Family

Family camp: Tons of fun, or the worst idea ever?

Carol Toller drags her family to summer camp to relive her glory days.

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Photo: Erin McPhee

There are two kinds of people in life: Camp People, and the rest of the world.

If you’re the type who makes up elaborate games at family gatherings, performs skits at office parties or bursts into song any time you see a bonfire, you’re a Camp Person. If you’re the guy who sidles out of the room while the others are chanting “boom chicka boom,” you’re my husband.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised by his response when I asked him if he’d consider trying camp for the first time—at age 38. “Why would anyone DO that?” he asked. Chris had never gone as a kid. Never swum lengths for a lanyard or stamped “STAR WARS” onto a leather bookmark in a craft hut. But I had. I’d grown up going to family camp with my parents and two sisters. It was a little like Dirty Dancing but without the death-defying lifts. We stayed in a cabin, ate in the dining hall, canoed, swam and produced an astonishing array of crafts that looked awesome there and godawful when we got home.

Now that I’m a parent myself, I could think of a bunch of reasons we might want to go as a family. It’d be a great opportunity for us all to have fun together (father-son Ping-Pong! shuffleboard! maybe even an act in the talent show!) and a perfect place for our then five-year-old Cormac to gain a little independence. At camp, you free-range parent all day long: Kids roam the grounds in packs, safe from most of the threats we worry about at home in Toronto. And since we’re all thrown together in activities, kids get a rare chance to interact with grown-ups in ways that don’t happen at home.

Chris decided he wanted to give it a try. He was even a little charmed when two kids wandered onto our badminton court the first day of our long-weekend stay. At home, they would have waited their turn. Here, they figured they might be able to take us. “Can we play with you guys?” they asked. From the look on Chris’s face, I could see he liked that camp was a place that gave kids that sort of confidence—he even managed to avoid looking irritated when they scored a few points on us.

He could see, too, that Cormac was in heaven. Our proud kid marched off to Junior Program on his own, then hung out at the tire swings afterward with a different posse each day. One of the best things about camp is that it’s a place where the word “playdate” is never uttered.

On one of our last days, I woke up early and saw Cormac pulling on his hat. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Out,” he said. “Looking for kids.” I rolled over on my sagging mattress and fell back to sleep before the screen door had even slammed.

My kid had clearly taken to family camp. My husband? Not so much. On regatta day, he gamely entered the war canoe race. But it soon became clear he’d rather soak up nature in solitude. He loves waking up to loon calls; at camp, he got the sound of hair dryers in the communal bathroom. And evening bonfires—a ritual he loves when we go camping in the wilderness—seemed sacrilegious when paired with a raucous MC named Jimbo.

We’ve agreed that from now on, family camp will still be a thing for our family—but not for the whole family. So while Cormac and I head off to camp again this summer, my husband will start a new tradition. It may involve fishing, a good friend and beer.

A version of this article appeared in our July/August 2015 issue with the headline, “Crazy for camp,” p.54.

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