At Camp K, the year a camper turns ten and becomes an Explorer brings with it an amazing new opportunity: Campout. Twice a summer the Explorer campers and staff create a tent city and wait for night to come. Over the years, things have changed – fewer scary stories, haunted walks, night raids… the list goes on.
Hey, I get it. Darkness can be a scary place. When I was a wee guppy, it was turning the lights off and running up the basement stairs as quick as I could so the shadows didn’t follow me up to the safety of the main floor. And then I remember camp. I remember being woken up by my counsellors and our cabin being led out to a field to try to count the innumerable stars in the sky. I remember listening to acoustic guitar around a campfire, the flames lighting only the people sitting there so that it felt as though the world had shrunk to just those people and the music. Or hearing the gentle lapping of water on the shoreline rocking you to sleep. Nighttime and darkness hold some of the best memories of my childhood. Now, they hold some of the best memories of my burgeoning adulthood. Nature seems so much more awake out of the prying, busy activity of people during the day. People, too, become more relaxed and nostalgic. The conversations that bring you closer to friends, new and old – the conversations about life, love, and fear – tend to expand with the moon rising higher in the sky.
I have to wonder – would my appreciation for this most magical part of the twenty-four hour clock be as strong as it is without the influence of camp? Would I still get nervous putting the lights out had I not spent so many nights wrapped in a sleeping bag under nothing but a thin layer of vinyl? Would I love the work of Guillermo Del Toro as much as I do, been as inspired by it, if I hadn’t been able to hear, laugh at, and tell the stories of the monsters my counsellors made up to explain the odd sounds around the camp? Perhaps, but the memories of facing my fears and doing so with the greatest support system of friends and professional adventure makers (camp staff), are SO worth the couple of nightmares and one or two homesick letters. Every frightening moment was followed with laughter at camp. Every nervous chat and request for a tearful phone call home was met with compassion and the suggestion of trying for just a little bit longer. Each experience that I had when I was young has prepared me to take on the fears of this next generation. My campers know – as do my staff – that I will not sleep if I am needed. They know that if they get scared at four in the morning, I will be opening my tent before they even get the chance to knock or whisper “Dorii” into the night. I will be there to help them learn to quell their worries and I will be there to encourage them to make it through this night, and the next one, and the one after that, until they are ready to allow themselves to enjoy it.
No, this year we won’t be telling stories that keep campers eyes open all night. We won’t jump out from the shadows at them. It is not the goal of a camp counsellor to make the night a scary place. It is our role to show each camper the magic that comes when the night is still. To help them see just how beautiful darkness can be. To allow them to make friends with the monsters under their bed – because we never know what incredible stories those monsters could have to tell. Don’t judge a Sasquatch by its feet – isn’t that what we’ve all been told?
Parents: I have a favour to ask of you. When registration opens in just a few months, please don’t skip over the campout weeks because you’re nervous your child will be scared. Consider the opportunity that that fear allows. A chance to face it, own it, defeat it, with the most supportive staff around. I once had a camper who had never successfully slept outside before – possibly not even away from home – who came to camp on Campout day rather nervous. This camper fully expected that they would be returning home that night defeated by their fears. But together we walked through the route from their tent to mine, discussed steps to take, made a foolproof plan. I was there, yes, a comforting voice each of the times this camper awoke. But they alone conquered that massive roadblock. No phone calls home, no parents coming to pick them up. That camper made it to morning – likely more tired than they would have been at home. They said to me in the morning that they weren’t proud of themselves, that they had still been scared, so it wasn’t a victory. I could hardly hide how delighted I was with their achievement and was shocked at this response. We don’t have to be without fear in order to have conquered one. The absence of fear means nothing. The victory comes from having that fear, knowing it’s still there in the back of your mind, but it exists as a mere “what if”, and you do the thing anyway. That camper will make an incredible counsellor one day, should they like to become one, because they know what it is to be afraid and make it through anyway. To be clear – had this camper really wanted to go home, I would have gladly made that phone call. Who am I to say that sleeping outside was something they wanted to do? Camp will not make you do something you aren’t okay with doing. Camp will provide the means to do something you have always wanted to do. If that something is staying until the campfire this year, instead of leaving after dinner, then we will help with that.
And you know, setting up a tent in the back yard, popping some popcorn and watching a movie on Netflix while still connected to your own Wi-Fi counts, too. Actually, maybe we should all do that – it sounds pretty fun. And it will give us all a bit of practice before the summer rolls around. Though maybe wait until the spring birds return? Even in your back yard, winter camping is best left up to the experienced adventurer.
Until next time,