PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Some summer overnight camp operators are deciding ahead of the governor’s directive to cancel camp for this summer saying it is just too risky in a pandemic with so many unknowns.
Some, like YMCA Camp Coniston in Grantham, which “prioritize the health of our campers over the health of Coniston itself,” wrote director John Tilley, are asking families to consider donating their deposits or having them roll over to next summer to help offset losses.
By not opening camp, Tilley wrote, the camp suffers a $1.3 million loss.
Others, like Camp Mowglis for boys on Newfound Lake, are “preparing for a successful and healthy summer,” wrote Nick Robbins on its website, and the camp’s “financial situation is strong.”
Ken Robbins, who is president of the 160-member New Hampshire Association of Camp Directors, said each camp is different, depending on space, configuration and some are more able to adapt to CDC guidelines.
He operates Camp Kabeyun in Alton which annually offers two four-week camp sessions for boys with a staff of 60.
Robbins said they made the sad decision to suspend traditional onsite camping this summer.
“I think this is a really important thing to understand that every camp has profound differences in the populations they serve, size, resources, infrastructure, and are built to operate safely based on state and federal guidelines. Every camp has to look at those and make a decision on their ability to run. There is just no way for camps as a whole to be exactly the same. Some camps lend themselves better,” to reduced camp size.
Like many, Kabeyun draws campers from all over the nation with many coming from suburban Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and the Philadelphia area, which have all suffered higher numbers of COVID-19 cases compared to rural New Hampshire.
New Hampshire still has camps in every region, but this summer may put some camps on the brink even if they do open with fewer campers.
Logistics of getting campers to New Hampshire presents a challenge in and of itself, Robbins said.
How would people get here to drop their kids off with no lodging open?
Interestingly, he said, parents seem willing to allow their kids to come to camp because there is this incredible trust already established and families are desperate to allow their children to have a real summer after a surreal spring.
“Families are starting to feel the concern over the loss of opportunities for this summer,” Robbins acknowledged and they are “recognizing everything that is being lost right now by not being in school, playing sports, after-school enrichment.”
“Our families have an enormous amount of trust in us. Families were largely confident that if we said this would be handled safely, they would be OK with it. That is the kind of responsibility that weighs on us.”
And that is a major driver in the decision-making process now underway, before Gov. Chris Sununu weighs in on guidance for camps, Robbins said.
Sununu said last week that opening summer overnight camps is a “tough one.”
Camps offer young people an opportunity to learn new skills like horseback riding, sailing, water skiing, archery, and tennis. These places are designed for them to experience nature, test the limits of comfort, sometimes in wet weather, and on dark, buggy nights may see owls above their heads for the first time.
YMCA Camp Belknap on Lake Winnipesaukee has also decided to cancel summer camp, according to its website.
Others have not yet publicized decisions and have decided instead to write campers themselves first to break the hard, sad news.
Peter Thomsen operates Camp Deerwood, a summer boys camp on Squam Lake in Holderness started by his grandfather, Ferris Thomsen, 75 years ago.
This summer offers different challenges. Thomsen said the dining room – an original part of the camp – is small and it would be very hard to feed campers with boxed meals. He called the decision “gut-wrenching.”
Thomsen said he could see that Sununu, “who is a camp guy, has not been overly optimistic,” for opening camps, “in part because he knows what camp is like.”
The idea of putting a bubble around the camp for weeks to keep kids inside and limit everyone from coming in did not sit well with the whole freedom concept of camps, some directors said.
“We felt for us, given the challenges of the state perhaps not allowing it, it doesn’t look like it, and if they did there would be enough restrictions….it would not be worth doing,” Thomsen said. “We felt so especially for the new kids,” it would be hard.
“The beauty of residential camp is that you are there … and you create these great relationships and what we love is we have 15-year-olds hanging out with 8-year-olds at the table. The meals are fun. Following these guidelines, we’d have to hand them a box lunch and go off somewhere and you would not mingle outside your age group,” Thomsen said.
Financially, he said: “We will make it through. It is certainly not something that was on our radar six months ago, but we will weather this. It is certainly not great, but we will be around next summer.”