Written by George Thomson
There are many things that can often feel quintessentially ‘American’, for me, summer camps are one of them. The idea of an entire industry built around providing a space for children of all ages for them to spend an entire summer seemed so strange to me as a British counterpart. I was used to spending my summer holidays mainly with my family, either in my hometown or abroad but never in one place for a whole two month period.
However, now as an adult, with three summer seasons under my belt and a fourth snubbed by the Coronavirus Pandemic, that mysterious fragment of North American society that alluded me when I was younger, I miss more than ever.
But this lifestyle and industry is not simply locked to America as I once believed, for my experience lies North of the border, above The Great Lakes of Ontario and into the splendid rural setting of Lake Manitou-Wabbing. This small location, seemingly insignificant to so many, became a source of respite for me during my three years at university and continues to do so into my post graduate, adult life.
For such a place to make me want to travel across the Atlantic and to fully commit myself to as an international staff member is testament to the people I have met, the experiences we’ve shared and the sense of fulfilment that working with young people from all backgrounds can give you.
I started my commitment to this journey in the summer of 2016, while I was still anxiously weighing the decision of enrolling into university that coming first semester. Attempting to piece together a naïve and ultimately flawed plan for a gap year after I’d left school drew me to the idea of working towards being at a camp for the following summer.
However, having just returned from America, I felt slightly burnt out by the land of the free. Yet during that trip, our short two-day jaunt across the border to Niagara Falls and seeing the CN Tower glow across the waters of Lake Ontario inspired me to explore more of the country. If there was some way of experiencing Canada, a country I’d always been interested in seeing in a similar ‘Camp America’ format, I wanted to find it.
Of course, this equivalent does indeed exist and there are multiple ways of getting on board. While you can easily go out there and contact these camps independently, companies such as CCUSA and NyQuest can do that job for you. I chose the latter, and after setting up an account I was instructed to fill out a form, highlighting what role of camp work I was interested in from councillor to cook and in-between.
This process will result in becoming your camp CV, detailing your interests, whether you wished to work on specific activities and any skills in those field that can aid you. Before long I was contacted to arrange an interview with a NyQuest representative where I was explained the full process, got my questions answered and allowed me to show my sincerity to partake in the program.
Upon landing in Person Airport, Toronto, I spent a weekend in Ontario’s capital, aided by NyQuest, who paid for your board as well as getting us orientated to the city and allowing us to set up Canadian bank accounts for our wages. In doing so, an entire hostel was filled with budding camp workers from across the world and acted as the perfect way to meet other people, find would-be co-workers and get to know stories of other camps in the area.
I remember this brief moment fondly with nightly parties and quickly feeling that Manitou co-workers were hard to come by among a sea of Tamakwa, Winnebago and Olympia. I’ll admit it felt somewhat daunting to wonder if I would be somewhat a minority once I’d finally arrived at the camp and those nights had me knowing that these friendly people were not coming with me to my final destination.
This first summer put me out of my comfort zone more than ever, not only heading abroad by myself but also putting me in a unique position of responsibility as a councillor on the shores of Camp Manitou. One of the largest staff positions and often the ‘go to’ for many international staff, my job as a councillor placed me with two other Canadian staff members We worked not only as part of a larger team but also were responsible for a cabin of a dozen 12-13 year old boys. This meant holding a special sense of responsibility, caring for and mentoring these boys in a way that was more akin to an older brother archetype over a parental role.
Alongside this, during the day, I would also work with a team of staff as a climbing instructor, running sessions for the many campers who chose the activity through a school period type format. While at times challenging, I came away from the experience enlightened, not only from growing more confident in myself, but from experiencing a glimpse into the world of a Jewish community. Moreover, I’d collected a group of amazing friends from across the globe and formed a wonderful relationship with my cabin of campers that lasted well beyond that summer. With all this in mind, I applied for summer 2018.
The second time around, I decided to explore the other opportunities at camp and applied as an activity specialist, working alongside an activity head to assist the running of the different programmes at camp. I also moved away from my previous role with the ropes staff to a new challenge, engaging in a multi layered activity that included archery, fishing and horticulture as part of the ‘Eco-Adventure’ program.
Armed with less prior experience in all three areas of the activity, I quickly learnt on the job, assisted by two other specialists and was able to contribute these skills to the team. This summer combined fishing trips on the lake and coaching for archery competitions with a more relaxed cabin life, living with two other staff members by the lake. Combined with an impromptu canoe trip on the Spanish River, I still refer to my second summer as the best yet, with some amazing campers as well as some great trips to private lakeside cottages on my days off.
Going into my third summer, I had risen to the role of the activity head for the Eco-Adventure program and was looking forward to the new challenges leading a team had in store for me. Having had prior experience with both the activity, campers and staff allowed for the programme to run more cohesively, built up on the successes of the previous summer as well as many of the ideas that we had been unable to accomplish in 2018.
One of the biggest challenges that came out of this experience was learning to know when to stand my ground and when to be flexible and embrace external ideas. As such, one project for an event we were working on clashed with another activities plans to use the same equipment. After trying to insist that we needed said equipment, I had to learn to compromise and work with my team of staff to find an alternative while still delivering a quality experience for the campers. By the time the event came, it was a massive success due to how the team came together to overcome challenges, embrace new ideas and became one of my proudest memories from that summer.
Reflecting on the news that I wasn’t going to be having this experience again in 2020, I remember one of the camp directors saying that the mission statement of this camp was to “take any entitlement out of the entitled”. This is a bold goal but I do believe from my experience that I have met some of the most incredible down to earth people, both campers and staff from my three years at camp. This includes people who don’t want their privilege to define who they are and those from humbler backgrounds who can become idols for others to follow.
Another surety that I have from this experience is that the friends I have made from camp will be friends for life. There is an intimacy from living so closely with one another that brings out the real side of people that results in a unified connection that doesn’t fade no matter the distance. As life races forwards and new opportunities emerge, I hope that I will still have the ability to return to camp and experience all the challenges and delights that it brings for so many people around the world.