July 27, 1997 in Features

Happy Campers In Life Pays A Visit To Camp Reed, A Summer Retreat Where Children Can’t Get Enough Of Each Other

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:feature

A towheaded 9-year-old boy sat on a wooden bench at the edge of Fan Lake Tuesday morning and worried.

There would be a price to pay for the previous night.

Sometime around 11 o’clock, he and the other boys in his cabin had tossed water balloons into a girls’ cabin. And the targets of that prank, well, let’s just say they hadn’t thought it was all that funny.

You know how girls can be.

“They’re gonna get us back,” the little boy on the bench said in a solemn tone. “I just know it.”

He wasn’t sure how. He wasn’t sure when. He just knew.

There would be retribution.

As he stared out at the still, tree-lined lake, he started to crack a smile. And anyone who cared to could read his thoughts.

“Oh boy, is this great.”

Welcome to summer camp, the most wholesome, least jaded place on Earth.

IN Life spent 24 hours at the YMCA’s Camp Reed last week. Here’s our letter home.

Monday morning, at about 8:30, Brad Rupp surveyed the cheery dining hall. The place was all but crackling with energy spillover from 200 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 14.

The campers, dressed in T-shirts and shorts, sat around tables with their college-age counselors. “We’re packed this week,” said Rupp, the Y’s camp director.

“Hi, Spanky,” said a counselor waving to Rupp.

Following summer camp custom, the counselors and staff at Camp Reed go by nicknames.

This wasn’t a computer camp, a music camp or a sports camp. This was camp camp. The real deal. Aquatics, archery, horseback riding, drama, riflery, arts and crafts, hiking, campfires and all the other classic components of this American tradition.

The kids arrive on Sunday and their parents pick them up on Saturday. In between they experience what Rupp calls “a small utopia.”

The setting fills the bill. Nestled next to an essentially undeveloped little lake just north of the Spokane County/Pend Oreille County line, the camp is all big trees and cozy little cabins.

But Monday morning at breakfast, a little girl in a Bloomsday shirt named Rachel was sniffling. She wanted to go home.

A dead ringer for a 9-year-old version of the actress who plays Elaine on “Seinfeld,” Rachel had thrown up. So the camp nurse was going to check on her. And Barbara “Santa” Miller, one of the camp’s on-site program directors, had a back-up plan: “An animal and a blanky.”

Miller’s husband, Matt - or “Magic,” as he is known - is the other program director. The couple recently moved back to Spokane after more than 10 years in the Seattle area. They had met as counselors at Camp Reed. “We started out as buds,” he said.

Mealtimes quickly reveal that summer camp is not much like the real world. Following cues invisible to the uninitiated, clusters of kids burst into chants, dive under their tables or pull their T-shirts up over their heads.

It’s all quite frenetic, good-natured and impossibly innocent.

How could it be anything else with kids excitedly competing for the attention of Pez, Beetle, Buttercup and Chia Pet?

But it is at the morning flag-raising ceremony near the waterfront that the sheer unabashed corn and rah-rah comes out. Everyone lines up in a big rectangle. And cabin by cabin, the campers sing silly songs, recite painful poems and act out short skits. For instance, one cabin of boys reached their arms up over their heads and simply belted out, “We are not embarrassed to be asparagus.”

Others performed antics inspired by “Monty Python.”

It would have seemed to be a Shy Person’s Hell. But hardly anyone acted even slightly self-conscious.

There was zero ‘90s “I’m not impressed” attitude. Not one person openly suggested that the proceedings qualified as uncool.

Instead, the kids and counselors cheered one another with gusto.

“Acceptance is important here,” said Matt Miller. “It’s a big part of the Camp Reed spirit.”

He wasn’t just saying that. If you spend a day at the place, you discover that the encouragement and congratulations are relentless.

At Camp Reed, they have a saying - “It’s the best.”

That gets said a lot.

Miller believes that good summer camps offer children a chance to be children and not just targets of a consumer-oriented culture.

And, he said, they offer role models who send the clear message that it’s OK to get fired up about old-fashioned fun.

After the flagpole festivities, Miller gave a lively “Critter Talk” in appreciation of spiders. “They’re so smart,” he declared at one point.

Then a counselor nicknamed Catfish briefly noted the anniversary of a women’s suffrage milestone.

When the campers broke up into groups for an activities period, Rachel the sniffling girl shuffled off to archery. Her mood appeared to have improved slightly.

“When I call your name, say ‘Yabba-dabba-do,’ ” said 19-year-old Aaron “Grizzly” Bauer, the counselor in charge at the archery area.

He picked up a bow and arrow and showed how it’s done. “Questions are good, guys,” he said.

Rachel fired an arrow that hit a target. It wasn’t the one at which she had aimed. But it was a target. “Good job, Rachel,” said Bauer. “Nice shooting.”

Nearby but well behind the firing line, a junior counselor led a circle of boys in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose.

Not long after putting down her bow, Rachel started crying again.

In the arts and crafts building, a vintage structure with lots of window screens, kids painted masks and worked with clay. A female counselor swayed in place as the Go-Gos’ “We’ve Got the Beat” played in the background.

When she said “Good job,” to a camper, she really sounded as if she meant it.

Down at the lake front, kids were boating and playing in the water - splashing and hollering with pure glee.

But one boy with brown hair was grousing about having to keep his life jacket on. Then it was announced that the Belly Flop Contest was about to start.

The cranky lad instantly sized up the advantage of wearing the safety vest. He ran his hands over the front of the life jacket. His face lit up. “Cool,” he said to no one in particular. “This isn’t going to hurt at all.”

Rachel the sniffling girl arrived at the waterfront and was greeted by a cabinmate. That little girl, wearing a T-shirt adorned with the image of a big soccer ball and the word “Dominate,” put her arm around Rachel and asked if she was feeling better.

Rachel shook her head “No.”

At lunch, while a table of girls were up getting their plates, a male counselor yelled, “Table piracy!” And his young charges quickly moved over to the vacated table. “Arrrrrrrrgh,” snarled the counselor as the boys scooted into chairs.

Goals for teens training to be counselors in future years were written on a beach-towel-sized sheet of paper in a side room of the dining hall. The list included: respect, positive attitude, be helpful, work as a group, be kind, Golden Rule, safety, be good role models and encouragement.

After lunch, some of the campers wrote letters home. One little boy asked for news about the family dog. Just before he had gone off to camp, the pet had been hit by a car.

Sheri Carlson of Spokane, 12, was one of many kids who had been to Camp Reed before. This was her fourth year.

“It’s like, fun,” she said. “Everyone always gets along.”

New friendships develop fast, she added.

Brendan Jacquemin, 10, was fishing next to the shore in water that looked about 6 inches deep. He said a big one had been spotted earlier.

He was using some sort of orange candy pellets for bait. “They’re cheese-flavored,” he said. “Or cheese-smelling.”

Other than the few early-week still-homesick kids and maybe a couple of campers who hadn’t yet gotten into the spirit, everybody seemed pretty happy. And why not? Other than truly cynical children, who wouldn’t be content in a place where you’re constantly hearing counselors shout things like, “Anybody else want to go snorkeling?” and “You rock my world!”

A 9-year-old boy named Corey wearing a Georgetown Hoyas cap succinctly characterized the appeal of summer camp. “It’s just fun,” he said.

It costs $255 to send a child to Camp Reed for a week. But Corey won a go-to-camp scholarship from his school. “In first grade, I used to be really mean to people,” he explained. “But this last year, I was nice. So they gave me an award.”

It’s the best.

Shortly after 4 p.m., hail nearly the size of small marbles drove everyone indoors. “Let’s sing the Humpty Dumpty song,” someone yelled.

Dinner was controlled bedlam. At one point, a couple of the counselors stood up before a portrait of Jesus on the wall and pointed out that the little salad bar was for the staff, not the campers. “We need it because it gives us super duper energy to be crazy zany counselors,” one said.

They really talked like that.

“Lightning rod,” shouted a girl at a table of older campers. Everyone at her table then thrust hands holding metal eating utensils high above their heads.

Male counselors celebrated the birthday of the camp nurse by smearing food on their faces and then “kissing” her on the cheeks.

She wound up a grinning mess.

At an after-dinner lineup around the flagpole, there was more goofy stuff. “I came to Camp Reed and I haven’t peed…in bed yet,” announced one group of girls.

Thunder and lightning forced cancellation of a hike to a favorite site for evening campfires. So it was decided that everyone would gather in a nearby open-air area known as “The Chapel.”

“We’re going to The Chapel,” sang several counselors.

“And we’re…gonna get married,” answered many others.

Then it started to pour.

“I’m only happy when it rains,” someone sang, quoting a lyric from a recent popular song.

By 8:20 p.m., everyone was down in the no-frills basement of the dining hall/lodge. And the counselors were offering up their answer to the question: What do you do to kill time when TV is out of the picture?

What else? Improvisational theater.

Some might cringe. But this audience approved. Loudly.

There were more songs, and a couple of Camp Reed alums told a long, halfway entertaining story about some bizarre incident that supposedly happened near the camp decades ago.

The basement session concluded with everyone holding hands, swaying back and forth and singing “Friends, I will remember you….”

At 10:20, Rachel the sniffling girl was up in the dining hall playing patty-cake with another camper.

After just about everyone had gone back to the cabins, one counselor not assigned to a particular group made the rounds and told scary stories.

One of his yarns being told in a darkened girls’ cabin was interrupted when some boys knocked on the door. They handed something wrapped in a towel to one of the girls and she brought it and placed it on the floor. After a flashlight was trained on the mystery object, the towel was pulled back to reveal a backbone section from a deer carcass.

The ensuing screams produced some serious decibels.

Inside another girls’ cabin, graffiti on the bunks and walls hinted at emotions Monday night’s occupants might not fully comprehend until later in the week.

“I’ll Never Forget Any of You.”

“It’s OK to Cry.”

Around midnight, things were quieting down.

Or so it seemed.

Tuesday morning, a little boy who had arrived at the waterfront at about 7:15 for a pre-breakfast jog and jump in the lake got this conspiratorial look on his face as he scratched mosquito bites on the back of his neck.

“We snuck out last night,” he said softly. “Really late. Went looking for frogs. Saw one, too. Big one.”

He smiled in this really satisfied way.

With any luck, in the recesses of his memory, this summer will never end.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 9 Color photos


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