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Summer Camp Guide

When Moms and Dads Join the Campfire

For parents who are game for a little more adventure, family camps offer lots of rewards.

By Stephen Jermanok
February 8, 2009

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As owner of Ciclismo Classico, a biking outfitter that specializes in trips to Italy, Lauren Hefferon has done more than her fair share of pedaling on backcountry roads. So what's one little "Lake Launch" in New Hampshire? All Hefferon had to do was ride a padded bicycle on a wooden ramp that careers down a steep hill, catch air, and take the plunge. The first attempt was going smoothly until she bailed at the last minute and skidded across the rocks, preferring terra firma to cool water. Yet taking a risk outside of your comfort zone was one of the core values of the Windsor Mountain family camp program, so she got back on the saddle and gave it one more shot.

"I held on tight, bolted down the hill, flew up the ramp, and let gravity be my friend. Splash!" says the proud Arlington mother of three.

Gone are those days of our youth at Camp Hiawatha when we would smack around the tetherball and swallow five roasted marshmallows whole. We're responsible adults now who have to set a good example for our kin. But now and then it's healthy to hop on a bike and lapse back into good old childish play. Simply ask the rising tide of families that are signing up for camp together. According to the American Camp Association, the number of family camps has grown by 215 percent over the past 15 years, while the tally of traditional overnight camps has remained about the same. And more than 40 percent of all ACA-accredited camps now offer some kind of family program.

Affordability is one of the main reasons the camps have become desirable. The price is all-inclusive, covering lodging, food served family style in large dining halls, and activities run by the same wacky counselors your children love to follow. Most important, these getaways are a good opportunity to spend quality time with your kids, playing their favorite outdoor sports. All that vacation time often spent food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and setting up the day's activity can now be spent in leisure.

"People are hungry to put technology behind them for the week and just enjoy their families," notes Holly Stone, owner of Medomak Camp in mid-coast Maine.

Many traditional boys' and girls' camps simply add a week at the end of the summer and call it family camp, but Medomak (rhymes with atomic) is an ACA-accredited full-season family camp, hosting 12 families each week. A typical day at Medomak includes splitting into groups in the morning, depending on age. For example, mom and dad can do yoga, go on a nature hike, and take a photography class, while the kids run off to arts and crafts, archery, and fishing classes. After lunch, families congregate down by the lake to swim, sail, or row, all with counselors on hand to assist.

This is one of the major differences between a family camp and popular lakeside resorts in New England. Medomak hires trained counselors to help both kids and their parents try something new, and campers are expected to be part of the community. "If you want to hunker down only with the members of your family, then you don't want to go to family camp," Stone says. "We're about building a small village and having lots of fun."

This results in many families forming lasting friendships and returning the same week year after year. Sandy Island is a camp run by the YMCA of Greater Boston on its own private island in New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. A family camp since the 1940s, it has a return rate that hovers above 90 percent annually.

"The connection you build with other families while spending time in nature, playing softball, or dining family style runs deep," says Artie Lang, executive director of YMCA of Greater Boston Camping Services.

One of Lauren Hefferon's favorite times of the day at Windsor Mountain is the morning meeting. The camp comes together to play music, perform skits, and organize the day based on families' wishes. At Medomak, Holly Stone ends the nighttime activity of kickball or a barn dance with a roaring campfire, "laughing and hootin' it up as a whole community."

Caryn French of Fairfax, Virginia, has gone to Medomak the past two summers with her family and hopes to return this year. She has traveled extensively but says nothing rivals her time at camp. "You strip down all the frivolous things in life and return to the basics. . . . For a suburban family outside of D.C., that's becoming a rare occurrence," French says.

Parents aren't the only ones who want to return to camp. The latest trend is grand camps, offering grandparents the unique opportunity to head to camp with their grandchildren. Without mom and dad in the mix, they have their own special bonding time. Then again, it's also one more chance to sing "Charlie on the MTA" and make s'mores.

Stephen Jermanok is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.