Author Archives: Aaron Selkow

Campfire Tales | 8/13/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Fifty days ago, over 500 kids began to arrive in this special place in Beach Lake, PA. About 20 days before that, the first of over 200 staff members began their orientation and training for their roles as leaders and role models for those campers. Approximately 290 days before that, our year-round directors wrapped up the 2021 season and began preparing for a program meant to instill meaningful values, started building an inimitable community and culture to reflect our camp’s past and future, and kicked-off developing the fun that children truly deserve while they spend time with their friends in this awesome place. Here, in this uniquely familial and intentional environment; here, among the trees that surround Chestnut Lake and nestled in the Poconos Mountains; here, with the endless flow of smiles and the sounds of voices filled with spirit and laughter echoing through each and every day of vibrant activity. The evidence of what works about camp is right here, and it’s as clear today as it ever was before.

This summer has been inspiring. With only one day left together (and tonight’s extra-special Campfire), this group of campers and staff will finish packing and will depart from our home here at Chestnut Lake Camp. Of course, there will be joy in returning to our home lives; we’ll have our favorite meals, will reconnect with family and friends, and will share stories and special moments with others to try to describe what went on over these weeks. But the events of this summer – for me and for so many other Chestnut Lakers – will make the transition back into the “Real World” tough. There are some things that we have seen and been a part of while here at camp that simply cannot be duplicated or even understood at home.

At home, we seldom get to witness the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of a young adult caring for someone else’s child in the way that it happens here. Many of our counselors – those that may have grown up here and those that have made Chestnut their new home this summer – have extended and challenged themselves to make sure their campers are safe and able to develop their own identities and independence here. There are the regular embraces, pats on the back, high-fives, fist-bumps, and kids and staff arm-in-arm that show the essence of what happens here every day that may never be possible at home. The relationship between the young adults and children at camp is one of the things that we leverage to teach and affect in a totally immersive environment, and that cannot be imitated in someone’s home or school, or most other settings. Camp is a place where we can make fun of ourselves, where we can compete with compassion, and where we can let ourselves make an incredible mess and then clean up afterward because we care about how we take care of this place and each other.

When I return home, I will miss the opportunity to work with so many amazing leaders. It’s been so gratifying to see our staff accept challenges to further their skills and develop themselves into people that are sure to make a difference in the world. Counselors at camp work hard and are pushed to maintain such high standards that might be unheard of at home. Ask a counselor after the summer is over if they learned anything working at camp and be prepared for a long list of insights that will make them more capable and confident students, employees, and even parents (someday) in the lives that they live away from Chestnut Lake. Those that have led them – the “Blue Team” and “Upper Leadership Team” members that have dedicated themselves to round-the-clock oversight and commitment to camp and the campers’ needs – have done mostly thankless work, and without them, our directors would never be able to successfully steer this ship nor would our camp parents at home be able to hear about all the successes their children will have had while at camp. And of course, there have been all the staff members that care for health and wellness, feed us, keep camp clean and working, and so many others that are part of this community and contributed each day to everything coming together.

At the end of the summer, I’m always reminded of the core principles of camp that go beyond what type of camp this might be: we are an immersive experience that is without a child’s parents for an extended period of time. We create a virtual city for a couple of months that attends to every need of its residents, including every aspect of their experience. We have parents choosing to send their sons and daughters to us to be taken care of by – essentially – strangers, and the only contact that they have directly with their children tends to be through slow-paced and often too-brief letters, the viewing of a handful of photos, and maybe one or two phone calls. And we do all of this for weeks at a time. It’s kind of nutty when you really think about it. But that’s also what makes it awesome and so different from anything else.

Like all of us here, I will leave in the coming weeks to restart my life at home with Ann. Our family will reconnect briefly before saying goodbye again to our daughter as she returns to college. I’ll lose track of the amazing routine created here at Chestnut Lake, and I’ll miss the people here more and more each day. I will go from a world where everyone says, “Hi” to one where people tend to look at the ground or at their ubiquitous screens as they pass you. I won’t putter around in a golf cart from place to place to engage with young people when I leave here. And I won’t get to see children growing up right before my eyes. I’ll have to wait – just like them – for the countdown to camp to slowly reach zero when we come back for the summer of 2023.

It’s been a summer of new experiences and development at Chestnut Lake. After the summer of 2021– a difficult restart after almost two years apart from each other, coinciding with the start of our tenure as directors – we have helped to celebrate what camp is really about. We’ve protected the foundation that was started here before us, and have started to build around and on top of it to be sure that our camp will be strong forever.

I will continue to relish the opportunity to share my passion for camp, whether sitting at the Campfire each week with campers and staff or dreaming of the next time I’m together with them in this extraordinary spot in Beach Lake, PA. I have cherished the moments that we have enjoyed together in 2022, and I hope that every child and adult that has been here does, too.

Thank you for this incredible summer.

Campfire Tales | 8/5/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

This week’s Friday night gathering for the entire Chestnut Lake community brought back the Varsity Campfire. Our 9th and 10th-grade teens, with support from their exceptional staff, planned a special campfire ceremony that featured some of our standard rituals (like “Community Service Awards”) and a wonderful tradition of division lip sync songs presented for the whole camp family. Emceed by young Varsity leaders, the program welcomed each gender/grade group to stand before the audience with the backdrop of a bonfire and show off their choreographed renditions of their chosen songs. We had some Billy Eilish, One Direction, and other popular hits, but the music was not the best part. It was clear with each group that came up that our campers (and their dedicated “Dance Mom” and “Dance Dad” staff!) had put in the time to learn some great moves and were out to win. It brought a great spirit to the Campfire, and though we could only have one first-place finisher (way to go, Sani!), everyone in attendance got into the fun.

But my deeper thoughts this week are more aligned with the sharing and conversations around the Community Service Award portion of the program than anything else. It was a week of watching and listening to campers about their time here and about each other, and what you hear from the people living here each and every day is what matters. The awards are always sweet and heartfelt, and this week was no exception. Campers who have never spoken in public somehow have the presence to share their kind words about another person and how they have made a difference in their camp experience. Staff members recognize kids who they say have taught and inspired them simultaneously while the staff person is trying to do the same. Friends recognize each other’s respect and love and can speak to that in front of hundreds of people. The themes this week included advocacy, patience, support, fellowship, joy, and other things that we try to teach and reinforce. But no matter how hard we might try, it only works when someone actually does it, and it may only impact others in the community as fully as it should when we share it aloud. Being a part of that this week was touching.

I listened this past week to campers modeling teamwork, with one player passing the ball selflessly to another for a shot and then being thanked for that later. I heard a camper tell another quietly before trying something for the very first time that they were really scared, and then after they took a “Leap of Faith” at Outdoor Adventure, they jumped into the other’s arms to tell them how proud they were for doing it. In the Dining Hall, I sat with a group of campers to hear about their day and summer so far, and story after story was about people – how this person did this, how another person said that – without even a mention of a scheduled activity. After the Talent Show this week, I listened to a 13-year-old boy tell a 10-year-old girl (that he didn’t really know) how great they were on stage and how hard they laughed. A group of campers enjoying a visit to the Canteen told me that there were dozens of things to improve or add at Chestnut for next summer, but when I asked them to rate their session after I dutifully jotted down every suggestion (or demand!), there was a unanimous chorus of “10 out of 10!” And a camper told me this week that being at Chestnut Lake this year has made them feel more like a “whole person” because they have finally made a true friend that they know they’re going to keep forever.

Our camp has great facilities and programs, but it is a people place. The people have spoken this week. And I am listening.

 

 

 

 

Campfire Tales | 7/29/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The Tribal Campfire is fantastic. We gather the campers in our usual spot near the woods on the way to the lake, and we use storytelling and ritual to inspire excitement and camp spirit. The two Tribal War teams (Unami Turtles and Minsi Wolves, dressed in their white and green outfits and belting out cheers and songs) sit in two sections of the site, while our first-time campers are wearing their red Chestnut Lake Tribal t-shirts awaiting the official news of which team they will forever join. Tonight, without the threat of rain, we were able to incorporate all the rituals we cherish at Chestnut for this special night.

To begin, I read the Tribal Story (you can click here and see the same words we shared tonight). The story connects the dots between Chestnut Lake Camp’s history and the sustenance of the Tribal tradition. Following the recitation of this tale, our campers on the Minsi Wolves and Unami Turtles move to line the bridge to the lake, each team standing across from each in the Tribal colors. The first-time campers in red make their way through this gauntlet and arrive at the lake to perform the Tribal Oath (also available to read here).

When the campers return to the Campfire Site, they learn of their team by virtue of the white or green pain that is added to their cheeks by our camp leadership team. They turn to face their friends, and they react to the responses those new teammates have to the paint seen on their faces. Now, they are part of a new community. Forevermore, they will be either Minsi or Unami.

The ceremony tonight is analogous to our first week at camp. Our Full Summer and Second Session campers that have either been here all summer or are back after a previous season here are our leaders. Their job – while they are enjoying themselves and able to just be kids in such a remarkable place – is to help our new campers settle in and discover the joy that we have here in Beach Lake. During the first 5 days, they did so with 50 additional campers here to experience Discovery Camp. And now, as they continue through a sprint through our remaining two weeks of the summer, they have indoctrinated their peers into the Tribal experience. All that remains now is to wait and see when Tribal will be “broken” in a creative way, and then the actual games will begin.

We keep track of the Tribal winners each session and from summer to summer. But there is no doubt that we all win when we can dive into such a meaningful activity and connect each camper to one another and to the rich history – and future – that we have at Chestnut Lake.

Campfire Tales | 7/22/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The end of a session at camp is hard to describe to the uninitiated. Without spending a summer in a place like this for at least a few weeks, you will struggle to fully understand the mix of emotions, joy, exhaustion, and excitement that comes in these final days. Right up to the last second that a camper is here – as they hop onto the bus or into the arms of their parent here for an in-person pick-up – they are still in the bubble. The space and community that we create envelop the campers while they are here, and for weeks on end, nothing in the outside world can really penetrate the bubble. We are in this unique, intensive, and immersive environment that cannot really be replicated. You’ll have to take our word for it…or you might have to come up with a reason to apply for a job here next summer.

The campers are at the center of our universe. Everything else over the last four weeks kind of revolves around them. Their needs are more important, their schedules are what we work around, their feedback is golden to us, and we focus on them always. But it is our staff that makes it all happen. They give their time and attention, and each day you can see how much influence they have on the experience for all. There are some exceptional adults here to support the children, and at our Campfire on this final night of our First Session, all of this was on display.

Tonight’s Campfire included some usual things and also some special rituals, but even the typical pieces were different. Before even getting to the Campfire Site, we all gathered in the Basketball Stadium to watch this week’s highlight video. It was extra long and extra special, and the campers were entranced watching themselves and their friends at Tribal and other activities over the last days here. Once we moved to enjoy the Campfire, I had the honor of starting us off with a brief speech and then followed up with the leading of a song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” by John Denver. This was the song that was sung to me in 1976 on the last night of my first-ever summer at camp, and it was beautiful to hear the camp join in tonight. Sam Roberts, our Director of Staff & Camper Experience, went next by facilitating the Chestnut tradition of burning a list of Bunk Memories that each cabin had made as a symbolic way of commemorating all the great moments we enjoyed. After this, it was time for Community Service Awards, and they did not disappoint. There was great applause for each person honored, whether they were campers, staff, or camp leaders.

Ann was next, and her job was one of the most fun. We like to present “Legacy” (or longevity) gifts to campers and staff that are marking their 3rd, 5th, 8th, 10th, or even 25th summer at Chestnut Lake. We read hundreds of names and took pictures of the campers with their new camp apparel. For those campers that did not yet have the chance to rack up enough summers for a gift, theirs are just another summer or two (or a few) away. With each name read, we climbed the ladder toward the next level. Most amazing were the awards for 10 years. Thanks to Jacob Labkovski, Benjamin Schnure, John Derrick, Laurie Craig, and Mike Smith who reached that number this summer and represent so much of what makes Chestnut Lake the best.

We joined in song for, “Linger,” and then sang the camp’s alma mater with all our hearts (and whatever was left of our voices). And then just as quickly as it felt like the summer started, the Campfire came to an end, and right behind it will be our First Session.

Tomorrow won’t be easy. But it will be so important. Tonight’s Campfire represented so much of what is special here…I only wish it didn’t happen. I would like more time.

Campfire Tales | 7/16/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I started as a camp director in 1994. It was a camp that had been open for 75 years by that point and had a rich history. Later in my career, I ran a camp that was 60 years old, similarly established, and entrenched in traditions that had withstood the test of time. I’ve worked as a consultant with many camps that were even older. But I also have opened camps, supported newer camps, and now – with such honor – I relish the chance to work with Ann here, at Chestnut, where we are still at the earlier stages of our development into a camp that will be around forever.

What makes a “forever” camp? How do you know that a camp is even beginning to reach that stage when what you’re seeing throughout the summer is something that’s going to be truly sustainable? Lots of ways. Too many to share in a short post that is about our weekly Campfire. But there were two things that happened at (and before) the Campfire this week that represent a special element of Chestnut that has already been built and is anchored in our identity, and another that is evidence of new growth.

Our sister camp, Trail’s End, started Chestnut 15 years ago. In doing so, they allowed Chestnut to borrow from many decades of proven success to give our new camp a head start. Many of the elements of Chestnut that our campers have come to enjoy were derivative of something at Trail’s End. One such program was the “Community Service Award.” It continues to be representative of what Chestnut is all about, and last night was an example of why.

Throughout the week, Head Counselors make “nominations” available for campers and staff members to present a case for someone they know to be selected for a Community Service Award. A special 4″x4″ round patch that has the recognition stitched into it is handed to the recipients after the nomination is read by the person or persons that selected them. Last night, a stream of campers from many Divisions stood before our camp family and shared beautiful perspectives on how others had helped them, befriended them, listened to them, celebrated them, comforted them, and cared for them. The words were honest and powerful; the Head Counselors shared that they had many more nominations than they could choose for the Campfire, so we will have more recognition to tackle throughout the rest of our Session. When campers applaud and yell to support their friends that are being distinguished for doing great things, your camp is on its way towards forever status.

The next measurable example of growth started the night before the Campfire. As you all know, we are approaching the start of our Tribal War (Color War) between the Unami Turtles and Minsi Wolves. In the last few days – with only about one week left in the Session – the campers have started to ask when our Tribal Break will come. It is an eternal question. So, too, are, “Who will the Chiefs be?” and “When will you be announcing the Chiefs?” (Note: “Chiefs” are the male/female staff members that are chosen to lead each team – it is considered a coveted honor). Our camp leaders come up with countless ways to answer without divulging anything. But in the past, there does come an inevitable point at Chestnut Lake when the community (or at least some of its sharp members) realize that the Break of Tribal must be happening tonight. They notice that we might be at an all-camp program, they pick up signals that something off-beat or surprising will be happening, and although there is still a great deal of excitement when we announce the start of our favorite program and read the names of each Chief, once the Break begins, everyone knows what’s next. That is where a “Fake Break” comes in.

We do not like to lie to children. And we are all about kindness at Chestnut. But a bit of trickery and fanfare can go a long way to building suspense and excitement about an already-special event. That is what we did on Thursday night. And then we did it again on Friday (at the Campfire).

As we ended an awesome all-camp Lip Sync Battle, we turned off the lights in the Basketball Stadium and fireworks started to stream from behind in the woods. Music started blaring, and I walked with a bright orange bag in my hands to center court. Anyone at camp before knew that this was the Tribal Break and in my hands was the list of Chiefs, and any new camper jumped right in so that they, too, could claim to know what was going on. I calmed everyone down, removed the envelope from the bag, and with a bit of flair, announced a Fake Break. A moment of devastation was followed by minutes of joy. A surprise. More suspense. A bigger deal. It’s what we needed. And it is the mark of a forever camp.

At our Friday night Campfire, we did it again. A bit more subtly (which made it so much more believable as a real Break) but no less effective. The only thing better than one Fake Break is two Fake Breaks. That’s what forever camps do.  And that is what we can do at Chestnut Lake.

Campfire Tales | 7/8/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Preparing for this week’s special Campfire (called the “Varsity Campfire” because it allows our Varsity teens the chance to facilitate the weekly camp-wide gathering) came with great anticipation. I listened in a bit (kind of secretly!) to the plans and heard some of the cool things they were planning, and I looked forward to sitting in the Basketball Stadium to watch our weekly highlight video with the whole camp and then head to the Campfire Site to watch the Varsity teens take over. That part alone makes it awesome, as I was to have no role tonight other than to enjoy listening and joining their first chance to lead something as meaningful as our weekly Campfire gathering.

The community was treated to an amazing Varsity Campfire. They performed so well and brought the spirit out of our campers and staff to mark the end of our second week of camp. Since the program ended, so many people are talking about how well they did, and they should be feeling really proud.

But I missed it.

Being unable to sit and witness our young leaders and their staff do something great is one of the most important things that I could have been doing tonight, and really at just about any time. It is also one of the gifts of being in charge of a camp. Unlike parents or others that can only hear about or see still images of some of those great moments, I get to watch in real-time and be fully a part of it. But I’m also running a summer camp. And today was a day with lots of moving parts and one particular project (the decision, communication, and ongoing planning of some changes to 8th, 9th, 10th, and 12th-grade trips this session) needed my attention until now (you can read an update about this in a separate email sent to all families). This kept me away from a great moment, but I accept that sometimes I will have to do something that I would rather not do, and sometimes I am dealt a hand that feels a bit unfair and I know that I have to just press on.

Ironically, that is also what our Varsity teens had to deal with today. Just hours before needing to get up in front of the whole camp and show everyone how much they love this place and model leadership for others, they learned that some of the trips that many of them had been looking forward to all year (some Varsity participants have waited for many years to experience these trips, really) would be changed. Another summer dealing with unique protocols and the concerns of our community’s health and the “greater good” informed my decision to pivot from these long-anticipated trips with multiple days spent many miles away to day trips that would not extend beyond the types of experiences that we have already executed for campers this summer. They would still have so much opportunity for fun, but it is a change. Change can be hard. And then a short time later they needed to stand before the campers that look up to them and lead a Campfire that people really care a lot about. And they nailed it.

Next week will bring another Campfire, and I am hopeful that I will have the ability to be there. But today I can only give my apologies and offer my deep respect and congratulations to the Varsity teens and their staff that set aside any feelings of uneasiness for being great examples of what Chestnut Lake is all about. And I guess I can join all the parents that will be hitting “refresh” tomorrow on the Campanion app to see the pictures.

Campfire Tales | 7/1/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

We often say that a day at camp is like a week, a week at camp is like a month, and a month at camp is like a year. If that’s true – and it does feel that way thus far in our 2022 camp season at Chestnut Lake – we’ve had one amazing month in the last week here in Beach Lake.

There has been so much activity, so much that our campers have had a chance to already try for the first time, and so many things that our returning campers may be returning to from previous years. There are relationships that are growing deeper, and countless new ones are taking shape. Counselors and leaders of programs are working so hard and the impact of that is being seen visibly on the faces of kids, and it’s being felt by the vibe around camp. The vibe is…pretty amazing.

That was evident last night.

The Tribal Campfire is one of the truly special moments of the summer, as it represents the intersection of camp tradition, ritual, community, history, and the welcoming of new members into our family. Coming together last night at the Campfire site was the pinnacle of a week’s worth of activities. But the anticipation of kicking off our Tribal War (color war) experience brought even more energy. Campers were seated wearing their Green Unami Turtles or White Minso Wolves spirit gear unless they were a new camper or staff member wearing red. The campers at Chestnut for their first summer had the chance to don their red Tribal t-shirt that was sent to them during the year after they enrolled in camp. The cheers from the Unami and Minsi teams – I continue to be amazed that campers away from Chestnut for 10 or 11 months can remember the many ridiculous and intense cheers that they learned in the previous summer! – were loud and passionate. I quieted the crowd, stepped to the podium in front of our entire community, and began…

“Long ago on this very land…”

You can read the rest of the tale (click here to access the Tribal Campfire Story) to get a sense of the context of Tribal’s beginnings and the essence of the program for our campers and staff that begins soon.

Ann and I are really proud of the staff here at Chestnut that has contributed to each and every aspect of our first week’s strong beginning. The team of people that leads Chestnut, supports Chestnut in every area, and is on the ground with campers being Chestnut is outstanding. As we move from the first week – or the first month! – to the next, we know that the new fun that campers will have can be layered onto a strong foundation.

We can’t wait to share more insight into what your children are up to here at Chestnut Lake, and we hope that our camp parents at home are starting to settle in as well. Thank you for letting your kids be here with us, and stay tuned for much more to come…

 

Campfire Tales | 6/26/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I look forward to sharing some thoughts each week before the Chestnut Lake Camp community gathers for our Campfire. For those of you that may be newer to Chestnut, our Community Campfires are usually held each Friday after dinner, and they are a very special part of the program here. There are other times that our campers might gather for Campfires, like our extra-special Tribal Campfire that launches Chestnut’s inimitable Tribal (Color) War experience, but the Friday night gathering is a tradition in Beach Lake.

Tonight we will soon gather for our Opening Campfire after a colossal day. The campers arrived (some actually got here yesterday from very far away places), our staff began to finally get the chance to do the work they came here to do, and as I write this I’m watching kids playing in the pool just yards away. Camp has started. And tonight we will officially usher in the start of our First Session and the 2022 season at Chestnut Lake.

This is not in a typical year. Since March 2020, the normal that we might remember is gone. Some kids have thrived during this period and may have shown incredible adaptability and resilience. But the interruption of routine, an emphasis on technology for connection, more time spent at home and with adults, less in-person interaction and socialization, and other aspects of the pandemic have forged a new normal for countless children. And in an immersive and intensive environment like ours, sometimes these small wrinkles that kids experience can either be easily ironed out or can be more pronounced.

Even the greatest experience ever dreamed up – a summer at camp – has been impacted. Looking back to the summer of 2021 when Ann and I had our first chance to join and lead this camp family, there were challenges that we had never seen before. Our staff worked so hard, but we were paddling upstream on many days. In the end, the time at camp was an antidote for children that just needed a break and craved the chance to be with each other and free from some of the real world’s worries. But as we walked away from Beach Lake at the end of that summer, we were immediately focused on this summer. This is the summer to show what Chestnut Lake is all about and how much joy, inspiration, growth, and ridiculous fun there is here. And now we’re here, and the magic has begun.

At tonight’s Campfire, I will welcome your children to this special place. They will be seated together, shoulder-to-shoulder, beneath a darkened sky with glistening stars. We will sing, we will cheer, and we will introduce our campers to all the staff members that will be devoted to them throughout the summer. Individuals (like our Junior Counselors) that grew up here at Chestnut Lake, young adults that have traveled across the globe and have brought incredible life experience to this work, and so many immensely talented people that have already shown a capacity for caring and spirit at a very high level. Towards the end of the program, we will teach and then join in for Chestnut’s alma mater in an effort to ritualize the first night of an extraordinary summer:

Summer
Days spent creating
Friendships
Lifetimes awaiting
Here with you, dear Chestnut Lake

Memories
Scenes on a postcard
Moments
Cabins and ballyards
Always true, dear Chestnut Lake

Kinships old and new
Spirit shining through

Sundown
Nights ‘round the campfire
Dreamlike
Flames dancing higher
Always true, dear Chestnut Lake 
Here with you, dear Chestnut Lake

These words are important at Chestnut Lake, but it’s less so what we say and more so that we are together and all saying the same thing. This sense of togetherness and unity represents the best at Chestnut, and this is the moment I am looking forward to more than any other. This is what we came to do, this is what your kids richly deserve.

Enjoy your first night of camp at home, and know that we will be enjoying ours. Always true, dear Chestnut Lake.

What Can Color War Teach Us?

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Aside from family and the Philadelphia 76ers, the institution in my life that has been the most constant and influential is summer camp. Camp is where I figured out who I wanted to be as a kid, and camp is where I’ve been afforded the space and inspiration as an adult to try to get closer to that ideal. When I need to laugh, a story from countless summers spent in the woods without television can be counted on. And when I face challenges, there are few occasions that a lesson learned within the bubble of camp won’t provide valuable perspective. In the last week, I’ve needed both the laughs and lessons of camp.

As I write this, my current worldview is cast through two lenses, one made of my usual optimism and hopefulness, and the other that colors everything with unprecedented disharmony and polarization. No matter the side that each American may feel that they’re on with regards to the recent presidential election, there’s something broken. I continue to look up to make sure that the sky hasn’t fallen and plea with others to see silver lining in the clouds. If only I didn’t turn on a device, try to go any place, or speak to anyone, I might not feel encumbered by the uncertainty and anger that seem to be inching closer and closer to me. I’m not a philosopher nor a pundit, not an expert on the democratic process nor nearly the agent of social change and activism that many others may be. I’m just a person that was born too late to truly experience the impact of epic conflicts that America faced long ago, too white and privileged to understand what it’s like to live in fear all day. When gunshots ring out in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia, I don’t immediately think they’re ripping through the chest of someone I know. And though my home life and career have been rocked by COVID-19, I’m in no position to complain. I just want to find solace where I can, to try to make some sense of all of this chaos. So, I turn back to camp – the ever-present surrealistic rock that I’ve leaned on for so many years – to find something, anything, to shake some sensibility from the trees swaying in the high winds of present-day challenges.

At camp, we connect young people to each other. 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 actually 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 coalition and establish peace in these temporary homes, Color War often tests that process by making teams. Whether it’s 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 may be watched by the entire camp, rope burning rituals that make for some of the most important moments – and awesome photographs – of the summer, and the design of plaques and songs that can become part of the camp’s folklore and decorations 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 two or four teams cannot be understated as a tricky variable.

Camp leaders are not ones to do things without thought, and while they create environments that have inherent risk in order to give campers a chance to build resilience and independence, Color War continues as much because of the challenge of having friends on different sides as it does in spite of it. They establish rules and structure to 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. And there is an explicit agreement that all combatants must adhere to that when the War is over that 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 Color War 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 Color War 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 1978 with that line about the Green Team captains being hippies? Davey wrote it, and he’s now retired and living in Davie. Remember that Apache Relay from 1985 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. Color War creates stories, it builds spirit, and it 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.

America is not summer camp. And the recent presidential election process was not a Color War (although there was a Blue Team and Red Team). But the application of the Color War 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. For me, Color War is an ideal where people that might otherwise be friends can grapple with divergences in a healthy way, 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.

This summer, camps expect to be back to running their extraordinary programs despite the ongoing pandemic. Camp directors may need to be creative and flexible with travel, trips, and testing, but you can be certain that the essence of camp will sustain and there may never have been a more important summer to allow our kids to get back to those far-away places to experience joy and togetherness than right now. There will be Color Wars, whether they go by that name or something different, because we know that giving people the chance to clash and yet still be able to put our arms around each other when it’s over is an antidote for what ails us today.

2022 Camp Handbook

Whether a child will be heading off to Chestnut Lake Camp for the very first time or they are returning after many summers spent with us in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania, preparation and planning are a big part of a successful summer. Our camp leaders spend over 300 days getting their staff team, programming, facilities, and every detail ready for a spectacular season of fun and friendship, but the support from and partnership with our camp families all along the way can make such a difference, too. Throughout the off-season, we tour families on-site, spend countless hours on Zoom and phone calls, and introduce and gather our campers and families together. We also share updates and resources, require forms and registration to be completed for various camp services, and continuously look for ways to help campers get excited and prepped for a terrific experience.

One new element of camp prep and support for families that we are introducing this year at Chestnut Lake is our 30+ page, comprehensive, 2022 Camp Handbook. This resource is a significantly expanded version of our form Portfolio document, as we have tried to amass many different aspects of camp preparations, policies, and answers to important questions in one place.

The Handbook does not provide everything under the sun, but it does cover a great many elements of the summer program and many critical considerations for parents and campers to consider before the summer. We look forward to using our periodic Chestnut Essential e-mails and other means to fill in blanks and highlight and amplify key pieces of information, but the Handbook consolidates many relevant and key insights. Especially because this is a new tool for our families this year, we are asking all parents to take some time to review the Handbook as soon as possible. We will also add more information to the Handbook prior to the summer, and when we do, we will notify families and will use some very obvious notations in the Handbook to indicate any new material.

Click here to review or download the Handbook 

Enjoy the use of this document on your camp journey, and please contact Aaron or Ann if you have any additional questions or suggestions.