US summer camp: Survival lessons in New England
- 28 July 2012
- From the section Magazine
Summer camp is an American tradition dating back to the 19th Century, which lets boys and girls spend six weeks camping out under the stars, singing around the fire and learning valuable life skills.
On a lake in the state of Maine, close to the Canadian border, my middle son is living on an island with 85 other boys. There is no electricity, no running water and something called a perch instead of a regular toilet.
There are plenty of wild ducks - but that is about it. Boats of all sizes are the only form of transport.
"Mum, Dad, I'm going to be a one-hundred-per-center," announced our beaming, sunburnt son when we went to visit him in this unfamiliar setting.
"A what?" we inquired.
"I go skinny-dipping every morning before breakfast," Toby explained, "and if I do that every day for six weeks, I'll be a one-hundred-per-center."
We nodded, trying vainly to understand the significance.
"I was going on a kayaking and camping trip this weekend," Toby told us, "but I stayed behind because you were visiting.
"I wanted to," he added hastily, though not altogether convincingly.
Our son, who normally has to be yelled at to pick up his socks, was diligently sweeping out his already immaculate tent. Three other nine-year-olds were also wielding brooms and sweeping ferociously.
"We want to win Tidiest Tent," they explained - an unusual ambition for nine-year-olds. The boys then fell to discussing their favourite expeditions and their dreams for the rest of camp.
"I hope King Kababa picks me to go on the sacred journey," said Toby earnestly.
"King Kababa?" I asked faintly.
"He's the King of Pine Island," chorused the boys enthusiastically, before racing into the lake for their compulsory weekly wash with soap.
Across America, millions of children are experiencing the rituals of summer camp. President Obama's daughters are among those who have given up their regular lives for campfire, mosquito bites, homesickness, sleeping bags and communal living under the stars.
Summer camp is a huge tradition in the US which began in the 19th Century.
The writer Henry David Thoreau went to live in a cabin in New England and published an influential memoir about the benefits of life in a natural setting called Walden.
In the age of the Industrial Revolution, it was considered beneficial to teach children the values of community and self-reliance in the wilds.
"Each for all, all for each" is the motto of one of the oldest camps in New England, along with "Better faithful than famous".
These days, parents seize upon camp as a chance to unplug their children from the never-ending electronic chatter of video games, mobile phones and email.
Toby was surprised to learn that he could not telephone us from camp. There is no landline on the island - just one mobile phone in case of emergency. Parents are encouraged to write to their children and we have eagerly awaited Toby's responses.
The hastily scribbled postcards have been largely unrevealing - "The activities are fun, please send fudge. Love, Toby."
"I have signed up for archery and woodwork," read one card. "I am learning survival skills and I've made a spear."
"Where's that going to go when he gets home," we wondered, marvelling at what was happening far to the north of our home in New York City.
The theory is that outdoor living provides an education just as important as the conventional academic year. Certainly, I have seen my son grow in confidence and learn skills he could never acquire in the city - like tying knots and making a bonfire.
Where else can you walk up a 4,000ft (1200-metre) mountain, camp by a lighthouse and fall asleep to the cry of loons?
The unsung heroes of camp are the counsellors, teenagers who are assigned to look after the younger children.
Simon is Toby's counsellor and the object of much hero-worship. This saintly 18-year-old had been sharing a tent with four nine-year-olds for a month now and was on a well earned day off when we visited. But his word was still law.
We had smuggled some chocolate bars into camp - an illegal act as it turned out.
"Mum, I'll take two bars to share with the others in secret but you'll have to take the rest home," insisted Toby. "I don't want to let Simon down."
With that we left the island in the middle of the lake, waving goodbye from the boat as Toby and his friends chased one another through the trees.
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