks and creates for herself as an adult still revolves around behaviors and values learned at camp: “Thinking back on this time,” she writes, “I realize that subconsciously, I’ve spent years working my way back to living as if I were still in summer camp.”
The specific camp experience Browning describes differs in many ways from what Canoe Island campers experience today: for example, dressing in uniform (and we don’t mean the inevitable sea of navy blue sweatshirts), performing French operettas (though maybe that’s something we should start?), and participating in activities definitely not in line with current safety standards. And yet, so much of what she shares rings true with those of us who have lived on Canoe Island, whether for two weeks or five summers or twelve years: cheering on teammates with encouragements in French, singing around a crackling campfire, getting to know counselors from France and around the world. Even beyond the special case of French camp, Browning articulates something more universal about the camp experience in general and its lifelong effect on children: camp is above all a place where you can push your own limits and discover new interests, belong to a unique community, and learn how to live in harmony with nature.
“What I learned at camp was that I love the absorption into a communal culture, with its structures and values, but that I also enjoy that as a springboard for testing my limits, and that engaging with the magic and beauty of our natural world is deeply meaningful, and comforting, to me.” —Dominique Browning
Many longtime participants in, and lovers of, summer camp often have a hard time explaining the magic of camp to those who have not experienced it. One old episode of the radio show “This American Life” actually features an entire hour of stories from camp in an attempt to “bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.” As Browning points out, so much of this particular “camp magic” comes from living in a unique community that feeds on both ritual and novelty. Canoe Islanders experience a strong sense of community by participating in traditions shared by generations of campers and counselors: dressing up as a peasant or a knight on theme day, yelling the call-and-response “Bon-a bon-a?” “–ppétit!” before every meal, preparing an act for the Spectacle de Jacques Martin, opening and closing each bedtime story with the words “Ah Mo.” Equally important to the sense of wonder and specialness at camp, though, are the new traditions we create and the one-of-a-kind moments that take us by surprise. I’ll definitely always remember the magnificent orca whale sighting from a few years ago, when whales swam alongside our shore and even encircled a small boat of staff members. Most of the memories that stand out to me from my years as a counselor, though, are smaller aspects of our quirky daily life: the time a tipi of boys created their own flag and led the camp in the anthem they had written, for example. Or the night Joseph made the whole camp root beer floats, which we enjoyed in the Maxim’s in our pajamas after regular bedtime, our hair still dripping wet from the fierce synchronized swimming competition that had just taken place. And I doubt I’ll soon forget feeding slimy strips of bull kelp through the pasta roller as our innovative forager chefs cranked out Canoe Island’s first kelp spaghetti dinner this past summer.
I first came to Canoe Island as a camper in 2007 and now in 2017, I’m still finding my way back to the island to help out or just visit whenever I have a pocket of time. My story is by no means unique; not only have so many campers and staff members returned to Canoe year after year, but alumni from all decades of the camp’s nearly-50-year history remain involved by attending family and adult events, serving on the board, donating to camp or referring family and friends. Ask any of them why, so many years later, summer camp is still a part of their lives and I bet you’ll hear echoes of Browning’s message: camp changes you. Camp is not just a vacation; it’s a way of life and a state of mind, and lessons learned at camp, whether explicit or implicit, are lessons we take with us for life.
At CIFC, when we gather each week on Inspiration Point, campers and staff are asked to reflect on what we have learned here and how that can impact our lives going forward: How can we make the world a better place? How can we take the community we have built at Canoe Island and form similar communities wherever we go? For those of us who take our mission of educating young people seriously, we believe that camp is not so much an escape from real life as it is a way of living real life, beautifully and simply. We know we’ve done our job as soon as we see our students—and ourselves—transforming into “grown-up camper[s] in the world, forever young enough to wonder at the mystery and magic and pleasure of it all."
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