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Individual, Group, Nature: The “Trinity” Offered by Camp Wilderness Trips

Going to camp requires adjusting to a new environment – from food to friends to a vast range of other experiences. But for many kids, going to camp also means wilderness trips, which present a whole new level of unfamiliar adventures. Whether on land or on water, camp trips programs offer the opportunity for kids to challenge themselves, work in a close-knit group, and grow even closer to Maine’s natural beauty.

Garth Altenburg, director of Camp Chewonki, a boys’ camp in Wiscasset, calls it a “trinity,” an experience of campers’ personal growth gained by working, with a group, in nature. Trips at Chewonki range from one-night outings for the youngster campers to weeks-long odysseys in the subarctic of Canada. But regardless of where and by what means campers are traveling, their adventures demand a “group-first mentality,” Altenburg says. “It is one setting where what matters the most is what you bring to the moment.”

At the same time, each trip “pushes the individual, takes them a step beyond their comfort zone,” he says. Third, he says, “it is an unfabricated experience, interacting with the natural world as it presents itself.”

“They are doing it, getting into a routine and rhythm with the world around them,” Altenburg says of kids’ adventures. That may be looking at the stars in the dark night sky, or sleeping in a tent in the pouring rain.

Trips are also central to programming at Pine Island Camp, in Belgrade Lakes. Emily Swan, the camp’s business manager, says Pine Island sends kids out on more than 40 trips each summer, ranging from one night to two weeks.

“We want kids to build confidence in their abilities, on their own, outside their families and school,” Swan says. Conquering difficult terrain and bad weather generates “huge confidence.” In addition, camp staff members want kids “to feel comfortable in nature.”

“We want them to be comfortable and have a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world,” she says. Trips also offer the opportunity for kids to find strengths they were unaware of, Swan says. “Sometimes people best on the trail aren’t the people you’d think.”

And coming from a world back home, where kids are surrounded by competition and organized sports, a hiking trip sheds new light on the meaning of teamwork. “It’s a way for individual achievement in a community setting but not team setting,” Swan says. “They are working together for a common goal, where each person’s success contributes to success of the whole.”

Kirstie Truluck directs Wavus Camp for Girls in Jefferson, which also offers a broad range of trip opportunities for its campers. Truluck says trips are in part about character development.

“The reason we do it,” Truluck says, “is the notion that when you do difficult things, you learn a great deal about yourself, groups, humility, leadership and courage.”  It may be a one-night outing to Hog Island, on Muscongus Bay, for a nine-year-old, or Wavus’s 22-day, 200-mile Appalachian Trail for girls aged 16. Regardless, Truluck says, girls learn resilience and leadership skills.  All in a group setting.

“To be warm, to be fed, to move forward,” she says. “Those basic needs have to be met.” Girls realize, “’I can’t do that by myself out here.’” The result, she says, is the formation of friendships, as well as confidence.

Girls who conquer new experiences, like youngsters summiting Mt. Washington, come back “feeling like rock stars,” she says. There may be tears on the trail, she says, but any girl who sheds them ultimately conquers the challenge at hand with the help of counselors and cabinmates supporting her. “She comes back and feels unstoppable.”

Camp trips demand kindness, Truluck says. “You have to work with people, have to be able to temper a ‘center-of-the-world’ attitude,” common to adolescence. “You need to get through that next hour. You need warmth and radiance, and they need yours,” she says.

Through the challenge of outdoor pursuits, Truluck says, girls on trips “earn” the reward.

“You’ve got to get out there to earn the total quiet, the moose encounter, the big view,” she says. “Those really sort of sublime and spiritual places, you’ve got to earn those.”

And when girls do, she says, “they win those absolutely spiritual places of Maine’s beauty.”

It may be an overnight within walking distance from camp, or it may be spending seven weeks on the Appalachian Trail, like Alford Lake Camp offers. Camp trips are designed for different ages, different abilities, different interests. But they share in common a goal of helping kids learn about themselves, support one another, and appreciate their natural world. It’s far from the sports arena, but the trinity presented by a wilderness trip is another path to a child’s victory.