Camp Selves are True Selves

When Donald Kennedy graduated from Princeton in 1923, he knew exactly how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Even for the time, such certainty at such a young age must have been extraordinary. I think of twenty-two-year-olds I know, and I think I would have liked to meet this brazen fellow. “First, I need land,” he might have said to me in this imagined meeting. And not just any land. He was looking for land both on a lake and near the ocean. A lot of it, in fact, because he was determined to create a camp like his beloved Camp Pasquaney in New Hampshire, where he had spent the summers of his boyhood.

It occurs to me that he might have tried to work at Pasquaney, and it says something about this young man that he decided, instead, to strike out on his own. He was full of ideas—good ones—that have only become more and more relevant in recent years, as the social pressures placed on kids have endured and intensified. Kennedy believed boys needed guidance more than they needed discipline. Rather than pitting them against one another in competitive sports, one ought to give them opportunities to challenge themselves as individuals and to rise to meet and exceed those challenges.

This was in the heyday of the camp movement that, in the early part of the twentieth century, took hold in New England—and particularly in Maine, where there was still cheap land for the taking. Bit by bit, in a feat that would be impossible today, the young Donald Kennedy managed to amass the acres he was looking for on beautiful Lake Damariscotta (which is, indeed, close to the ocean). From 1923 to 1926, he worked cutting trails on this prime piece of property, using the timber to build, partially with his own hands, what came to be Camp Kieve’s original building. He named it Pasquaney. In the summer of 1926 the first boys showed up.

Ninety years later, I visit Camp Kieve on a sunny weekday in early August. I sit at a picnic table on Pasquaney’s porch across from the camp’s current director, Henry Kennedy, the grandson of Donald Kennedy and the fourth Kennedy to run the camp.

The camp remained under the ownership of the Kennedy family until 1974, when Kieve became a not-for-profit educational foundation governed by a board of trustees. Now, nearby girls’ camp Wavus has teamed up with Kieve to form Kieve-Wavus Education, Inc. With some funding from the boys’ and girls’ summer camps, the foundation sees more than 8,000 Maine public school students through a leadership program on the Kieve campus every fall, and offers a Veterans Camp for service men and women and their families, and since 2002 they have run camp for families affected by the events of 9/11—and those are only some of the many programs they offer. I venture to guess that the current programming is more than Donald Kennedy could have imagined for Kieve, and that all of it would make him proud.

On the porch of Pasquaney, I look over my left shoulder. Past the tops of the trees sloping down toward the waterfront, I see the lake. “I mean, just look at that,” Kennedy says, lifting his arms toward the water, his smile reaching his eyes. His amazement remains undiminished, although he’s beheld that view almost every day of every summer of his life, starting when he was a baby, and his father was the camp’s director. I can hear happy shrieks coming up from the water. A Frisbee sails over our heads and joins half a dozen others on the roof of the dining hall.

Over my right shoulder, I watch a group of nine- and ten-year-old boys crowding around board games—hovering the way kids do, keeping track of who’s where, poised to call any sign of foul play into question. A number of them are wearing retro-looking shirts—some clearly new editions of vintage styles, and others, like Kennedy’s own shirt, faded in a way that implies authenticity, in all likelihood the hand-me-downs of fathers or uncles who went to Kieve themselves. Kids come to Kieve from all over the world, often from affluent suburbs, large cities, and also small towns in Maine.

“Those are literally board games no one plays anymore,” Kennedy says with a chuckle, surveying the scene. “I love that kind of thing. It’s just good for them to spend time talking to each other like that. And they needed a little down time,” Kennedy explains. Yesterday this group, one of the youngest at camp, returned from a trip to the White Mountains.

Wilderness tripping has always been an important part of the experience. Campers ages eight through sixteen come to Kieve for 26-day sessions. Each year, they go on progressively longer wilderness trips, from a two-day hike and overnight at age eight to an epic 22-day adventure at sixteen. After that, many of them become counselors. This is the dream job. Ask any counselor and they will tell you so. You will believe it, not because of what they say to you in so many polite words but because of the collective spring in their step, the blissful looks on their faces. These are kind, confident young men.

“Kieve” is a Celtic verb that means “to strive in emulation of.” This saying pops into my head again and again on my visit—when I watch the nine-year-old, board-game-playing boys laugh when their counselor laughs, not because they necessarily understood the joke that was made, but simply because he laughed, and they adore him. Or when Henry Clark, a current counselor, describes the wild imagination of a counselor called Bubba, who showed him that sometimes believing in something makes it true, rather than the other way around.

Kennedy, and also Charlie Richardson, director of education and operations, both tell me that what makes Kieve work so well is the quality of the counselors, and the quality of the counselors is due, in part, to their upbringing as campers at Kieve. “They’re getting stimulus from really healthy, young people, which doesn’t happen very often,” says Kennedy. “In school their teachers are older, their parents are older. That’s what makes camp unique.”

“It’s so cool, because they just love to be listened to,” Clark, who is a twenty-year- old student at Sewanee, tells me of his campers. He remembers how much it meant for him to feel appreciated, to feel known by his own counselors as he was coming up through Kieve. “Growing up, I fit in here tenfold more than I did at home. You’re challenged here, whether it’s on the aqua zip or the climbing wall or the island swim or on a wilderness trip, and that gives you more confidence in everything you do, wherever you go. And I just loved the wilderness trips. All year at home I thought about the trips I went on, and the one I was going to go on that summer.”

Every boy I speak with recalls these trips with pride. They eagerly tell me where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and what they will do next year when they come back to Kieve, as 90 percent of them will. If these trips were not difficult, they would not mean so much to the boys—I know enough to know that. But it is not the pain of the three-mile portage or the brutally steep hike that they think to tell me about. Rather, it is the feeling of completing the portage, of reaching camp, of finishing what they set out to do. “Courage, Perseverance, Loyalty” is Kieve’s motto. Almost every boy I talk to rattles these words off without a trace of sarcasm, as if they know these elusive ideas intimately. I think: why not? And also: thank goodness. The world could use more of all of it.

The ride to Wavus, Kieve’s sister camp, is not long. A pine-needle-strewn path leads to a small motorboat. Puttering away from Kieve, the sounds of boys jumping into the water and taunting each other from the docks quickly recede. The lake becomes quiet and still. The houses are few. We dock on a long finger of land that I’m told is called the Point. It takes about ten minutes to get from Kieve to Wavus, and still, I feel far away.

The land Wavus Camp for Girls now occupies was the site of co-ed Wavus Camps from 1922 until 1976, when it was purchased by a private owner with hopes to build a summer home that didn’t pan out. Later, in the early 1990s, the Wavus alumni formed a non-profit, purchased the property back and tried to restart their beloved camp. Thanks to the support of alumni, and a joining together of Wavus and Kieve, the girls’ overnight camp reopened in 2006.

Like Kieve, Wavus focuses on wilderness tripping and personal development. The principles of courage, kindness, respect, and environmental stewardship are at the core of the camp’s programming, but unlike Kieve, Wavus is in the early stages of its development, and this youthfulness gives the camp a different energy. The paths leading from the dining hall to the cabins are less worn, the facilities are newer, the traditions less established, and yet, every camper I talk to has a clear idea of what this place is all about. For many, it is her favorite place in the world.

After a peaceful walk along the Point, past a climbing wall on the back of a truck bound for Aroostook County (the foundation’s Leadership School teachers work outreach programs for middle school students and their teachers all around the state) and the outdoor nondenominational chapel where campers and counselors regularly gather, I make my way to the newly renovated, lodge-like dining hall. It’s noon on Taco Tuesday. It’s also Goddess Day, which means a few dozen girls in the buffet line wear sheets over their t-shirts and leafy crowns in their hair. In the outside eating area, the sounds are of young voices and cups, plates, and silverware clinking and rattling as girls gather along the rows of picnic tables.

I find a seat among a group of six counselors and campers of varying ages, from a ten- year-old first-time camper to veteran college-aged counselors. At first, we talk traditions: Taco Tuesday, Goddess Day, Swim USA—which involves many dozens of laps in the lake—and “quichees,” which are like squirrels, only yellow, bald, and with pointy ears (and made up, of course, which we don’t acknowledge in so many words because, well, where’s the fun in that?). What strikes me about these girls is their openness and honesty. I can see, as well as hear, that they’ve spent the summer getting real with themselves and each other.

Like the boys at Kieve, they want to tell me about the wilderness trips they’ve taken. Unlike the boys, they’re willing to talk me through the rough parts—the stormy, sleepless nights, the arguments, the portages through shin-deep mud. The point is always that they surprise themselves on these wilderness trips. Before Wavus they had never tested themselves in the same ways, to the same degrees.

“One of the things that I’ve learned about myself in coming here is that I’m really good at becoming a leader,” says Caroline, age 14, who comes to Maine from Los Angeles, California. “On a trip, one of my counselors hurt her foot and had to step off, so I managed to step up and help my other counselor, who was by herself with nine girls while help was on the way. I realized that’s something I do naturally. It just kind of happened. I think it’s amazing that I can learn that kind of stuff about myself here.”

“You can be wild and crazy, you can wear things and do things you wouldn’t do at home,” says counselor Lindsay DeMuth, age 19, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and came up through Wavus. “You can be entirely yourself and that’s all that anyone asks for. You don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.”

“I do have a camp self. I like my camp self,” says Grace, age 10. She tells me that her twin brother, Christopher, who goes to Kieve, has one, too.

“I saw my brother a few days ago,” she goes on. “I’m not going to lie, we don’t really like each other a lot of the time. He usually doesn’t talk that much, but when I saw him he was like racking his brain for more things to tell me about Kieve. Someone came by with a camera and he put his arm around my shoulder and was like, ‘Oh, let’s take a picture together, Grace.’ He never wants to do that. I was like, ‘What did this camp do to you, Christopher?’”

Whatever Kieve and Wavus do, it’s both elusive and obvious.

I visit the ropes course at the end of the Point, and I see it there—that magic thing camp does. I see it in the girls expertly strapping helmets on their heads and belts around their waists, climbing up ladders into trees they will let go of. I listen to them cheer each other on and I think: There it is! I watch them soar through the air, high above the ground. And there, and there.

On my way back to the boat, walking and talking with the camp’s director, Nancy Kennedy (no relation to Henry Kennedy), that Kieve phrase “to strive in emulation of” comes to mind. Kennedy’s passion for Wavus is palpable, her energy enviable, her candor unforgettable. Here is a woman who walks the talk. She tells me frankly how at times it can be exhausting to channel her own strength, and confidence, and kindness—all qualities that she sees in and tries to draw out of campers—but that the struggle to represent what Wavus stands for makes her a better person.

Looking back on my conversations at Wavus, I will remember that the campers and counselors used the word “safe” a lot. They tell me how at camp they feel safe to be themselves, safe to try new things, to fail, to succeed, to be confident in themselves, to love themselves. This reveals so much about Wavus, but also the trials and tribulations these girls—and all girls—face most of the year, in environments that don’t provide nearly so much challenge or support. All of the girls and women I speak with are exceptionally articulate. My sense is that Wavus gives them the language to express what they experience and feel. It also emboldens them to explore themselves—to be uncool, earnest, funny, serious—without the threat of ridicule.

Back on the water, a little (I readily admit) sad to leave camp, I recall something Lindsay DeMuth said over tacos: “When I leave camp I try to emulate who I am here and I have the confidence to be myself, whether it’s at school or at home,” she said. “Coming back every summer I find my center. I get reset.”

She also told me about how during the school year, from different corners of the country, she and her best friend will sometimes text each other, “Keep it Wav.” Essentially, this means, “Keep it real,” DeMuth tells me. But there is an essential difference between that vague phrase and who, exactly, these young women know themselves to be at Wavus, and how they stay true to that person, no matter where they go in the world. Again I think: there it is.

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