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Deep Portage Learning Center Summer Camps

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Summer camps: Seems like old times

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 10, 2012 - 7:41 AM

Good morning, campers. Today's activities include time travel. Right after we've cleaned our cabins and had our breakfast of flapjacks, we'll venture through a time warp to an era experienced by your parents and grandparents. Bring a snack, because it's going to be a long trip. In fact, we won't be coming back until right before your parents return to camp at the end of the week to bring you home.

Is this the stuff of science fiction? Hardly. In fact, it's an experience that will be encountered by most of the youngsters who pack up their sleeping bags and head to a nature-based summer camp.

While the world might be changing at an often mind-boggling pace, summer camps have remained a constant. Sure, there have been the updates in the facilities, but the basic concepts and activities are the same as they were decades ago. The kids swim, learn crafts, take hikes and roast marshmallows over a campfire just like their parents did and, in some cases, even their grandparents before them.

"One of my kids went on the same canoe trip that I went on as a kid," said Tom Kranz, vice president of camping for the YMCA, which has two camps -- Camp St. Croix and Camp Icaghowan -- that have been around for 102 years. "We've got several third-generation campers, and I've heard that we've even got a couple of fourth-generation ones."

Some specific activities have changed over the decades, said Tane Danger, marketing and communication manager for Camp Fire Boys and Girls, which owns Camp Tanadoona. The camp has added things like a climbing wall, high-ropes course and slackline.

There's something else there now that wasn't around when Jennifer Krause went to the camp: "Plumbing," she said with a laugh. Nonetheless, the Minneapolis woman was so impressed with her camping experience that she has sent her daughter, Stephanie, to the camp six summers in a row, with number 7 on the way.

"She loves it," her mom said. "They swim, they canoe, they kayak, they sit around the campfire and sing songs. It's the same thing I did when I was there."

In fact, the theory behind the activities hasn't changed in the 88 years since the camp opened, Danger said.

"I get letters from parents that start out: 'My kid came home dirty and tired and mussed up,' and I think: Oh-oh, here comes a complaint," he said. "But then the next line says, 'That's great!' A lot of kids don't get a chance to just be kids anymore. This is a time for them to unplug and just be themselves."

The unplugging is part of the experience at almost all nature camps. It's common for them to ban electronic devices, including handheld video games, mp3 players and cellphones.

"The parents really seem to appreciate that," Kranz said, adding with a chuckle: "The kids, not so much."

Invariably, some kids will try to sneak in their cellphones, but it's usually a futile endeavor. Most camps have no place to plug in the devices to recharge their batteries, and even if they did, the camps are often located where there is no cell service.

"There's no [cellphone] tower," said Brad Olson, director of camping for the Boy and Cub Scouts, which has been operating Camp Wilderness since 1946. "Usually what happens is that the phone spends the first day 'pinging,' looking for a tower, which totally drains the battery."

Camp Wilderness has added programs in photography and journalism, and at the end of the week the campers produce a newspaper recounting their camp experiences. That's done on a computer, but before the campers can start arguing over who gets to log on to Facebook first, counselors announce that the computer is loaded only with the programming needed to produce the newspaper; there are no games and no Internet connection.

"We do have an Internet connection on our computer in the office," Olson said, "but even that's kind of slow."

The kids rarely display computer withdrawal symptoms, Kranz reported. "We keep them too busy for that," he said.

Dave Moore, director of Camp Ajawah, said the activities at the 90-year-old camp are time-proven.

"We pitch tents, we canoe, we play Capture the Flag and we build campfires," he said. "I grew up attending Camp Ajawah, and this is the same stuff I did."

And that's the way the parents want it. Camp Tanadoona has launched a capital campaign to update its facilities, and one of the first things they heard back from parents was: Don't make it too modern, Danger said.

"Our cabins are electricity-free, and when we held focus groups on modernizing the camp, they said, 'Don't add electricity. We don't want our kids charging their iPods in the cabins,'" he said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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