Summer Camp: An American Tradition

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Author, traveler, and veteran counselor John Burgman writes from South Korea…

Over the weekend, a low-pressure system that had lingered for days and dropped nonstop rain on my town finally dissolved. When it did, the landscape emerged in a seemingly new state: grasses appeared with deeper greens than before; flower buds spiraled open to reveal the beginnings of their colorful blooms. Even the soil somehow looked healthier—it was no longer that dull, moon-like gunk of winter. As I stepped onto my deck and took in the scene, I took a deep breath of fresh air and something clicked inside of me. It was the realization that the air finally felt a little bit like summer.

It is not summer, of course. It is mid-April, and there are still a couple months of temperamental spring rains to endure. The flower buds need to fully bloom, and the grass needs to grow taller. There are bound to be significant swings in the temperature in the coming weeks too, until the days settle into the steady warmth that summer is known for.

But make no mistake about it, it’s beginning to look a lot like… camp season.

The history of summer camp mirrors the history of our nation.

3984556821_d070f6bc3e_b American Boy Scouts

Whenever I start to sense summer in the air like that, I enjoy thinking about all the other people throughout history who have felt the same excitement. Camp Voyageur has done a lot to stay up-to-date, but the American pastime of attending a summer camp has its roots far in the past, in a time when computers were still just machines in science fiction.

By all accounts, the first summer camps appeared in America at the end of the 19th century, when the country was still reeling in the aftermath of the Civil War. Books and newspapers were the main mediums of the age, and authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman helped impart an appreciation of nature to the masses. Naturally, parents wanted to impart such appreciation to their children, and so various wilderness clubs and organizations for kids were established to aid in that. Around the same time, America was becoming increasingly industrialized—electricity, railroads, and mechanical automation made factory work more efficient and travel more convenient. What emerged was the concept of leisure, as families suddenly had free time and a growing list of rugged places to visit.

Parents were hungry for places and organizations that could keep their kids interested, occupied and out of trouble.

Midnight_at_the_glassworks2b It’s worth noting that child labor laws were also being created in the early 1900s, which meant that children also possessed such newfound leisure time.

As a result, the summer camp industry boomed. Camps across the country, often sponsored by churches, schools or the YMCA, provided the perfect blend of authority and leisure. It should be noted that Camp Voyageur founder Charlie Erdmann had his first introduction to summer camp in this period, at a YMCA outpost in Maine. Camp provided young kids in the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom came from busy, industrialized cities, with an up-close glimpse of nature and wilderness. Many parents were immigrants from foreign countries, and summer camp also provided a place where their kids could assimilate into the American cultural sphere by befriending other American kids.

The idea of enjoying wilderness through camping became officially mainstream.

Camping in the Boundary Waters, sometime in the 1960s with Camp Voyageur. Camping in the Boundary Waters, sometime in the 1960s with Camp Voyageur.

The wild popularity of camps continued into the middle of the 20th century, and gradually blended with various environmental movements that were beginning to gain steam at the time. Authors like Aldo Leopold and Ely’s Sigurd Olson helped usher in an age of conservation. This eventually culminated with the famed Wilderness Act of 1964 laying out a legal system for preserving and managing America’s nature. Summer camps—boasting rustic cabins, raggedy tents, and minimalistic aesthetics—were hip, and camps around the country had record attendance numbers as a result.

From the 1970s to the current era, the camping equipment would get progressively lighter and more streamlined. Fleece, Nalgenes, and Kevlar would take the place of denim, canteens, and wood (at least in regards to canoes). And nowadays, summer camps must adhere strictly to various industry regulations that would have been unheard of in the early 1900s (or even the 1980s).

But what amazes me most is how the contemporary summer camp experience is still held together by a lot of the same underpinnings.

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Camp Voyageur attracts campers from all over the world. Off the top of my head, I can recall being on trips with fellow campers from France, England, Singapore and Venezuela, just to name a few. Oftentimes, the parents of these international campers mention wanting to give their kids a summer-long taste of American culture, and virtually all parents send their kids to camp with the hope of establishing some sort of wilderness connection.

How a summer camp is promoted and marketed has certainly evolved in a substantial way, but the reasons and inherent value of the camp experience are unchanged. And thinking about that gets me excited for this summer camp season—even if it is still April.

Campers at the fire circle, 2014. Campers at the fire circle, 2014.

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