Campfire Tales | Week 4 (7/18/24)

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Chestnut Lake Camp is a place of tradition. We use the word often during the summer to reference the rituals that we enjoy as part of our program, to describe the unique way that we may do things, and to act as a shortcut answer to the eternal question of “Why?” that our campers and staff members pose throughout each day. When we come together shoulder-to-shoulder to sing our Alma Mater, we call that tradition. When we enjoy the presentation of Community Service Award nominees each week with the entire camp together, we call that tradition. When we watch as the Rope Burn fires build and build and try to will the twine to separate and fall, we call that tradition.

One tradition at our camp that occurs on the last night of a session (like this evening, as our First Session of 2024 comes to a close) is one that does not appear on a schedule nor in any promotional materials. This is an experience for our campers that follows three or four weeks of immersive and intensive life in an environment that, at once, is both contrived and spontaneous. The scaffolding of safety, supervision, and planning surrounds our kids as they move through the ups and downs of a time without the comforts of their homes, many miles from their phones and screens, detached from SnapChat. At the same time, they’re forced to socialize using words and gestures that are in three dimensions. While parents sit at home on that last night of separation from the focal points of their lives, they’re unaware of what will be happening on that final evening. For that matter, they’re unaware of most everything that’s gone on for the previous twenty-one, twenty-eight – or for our Full Summer superstars – fifty days.

When the sun rises in the morning on departure day at camp, some of our campers see it happen. The glare brought by a new day can be too much for them after this night without reverie. But the sheer joy that they feel makes it alright. They’re tough, and this time is another of the many chances we have at camp to see this in them. It’s something that develops over those long days that are rife with experiences that test them. The qualities that they are developing during camp can be called many different things, but a favorite of mine is grit.

The concept of grit is explored extensively in Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Although Duckworth

does not include camp as a subject of her research in the book, much of what she describes is relevant at camp when you consider what is happening over the weeks, hours, minutes, and seconds that young people spend there. Duckworth suggests that “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” She continues, “The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

So, it comes to pass that our camp parents are staring at their devices

on the last night clicking “Refresh” for the umpteenth time, without an accurate sense yet of how strong their children have become since they dropped them off. On one hand, we take great care in protecting children from harm while they’re at camp and understand when parents describe their daughters and sons as gentle, sensitive, and in need of special attention. On the other hand, we relish our opportunity to push them out of their comfort zones, surprise them, allow them to fail at things, unbridle them from the constraints of what is, and encourage them to shape what will be. To do this well, we count on their development of grit over time that will help them drive through the obstacles that come at camp as well as the ones that await them back at home.

It’s on the last night that our campers throw caution and sleep to the wind and dedicate themselves to staying up. These final hours with friends are for looking back at the countless moments of the summer and reliving as many as possible. While they laugh at, annoy, and support each other in those waning hours – and somehow manage to lose a few more items with their names on them – they can reconcile even the toughest aspects of the camp season because, over the previous four weeks, they’ve changed.

When sleepovers end in the real world, our kids come back to us in much the same way that they leftus the day before. Maybe fun and games ensue overnight, but the experience of being in a friend’s room or basement for such a relatively short time fails to be the extraordinary experience that the last night of camp can be. Staying up extra late at camp is for kids to celebrate the totality of the summer away from home in a place where they’ve grown up a bit more, become more independent, learned new things, made great mistakes, struggled with challenges, and even discovered something about themselves that they never knew. In the middle of the night, kids at camp can think profoundly about who they are and have become over these weeks, the love they feel for another person, or the security they have in their skin that’s unlike what they may sometimes feel at home. Part of the tradition is conspiring with their friends and counselors to stay up just a little bit later so that they could somehow make this sleepover never-ending.

What happens at camp is rooted in the traditions that we make. We like to think they’re age-old and established by generations before, but we often forget that everything at camp started somewhere, sometime, and by someone, and in most cases, it was never too far from the present. We are sometimes afraid of change at camp, yet we try to welcome new ideas and celebrate innovation. Those are qualities of camp that are so valuable in the real world for us all, but especially for our children.

We build a culture at camp that values grit. It isn’t something that many other communities can develop as quickly and effectively, and at camp, we reward people for it. The campers who make it through difficult moments are role models for others. The campers and staff members that we say goodbye to at the end of the summer with tears running down our cheeks are the ones who have built grit in themselves and have made us believe in their ability to make a difference in the world.

What if we removed tradition and grit from camp? Can you picture our campers and staff saying they’ve had enough of the things we’ve always done or refusing to take part in the sacraments of camp life? Can you see campers and staff giving in to every challenge or tough situation, never pushing through or taking risks? I suppose there could be a camp somewhere where these hypotheticals could be real, but it’s certainly not in the camp that Ann and I run. Our camp teaches and reinforces values that produce young people who understand, defend, and shape tradition while displaying grit that guides them through the twists and turns they will face in and out of camp. When we, as parents, consider whether camp is worth it for our kids or when young adults are deciding between a summer at camp or one spent elsewhere, we should weigh the values of tradition and grit (along with so many other important things at play.)

Tomorrow will be emotional, and while many of our campers will remain at camp for a fun intersession period and three more weeks of camp, we will welcome the feels of the First Session’s close. The fist bumps, hugs, and grateful, “thank you” comments will be seen and heard throughout the morning and they remind us how special camp can be. Appreciating all that we have accomplished, retelling some of the greatest moments, and sharing that with parents at home or on Visiting Day is another special tradition at Chestnut Lake Camp.

Campfire Tales | Week 2 (7/6/24)

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I lost count of how many camps I visited years ago. There have been overnight camps, day camps, specialty camps, vacation camps…so many camps. Based on those hundreds of times being immersed (sometimes briefly, sometimes for much longer) in the unique environs that camps establish and protect, I can say that there are some things that almost all camps have in common. Here they are:

  1. Campers without parents
  2. Young adult role models
  3. Fun and growth
  4. Color War

At camp, we connect young people. Of course, when families are looking for the right camp for their child, they consider the campus, the programs, the schedules, and many other facets. But at the end of the summer when they reclaim their daughters and sons and assess whether sending them away for weeks to be cared for by strangers was a good idea, they just want to hear them say, “I made a friend.” Camps create the environment within which children that start as strangers become lifelong members of an extended family with bonds that are astoundingly strong. They do this with intention, with character, and with a devotion to whatever their unique mission and methods may be. Building harmony is a mantra at camp, and yet one of the most common similarities between many camps no matter where they are and what their tradition may be is the presence of something we call, “Color War.” A Color War by any other name such as Olympics, Maccabiah, or Tribal is still a Color War – an intensive, often multi-day activity that engages the entire community in battles both inane and profound – with intensity, excitement, and the antithetical splitting of camp friends between different sides of the war.

Although the tradition of Color War has come a long way since its creation (purportedly) at Schroon Lake Camp in 1916, including renaming, reframing, demystifying, and deconstructing some of the trappings to make it more effective and acceptable in today’s world, one common and consistent element can teach us a lesson. As camps strive each day to build healthy communities inside of their cabins in the woods, working dutifully to create a coalition and establish peace in these temporary homes, Color War often tests that process by making teams. Whether Green and White, different countries, or themed groups, bunkmates are divided. Friends that might usually choose their programs based solely on what the person who they sleep just a few feet away from is doing, or kids that would break up with someone if it was important to their BFF for any reason, now will spend hours upon days on opposite sides of this camp tradition. The competition can be fierce, even if the activities with the War include carrying an egg on a spoon. There are athletic contests that the entire camp may watch, rope-burning rituals that make for some of the most important moments – and awesome photographs – of the summer, and the writing and presentation of songs that can become part of the camp’s folklore forever. It’s a big deal at many camps, and no matter what camp professionals say and do to suggest that it is not the end-all and be-all of the summer, the dividing of kids and their staff between teams cannot be understated as a tricky variable. At Chestnut, we call this program, “Tribal”.

Camp leaders are not ones to do things without thought, and while they create environments that have inherent risk to give campers a chance to build resilience and independence, Tribal continues as much because of the challenge of having friends on different sides as it does despite it. They establish rules and structure for the program, of course. There are still shared values that govern the play, strong enough to sustain even when conflict arises. There are people in charge – independent and unbiased observers, referees, and surrogate parents – to shepherd the participants through their battles. There is an explicit agreement that all combatants must adhere to when the War is over: we will congratulate all for their efforts and then return to camp as we left it. There will be sad faces, tears, and lost voices, and the colored face paint may take a few days to fully disappear. But when Tribal is over, the colors fade. The issues that pitted teams against each other are over, we are back to working together for the betterment of the whole community, and the winners and losers of Tribal are just part of the nostalgia of camp with some funny or hard moments that we talk about at camp reunions for generations to come. Remember that fight song from 2009 with that line about the Unami Chiefs? Davey wrote it, and he’s now retired and living in Davie. Remember that Apache Relay from 2013 when Rachel cheated and edged Alex out at the end? Rachel is a prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office now. The fights on the fields of competition don’t linger, even if the tales of them sustain. Tribal creates stories, builds spirit, and proves that people who find themselves on two different sides of something can vie for a trophy without setting aside the decorum and humanity that is at their core.

Last night, we experienced our Tribal Campfire. This signifies the start of the TRibal process for the session, although the competition does not begin for a bit longer. We read the Tribal Story and recited the Tribal Oath together as an entire camp. The application of the Tribal credo that we will disagree and compete with each other fairly within the rules to determine a winner, only to shake hands or high-five at the conclusion to return to being on the same team could do us a lot of good in the real world, too. For me, Tribal is an ideal where people who might otherwise be friends can grapple with divergences healthily, never forfeiting their convictions or dedication to a cause, but also accepting that their adversary is only wearing a different color t-shirt. Seeing them wearing that color is okay, but holding that color against them is not.

Last night, we initiated all of our new campers and staff into the Tribal tradition. The first-time members of the community wore (proudly) their red Tribal shirts, only to discover before the end of the night whether they would forever be a Unami Turtle (Green) or a Minsi Wolf (White). Seeing the face paint applied by our leaders to each new community member and then watching them reveal their color to the Green and White teams is always special. It was very much so again last night.

Your kids here are enjoying so many moments that can change them. They can become whomever they choose, safe here in Beach Lake and encouraged to stretch themselves. Tribal is a chance to do just that. It’s not about colors. Not about mascots. It’s a test of how willing they are to embrace camp and put themselves into whatever comes their way. It’s a camp thing. It’s Tribal.

Campfire Tales | Week 1 (6/29/24)

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The beat goes on. History repeats itself. Same stuff, different day. Deja Vu. Killing time. Call it a day.

None of these idioms make any sense or are useful at Chestnut Lake Camp. This is not a place where the routine ever becomes routine. Clocks are almost nowhere on site in Beach Lake. Even the traditions that are time-worn are pulled, pushed, and twisted, never to be identical. The campers can have the same names two summers in a row, but they are not the same people. They grow; constantly grow in so many ways. There is a daily schedule. But the likeliness of it ever being the same even two days is slim. It rains at camp. And sometimes that causes us to move around in funny ways. But it’s only raining when we say it’s raining. There is downtime. That’s what we call the scant moments when we just can’t run full-speed anymore and we have to take a break. Have you seen a staff member at camp with an hour to spare sitting down? If you have, then you have seen a grown adult dozing off. Last night I was speaking to someone on the phone. They told me today that they hung up when I stopped responding for the second time.

We play hard here. It can be a lot for some of us. Our new campers have to adjust. Our new staff have to accept that everything they learned before the campers arrived was used up and not super relevant after four minutes of the campers being at camp. Returning campers have to adjust, too. They naturally compare the best of last summer to the early stages of the season that started 10 or 11 months later. Obviously, they liked stuff about Chestnut last summer to want to return. And some or a lot of that stuff is gone. They didn’t come back because they thought the Drama Center was special. They didn’t tell their friends how much they loved their camp because the trees stood in the same spot forever. They had it just right last year. Now it’s different. I am grateful for this. It means we all get to grow each year, it allows us to build community and create spirit each season. It means we can never get stuck somewhere, we can always create and enjoy something different. And what always mattered remains, in essence, the key principles and programs. They are here. The big ones are here forever.

This has been one of the best “first weeks” I have ever seen. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s been perfect. There were some tears, we had some people fall down, and plenty of mistakes were made. I consoled some campers. I did the same with some staff. I spoke to a few parents that were unhappy. There will be more. And yet, what is happening here has been just so incredible. The care, the concern, the laughing, the outstanding performances, the dancing, the singing, the made three-pointers, the perfect Pickleball dinks, the beautiful artwork, the recognition of peers and staff through Community Service Awards last night, the new friends forming, the first time on the Flying Squirrel, the first leap from the highest Wibit element, and so many other things. I have heard more people than I can count say this is the best. I hope tomorrow will bring more.

Being at home while we do all of this kinda stinks. You look at images on Campanion. There are not enough for some of us. You see the posts on Insta. Other camps are doing better. The phone calls have started, and they can be so hard. The first letter said, “I miss you.” Or worse. Every child and parent deserves to feel the joy and gratification of what camp is currently giving to almost everyone here. Tomorrow will have another person brought into the fold, and I hope that you are excited to be excited. And while we work on what isn’t ideal, I will be grateful for the chance to serve your family. We love our camp families. All of them. Even the ones that tell me we should be doing better. Go ahead, push me to be the best. I am pretty sure we can be.

At the first true Community Campfire, I joined Josh Lutman on stage to play a Dylan classic, “Wagon Wheel.” Our camp is not the only one that loves this song. To be honest, I don’t know what that is. But as long as the campers and staff come together to make music together at dusk sitting shoulder to shoulder at the Great Lawn, I don’t care why they like this song. They would probably sing anything. They just want someone to let them sing. Together.

I hope that you are feeling proud of yourselves at home for giving your children the gift of summer at Chestnut Lake Camp. You invested in your child’s growth and we are working incredibly hard to make sure that you see the return. Tomorrow will have so many opportunities for them to do something real, and we will recognize them for that. They are not going to stand around and wait for time to bring them more and better. They are going to grab time and make things happen right now. And we will help them.

’23 Input Leads to ’24 Excellence!

The summer of 2023 at Chestnut Lake Camp was amazing on so many levels. We had a camp filled with kids enjoying great traditions, building new friendships, and feeling the unique spirit of our “Bring It Out” vibe in Beach Lake, PA.

And 2024 at camp will be even better! We know that we are on track for an exceptional season because of the experiences and feedback we enjoyed in 2023. As a camp run by leaders who are constantly setting high standards and believe that listening is key to meeting them, we can point to countless improvements made each year that have helped our camp to grow. As we come off of a wonderful summer, we can see that the efforts Aaron, Ann, and their entire team have made since arriving in 2020 are paying off. Chestnut Lake is experiencing its greatest enrollment ever with our highest rate of camper retention (from 2023 to 2024) in our 16-year history. Many other indicators like this remind us how important it is to ask our community what’s working and what’s not, and methodically and thoughtfully integrate their feedback into the camp’s operations.

The 2023 Camper & Parent Insight Survey report — as you will see when you click through at your own pace or download the file below to review later — reinforces the love that our community has for Chestnut Lake, the consensus that our camp is “all about the people,” the appreciation for the great care and robust experiences provided in our flexible program, and the excitement for our continued evolution as an institution as we come back for an even more terrific summer in 2024.

[Once you click the report, you can enlarge it to full screen to better read the contents]

Surveys are just one of the tools that we have been using to gather constructive feedback and support our planning in recent summers. This summer, campers will have even more input into their daily program so that we can ensure the best experiences for them while they are with us at camp. Explore and enjoy the report (above), and for all the families that contributed insight throughout this process, please accept our gratitude for the guidance.

All About Camp: Insights from Apollo

By Aaron Selkow

Apollo joined our family in 2017. We had previously rescued two other dogs, and both had been special. But Apollo’s impact on our family was incomparable. He was born in South Carolina, horribly abused, and thankfully saved by a rescue organization in Pennsylvania. Ann looked into those soulful eyes in a photograph and somehow knew that he needed us. And as we mourn his loss, we cannot express just how much we needed him.

Helping Apollo took work. He was not just skittish because of the treatment he received in the years before we adopted him, he was deeply afraid. The training and coaching he benefited from influenced his behavior, and his gentle disposition was steadily complemented by a growing sense of confidence. Although we were unable to have him with other dogs extensively, he was immediately at home when I brought him to camp for his first summer in the Poconos (as the director of my last camp, before arriving here at Chestnut Lake). As he continued to settle into himself and became a mainstay in our lives, a very important shift occurred. At some point, Ann and I realized that Apollo was our teacher.

In the days since he left us, we have reflected more thoughtfully on the ways that Apollo provided us with poignant and powerful life lessons. We sometimes remarked to each other on the ways that his unique story and character impacted those around him. But in losing him, we find ourselves more philosophical as a way to cope with the sadness. Because camp is so synonymous with our family, camp became a cornerstone in Apollo’s life, too. As we remember Apollo now with only the ghosts of memories from the last six years to sustain us, it feels natural to frame some of the lessons we learned from Apollo in the context of camp.

Being a camp leader requires you to accept the blurring of lines between your personal and professional lives. Not only is camp an intimate setting that creates a familial environment for campers and staff, but the demands of overseeing a camp remove some of the usual boundaries found in other roles. You live at camp, immersed in the community, and committed to the success of others in every way possible. There is almost no personal space, and a camp leader’s willingness to be vulnerable and invite others into their family can have a prominent and positive influence. Apollo was a terrific example of and asset in this effort. Apollo was our dog, but he was also the Camp Dog. Even our prospective families had the chance to learn about Chestnut and our family by meeting Apollo, as our summer and off-season tours would frequently begin and end at our house where Apollo would be. In so many ways, Apollo represented our family to others and our care of him was representative of our values. Ann and I would say that Apollo was by far the most popular Selkow. When Lily would visit us at camp, her greeting for Apollo was the most enthusiastic and she relished seeing so many other children scrambling to be near her dog. We were humbled to be Apollo’s real family, knowing that countless others considered him to be part of their own at camp.

We often say that at camp you can become your best and truest self. It may be cliché, but every year I am reminded of this adage when I notice how people step into the virtual limelight of camp and show how impactful time and experience at camp can be in bringing out their finest qualities. Apollo was also at his best at camp. It was at camp that he provided the most happiness to others – as Ann walked Apollo around the property each day, he was like a magnet for the kids who needed him. They craved the chance to tap into Apollo’s energy while they might be many miles away from their pets and their homes, and he obliged them gently. His aloof demeanor was a great match for their sometimes-unbridled enthusiasm, and though he might be scared, he also would get comfortable enough at times to lay down and allow others to cuddle with him. But it was just being at camp that brought Apollo joy. The ability to run and explore when nobody was around, chasing (and never catching) a deer, bounding across the lake’s sandy beach, or just running until he completely wore himself out on any day that we were there was evidence of camp being his favorite home.

We have high expectations of each other at camp. Whether you are a camper or a member of our staff, we challenge our community to accept our rules and to always model our institutional principles. As we move throughout the day at camp, we inevitably see issues that cause us to correct or redirect. I can sometimes assume that the person I see struggling to live up to our standards is making a choice, but that is often not the case. Apollo was a dog that benefited from structure, and consistency, and living at camp – even as a dog – required him to behave well, too. Without knowing all the harm that Apollo had survived and the constant effort he needed to make to manage his fears, you might see him failing to follow a command or getting overly excited to mean that he lacked obedience or a desire to please. But that was so far from the case – behind his presentation as a large, strong animal was a history of being a victim. Apollo reminded us not to judge too much and to take things and people (even dogs) for what they are: inherently good, complex, deserving of love, and yet still flawed. We try to treat our campers and staff with respect, especially when they might be struggling because we can’t assume to understand what might be behind their actions. Apollo was not defined by his past, just as our community members should never be.

Research into the relationship between humans and their dogs details how much the unconditional warmth that is shared between owners and their pets is worth. Apollo was no exception to this. As some at camp could attest, when he created a bond with someone, his relentless attention to them and his drive to be near them was unparalleled. Apollo’s recognition felt like pure love to us, and that bond reminded us of the friendship and fellowship that we saw day after day between people at camp. Campers and their bunkmates, the kids and their favorite counselors, and the staff that worked so closely together all appreciate and provide love at camp. Camp is filled with opportunities for growth and learning, but at the core, camp is a place that values this love. Apollo’s deportment was a perfect representation of the power of showing love to one another.

When I sit with campers or staff members who are dealing with mistakes that they have made at camp, I always remind them that there is no better place to fail than at camp. Camp is a safe place. Although far from being utopian, it is still far more forgiving than the real world. People at camp chose to be at camp because they care about others, and high fives, fist bumps, and hugs are always available to help console those in trouble. Camp is also a place where we can laugh about the hard times, whether in the moment or after we have gained perspective. Apollo enjoyed the compassionate environs of camp, whether it was after he ate someone’s hot dog at a cookout, came out of the woods covered in unbearable filth, or went to the bathroom in the wrong place. One such example was at our closing Tribal (Color War) event in 2021 when the teams were gathered on the main athletic fields preparing to hear me announce the winner. Apollo slipped away from our house, heard my voice from hundreds of yards away, ran to me, and promptly crouched in front of the entire camp to leave his own Tribal trophy on the third-base line. Apollo was forgiven at camp for his foibles, and he helped us to keep that in mind when we or others around us slipped up. Camp is at its best when it is a place where – like Apollo – we can do the wrong thing and be forgiven for it, as long as we show that we meant no harm and are willing to do better.

As a teacher, Apollo was profound. His lessons were easy to understand, and he drew on the emotional connection that he formed with us to make them stick. In the wake of losing him, we are struck by the effect that he had on us. We know that there are members of the camp family who will also miss Apollo very much and are grateful for him being with us at camp over the last four years.

We know that many people reading this can empathize, too, with our struggle to deal with his loss. In fact, these recent days have been filled with much more significant despair in the world and there are far too many people that are coping with the loss of people and things that they love in their lives. As the leaders of Chestnut Lake, we are very aware that our work this summer will be important to (once again) provide the protection, freedom, growth, and joy that our campers deserve in spite of the real-world pressures and worries that our families face at home. Sharing these thoughts about Apollo is evidence of how much we value even the most subtle opportunity we have to model our values and the commitment we have to making camp a place that helps people in deep and meaningful ways. Just like it did Apollo. 

We will cherish the moments we had with him and understand how fragile life can be. Sharing him with you was an honor and pleasure – may his memory be a blessing.


If you would like to assist in the rescue of at-risk dogs, please consider joining us in supporting Home at Last Dog Rescue.


Campfire Tales | Week 7 (8/11/23)

[Did you see the Second Session/Week 3 video yet? Click here to watch it!]

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

One summer about 30 years ago, a close friend of mine from camp told me about his summer job. We had moved on from the summers we spent together as counselors and before he started medical school, he had taken a gig working with a trucking company. He described the job as lugging trunks and duffel bags all over the East Coast in the summer heat. The company was called, “Camp Trucking.” My friend went on to become a prominent physician and the Associate Dean of Admissions at a terrific Medical School. Camp Trucking went on to have a 34-year run until they went out of business on August 3rd. In the middle of a camp session. Without giving any notice. While keeping lots of money from parents.

If you have not already heard about the sudden closure of Camp Trucking just over one week ago (click here to read the NYT piece or click here to read a funny piece from “Daily Camp News” on the subject), it’s likely to be the story of the summer for the camping industry. And that’s a very good thing, to be honest. Camps are places where challenges are very much part of the experience and mishaps that get told and retold (often these are sensationalized) can be far more serious. In this case, it’s a story about a company that got in over its head after many years as the leader in this niche service to camp families helping to ensure that their bags would get to and from their child’s camp. Chestnut Lake Camp had stopped pushing Camp Trucking last year as the only recommended option after we started to sense that the company’s service to our families had become a bit inconsistent, but we also embraced their leaders to partner on better strategies and enhanced service to our shared clients. This was obviously to little avail, and when the company sent an email to us (five minutes before sending a similar one to camp families all over North America) we were not so much shocked by the announcement that they had gone belly-up as much as the timing of their admission of failure. Like most camps impacted by this, we were less than two weeks from the end of our summer and we had over 300 bags at camp that were meant to be delivered by Camp Trucking home.

This absurd turn of events was a gift to our leaders at Chestnut Lake. We relish the opportunity to find solutions and we thought this would be a good test of our mettle. As we immediately began to craft a strategy, our staff (big Shout Outs to John, Alex, and Sam, along with a seamless partnership as always with Marc and our friends at Trail’s End Camp) came up with great ideas and swiftly secured resources. Before 24 hours had elapsed, we had a good sense of how we would get those bags back to our families.

The most important thing about this process what not the development of a sound process nor the dedication to doing all of this at no cost to our families, it was actually the fact that while we handled this challenge we never stopped focusing on the most important concern: camp. Campers don’t care how bags get delivered, and the staff that care for the kids care even less about the bags. They only care about each other, and they care a lot about having fun. So that’s what we’ve kept doing while a few people rented trucks, bought luggage tags in every color imaginable, made all sorts of lists, and negotiated door-to-door bag delivery for New York City and Florida (where it’s impossible for us to have bags go to a centralized location reliably). This session that is soon winding down will be remembered as a spectacular one, not the one about Camp Trucking. Who really cares anymore about Camp Trucking (besides the parents that will hopefully someday get some money back from them)?

Tomorrow we will say goodbye to the kids that have experienced three or seven weeks of camp, and it will be hard to do so. The hugs and fist bumps will come with many tears, and then it will all be over for 2023. I always look forward to that last morning of emotion, as it gives us all a chance to release and share the love that we have harnessed for the summer one last time before heading home. But I will not be able to have that moment tomorrow, and I will miss watching each and every child get onto a bus or picked up by their parents. I will miss all of that because I will be driving a Penske box truck filled with bags to Philadelphia.

Thank you, Chestnut Lake Camp, for giving me the gift of a truly awesome summer.



The End

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director
This post is adapted from a piece by Aaron oringally published in Camping Magazine

For 30 years, I have been a camp professional. Most of that time, I owned, directed, led, or supported summer camps. For the few years in between my three camp directing positions, my jobs shifted to more global roles with a couple of very large nonprofit youth-serving organizations. But I have always kept my head and heart in the camp world. I have in some way — whether directly or indirectly — impacted the experiences of more than 300,000 campers and staff members during my summers as a camp leader. I’ve learned from legends and innovators, have been exposed to exceptional training and professional development, and consider myself to be fortunate for the assistance and investment others have made in my career. As I look back at my life as a camp person and assess the skills that I have seen grow and become refined, here are the things that I think qualify as my strengths that may be at an objectively expert level:

  • I can make excellent forms.
  • I can talk for a very long time.
  • I can get people to do things they don’t want to do and make them believe that they did want to do them.
  • I can spin a basketball on my finger.

Camp directors tend to think their profession is unique. We’re not like traditional educators because we run immersive and extremely intensive programs. We’re not like typical business owners because we act in loco parentis and hold the lives of children in our hands. We’re not like cruise ship captains because . . . well, maybe we are like cruise ship captains. While our peers may do other interesting things, we tend to feel that camp is a specialized field that requires distinct expertise and that others may not understand what it takes to succeed. It might be true that the nuances need a bit of explaining at cocktail parties, but I believe the essence of how we thrive in our field may not be as dissimilar as it appears if we look through the lens of skill acquisition. In a way, we are just like anyone else working day after day in a position that tests their ability to learn and develop skills. Skills are the tools that we use to do our jobs.

And camp leadership does test and expand your skill set. I have learned how to clean the inside of a 100,000-gallon underground reservoir, how to replace a large-amp breaker, how to snake a wastewater line, how to repair a pitched roof, how to stop water from flooding a building (and how to clean up after you’ve failed), how to pour concrete, and how to pull a submersible well pump that’s 300 feet below ground. I have learned enough Hebrew to order rugelach at the shuk (open-air market in Israel), enough about architecture to help design a building, enough chords to play guitar in front of indiscriminating crowds, enough HTML to build (and occasionally crash) a website, enough about how to operate deep fryers, convection ovens, and commercial dishwashers to work the line, enough about medicine to know the difference between Coxsackie and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth (same thing, actually), and enough about copier machines to solve almost every jam I’ve caused.

Ask me to set up an auto attendant in your phone system, an auto-reply in your email, a marriage ceremony, a system for tracking attendance and retention, a table for a promotional event, or a 12-team double-elimination round-robin tournament, and you will get results. But are these skills? Are these legitimate talents that I possess, or simply a result of the panoply of experiences that a camp director may have while trying to navigate the unpredictable and varied crises they face over their career? These abilities may exemplify the master-of-none mystique that camp directing emits; a job where a pair of flip-flops can pass as appropriate as long as your shirt has a camp logo on it.

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers began my quest to better understand how I might turn these tidbits of knowledge into real skills. I completed the book still considering which proficiencies I should prioritize to become an expert in. Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule, which states that this many hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field, felt overwhelming (Gladwell, 2008).

When Princeton University released its own study in 2014 that debunked the deliberate practice quotient put forth by Gladwell, I was momentarily excited. Surely, they had realized that exceptional skill could be reached in far less time. But instead, the researchers presented data to show that 10,000 hours of practice was not nearly enough. Their meta-analysis of 88 studies related to deliberate practice showed that in some domains, the time and effort put into practice might account for only a 12-percent difference in performance (MacNamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). In less stable fields — and camping would have to be considered one due to the changes in rules, context, and audience — mastery relies less on what one can predictably prepare for and more so on other variables. Hopelessness gave way to hope when I started to think about the difference between virtuoso (which Gladwell uses as a standard of excellence) and winner. I can accept that I may not appear in the annals of camping history as an all-time great, but is the reputation as a successful professional a reasonable goal?

My career in camp has had natural separations between my first 14 years as a professional at Pinemere Camp, my 9 years leading Camp Harlam and helping to support the URJ Camping System, and the last few years as an owner/director with my incredible wife, Ann, at Chestnut Lake Camp. In the first stage, I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing but I sometimes did not. In my second camp stint, I knew that I didn’t know enough and was determined to try to figure it out. And now, having gained a reputation as a high performer, it seems fitting that the combination of becoming an owner of a camp for the first time and the introduction of the word, “pandemic” into my lexicon would bring me back to the beginning of the learning loop.

I was a 24-year-old helping to run a camp while preparing to take it over from a 42-year veteran. Then I took over a veritable beast of an institution and applied all the great things people taught me and they seemed to work. And now at Chestnut Lake, I get to learn many new things while building something that is sustainably successful using the ups and downs of three decades of experience as my toolbelt. I consider myself very lucky. Luck might need to be added to my list of expert-level skills. I have had a lot of it, more than my share.

Josh Kaufman, the author of The Personal MBA, drew me in when he suggested and explicitly detailed the means of gaining skills required for earning one’s Master of Business Administration degree without ever matriculating. With an outline of 226 business concepts to learn, I realized that I didn’t want to spend $200,000 on an MBA, and I also didn’t want to memorize 226 ideas (Kaufman, 2010). But when his next book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast, came out, there was more resonance and applicability. Kaufman was not suggesting that 20 hours of intentional and thoughtful investment would lead one to become an expert, but instead, he provided a plan for acquiring a skill. Or at least the preliminary development of a skill. It took me some time to find the right skill to test, but I’m proud to share that my understanding and expertise around the National Council for Behavioral Health’s “Mental Health First Aid for Youth” curriculum and other issues related to our country’s mental health crisis have evolved significantly through this method. As Kaufman suggests, I defined my target performance level, deconstructed the skill, eliminated barriers to practice, and created fast feedback loops (Kaufman, 2013). I feel good about this, and I want more. As the leader of Chestnut Lake, I seem to have found just that: more growth through the identification and acquisition of skills that can help me and the camp that I now love be all that it can be.

As a camp professional, I can see how my openness to the advancement and acquisition of skills has contributed to my relative success and my feelings of professional self-worth. In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck describes how in a growth mindset “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point” (Dweck, 2007). In our work at camp, there’s no lack of opportunity for the accumulation of experience. Wake up in the morning, start to engage at camp, and the experiences will come to you. You will be faced with predictable and unpredictable moments, and your mindset and approach to these will be the determining factor between success and failure, and between episodic challenges and gradual growth. I wish I could go back in time and change my attitude in certain situations so that I might gain a few minutes or hours of deliberate practice while also using other methods to make the experience a skill-building one. Accumulating an assortment of non-sequitur experiences can become valuable to camp directors if their goal is to have great stories to tell. But if we’re looking to make a difference, reach our potential, affect change, and grow as professionals, we need to treat the assortment of serious and silly things we confront as opportunities to expand that tool belt.

I am a good T-shirt designer. I can create a decent Excel spreadsheet. I can announce the winners of Tribal (Color War) with Panache. I can stand in front of a large group of people and speak passionately without a net. Need a document formatted and branded, call me. I can drive a 26-foot box truck, a golf cart, a nail in one shot, and a parent who is not getting the answer they want to the point of frustration. I’ve been certified to belay and rescue on a high-challenge course, I have refereed seven sports, and I can hang a mounted camp photo on the wall without the need for a ruler or level. I’ve repaired a window screen and a meaningful relationship, and I do know how to properly stern a canoe. All of this was learned at camp, and these skills have value in our distinctive environment. And I can get better at all of them.

Except for the luck. I’m already the luckiest I can be.

Campfire Tales | Week 6 (8/5/23)

[Did you see the Second Session/Week 2 video yet? Click here to watch it!]

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director & J.R. Havlan, Communications Director

While we’re at camp, we mostly tune out the real world. But a few days ago, Aaron stumbled onto a story in the Wall Street Journal that was of particular interest to us. The title immediately caught his eye: “Obsessed Parents Overanalyze Photos of Their Kids at Camp.”

If you read the article, you may find (like we did) that elements of the content simply do not speak to the wonderful parents that we have at Chestnut Lake Camp. This was confirmed after several conversations with parents, who, thankfully, do not share the elevated levels of anxiety that can sometimes be experienced based on a specific aspect of a single photograph. And all of this made us want to share with you a few insights on our own process for providing these photographs and other media to our valued Chestnut Lake parents.

At some point today, we will surpass 25,000 photos uploaded to Campanion/MyCLC this summer. To end up with that number of photos, our CLC Communications Team took approximately 200,000 pictures around camp. They spent over 2,800 hours being present at activities, capturing beautiful, often action-packed photographs as well as wonderful posed photos from every corner of our Chestnut Lake campus. In addition to this, the Communications Team leadership sorts and edits all of these photos as well as doing the other administrative work necessary to get this media in front of parents every single day. There is also a staff member dedicated to collecting, editing, and posting photos, stories, reels, and highlights to our camp Instagram account, and another whose main focus is to film, edit, and present the meticulously produced “Weekly Highlight Video” that has been a wildly popular feature for our campers, staff, and, of course, our parents at home. Together, they set an extremely high bar for creative ingenuity that is required to produce this quantity and quality of media for the benefit of our families.

This year, countless parents have repeatedly lauded the work of our Communications Team, and we greatly appreciate that recognition. These talented staff members (most of whom also have responsibilities to be in our cabins to work as counselors as well) are doing some of the best work we’ve seen, and though there are countless stories here at Chestnut Lake throughout the summer, we believe their work consistently reflects the amazing adventures and overall joy your children are experiencing here at camp.

One particular issue raised in the article is that parents tend to use these photos as diagnostic tools to measure their children’s enjoyment and moods. As camp parents, we can understand this compulsion. Sometimes, campers are captured on camera looking less than fully present or perhaps even “left out” of certain activities. But we can assure you that any examples of this are fractional moments in time and that the many photos of our campers laughing, playing, and engaging with their friends are by far the more accurate portrayal of their time here at Chestnut Lake.

The purpose of our communications department is to not only reflect the joy your campers are experiencing but also to help relieve parents of the natural anxiety that comes with being apart from their children for so long. They work diligently day after day to be as equitable as possible with the photos, always striving to find balance with the different divisions, age groups, activities, and, of course, boys and girls. That balance is not always exact, but we’re confident in our main goal, which is to post as many of the wonderful, thoughtful, and often beautifully artistic photos taken by our experienced, hard-working team. We at Chestnut Lake Camp want all of our parents to feel connected, and our ultimate goal is to not only help parents experience the joy their children are having.

This is camp. It is meant to be experienced in person. But we hope that the photos and videos you’ve already received, along with those still to come, will help you continue to enjoy the view from home as we close out the Second Session of our 2023 season. We sincerely hope that when your children return home (which is in just one week!) you will enjoy reviewing all of these wonderful images together and sharing the hundreds of stories that go along with them. We recommend buying some marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers to have some homemade s’mores while you relish the memories and spirit of camp.


Campfire Tales | Week 5 (7/29/23)

[Did you see the Second Session/Week 1 video yet? Click here to watch it!]

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The first week of our camp’s Second Session is nearing a close, and at this point of the summer I always start to get anxious with a feeling of “time is running out.” The 3-week session at Chestnut is jam-packed with activity so that campers can experience the special moments that they deserve, and after one week, we’re already running at full speed. Our Varsity campers just left on the multi-day Mid-Atlantic Adventure trip, trips for the rest of camp come in the next couple of days, we’ve had our Tribal Campfire, and the “Tribal Spirit” is palpable, Specialty Camps are currently running (this weekend has featured basketball and dance), and despite occasional rain, the kids have had lots and lots of activities.

As I shared last night with our entire staff at camp, it’s time to cherish the remaining time that we have while we push to engage and guide our campers through the core of their session. Our 3-week kids have a lot still to come, and our 7-week campers are also at a great moment of the summer. They have spent 5 weeks at camp already and we are committed to stoking their deep passion for camp.

One highlight that was a key aspect of our first week of the Second Session was the arrival of our Discovery Camp kids for their 5-day program. These 2nd/3rd/4th-grade boys and girls (65 in total) were here for their very first time and we designed a “taste of camp” program that was meant to give them a real sense of what Chestnut is all about. It’s only the second year that we have offered this experience, and again this summer we enjoyed a great time. The staff members that shifted from their usual cabin assignments into the Dico Camp cabins and programs were amazing, and as we said goodbye to them at the end of the session, there were countless kids saying that we would see them next summer.

One moment that might have felt like a bad omen at the start of the Disco week was the arrival of their bus. Half of the campers in the program come from New York City and a partnership with the 92Y (and their amazing day camp), so we welcomed a charter bus during our Second Session drop off. The driver was told to back up to make his way out of camp, and he instead decided to drive forward. Then he backed up. Then he got stuck on wet grass. Then he hung his bus up on the road, unable to move. And then we towed the bus. The photo (see inset) is a classic.

Time is running, but not running out. Our Second Session is underway and we’re having a lot of fun in Beach Lake. Let’s enjoy all of the moments and not take for granted when everything feels awesome at Chestnut…and if we need to get “towed” out of trouble, we can handle that!



Campfire Tales | Week 4 (7/21/23)

[Did you see the Week 4 video yet? Click here to watch it!]
By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The final week of a camp session always makes me feel sad. I think about the time spent and how wonderful all of the great moments have been, but I also get stuck on some of the things I wish were different. I can dwell on some pretty ridiculous things. Let’s take the weather, for instance. Last summer we made it through seven weeks of camp without so much as one “Rainy Day.” This year? Over the last four weeks, we did not have more than 3 days in a row without rainfall. Our terrific program/experience team somehow kept everyone having fun despite the forecasted and unexpected conditions. The grounds on our gorgeous property resemble a construction site in some spots, and our parents will undoubtedly see some muddy shoes and socks when they unpack our campers arriving home tomorrow. Then there are the mistakes. I’m a big believer in the importance of messing up and have long felt that there’s no better place to fall down than at camp. But with only four weeks (or three) to deliver the spectacular outcomes that Chestnut should, a missed moment or a botched opportunity could feel like a catastrophic error. The end of the session makes me think about how much better we can do. And then – just in time – something always seems to happen in those last days that reminds me of how insignificant the weather and the mistakes (and the other challenges) are compared to the monumental power that is generated here in Beach Lake each summer.

As we gathered as an entire community to close out the competition between our Unami Turtles and Minsi Wolves Tribal teams last night, we were treated to just such a special moment. Minsi was off to a very good start, and it seemed clear within 30 minutes of the Rope Burn’s start that they would likely walk away with the win. Burning a very thick rope that’s suspended ten feet in the air is not an easy task, but their early efficiency at getting a fire built from scratch into one that was reaching the rope made them appear to be the favorites. Unami caught up with a great deal of hard work, but they seemed still to trail. The teams seated in front of the bonfires were in constant cheers, especially hyped because they were told before the start of the event that relatively few points separated the two teams after three days and the winner of this last activity would win Tribal. Minsi’s fire grew even bigger, and as time passed, Unami’s chances to come back waned.

Minsi’s rope fell, and their teammates erupted in celebration. As you would expect, Unami’s enthusiasm sank. But they had to keep pressing on – it is a Chestnut tradition that the competition is not over until both teams burn their rope. Ten minutes passed, Then ten more. And then there was a shift. We suddenly went from watching a team going through its paces to finish off a second-place effort to a display of how one camp can come together.

Without an audible request for help, the fire-building team from Minsi began assisting their Unami brothers and sisters. Wood from one pile went to the other fire. Unami fire-builders were able to take a brief break to be hosed down after the longest Rope Burn effort in memory. Then there were Minsi staff – people that had been seated or standing in the crowd – also assisting. At some point, there were not two teams helping each other to burn a rope; friends were doing something together in a way that modeled what we try to inspire and reinforce at Chestnut.

The Unami rope fell. It was 90 minutes from when we began. The Unami and Minsi leaders collapsed into each other’s arms. The crowd cheered for them all. And though the Minsi team was announced as the Tribal winner by virtue of this last competition, the true winner was camp. Camp won.

I love the end of the session. It’s the best part of the summer. You forget the hardship, you leave behind the hard feelings, and you remember that the things out of your control like the weather and making mistakes are not worth worrying about any longer. The session is about the moments that make you feel good about yourself and the people around you. That’s what camp is.

On behalf of our family and the dedicated leaders of Chestnut Lake Camp, we thank you for an extraordinary First Session. Here’s to another great session starting soon. We love you.