I spent a large portion of my junior year trying to decide what the best way to spend my summer would be—to go the traditional route and apply for an internship in a large city, or to spend a second summer working at Camp Nor’wester. Camp Nor’wester is located in the San Juan Islands, in Washington State, and they call themselves a “unique outdoor living experience” for a reason. Nor’wester is located on a tiny island—an island that doesn’t have roads, gets its water from a large well that collects rain water over the year, and has minimal access to electricity. While working at a summer camp is barely more profitable than an unpaid internship, it’s an experience that is both incredibly educational as well as being, quite simply, fun.
Spending the summer in a space that is almost completely “unplugged”, without access to cell phones or the internet, provides me a space to breathe and reflect. By the end of my first semester of junior year, I could almost physically feel the weight of various expectations—expectations to get an internship, to graduate on time and with a good GPA, to have job prospects lined up after graduation, not to mention have an idea of what I want to do with my life. I applied to camp with the knowledge that it would be a break from these expectations, a time without grades or e-mail notifications of the CDO’s available job listings—despite the cliché, I saw it as a time that I could legitimately make a difference.
Over the spring semester, I was hired to be Director of the Waterfront Department, a position that was a fairly significant step up in responsibilities from simply being a member of the staff—a job that is already difficult. Being on the Waterfront at Camp Nor’wester is different from any other “Water Activities” department at a regular summer camp. Children who come to Nor’wester are between the ages of nine and 16, and the Waterfront is the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean, at least in this portion of the San Juan Islands, maintains a temperature of about 45 degrees year round, getting slightly warmer on nice days in the summer—your average pool is around 86 degrees. Being a member of the waterfront staff means teaching kids how to sail, how to kayak, and how to canoe.
The camp maintains a close relationship with families who are part of the Kwakwaka’wakw, a Northwest Coast tribal group, largely through association with Bill Holm, a Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Washington, as well as an artist in the Northwest Coast art style. Because of this relationship, the camp is lucky enough to be able to teach canoeing not only in the traditional aluminum canoes, but also in fiberglass cast Hunt-22 canoes. These canoes, as their names suggest, are made by the Hunt family, a prominent Kwakwaka’wakw family. The canoes are 22 feet, are traditionally used for hunting, and as Waterfront staff, we are privileged enough to use them for trips and daily camp activities.
The nine members of the Waterfront staff arrive on Johns Island on June 6, almost a full week before the rest of the staff. We work together to learn effective teaching methods, to work with tide charts and navigation techniques, and, to practice safety techniques in all of the boats. Unfortunately—or luckily, depending on who you are—for us, safety techniques basically consist of capsizing each craft, while you’re in it. We flip the kayaks, the Pico sail boats and both styles of canoes, throwing ourselves into the water along with them. We get around 200 campers per session, and do two sessions in a summer. Throughout the summer, we practice these wet exits about six times apiece, with the other staff members building fires on the beach and waiting with warm, dry towels.
There are two things, for me, that makes camp something that I cannot keep away from. One of these is the trips. Nor’wester offers trips for campers ages 13–16: 5 day trips for the 14 to 16 year olds, and four day trips for the 13 year olds. For the older campers, they have the option to hike through the Cascade Mountains, to attempt to summit mount baker or to do one of the three waterfront trips. We offer and lead trips on the Hunt Canoes, the kayaks, and also a trip on the Tern, a Viking style gaffe-rigged sail boat, which is capable of being both rowed as well as sailed. Over the last two years, I have participated in or led a total of three of these trips, which have traveled to the outer San Juan Islands, Patos, Sucia, and Matia. These trips allow staff to develop close relationships with campers, and I value this above everything. It’s amazing to watch the campers develop in so many different aspects over a five day period—they grow not only physically, but socially, mentally and as leaders. They clearly become more responsible and more confident in their own abilities.
It is not only this fantastic opportunity that makes camp so special—it is also the parts of the day that should be mundane. For me, the second part of camp that will always keep me coming back is meal times. Everyone sits together, family style, with two staff members and six campers per table, with the occasional variation. One camper is in charge of setting and clearing the table, another is responsible for “bletching”, or scraping everybody’s plate clean into a bucket, which is then put into the compost or fed to the pigs that are raised on the island every summer. Another camper sorts silverware, and this cycle rotates throughout the month they are at camp – even for the youngest of the campers. After meals we sing. Singing becomes a communal, bonding activity, a part of the day that even the least enthusiastic, most homesick campers look forward to, and end up relying on.
I don’t know if I can truly communicate the impact that Camp Nor’wester has had on my life. While at camp, we often talk about our lives during the rest of the year as “in the real world”.
Now that I am in the real world, writing my papers and doing my readings, back to the pressures that come with being a senior here at Vassar, I could not be happier that I spent my summer doing what I did. To me, Camp Nor’wester is the real world – it is adventurous, is it community, and it is love. It is everything that my world here has the potential to be.