If you picked up the July/August issue of Yankee Magazine, I hope you took time to peruse the photo essay, “Summer on the Lake,” in which Richard Schultz captured the essence of lakeside living in a stunning array of photographs. I certainly did and was intrigued not only by the images, but also the description of Little Wohelo camp, and the connection people who had been campers there 20 to 30 years earlier still felt to it. That led me to wonder: what would it be like to return to the camp where I had spent several weeks over six of my childhood summers?
I picked up the phone to call the YMCA Camp of Maine in Winthrop to ask if I could drop by for a visit, and the staff was kind enough to agree.
As my husband Jim and I rolled down the dirt road that would lead us to the heart of Y camp early Monday morning, half forgotten memories that had taken place on the very ground we were traveling over began to resurface. Here I was returning to the place where I had learned to swim, sail, throw pottery, and, perhaps most memorable of all, curse in French. And then the questions started: Would Y camp look the same viewed through the eyes of an adult, and would I feel the kind of connection described by Little Wohelo alumni? How does this generation of campers, raised in an electronic age, react to goofy songs about fleas and old farmers? Would the moose be there to silently greet me when I entered the dining hall as he had countless times back in the 80’s? And what about camp food – did it still taste like, well, camp food? With camera in tow, we went in search of the answers.
Executive director Barry Costa and arts & crafts director Ruth Eastman were on hand to lead us through the morning festivities: to the chapel for the daily message; the waterfront for the raising of the flag and a bit of song and dance;
the dining hall for breakfast, where we learned the food had come a long way from the fare they were serving the summer that I lived on peanut butter and honey sandwiches; and then off for a quick tour around the campus before sending us out to trail after campers engrossed in what they would surely one day remember as life-enriching activities.
Amid the activity buzzing around us, I had a chance to chat with Barry about the evolution of the camp. I was curious about how it was possible for the buildings and grounds to appear as though frozen in time, which, it turns out, is by design. Structural work and improvements had been painstakingly disguised in an effort to maintain the familiar, nostalgic feel of the camp setting.
Perhaps it’s that familiarity that beckons former campers to reconnect with Y camp by enrolling their own children as campers, joining the board, and attending alumni events. Former camper and counselor turned board member, Newell Augur, told me that he was compelled to get involved because of the formative moments he’d enjoyed there and the values they’d instilled in him – responsibility, independence and the importance of interpersonal relations – and felt it was important that future generations of children be afforded that same opportunity.
Values are still a high priority at Y camp, and more noticeable than any physical changes, was the way in which staff and counselors alike interacted with their charges. Gone were the days that Barry referred to as the “competition era” when fierce Abenaki/ Penobscot tribe rivalry was used to coerce campers into behaving.
Now all that’s required to gain the attention of boisterous children is an outstretched hand formed in the sign of the buffalo (thumb and pinky finger pointed upward and other three fingers closed), and the chatter stops immediately.
Behavioral strategies aside, very little had changed in the time since I had last roamed the trails of Y Camp. Swimming, boating, arts & crafts, and basketball are all as popular today as they were 20 years ago.
The songs were new and unfamiliar, but they were sung with as much enthusiasm as they had ever been. The faces have all changed, but the spirit remains the same, and kids still embrace this time-honored rite of passage with wild abandon. And while the sign of the buffalo is enjoying its heyday, the moose remains a fixture that will live on in the collective memory of children and adults alike.
As we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the car with the sound of children’s laughter ringing in our ears, I felt that old familiar tug. This was the still the camp I so loved in my younger years, and though not twelve anymore, it was comforting to be able to return if only for a brief visit.
See more photos from my return to summer camp.
For more info on YMCA Camp of Maine, visit www.maineycamp.org/