"I'm a survivor, I'm going to make it; I'm going to work hard; I'm not going to give up. I'm a survivor, I'm going to make it. . . ."
The music from this popular song played in the background as the campers arrived at Pavilion B. We were completing the final preparations for camp . . . medical check, inventory of personal gear, packing the group gear, and saying good-bye to the parents. Little did we know that this was to become our theme song. After all, we were adventure campers. We were going to do things other people didn't think we could do.
Located northeast of Washington, D.C., Camp Greentop has a premier location beside Camp David in Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland. The fully accredited camp is the oldest known residential summer camp for individuals with disabilities. Run by The League for People with Disabilities, Inc., the camp was established in 1937 and over 315 people come to the camp each year to swim, meet new friends, ride horses, do crafts, sit by the campfire, and experience new activities. But never before had campers come to participate in a weeklong adventure camp. The Adventure Camp director, Brian Albright, had arranged for the group to test their skills at hiking, rock climbing, and white water rafting.
The ten-member group consisted of five campers and five counselors. The campers ranged in age from fifteen to twenty-six and had a variety of disabilities including Cerebral Palsy, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Mental Retardation. Amy Deitrich was the oldest of the group and the only female camper. This was the second year that this young woman, who works as a Day Care helper throughout the year, had been to camp. Jason Plott was the most experienced outdoors person of the group and had come to camp for the first time this year. Chris Applegate was the energetic spontaneous member of the group who was willing to try anything at any time. Tom Ostrye had been attending the weeklong programs for two years and was the group comedian who typically used a power chair for mobility. He agreed to go the trail in a manual chair during this week to accommodate for the rough terrain we would face. Rounding out the group was Matt Rice. This articulate young man with a visual disability was one of the thinkers of the group. Every member of the group had a range of experience with adventure activities from novice to experienced rock climbers.
As is typical of camp, once the initial check-in procedures were complete, the group participated in several hours of games and initiatives. The games served as a way to talk about the ingredients that this group would need to be successful — communication, teamwork, and dependability. As Tom pointed out, the games were a reminder that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to work together to accomplish even the most routine tasks. However, after struggling to complete a simple game, the group was beginning to understand that the communication, teamwork, and dependability they sought were not going to magically appear. If this group couldn't demonstrate the three elements they needed to display in these games, how were they going to hike with loaded packs, climb and rappel down a rock face, and manage a white water rafting trip? The group would have plenty of time to contemplate their future actions back at the overnight campsite.
Once at the site, everyone helped set up camp and prepare dinner. After everyone was fed and the dishes were done, the group gathered around the campfire for what would become an evening tradition. Brian gave the campers and counselors lengths of rope and discussed everyone's important contribution to the group. When tied around the wrist, the rope would hold the beads that would symbolize individuals' contributions to the group each day. "Can we get a bead tonight?" asked Jason. "Not yet," replied Brian, "you still have to earn them."
The next morning we awoke to sunshine. "I think it's going to be a good day," chirped Katie, a camp counselor studying to be a recreational therapist. Along with a good night's sleep the sun helped to express the high hopes everyone had. The smile on Amy's face said it all, "I'm just happy. It feels good to be out here." Once everyone was awake the group prepared for breakfast and broke down camp. We hurried through breakfast so that we could begin the forty-minute drive to the C & O canal where we would begin the hike. We left camp with a shout out to the rest of Camp Greentop. "Wooohoooo" was all they heard of us as we headed down the road.
On the road to the canal we were met with sun and a few rain showers. Tom knew a Native American Indian chant that would help the showers go away. At least that is what he conned the two unwitting camp counselors into believing. Katie and Alicia started off slowly as Tom taught them the ancient words. "Ohwa, tagu, siam. Ohwa, tagu, siam. Ohwa, tagu, siam." They needed to say the words faster in order for the chant to work. Again and again they chanted until they were told the truth of the matter. "Say the words quickly and guess what it sounds like?" Oh, what a goose I am! Although it was fun watching Katie and Alicia get fooled by this trick, the chant didn't work. The minute the group had unpacked all the gear and was eating lunch the rain came pouring down. We were fed but soaked. Because of the rain we reevaluated our plans and decided to hike a one-mile section of the trail instead of the intended three-mile section.
After driving to another trailhead and unpacking, we got drenched by an even harder rain. There we were standing in the parking lot, gear fully loaded, getting dumped on. We contemplated getting back in the van and waiting this out, but the group consensus was that we were adventure campers and this meant nothing to us. The group made their way down the trail with songs and good humor. We only made a temporary stop to patch the first battle wound. Matt was determined to push his wheelchair by himself for as long as possible and that is exactly what he did. More than half way into the trip the skin on the palm of his hand showed his effort. He had worked up a bad blister and received assistance the rest of the way to camp. Matt had to save his hands for the rock-climbing trip planned for the next day.
Camp was set up in no time as the group split up all the work that needed to get done. The soggy firewood was gathered, tents put up, and a line strung between trees to hang the wet gear to dry. As with the laws of nature, once everything was on the line it began to rain again so the gear was quickly stowed, and we scurried into the tents for shelter. Although the showers didn't last long, we had to get dinner started. The counselors cooked up the hobo meals on the fire, while the rain came down. Dinner was good that night for the most part. "How is your dinner?" asked Diane. "Burnt," was Matt's reply. Cooking over the open fire never is an easy task.
The evening debriefing was the perfect opportunity to highlight those things that everyone did well and discuss those aspects of our performance that could be improved. Every camper earned his or her bead that day. We were doing more for each other and were less concerned with ourselves; we braved the weather with minimal complaints; and we were developing friendships.
As Chris pointed out, "Everyone here is my friend." Matt earned a special bead for his contribution to the group. While his modesty prevented him from talking comfortably about his attributes, Matt displayed the model Adventure Camp spirit. Nothing was going to keep him from trying his hardest. He had earned his bead with his blood.
Jason was the first to awake on Thursday. "I couldn't get back to sleep. I was too excited about rock climbing." The entire group hurried to cook breakfast so that we could get to the rock. Even the hike back to the parking lot seemed shorter. "We're already here?" asked Brian. Yesterday's rain made the trail seem much longer, but the sun and excitement seemed to pull us down the trail on that day.
Our rock-climbing instructors from Earth Treks were waiting for us. We had four guides that were going to provide the skills, instruction, and equipment we needed to climb, but as one emphasized, "We are going to provide the set up, but you are going to have to make the climb." This was the first time that the four instructors had worked with individuals with disabilities in an outdoor setting, but their expertise in the use of various rope systems assured our safety. More importantly, they displayed the philosophy needed to ensure the success of the group, "We help people accomplish their dreams within the climbing world, no matter what they are." With that in mind we discussed our goals for the day and were outfitted with harnesses, helmets, and our special rock-climbing shoes.
Once at the rock site, Tom was the first to rappel. The protocol was basic — transfer from the wheelchair, clip into the safety line, and maneuver to the edge of the cliff. Shortly after completing the final safety check, Tom and Nelson, an instructor, disappeared over the side of the rock face with a smile and a thumbs up. Waiting in the background, Matt watched with anticipation knowing he was the next in line, while Jason and Chris craned their necks upward in anxious excitement. When the whole group was united at the bottom of the rock, the next task was to climb back up the rock wall.
One by one everyone in the group took on the challenges of the day and succeeded. Jason and Chris scampered up the routes with ease and managed to complete countless routes before retiring for the day. Amy, Matt, and Tom each completed their rappel and two climbs. The campers were going places that they had never gone before, and the words they used to describe the day were simple. "That was awesome." "Cool." "I feel great." We were scraped and bruised but we had done something people didn't expect us to do. We were rock climbers. Perhaps Amy captured the sentiments of the entire group when she said, "I am never going to forget today. It was great."
We were exhausted when we arrived back to the campsite, and perhaps our fatigue was what caused one of the campers to be disruptive towards the group. Brian called a "Group Up" and used the experience as an opportunity to learn about being part of a group. We realized that it was going to take a commitment from all of us to help this individual change his behavior. We were going to do this by making him aware of when he was doing something that negatively affected all of us. In the end it seemed that, while the situation was difficult for him to manage, the only way we were going to be able to do our best was to confront issues.
No one had much energy after dinner, so we decided to end the evening by the campfire with our ritual bead ceremony and singing of Camp Greentop's theme song. Everyone earned a bead for their efforts on the rock, as well as their attitude. The perfect ending to the day involved the opportunity to sleep out under the stars. Brian, Justin, Alicia, Matt, and Amy all decided to brave the weather, and everyone headed off to bed.
The following morning marked the second to last day of our trip, so we headed back to the overnight site in Catoctin Mountain Park. After a hearty breakfast of "Justin's famous burnt biscuits," we made it down the trail and back to the van. We were beginning to miss those daily conveniences that one takes for granted — like a shower — but lake water would have to do. After our swim we only had a few hours before we would run out of sun and still had to set up camp. We were becoming quite efficient at setting up camp and quickly had the tents up and were preparing for dinner. After the evening meal it was already time to head off to the tents. The next morning was going to come quickly since we had to break camp and be on the road to the river for rafting by 7:30 a.m.
The first half hour of the morning went well, but we soon encountered the only serious injury of the trip. Matt sustained a finger injury in an unfortunate accident. Brian was unaware that Matt had put his fingers in the van door while searching for handholds to assist him transfer into the seat and accidentally closed the van door on Matt's finger. The staff knew that his finger needed medical attention, and the emergency action plan took effect. Brian utilized his wilderness first aid training to tape the crushed finger. The rest of the group quickly gathered any remaining gear, and we rushed back to camp. Katie took Matt to the hospital. Brain called Matt's guardian to inform her of the situation and made arrangements for a later rafting trip.
Driving away from camp on the way to the river, there was a sense that things were not the same — we were missing two of our group. Although we knew that accidents happen, it was disappointing that we were not going to finish the trip together. The lessons that adventure activities can provide were clear. Although there are times when things do not go your way, it is attitude that eventually determines the outcome of the situation. Because of the incredibly positive attitude that Matt and Katie both displayed, they had earned negative numbers on the "rudypoo" scale. During camp we had affectionately begun to call those members of the group who couldn't take the rough situations a "rudypoo." It was clear there wasn't anything rudypoo about Matt or Katie.
The remaining campers and staff arrived at River Runners to prepare for our white water rafting trip. The rafting company had held two rafts for us knowing that we were going to arrive late. They quickly outfitted us with safety gear and informed us of what we could expect on the river. They could have just said, "lots of fun and some exciting rapids." The first mile of flat water was a relaxing introduction and provided us with plenty of time to play around dousing each other with water and throwing each other off the rafts. Chris was particularly happy bopping from boat to boat and managed to throw our raft guides out. However, it was eventually time to get serious because we had two series of Class I-III rapids ahead. With the help of our guides, we managed to weave our way through the technical rock ledges without anyone getting tossed out. As we pulled into the take out point we knew we had finished our final adventure.
During the ride back to camp we talked about the week and of those things we were going to do once we were home. Soft drinks, candy, computer games, and music seemed to be the most popular items of discussion. More importantly, however, we were all ready to take showers. We had to get presentable for the parents' arrival. The showers and final checkout inventory of gear passed quickly and, before we knew, the parents were arriving to pick up all of the campers. One by one we said our good-byes knowing that we were not the same as when we arrived. We had survived Camp Greentop's first adventure camp. We had done things no one had expected us to do.
In addition to its distinction as the first and longest running camp for individuals with disabilities, Camp Greentop can also be proud of the fact that it had successfully provided these campers the opportunity to experience new adventures. Alex Gieser, the camp's executive director, knows that any additional planning is worth the effort. As he stated, "The mission of the camp is to provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to experience new and challenging activities. The adventure camp is simply an extension of the services that we already provide."
Having seen the look of excitement on the campers' faces and having witnessed the determination and willpower that everyone displayed at some point during the week, it is clear that Greentop's Adventure Camp will survive and thrive. This year's five campers all anxiously await next year's camp. Only one criteria for next year's enrollment, "No rudypoo's allowed."
Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.