Within minutes of leaving shore, laughter and screams rang out as raft guides and counselors began to splash. Soon, water was flying everywhere. The impending class-three whitewater down stream seemed unimportant as the tranquil flat water of the Shenandoah River was now home to a world-class water fight. Even in the midst of all this commotion, it was clear the adult campers from Camp Greentop in Sabillasville, Maryland, were having fun. They smiled, got wet, challenged one another, and if possible, helped drench their fellow campers. Sounds like a typical whitewater adventure day doesn’t it?
The truth is nothing was typical about this outing. The cooperative efforts between Camp Greentop and River and Trail Outfitters from Knoxville, Maryland, brought special needs adult campers together for what would typically be an unlikely adventure of white water rafting. What made this trip so unique was the collective courage and positive attitude displayed by each camper.
Despite disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury, mental retardation, and Down’s syndrome, the campers were unconditionally willing to challenge the limits of their excitement threshold. For some, that meant being lifted out of their wheelchairs and into a raft, and for others it was just placing a hand or foot in the water. But to all, their ability to be simultaneously scared, trusting, and open-minded was really an impressive display of human spirit.
Because of both organizations’ expertise and knowledge, each understood the underlying complexities inherent to this activity—so proper planning was critical. Because each camper has such a unique set of personal needs, both Greentop and River and Trails Outfitters selected highly qualified staff who were experts in their respective professions.
Camp Greentop, located Northeast of Washington, D.C., is the summer camp program for the League of People with Disabilities, Inc. and has been welcoming campers with disabilities for seventy years. Heading an amazing camp staff team was Emily Carmichael, program specialist for the League’s camping services. She has a degree in therapeutic recreation and has worked at Greentop for the past five summers. The camp team was not afraid of the water and could lift campers into the rafts, administer medication, monitor dietary restrictions, evaluate the existing condition of the campers, and drive the appropriate vehicles which typically must be wheelchair accessible. According to Emily, Greentop campers enroll for the trips they are interested in after they arrive at camp. This way everybody acquires a full explanation of logistics, time, and cost.
Because of the unique circumstances this group presented, River and Trail had to make special arrangements as well. This started with the deliberate selection of the most experienced rafting guides. Because of the extreme importance of individualized camper care, each boat had two guides—one of whom was a certified trip leader or TL. TLs served as lead guides and were responsible for choosing the route that best accommodated their camper’s comfort level. For maximum safety, the other guides were responsible for paddling and helping out should one of the campers need immediate assistance.
In addition to the two guides, each raft accommodated two campers and two counselors who sat by or with a camper. Because health conditions can change quickly during the trip, it was important each counselor be able to focus on a camper without the added responsibility of listening for guide commands.
The Excitement Builds
Once the vans arrived, the excitement really started to build. Before the trip could begin, accessibility needed to be addressed. Put-in and take-out areas had to be able to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. Everyone gathered for a brief safety talk and then raft assignments were made. Counselors were extremely helpful in expressing what the campers needed when it came to boat design. Some rafts offer more floor space while others feature more cross tubes so choosing one which would be most efficient, in terms of camper comfort, was critical. After being grouped with their guides, each counselor was given additional safety instructions by their TL. Because this information can change slightly based on specific camper needs, a respectful partnership between guides and counselors emerged as adjustments were made to normal trip procedures.
Next was the selection of life jackets. Life jackets have different configurations and were chosen based on the special needs of each camper. This included having some extra jackets for campers to sit on should that be the best option. Extra time was taken here to ensure the maximum comfort of each camper. Helmets were also required, and each one was carefully adjusted with the help of counselors.
The Magic Begins
After everyone was properly outfitted and last-minute checks for sun block and medications were completed, the magic began. While a rafting trip always provides some lasting memories for most customers, this experience provided a special group of people an irreplaceable opportunity for personal growth and adventure. As the rapids intensified so did the courage of the campers. The most noticeable example of this was on the river’s famed “staircase” rapid when campers were heard saying, “is this all you got?” which was in stark contrast to the apprehension exhibited when they first arrived.
Part of Something Special
What made this experience so rewarding was the unconditional gratitude of these young adults. For some, it was their first time participating in an adventure-based experience. Others enjoyed being out in the sun just watching other campers in a totally different environment, but universal to everyone was the joy of feeling a part of something unique. They were performing an activity that many would think was too dangerous or impossible. Frequently throughout the trip, campers spoke or indicated how amazing they felt. In between water fights or rapids, it was a joy to see them actively plot sneak attacks against their fellow campers, and sometimes they even splashed people in their own boat.
Judging by the smiles on their faces, it was clear the campers knew they were a part of something special. During the trip, their confidence rose as they became more comfortable with their surroundings. Fears and concerns quickly dissipated into bold statements about whose boat was better or how great they were. For a brief moment in time, it almost seemed like each camper forgot his or her daily concerns and just had fun.
We all learned from this experience, and its significance was not just reserved for campers and counselors. The guides felt fortunate to be chosen for this trip because they knew it was a privilege to paddle with these exceptional individuals. It was an honor to participate in such a gratifying experience since these amazing campers will never have an opportunity to paddle unassisted. It is truly a humbling experience to have them teach us so much about what is important in life.
The lesson here challenges camp professionals to look beyond the barriers of what people cannot do and challenge conventional wisdom to achieve personal growth through healthy perceived risk. When assessing the boundaries of program options, do not solely let logistical complexities dictate program content. Focus on opportunities which support your camp’s mission by starting with intentionally designed outcome-based objectives. Once people empower themselves with a sense of accomplishment, they will share in the appreciation for what can be done when traditional limits are tested.
The League at Camp Greentop is a traditional summer camp for youth and adults with disabilities in Thurmont, Maryland. For more information about Camp Greentop, please visit them at www.leagueforpeople.org . For more information about River and Trail Outfitters, please contact them at www.Rivertrail.com .
Greg Cronin, C.C.D., of Cronin Consultants and Training is a consultant with over twenty-five years of camp directing experience and thirty years as a whitewater rafting guide. For information on staff trainings, workshops, and conference presentations, please call 703-395-6661 or e-mail GregCronin@peoplepc.com .
Originally published in the 2007 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.