December 15, 2017
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Snakes, ticks and kids: What it’s like to be a camp counselor in Maine

By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff

The rain was starting to fall heavier in the woods while children moved like bees in a hive all around me, gathering clumps of pine boughs, dead branches and leaves to make shelters from the pretend hurricane that was heading our way.

It was a test of survival, sort of. And some were following directions better than others. I stood nervously in my raincoat and jean shorts watching the campers from Tanglewood 4-H Camp in Lincolnville and swatted a mosquito buzzing near my face.

It had been a few years since I’d had to be an authority figure and camp counselor to a group of kids, and I had forgotten how intimidating they could be, despite most of them being a third my age.

Maybe it’s the precociousness or that kids, having not developed the self-awareness that comes with age, are exceedingly confident in exactly who they are. Either way, I found myself standing in the woods, wanting to convince the campers at Tanglewood that I was cool. Quickly, I remembered this was a mistake.

To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Nick McCrea and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.

On that recent humid, rain-spitting day in July, I stood in my raincoat and jean shorts monitoring three 8-year-old girls, whose wildly creative imaginations — which led them to build a three-bedroom condo out of twigs and other forest detritus — had veered them off task and earned them a mild chiding from their counselors.

“Girls, how’s it coming along?” I asked, squatting and breaking a branch to use as a rib for their second attempt at a shelter against a thick-trunked white pine.

“Good!” Mabel Minner-Eastmen said enthusiastically, proceeding to explain that they compromised with their counselors and built the kitchen table on the outside of the shelter, as opposed to the inside.

“If you were stranded in the woods, would you want a bigger shelter or smaller shelter?” 18-year-old Tanglewood counselor Katie McCabe had asked the larger group before they began building.

“Smaller!” the group shouted in unison.

“Why?” McCabe fired back.

“To keep in the heat,” a boy in the back answered correctly.

McCabe of Portland and her co-counselor, 18-year-old Alaric Beal of Camden, directed the campers to pretend a hurricane was approaching and with the knowledge they amassed so far that week at camp build a one-person shelter impenetrable to rain.

At the end, McCabe and Beal would come by with half-gallon water jugs and pour them on each shelter roof with a camper inside to see if they would hold up during an actual hurricane rainstorm.

Tanglewood 4-H Camp is an extension program through the University of Maine, tucked deep in the woods of Camden Hills State Park in Lincolnville. It was founded in the early 1940s as an all-girls camp, but the university began leasing the land from the state in the early 1980s. It was built as an ecology-centered camp, where young people could have the week-long camp experience while learning how to be responsible stewards of nature.

“What is the rule for touching things at Tanglewood?” McCabe asked.

“Dead, down and detached,” the group replied together.

“This means no breaking off branches from living trees,” Beal added.

Like most things at camp, the activity is as important as the lessons one learns while completing it.

Minner-Eastmen and Quinn Kitchen, starry eyed, had just finished dousing the outside of the shelter in bug spray to keep bugs and other “burglars” out, should they dare approach.

Lily Martinelli, in a blue patterned shirt and mismatched purple floral shorts, was the only one of the three focused. She worked fastidiously, breaking branches and positioning them tightly together. Lily, from Northport, had been selected as the one who would lay down inside the shelter to test its imperviousness to water.

“Mabel and Quinn, will you help Lily? She’s working alone,” I gently urged.

They listened, sort of.

“Girls,” I said more sternly, “can we all help?”

“Lily has a tick on her,” Quinn said calmly, pointing to the back of Martinelli’s neck.

The scene unfolded quickly — I managed to keep Lily calm, who had already begun clawing at her neck where the wood tick had barely buried its head.

“Hold on, hold on,” I said calmly. “It’s not even very big.”

But it was. It was a fat wood tick, and it’s legs were flailing. Lily whimpered.

Mabel and Quinn hovered, staring. Mabel looked at me, her eyes big. I put my finger over my mouth, quietly shushing them to not say anything else.

Using my reporter’s notepad and pencil as tweezers, I managed to extract the tick from the back of her neck and chucked it into the woods.

Lily took a deep breath.

“Do you want some bug spray?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I said.

‘Certain kind of person’

Summer camps are weird and joyful places. Each one — and there are hundreds peppered across Maine — has its own quirky, distinct traditions. At Tanglewood, for example, a camper and a counselor are selected after every meal to go around to each table in the dining hall and collect plates, noting any leftover food. If a table has no leftover food, the clearing counselor leads the table in a chant with arm motions: “Zero waste, zero waste, zero waste, woo!”

When I was at Tanglewood, a counselor announced after breakfast that, if the campers could go for the rest of the day’s meals with no waste, he would dye his hair blue.

Tanglewood counselors learn to limit waste and be good stewards of environment — and teach the kids the same. Campers learn how to compost, recycle and generally how to be good stewards of the earth, Jessica Decke, Tanglewood’s director, said.

Working as a camp counselor is perhaps one of the most iconic ways for a 20-something to spend a summer. I was a camp counselor for a handful of summers during college as well at an all-girls’ camp in Maine, and still to this day many of my closest friends are camp friends.

But it also takes a toll emotionally.

“You have to be a certain kind of person to be a camp counselor,” Beal said.

“It’s not like you get to go home at night,” Katie McCabe said.

McCabe and Beal are recent high school graduates — McCabe from Deering High School in Portland and Beal from Camden Hills High School.

Being a camp counselor, where the challenges are relative, often the biggest hurdles are emotional, Beal and McCabe agreed — in terms of figuring out how to stay rejuvenated while chasing campers around for eight to 12 hours per day, trading in one’s own needs and wants for sweaty, dirty kids who don’t always listen.

But that’s partially what makes it great, Decke said. At camp, living in such close proximity with people all the time, “you really get to know the full person, and they get to know you,” she said.

On our walk back from the woods, we stopped at a fork in the road to let a few campers visit the bathrooms nearby.

I looked down beside me and noticed a snake coiled on a stump.

Not wanting to spook it, I whispered to the campers around me to look and knelt down in front of it. Curious, they huddled around me.

We watched it quietly for probably 15 seconds before it slithered away under the brush. One camper, I don’t know which, quietly put their hand on my back while we watched. That simple gesture made me feel very tall and proud, and I remembered why this job, despite all its irritants, can be so gratifying.

‘Sense of independence’

It was nearly lunchtime, and the sun was starting to shine through the clouds. Campers, as they often do before mealtimes, were milling about on the lawn outside the dining hall.

A group of girls sat in a circle of chairs talking and watching a group of boys play frisbee. Nearby, a pre-teen boy sang the “Star Wars” theme loudly. A 6-year-old camper shuffled up in a T-shirt, bright orange athletic shorts and a pair of orange Crocs. The group he was assigned to was preparing to embark on a hike.

“Why did you not put on shoes for hiking?” Decke asked him tenderly.

‘‘Cause they were wet and muddy,” the boy responded.

Decke inspected the situation, seeing if the back strap could keep the lightweight foam shoes from falling off. It appeared they could.

“I don’t want to hear complaining about blisters and things,” she said playfully.

“OK,” he said, shuffling toward his group.

Decke had a handful of these pleasant interactions with campers as they passed, sometimes squatting in front of them to get to their level. But her tone, when addressing each camper no matter their age, didn’t change. She spoke to them like small adults.

Part of the value that comes from attending camp are tangible skills that campers learn, like how to build and cook over a fire. But equally important are the “intangibles,” Decke said, “which come from living in a community.”

“To build that sense of independence, to teach and inspire youth to be effective in caring, citizens of the earth.”

Those intangible things, Deck said, like learning how to live alongside other people who are different and what it means to respect others by modeling that behavior are truly invaluable.

 


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