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Maine’s crown jewel

Posted July 01, 2012, at 12:03 p.m.

Maine’s summer camps, an oft-overlooked jewel in Maine’s crown, got well-deserved praise recently in a report from Planning Decisions, a Portland-based research firm. Planning Decisions was commissioned by the American Camp Association to do an analysis of the economic impact of Maine camps. The impact on Maine’s economy is substantial and impressive. According to Planning Decisions, Maine camps contribute more than $332 million to the state’s economy each year — almost as much as the state’s fisheries industry. Moreover, the parents of campers add another $171 million to Maine’s economy. In short, Maine’s summer camps are the little engine that could.

I confess to a bias for Maine’s camps, as both of our daughters are “Wo girls,” having spent many glorious summers before at Camp Wohelo on Sebago Lake. Wohelo is one of Maine’s oldest camps and has been lovingly run by three generations of the Gulick family. Like the best of Maine’s camps, it combines wonderful traditions of camp craft, camp ritual and camp song with a spectacular Maine lake setting. Just a few years ago, our oldest daughter was

married at Wohelo. The guests stayed in the same camper cabins that our daughters had used. As parents of the bride, my wife, Sally, and I got to stay in a counselor cabin which had running water, quite a step up in camp life.

The wedding was magical. It was lovely fall weather. Sally and our daughters added several touches of elegance to the camp common areas. The evening before the wedding we were treated to camp songs adapted for the occasion by our younger daughter and her two cousins — also Wo girls.

Maine camp life is an experience that endures. Friendships formed there often last a lifetime, and the bonds to Maine bring people back. I encounter the influence of Maine camps in the most unlikely places. Just a few weeks ago in London I was chatting with an American businessman who works there. When he learned I was from Maine, he beamed and told me he had spent many summers at Camp Winona in Bridgton. As a result of that experience, he and his wife now have a summer place on the Maine coast. She spends the summer there with their children. He joins for a few weeks of vacation.

While anecdotal, this is not unusual. Experience at summer camp in Maine often leads to lasting ties with the state — either from those who return in the summer as adults or those who end up moving to Maine year-round.

This wonderful resource is not to be taken for granted. It is difficult to sustain a seasonal camp in these economic times, particularly when most of these camps are on prime lakefront property. Expenses are significant. It is tough to recruit good counselors and sustain a camper base. And there always is the lure of selling off the land for development.

Over the past 30 years many camps have fallen by the wayside. Yet the core of Maine’s 200-plus camps has remained strong. Many of them continue to, like Wohelo, be family-run, and the families have been resourceful in adapting to the times. For one thing, camps have extended their camper and counselor recruiting overseas. It is not unusual now to see a significant number of Asian and European campers. Another development has been shorter camp sessions — from the traditional six weeks to four- or even two-week sessions.

While not easy to sustain, Maine summer camps generally seem to be on solid footing, as shown by the significant economic impact that the camps have on the Maine economy.

The camps also continue to connect generations of campers to a love of the outdoors and to a love of Maine. Some camps have even more ambitious goals. Much has been written about Seeds of Peace, which brings Israeli and Arab students together in an environment where conflict is forgotten and goodwill prevails. Seeds of Peace, the vision of John Wallach, is a testimony to the fact that Maine in the summer is indeed a magical place where one can, for a moment, suspend time and call up those values of fellowship and service that all of us can continue to learn from.

Ron Bancroft is a Portland businessman and is active in education reform.

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