Now that we’re home from five weeks at a very different summer of camp than usual, and my family is back into a “temporary normal” fall routine, I’ve had some time for reflection. While at ‘Ghany this summer, and since returning, I’ve had a few moments where I realized how much Camp Alleghany for Girls means to me, and what a positive impact it’s had on my life.
Even in the midst of these extremely trying times, when things have been so hard on so many people in so many devastating ways, still, we have to try to find what light we can and soldier on.
But before I get to that, let’s wheel back to the mind boggling context of it all.
Spring of our Discontent
Spring was, of course, a total nightmare for all of humanity, worldwide. Deaths, sicknesses, changed routines, lives upended, the surreal experience of a near total quarantine lockdown, fear over jobs and livelihoods, and the impact of so much hard-to-explain change on our kids.
And then there was the uncertainty. So much uncertainty.
Alleghany was right in the thick of that nightmare, as was my family.
In our little corner of the world, my cohort of fellow camp directors and I tried our best to steer our way through the reality of so many places and institutions being closed due to coronavirus. Yet because we didn’t know how long quarantine might be, and because we’re all advocates for the benefits of outdoor education and life lived close to nature, we all waited as long as possible to see if we could open our camps.
Meanwhile, my husband Matt’s parents both contracted COVID-19. Matt works with his dad and they did have an outbreak at his work, which was scary for everyone. (Everyone is fully recovered and feeling great now!)
Matt, fortunately, didn’t get COVID. But when you’re drowning in the stress of so many unknowns — will my husband get sick, will my in-laws be okay, how will his coworkers fare, will there be work for them, will sickness come home to me and my boys — you often don’t realize just how drowning you are at the time. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
And as far as holding camp went, every day in the spring were ups and downs about how — or whether — we could run camp under strict COVID guidelines, or run alternative camp programs, and worst of all, not hold camp at all, something that had never happened in almost 100 consecutive summers!
By way of trying to keep our family’s spirits up we started talking about alternative things we could do during the summer if we wouldn’t be at camp. We imagined road trips to visit cousins, and talked about a family beach trip. Well, we did make the beach happen, and it was my first summer time beach trip in my entire life since I’ve always been at ‘Ghany every summer! So that was a silver lining of respite in late June.
As I look back, one thing becomes distressingly clear that was under the surface: all through these springtime conversations, and imagining camp being closed and trying to be strong about it, I was somehow discounting my deep seated need to be at camp, my lifelong summertime home away from home. My haven.
Like a Moth to the Lantern
At some point amidst entertaining all the options, and wrestling with the many possible outcomes, I had to visit camp a couple times in May and June anyway.
Both times when I was actually there, crossing the river on the Barge, walking around, looking at facilities progress, taking deep breaths in of fresh air and looking out onto the mountains, and feeling the very life of the place right down into my soul, it hit me in the deepest part of myself that I MUST be at camp this summer.
I couldn’t quite pinpoint the reasons yet, but I knew I had to make something work for camp as a place for others, and definitely for myself and my family. I knew I had to spend real time at ‘Ghany, and had to give my kids the experience of being there, too.
Thus was born our two very modified group camp experiences, Work Camp and Family Retreats, which were both wonderful and successful alternatives in a summer where there, sadly, was no other choice. ‘Ghany Girls will always try to make the best of things if we can.
With that spirit, I found that over the course of the five weeks I was at camp, though I was working with everyone to clean camp, set up spaces, implement numerous safety and covid-related logistics, and juggle lots of internal and external communications, something in me changed. That nightmare-ish stress from the spring began to melt away (along with the 10 pounds I had gained from a probable cortisol overload!).
I was at home.
I was at peace.
I was overjoyed!
At camp I resumed my essential personal daily ritual of early morning walks through our grounds, walking as the sun rose, listening to the birds chirp and the mountains awaken. When camp is typically in session and there are 300-350 other souls sharing camp with me, this walk is the thing that keeps me grounded for the hugely busy days. Yet even without those demands, I found that the walks were just as important when the camp pace was slower.
I treasured (and treasure) my early morning time alone. It is indispensable for me to maintain a balanced life. (See some pics below of nature at its finest at camp.)
Rise and Shine!
The rest of the day at camp my body was constantly called on to be physically active just to get things done. Walking to complete tasks or to meet up with other staff over consistent distances, up and down hills, challenged by the natural undulations of the ground, and in and around natural obstacles, kept me active without my even thinking about it. At Work Camp in particular it seemed like we rarely sat!
Then there were the outdoors, the glorious outdoors! We were all simply outside so much of the time that this artificial division we humans have about people places versus nature places rightly disappeared. Natural places ARE people places!
Now look, I know we talk about this stuff All.The.Time. The benefits of nature, the value of movement, the restorative rhythms of waking to sunrise and sleeping to moonlight. But I would be remiss if I didn’t testify that I REALLY felt the power of natural healing more than ever this summer, likely in part as a counterpoint to a terrible and stressful spring. I would actually say I “woke up from the nightmare” and went back to the person I want to be.
There’s so much research out there about circadian rhythms, the benefits of being outside, of getting outside when the sun rises and the scientifically based merits of seeing it set on our brain function and on spurring natural tiredness and rest patterns. I’m personally into using this in my life and as a camp director I consider advocating for natural rhythms essential to our camp mission. So I know all of this intellectually — but I palpably felt again the sense of how right it all feels while at camp this summer.
Some of this falls into what is called ancestral health, a niche ecological health realm with huge implications for human society. I’ve enjoyed learning more about ancient perspectives and habits on human health throughout the ages, and especially how drawing on tried and true human patterns helps us in our overstressed time.
Home is Where the Heart Is
My body, brain, and soul needed camp, and I realized even more this deep connection I have to being at a place governed by the natural cycles of the day, free from most electricity, steeped in the whole habitat of our riverside grounds, and attuned to the sights and sounds of branches moved by breezes, critters’ voices, rippling water, dappled light and shadow, and the various scents of earth.
I know I could get similar benefits at an outdoor retreat center or a vacation, but my lifelong and deep-rooted connection to the actual physical place of Alleghany also became apparent this summer.
I was a happier person simply for touching base with my own roots. I feel productive and worthwhile in my place. I grew up at Camp Alleghany, it’s in my bones and my soul. I’ve spent so few summers away from camp in my entire life, and since the age of four have never had a summer where I didn’t at least spend some time here, even if not a full summer. Even during grad school and some summer programs I made time to come back.
It is my touchstone.
Experiencing the benefits of a vital connection to our natural world myself, and seeing it in my kids and in our campers, this essential connection is something I absolutely know that our unbalanced society and culture needs, too. We need a return to a time, a way, a mindset where humanity is ensconced in and intimately wrapped up with our natural world.
Toward A Natural Ecology of Humanity
ALL who can get there NEED to be outside, active, and living harmoniously with Mother Earth whenever possible. We need more outdoor classrooms wherever they can be crafted. We need to host more get togethers around park spaces, rural spaces, forest spaces. We need to make it a part of life every day when we can, or even for a short period of time in the year if circumstances otherwise prevent it. Nature is a reset.
I have this seamless and meaningful connection to Alleghany the camp AND Alleghany the setting that drew me to her this summer in spite of the challenges and obstacles. A primal instinct made me fight to keep that connection going uninterrupted. Being there improved my mental, physical, and emotional health more than anything else could have.
Surely this is why ‘Ghany is so healing for so many people, campers*, staff, and our alumnae. It’s why campers come back year after year and say they get a “reset” and refresher for the year ahead…
Let’s all keep the lanterns lit for Alleghany this coming fall, winter, and spring. We will be back. And like Mother Earth herself, she will be there to nourish us again and again and again. That’s why we have so much to be grateful for!
— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
*If you want to learn more about the merits of sleepaway summer camp, download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Experience Early. It’s a great resource to share with friends, or if you are a first-time camp family and you wonder what sleepaway camp would be like for your child.