For many former campers, summer camp is not just a place to ride horses, race canoes and tie-dye T-shirts. It’s a place to meet people who become their family.
Some former Minnesotan camp friends have been in a book club together for 35 years. Others spend Thanksgiving together instead of with their families. A married couple started dating at camp when they were 15 and have been together ever since.
All because of summer camp.
Camp friendships are different from other friendships, these folks say. Camp is usually the first time youngsters are away from home for an extended period. All of a sudden, they are in a new world of complete strangers and activities they may never have tried before. It can be a nerve-racking adventure, and kids are forced to make new friends.
“They arrive without labels and judgments, and they are free from the personas they have conformed to because of peer perceptions at home, “ said Tom Kranz, vice president of camp operations for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.
“Others are able to see the real person, which is why long-lasting and deeply meaningful friendships are made at camp,” he continued. “It is a place where young people can let go of whatever troubles they may be facing and simply be, and become, who they are meant to be.”
David Andrews, who was a camper and counselor at Camp Olson in northern Minnesota for many years, still spends Thanksgiving with his camp friends every year. He said the same four families have had Thanksgiving on reserve for each other since 1985, and some of them have been getting together for the holiday even longer.
They serve the same food every year, even though they rotate houses so no family has to host the gathering two years in a row.
“It’s like going home,” Andrews said.
Even after all this time, camp stories resurface.
Andrews talked about his days as a counselor, sailing on the lake near one of his friends while shouting about the evening activities to friends on a nearby boat. He said all of his friends still “ooh” and “ahh” when someone opens a new, untouched jar of peanut butter, which may not sound like much to anyone else.
To them, it is a decades-long tradition and inside joke.
Andrews met his future wife, Mary, at Camp Olson when they were both counselors in the early 1980s. Several camp friends attended their wedding, and one was a groomsman. Their daughter Bailey went to Camp Olson and still works there during the summer as the waterfront director.
It has been exciting to see his daughter go through similar experiences to his with her camp friends, Andrews said, and he thinks she will grow up to be closer to them than her high school and college friends.
David and Mary Andrews aren’t the only married couple to meet at summer camp. Several former campers and counselors can name at least one person who married his or her camp sweetheart — just ask Larry Pepper and Dana Yugend-Pepper, who met at Camp Ramah, an eight-week Jewish summer camp in northeastern Wisconsin.
“We met when we were 13, and started kissing when we were 15,” Yugend-Pepper said.
Pepper and Yugend-Pepper used to leave each other love notes in a hollowed-out tree between cabins and lie on the camp’s baseball field to watch the Northern Lights.
While Camp Ramah was instrumental in forming their Jewish identities, they said, it also gave them some of their closest and oldest friends. Several camp friends who watched them grow up together also watched them walk down the aisle in 1983. Many of them still stay in touch, including a couple who have lived in Israel for many years.
The camp recently hosted a 25-year reunion, and the couple got to see friends they hadn’t seen in decades.
“We picked up right where we left off,” Pepper said.
Each camp group has a unique way of staying in touch. Peggy Wilcox, Diana DuBois and their friends from Camp Menogyn have met regularly for a book club since they graduated from college more than 35 years ago.
Camp Menogyn, just outside Grand Marais, Minn., is not the traditional cabin and s’mores sleep-away camp. Instead, campers choose various levels of canoeing, backpacking and mountain climbing trips designed to build confidence and wilderness skills. Campers typically start on five- to 11-day trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or the Canadian wilderness. They may move to longer, more challenging trips if they return to camp the following year.
Wilcox was a camper, then camp guide, throughout the 1970s, and DuBois became a guide in 1980. They both made some of their closest friends, then and now, on trips to Canada and the Boundary Waters.
DuBois said one of her favorite parts of being a counselor was being able to be a role model for campers. She got to watch them develop a sense of confidence as they learned to flip and portage canoes, backpack for several miles at a time and work as a team in the wilderness.
Wilcox quickly learned how to be a positive role model, as well. She said one summer she guided a trip that had 28 days of rain out of 30 days on the trail. It was hard to keep a positive attitude, she said, but she and her campers had fun anyway.
She still laughs about it with her camp friends.
Wilcox said she did not have any camping experience before going to Menogyn for the first time. While she always loved being outdoors, it wasn’t until her sister went to Menogyn that she considered spending her summer in the Boundary Waters. Now, 40-plus years later, she still loves spending time in the woods with her camp friends.
“I grew up at that place. It made me who I am. It ruined my back, but it was worth it,” Wilcox said.
Madison Bloomquist is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.