I have to admit when our daughters were younger, my husband and I had a standing joke. We kidded about shipping our two kids off to camp so we could have a carefree week alone together. What ended up happening was that we went to camp with our kids, and the four of us enjoyed some of the most fun and cherished days of our family life thus far.
We signed up for a three-night family camp at Young Life Saranac Village in Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. We arrived not sure exactly what the extended weekend would be like. By the time we left, however, we had decided to make family camp a yearly tradition.
I soon discovered that my family is not alone in making summer camp a family affair - and that family camps are not a new fad. Marty Neville of Clifton Park attended Camp-of-the-Woods in Speculator with her husband in 1965. "They had so many nice things for the children to do, and we just wished our kids were with us," she said. The next year, the Nevilles brought their four children, and the family attended camp together each year for the next five years. Their children are grown now and take their own families to Camp-of-the-Woods and Young Life Saranac Village. "It's really fun to go and see our children with their children enjoying the camp," said Neville.
The real attraction of family camp is that it offers a chance to be free of the everyday responsibilities and even the work associated with a traditional vacation. The Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskills holds its largest family camp at the end of August, with roughly 500 people attending. "They come for a week away from the grind of daily life and to bond as a family," said Tracy Thomas, coordinator of Family and Conference Programs. "It's a chance for parents to get to know their kids and kids to get to know their parents in a different setting."
Generally, families eat in a dining hall together with other families. Moms don't have to think about meal planning, cooking or cleaning up, so family camp is a vacation for everyone. All that is required is getting to the dining hall on time and finding a seat.
At Saranac Village, some of the meals have themes. We had an outdoor barbecue buffet "hoedown," with the dessert as our centerpiece - a pot of "mud" (crushed chocolate cookies with pudding underneath). The last night we had a fancy steak dinner with cloth napkins, a welcome treat after spending most of the day on the water and at the beach.
The type of lodging available depends on each camp's facilities and can vary within the camp itself. For instance, at Young Life, women stay in one dorm and men in another. My daughters and I shared a room with nine other mothers and daughters, and my husband met a lot of new people in his room in the men's dorm. At Frost Valley YMCA camp, families may stay in a dorm, a cabin, or even share a cabin with another family they know.
Activities also vary from camp to camp, but most include the normal activities that one associates with camp - crafts, hiking, swimming, canoeing, miniature golf, shuffleboard, and the like. The camp my family attended had structured activities until around 11 am, with free time until dinner. We attended a "club," which included a featured speaker, followed by a fun family activity such as a scavenger hunt or carnival.
The afternoons, however, were completely ours. We played frisbee golf, went tubing, swam, canoed, and made jewelry at the crafts barn. The most exciting activity of the weekend was parasailing, a completely new sport for us, and one that we would not have taken the initiative to try on our own. One of my favorite memories of the weekend was watching my daughter, Sara, and my husband being slowly lifted into the air by a parachute as our boat raced along Saranac Lake. Later, my husband and I had an opportunity to go up together to take in the gorgeous scenery.
Some family camps offer structured activities for the kids, allowing the adults some time to spend alone. Diane Brown of Rhinebeck attends Frost Valley YMCA's camp and admits she enjoys having her children take part in the youth group program so she and her husband can participate in activities as a couple. One year they tried a team building activity on a ropes course, which absolutely required that they work together to navigate their way up ladders, across cables, and through other challenges. "There's no way to do it unless you work together on it," Brown says. "I learned something about the depth of our communication that was really positive."
And the fun doesn't end when the sun goes down. The Young Life evening program began with singing, followed by a speaker for adults while the children had their own lesson with staff members. Afterwards, there was a completely wacky program involving volunteers from the audience. This gave children a chance to see their parents being funny and goofy, which is one aspect of the weekend that my daughters thoroughly enjoyed. They cheered their father on as he participated in a watermelon eating contest with three other dads (I got to wash out his white shirt afterwards!). I participated in a team relay in which I stood on a chair and tried to crack an egg into a cup that was held in the teeth of another brave camper who was lying on the floor below me. This is another uproariously funny scene that our girls will not forget.
Unlike many traditional family vacation spots, family camp is an affordable vacation alternative. Camps not only include recreational activities and meals, they also offer families an opportunity to spend focused time together, free from the demands of daily life. My husband and I really had a chance to enjoy each other as we went from activity to activity, and our kids knew that we were there to have a good time with them. It is also a great feeling knowing that at camp you are surrounded by other families who are there for the same reason, which creates a positive, warm atmosphere.
Family camp is an opportunity to make new friends each year, but also a time to reunite with old friends. My family has become good friends with the camp doctor and his family from Pennsylvania, and we hope to see them again this year at camp.
"We've used [family camp] as a way to get together with some good friends who have also joined us," says Stacy Draper of Troy, who attends YMCA Camp Chingachgook's family camp. Draper's husband and his friend attended Camp Chingachgook when they were boys and later became counselors. "For my husband and his friend, it's really a chance to go back and be at camp and enjoy it, certainly with an entirely different perspective than when they were there as kids," Draper said. The two longtime friends, and now their children and spouses, have a chance to spend a fun time bonding together. Steve has enjoyed the camp for so many years that he volunteers his time to make improvements there.
Joyce Warner of Pleasant Valley encountered some resistance when she asked her spouse to attend the Young Life Family Camp at Saranac Village with her - until he got to the camp. "My husband didn't want to go to camp," she said, "but by the end of the first day, he said, 'That's it, we're coming every year.'"
Yes, camp has a way of drawing you in, and experiencing summer camp as a family creates some very special memories. We're hooked, that's for sure, and so are many other families. To find a family camp near you, log onto the American Camping Association's website at www.acacamps.org.
Joanne McFadden lives with her husband and two daughters in Charlton. She is a frequent contributor to Hudson Valley Parent magazine.