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For An Iconic N.H. Tradition, Summer Looks Uncertain

Courtesy photo
Adrianna Benn, 15, poses outside a cabin at Camp Bernadette in Wolfeboro, the summer camp she's been attending since she was 10 years old.

Living in Manhattan, Adrianna Benn thinks she’s growing up faster than most 15-year-olds. Her mom, Leila Benn, calls it a “fast life” and says Adrianna’s friends are “advanced.” Credit cards, phones, Ubers to fancy sushi restaurants -- at 15 years old.

“I feel like living in New York, I have to keep up with everyone and I don’t really like it,” Adrianna said on the phone recently, sitting on the couch with her mom in their Upper East Side apartment. “Everyone is so mature. They act like they’re in their 20s at a frat party or something.”

But when Adrianna was 10 years old, she found a place where she could escape all that pressure. An innocent place, she calls it, where the only thing she’s stressed about is who is going to win color wars (She thinks it may be rigged).

It’s Camp Bernadette in Wolfeboro, N.H.

“At camp, it’s like chill,” Adrianna said. “Everyone is going at their own pace, living their own life and I don’t need to be worried or anything. It’s really fun.”

But for weeks now, instead of counting the days until her annual trip up north, she’s been mentally preparing herself for the possibility that camp will be canceled. The things she loves most about it, like bunking with girls from all around the world, could be considered dangerous.

“You get to experience how they live and trade snacks with them,” she said. “But that's definitely worrisome because you don't know anyone can be carrying the virus. So, like, it's kind of scary.”

Summer camp is an iconic New Hampshire tradition. Some historians even believe this is the birthplace of camp, on Squam Lake in 1880. And since then, New Hampshire has played host to a seasonal ritual: Generation after generation of kids spending magical summer days in the woods and lakes.

But over the next few weeks -- and for many camps, for the first time in their history -- camp directors are going to have to make a difficult choice: Is it safe enough to hold summer camp this year?

Camp directors know how badly kids need an outlet, how much over-taxed parents could use the child care, and how camp serves as an essential and special refuge, now more than maybe ever before.

But in New Hampshire, as in many other states where camps pop up in wooded corners or on edges of lakes and ponds, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There were 161 licensed camps in New Hampshire last summer (not including municipal rec programs or soccer camps). And no two are the same. Some youth recreation camps are overnight; some are day camps. Some are for kids with special needs. Some are run by a national organization; others are independent. But they’re all having to grapple with the fact that some of the most essential pandemic precautions seem to run counter to the things that make camp, well, camp.

“You know, shooting basketball, we can't both touch the same basketball,” said Ryan Holder, program director at Adventurelore in Danville. Their summer camp programs are adventure based, but they also provide counseling and partner with schools during the year. They often serve kids with depression, anxiety, ADHD and some learning disabilities.

Holder has been doing some of his counseling sessions via telehealth, while other appointments he’s been trying to keep in person, but from a distance. And this has given him a taste of what summer camp, in a pandemic, could look like.

Like the other day, during archery practice.

“It's like, ‘OK, we're shooting at the same target. OK. You go grab your arrows, only touch yours, and then I'll go and only touch mine. And then I'll sanitize them when we're all done,’” Holder said. “This is how you have to do it right now. But imagine running a summer camp, like a big summer camp for like 250 kids? Like that?”

A few camps have already made the tough call and said no, they can’t imagine that. But there are many other camp leaders, like Holder, who really hope they can make it work, so long as they don’t put people at risk.

Most camps, for example, already have health and wellness checks built in, especially if they’re overnight camps. Even five years ago, if a kid arrived at Camp Hawkeye in Moultonborough with a temperature, owner and director Garrett Colgan Snyder said that camper would either be isolated or sent home until the fever went away.

But the key thing camps are waiting on right now is guidance: Directors have their eyes on Gov. Chris Sununu to see what the state advises, and they’re expecting to receive guidelines in the next few weeks from American Camp Association and the CDC. Those reports could either rule out camp entirely, or provide a framework for each individual camp to make its own decision.

“If everybody’s got to wear masks, then we’re not going to run camp,” Colgan Snyder said. “We’ve got kids as young as seven. Most of the basic masks you have aren’t designed to be run around with and get sweaty. They’re not designed to go in the water. We don’t want to give a false sense of safety.”

But until those guidelines come down, camps that haven’t closed yet exist in this weird space where they have to act and prepare like camp is still happening, until it isn’t.

For Colgan Synder, this has been the hardest thing. It’s a lot of work: You’re essentially running a small village and school at the same time. Staff needs to be trained. Ropes courses need to be inspected. Not to mention that he and his wife have two kids who are usually in school during this busy time, and they also just bought a new campsite, which means moving 12 years of camp materials to an entirely new space.

Meanwhile, camp staff are trying not to over promise but still keep hope alive, reminding kids that no matter what, their special place will always be there for them.

“I think it's about holding onto a hope of normalcy,” said John Tilley, Executive Director of YMCA Camp Coniston in Grantham.

"We need connections now more than we ever did before." - John Tilley, director of Camp Coniston

Coniston is one of many camps that have tried to connect with their kids by putting beloved traditions online. There are now digital camp fires, Zoom singalongs, long threads of Instagram comments about the day’s highs and lows.

Now, the irony of this is not lost on Tilley. Camp is intentionally a very no screens environment. But Tilley says they’ve been streaming Vespers every Thursday night, a pre-dinner Coniston tradition where staff tell inspirational stories.

And campers have loved it.

“It's absolutely magnificent how many people feel the need to sort of join back into these rituals that ground them and tie them to sort of each other,” Tilley said. “I think it shows that. We need connections now more than we ever did before.”

If his camp is forced to close, Tilley wonders how their special spaces could be offered up to the larger communities they live in.

“Camp people are inherently used to serving other people,” Tilley said. Maybe local kids could come in and hang out for a day? Maybe local organizations could come use them for a few hours?

But if camp is on, the next big decision will fall to camp families.

Back on the Upper East Side, Adrianna Benn’s mom Leila keeps thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, the sounds of sirens and helicopters every night. They were so loud she could hear them in the shower.

She really wants to get Adrianna out of the city this summer.

“I'm worried for her to just have spent many, many months in a tiny apartment,” Leila said. “She hasn't seen any friends in months. So I feel like we might risk it.”

To Leila, it feels like she’ll have to choose between Adrianna’s physical health and mental health.

“It’s a horrible gamble to take,” she said.

Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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