The first time I drove down that magical, one-mile stretch of dirt road to Camp Caribou was in the summer of 1984. I was ten years old and visiting potential overnight camps with my parents. After passing endless rows of saplings (now towering pines), shots rang out from the riflery range, and the throaty call of bullfrogs echoed. Though I could not identify it yet, there just seemed to be something distinctly special about this place. Meeting the inimitable Bill Lerman, co-owner and director of the camp, confirmed my suspicion. Within the span of about ten minutes, he learned I was a competitive gymnast, introduced me to the ropes course counselor, and cheered me on as I pulled myself up and over the ten-foot wall he had encouraged me to scale. A normally over-analytical decision-maker, I settled on Caribou before my feet hit the ground. And, though impressive, it wasn't because the ropes course was categorically superior to those I had seen or would soon see at other camps. It was because of Lerman's extraordinary ability to immediately connect on a personal level and engage me in the life of the camp.

I've driven Caribou's winding, dirtpacked camp road countless times since that first trip with my parents. Doing so still fills me with the same eager anticipation I felt as a child in the back seat of their car. These days, making those turns fosters a new kind of euphoria — the exhilaration of introducing a new generation to the allure of camp.

Hatching a Plan

Sending a child to overnight camp is a substantial commitment — often a considerable financial investment, always a deeply personal and emotional one. Over sustained periods of time and varying distances, families entrust camps with those they hold most dear. As such, this is a decision that should be thoroughly well-informed, and this is precisely what led me to the Lermans' front door in February of 2011.

I sat down with Lerman and his wife, Martha (still co-owners and directors of Camp Caribou and both still every bit as charismatic as they were over 26 years prior when I initially visited their camp). I reminded them of my tour with Lerman and of his impact on my decision. We mutually agreed that the more a prospective camper gets to know a potential camp, the smoother the eventual transition will be. Then I did something the ten-yearold me never would have predicted. I told them how I was going to make their tour even better.

My introduction to Camp Caribou remains a vivid memory because Lerman masterfully wove me into the fabric of the community. I wanted not only to replicate that sense of belonging for prospective campers, but to expand upon it. Rather than an hour in the life of Caribou, my goal was to provide participants with a more authentic overnight camp experience modeled on a typical day — a 24-hour test drive. Thus, the Camp Caribou Experience was born.

Program Benefits

The Caribou Experience provides participants with a completely immersive camp visit. Typical camp tours (even the best ones) provide insufficient time to take in all that camp has to offer. After all, "can a family accurately assess a 56-day season in this short period of time? Many times, gross generalizations are made during this short visit, often accurately, but many times inaccurately" (Camp Connection, 2016).This daylong visit to Caribou allows prospective campers to be fully integrated by participating in instructional periods, elective activities, evening programming, mealtimes, and, bunk life. Above all, forming relationships and spending time away from family makes it easier for prospective campers to acclimate once they enroll (Comeau, 2016).

Since the inception of the Caribou Experience in 2011, "Rookie Days" and "Rookie Camps" have become one of the hottest new trends in camping (Comeau, 2016; Michaels, 2015), with var ying degrees of camper immersion and success. Some programs:

  • Limit the participants to a certain age range
  • Charge for the experience
  • Run the programs before enrolled campers arrive or after they leave
  • Require that families stay
  • Do not include an overnight stay
  • Are run by current counselors, which can tax staff resources

Successful programs, including Caribou's:

  • Are open to participants of any age
  • Remain cost-free
  • Take place while camp is in session so participants begin to form social ties with current campers, staff, and each other
  • Require that families leave after the initial tour to help participants begin to foster an increased sense of independence and confidence
  • Are run by experienced alumni/teachers to minimize disruption to the typical program and nearly eliminate staffing issues
  • Allow participants to experience multiple meals as well as an evening program
  • Are flexible enough to include an overnight


The Caribou Experience begins at 11:00 on Saturday morning. Participants and their families take a quick tour of the camp with one of the directors and me. This allows families to see the facilities and ask questions while participants get their bearings. At 11:45, we begin our first instructional activity while the families finish the tour, before leaving at noon. The prospective campers (makeshift bunkmates for the day) begin by creating a unique woodworking project to take with them at the end of the program. We then join the rest of the camp for lunch, where we select three different activities to try in the afternoon based on that day's offerings.

At Caribou, like many other camps, these are referred to as electives. During the first two, we stick together as a group, but prospective campers are given the option of branching out on their own for the final elective. Following lunch, while the fulltime campers are having a rest period, we participate in our second instructional session (typically a basketball clinic led by one of the basketball counselors). This mirrors a regular day with three periods of instruction in the morning (two in our case) and three elective activities in the afternoon. Once we finish basketball, it's time to head off to the activities we selected. After finishing our three afternoon electives, we convene down at the waterfront for some tubing before dinner. Participants eat with the rest of the camp, pack up their belongings, and take part in the evening program.

When there is space available, participants stay overnight. After breakfast and one more instructional activity, they depart with their families. When we are unable to accommodate an overnight stay, families can pick up their child either after dinner or when the evening activity is over. Prospective campers and families are amazed at how much they can accomplish in one day and begin to appreciate the potential of a full summer session at Caribou. Most of all, the comments from participants and the written feedback from families indicate that the Caribou Experience achieves a more important goal: They report that the welcoming campers and staff provide true insight to the spirit and warmth of the camp.

In the End

Promotional brochures, videos, and websites for any business or product are designed to attract potential consumers. This is particularly true of summer camps. However, "You cannot replicate what you observe and experience at summer camp watching a video, reading a brochure, receiving information by phone, or meeting with a director in your home" (Maine Camp Experience, 2012).

While these publications remain a valuable tool for marketing, with over 2,400 ACA-accredited camps alone, they can also easily begin to blur (American Camp Association, 2016). Even with families and referral agents helping to narrow the search, the glossy images from one camp's brochure to another's video to a third's website, while enticing, are often indistinguishable. Furthermore, anyone who has ever truly loved summer camp will likely tell you the same thing. The manicured athletic fields, the ponds smooth as glass, and the warm glow of campfires pictured in these promotional materials are satisfying to be sure, but the heart of camp lies in the connections formed by campers and staff.

In 1984, Lerman did something that the other tour guides could not achieve. By urging me to climb that wall, he presented me with a surmountable challenge and an opportunity for success but, more than that, he made me feel like I was already part of the camp.

At its core, a camp, like a school, is a business of people. As folks like Bob Ditter (2009) remind us, the s'mores-speckled smiles in the brochures are rarely the result of the physical plant or even the programming, but of the relationships formed. The easiest way to gauge one's compatibility with a potential camp is to immerse oneself there (Comeau, 2016; Michaels, 2015). A stronger backhand, better form, a more powerful breaststroke, and a more accurate throw are all valuable byproducts of a summer at camp. However, the activities a camp offers serve as a means to develop something greater — a deeply rooted sense of community and belonging. This is what truly defines a successful summer at camp. This is what draws campers to return year after year. And exposure to this comradery is what makes it so difficult for families to drag their sons away when the Caribou Experience has ended. Luckily, though not surprisingly, this kinship is also what brings them back.

American Camp Association. (2016). How to choose a camp: Preparing for camp. Retrieved from
American Camp Association. (2016). ACA facts and trends. Retrieved from ACA-facts-trends
Camp Connection. (2013). Rookie days. Retrieved from
Camp Connection. (2016). What should a parent look for in a summer camp or a summer sleepaway camp? Retrieved from http:// in-a-summer-camp-or-summer-sleepaway-camp
Comeau, D. (2016, May 3). 5 summer camp trends to look forward to in 2016. Campsite. Retrieved from look-forward-2016
Ditter, B. (2009, June 1). Getting your child ready for camp. PBS Parents. Retrieved from parents/experts/archive/2009/06/getting-yourchild- ready-for-c.html
Kasnett Nearpass, L. (2015, January 7). Summer 2015: Rookie days and sleepaway camp tours. Summer 365. Retrieved from rookie-days-sleepaway-camp-tours-find-best-camp
Maine Camp Experience. (2012, July 9). The whys and hows of visiting a Maine camp. Retrieved from
Michaels, J. (2015, March 11). Summer camp trend report: Five cool and new camp options you might not know about. New York Family. Retrieved from
Thurber, C. (2012, November 15). For parents: Camp prep tips. Camp Spirit. Retrieved from

Michael Stern is the founder and program developer of the Camp Caribou Experience, a full-immersion program for prospective campers. He has served as a camp counselor and administrator, having worked at Camp Caribou and various day camps in the Boston area. Most recently, Michael has worked with several camps as a staff trainer. His workshops focus primarily on helping firstyear campers and staff members acclimate to a new setting.

Photo courtesy of SLY Photography, Charlestown, Massachusetts.