As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Camp Association®, we recognize that through wars, recessions, triumphs, and feats of accomplishment, the camp experience has remained, at its core, essentially the same — a unique environment that promotes friendship, leadership, and community. When we compare camp experiences of the past with today's camp experience, we know that they served similar purposes. And, even as technology changes the world around us, we strive to develop positive camp experiences in the future that provide the same growth and development opportunities to tomorrow's children and youth.
True, the camp experience looks significantly different today than the camps of yesterday — bathing bloomers are gone, and rarely do we see woolly sweaters, tights, and high-heeled boots as part of the camp uniform. But there are parts and pieces of the past that carry on through camp traditions. There are traditions that still hold true today, and traditions that are held fondly in the minds and hearts of alumni. There are emerging traditions, and traditions that adapt and change — much like the camp experience itself. Each one is a thread woven through the fabric of time, creating an American tradition that has persevered for the past 150 years — Camp.
Traditions of the Past
Many early traditions are no longer practiced at camp, but they played an important role in our collective history. Sometimes these include extravagant events or festivals. "We used to have a huge water carnival day," said Sam Cote, director for Camp Lincoln/Camp Lake Hubert. "It was done as a team-building activity, a way to create a sense of community. The kids would spend days building elaborate floats that they would then parade along the lake shore on canoes."
And sometimes, activities and programs became traditions. "One of our activity offerings was boxing," said Cote. "It was incredibly popular for many, many years."
"Every morning we would begin the day with a bugler and a flag raising ceremony," said Jordan Dale, executive director of Surprise Lake Camp. "We would also end the day the same way — a bugler and the lowering of the flag. This isn't something that has been done in decades, but it was very much a part of our camp program."
In some cases, transportation became a tradition. "The girls used to arrive at camp by stagecoach or by boat," said Carol Sudduth, co-director at Wyonegonic. "For the longest time, there weren't any roads to the camp. So they really didn't have any other option."
Some tried-and-true traditions of the past still make an appearance, in a slightly altered form. For example, Color Wars, or competitive team activities, were very popular in camps. Billed as healthy competition, some lasted all summer; others were held on special days. While the emphasis may not be solely on competition, these events are still around in various forms.
"The camp Olympics are quite a big deal," said Dale. An adaptation of Color Wars, four teams comprised of all age groups compete in athletic, aquatic, and creative competitions throughout the day. "The favorite part of the day for most campers is the competitions at the theatre where teams present songs and other creative material. It's usually very funny. The whole day is designed for light-hearted competition and fun."
"We recently brought Color Wars back," said Cote. "It originated in the 1930s, but we restarted them five years ago. Campers are divided and assigned to either a red or blue team, and they compete in different activities around camp. The winning team's flag is raised and flown until the next event."
"We have a camp Play Day," said Don Cheley, owner/director of Cheley Colorado Camps. "Brother and sister units get together and play noncompetitive games like water balloon toss and kick-ball with big balls. There is no winner or loser, so it isn't really a true Color War. It is designed to be a social, fun event for the campers."
Some early traditions are still a part of the camp experience. These traditions are defining, not only for the camp, but for the campers as well. "It's interesting that our leadership trainees are very tied to tradition," said Cote. "For example, wearing whites at chapel has become a significant part of the camp experience — it is something the campers expect, and it continues because the campers have asked that it continue."
"When the whole camp is gathered at special events, we sing Nestling," said Dale. "It's become the official camp song."
"Much of what we do is tradition," said Tony Mayfield, director of Culver Summer Schools and Camps. "We still do the Sunday Parade with the entire camp."
Some of these traditions are extensions of programs, or camp rules. "When our campers arrive, they gather as a unit and outline Codes of Living," said Jeff Cheley, director of Cheley Colorado Camps. "Each unit makes a list of the values they want to adhere to during the camp experience."
"Our Woodcraft program was started early in the camp's history, and it's still popular," said Mayfield.
"We still do closing circle at the end of the day," said Sudduth. "The girls gather in a circle and hold hands. We make announcements and sing songs. Really it puts calm on the end of the day."
New traditions emerge every day. Camp staff are constantly evaluating what they could do to enhance the camp experience for the campers. "Here's the interesting thing about traditions," said Dale. "If you do something two or three years in a row, it automatically becomes a tradition. Then if you stop doing it, for whatever reason, the campers feel that this is something that has always been done."
"We try to hold on to traditions," said Don Cheley. "The kids really expect and look forward to them."
Kevin Gordon, owner/director of Camp Kupugani, Inc. shares how traditions sometimes evolve out of practical needs. "Our Opening Barbeque allows parents to meet other parents and counselors. It softens the leaving process — and lets parents wander the grounds and get a feel for the camp."
"Just in the last ten years or so, we began a Wyoween celebration," said Sudduth. "We celebrate on July 31. The campers wear costumes, and we do scary activities and games. The girls love it."
"We started a Bar and Bat Mitzvah program," said Dale. "It's for campers and staff who are of age, and aren't planning to celebrate otherwise. It's really a bonding experience for the camp. We do twenty or so each summer."
The Campfire — the Enduring Tradition
Perhaps the most undeniable camp tradition is the campfire. Synonymous with the camp experience, there is something both touching and dramatic about the campfire. When combined with an opening or closing ceremony, or a rite of passage, it becomes almost transcendent. Each campfire is unique; each ritual is beautiful and powerful. And each one is remembered for a lifetime.
At Camp Kupugani, the campfire is symbolic of something greater than the individual. During the opening campfire, campers voluntarily go around the campfire circle and share what they hope to get out of the camp experience. Then they throw little logs, or key logs, onto the fire to demonstrate the power of community and how when brought together, the campers are creating something bigger than themselves. At the closing campfire, each camper brings two pinecones gathered from the camp grounds. As campers share what they will take home from camp, they throw one pinecone on the fire. The other is used as a camp memento — a keepsake of what was learned and shared.
A Grand March is incorporated at Camp Lincoln/Camp Lake Hubert as part of the final campfire. Older campers carry torches and march through camp, picking up each cabin group along the way. The younger campers follow to the campfire site. The older campers pass on the torches to symbolize passing the responsibility to the next age group.
At Cheley Colorado Camps, the final campfire is done in unit groups. Parents are invited, and a slideshow has been added. The final campfire is very emotional, and the slideshow is a great way to bring the camp experience full circle — reminding campers that they had an amazing summer.
Sometimes the final campfire has a slightly different look. At Wyonegonic, a candlelight service is held at the lake on the last night of camp. Campers gather in canoes with lanterns for light. The campers close out the summer by singing traditional songs from the camp's past.
Traditions are an essential part of our lives — from holiday celebrations, to family gatherings. It is only fitting that camp, where the feeling of family and community is so strong, honors tradition — not only the traditions of the past, but the traditions that are being carried forward into the next generation of camp.
As Carol Sudduth so aptly expressed, "Camp has seen it all — from bloomers to running shorts, and everything in between."
Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.