It’s the kind of experience that dirties every shoe you packed and tests your limits. The kind of annual week for friendship bracelets and the seemingly permanent essence of firewood: summer camp.
At the direction of the state Department of Health more than a year ago, overnight summer camp was canceled. After a pandemic-sized interruption to the 2020 season, new state guidelines are in play and cabins will soon be full.
At Camp Mandaville in Winthrop, St. Lawrence County, co-director Heather L. Liebfred summed up the feeling of the 2021 return in three words.
“It means everything,” she said.
From the inland lakes of Redwood 105 miles northeast to the Adirondack hills of Mountain View, north country residential summer camps are settling into new beginnings. Camp Mandaville joins, among others, Lewis County’s Beaver Camp and two Cornell Cooperative Extension 4-H camps — Camp Wabasso in Jefferson County and Camp Overlook in Franklin County — in full programmatic mode this season.
New York greenlighted overnight summer camping in February, and effective May 19, the state adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People” applicable to most businesses and public settings as the COVID-19 health crisis enters a second summer.
The CDC recommendations were issued May 13, and New York’s implementation guidance includes direction for child care, preK-12 schools, higher education, day camps and overnight camps. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described the measures for education and camping as “basic but critical,” noting “we are not yet at the finish line.”
The 23 pages dedicated to education and camping detail protocols for physical distancing, when face coverings should be worn, hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, daily health checks, vaccination documentation and case tracking. The implementation guidance also recommends school district and camp leaders develop a communication plan should guidance change or a positive COVID-19 case be identified.
As of this week, camp programs are to collect COVID-19 vaccination status and documentation for all staff and children, according to the guidance. Local public health departments are to continue coordinating case response and tracking. Unvaccinated staff are to wear masks indoors and keep distances of six feet from other unvaccinated staff “unless safety or the core activity requires a shorter distance” — to jointly respond to the needs of a camper, for example.
Unvaccinated campers are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks indoors, except when eating, drinking, showering or sleeping, a change from earlier language that required campers to wear face coverings indoors. Masks are never to be worn by kids when swimming, according to the state DOH.
Most other elements of the guidance hinge on what the state calls “stable groups” or “cohorts.” The idea is to maintain small groupings of kids that exclusively move through school and camp together. The state caps cohorts at 36, not including supervising adults.
For overnight camps specifically, additional considerations have to be made. Campers are expected to be screened upon arrival and either be tested for COVID-19 on site, provide proof of a negative test within 72 hours prior to arrival or provide proof of vaccination.
People in adjacent beds and bunks are to sleep in an alternating head-to-toe pattern; unvaccinated staff are required to undergo weekly testing; and, when warranted, quarantine space must be arranged until a camper or staffer can be picked up.
In the face of evolving information, Mrs. Liebfred said she’s reminded that campers make summer camp. Safely planning for what’s possible at Camp Mandaville, she said, is the best approach to reviving a full summer of opportunity.
“We’d rather plan big and have to scale back if needed,” she said.
Mrs. Liebfred grew up in communities across upstate and spent her summers in Potsdam with her grandmother. She and her husband, Norwood native John D. Liebfred, took on Mandaville’s directorship in September. Two tenures of previous directors date back to 1974, when the camp opened on Sheldon Road off Route 11B, between Potsdam and Malone.
As first-time directors starting during the pandemic, the Liebfreds are navigating two major challenges simultaneously, but “being familiar with the property, familiar with the north country, familiar with the kids has really helped,” Mrs. Liebfred said.
“We’re really excited to see where it’s going to go, and to have the opportunity to do it in the first place,” she said, adding that Mandaville “feels like home.”
A bus driver and mechanic for Parishville-Hopkinton Central School, Mr. Liebfred is maintaining his district position, and Mrs. Liebfred is staying on at Frazer Computing. The two have worked as counselors, cooks and other site staff for the last decade, since their daughters started attending Mandaville in 2011. Daisy, now in college, and Dahlia, a Parishville-Hopkinton high schooler, will work on site this year.
Mandaville’s hub is Hemlock Lodge, where the kitchen, dining room and two dormitories are housed. On the main level, the girl’s dorm sleeps 16 campers and two counselors. The setup is mirrored on the boys’ lower level. A nature center, pavilion, playground, volleyball court and gaga ball pit surround the lodge.
Heavily wooded spots for more primitive camping branch out from the camp center, and a recreation field is used for team sports, archery, paintball and rifling.
Mandaville hosts day activities, mini overnight sessions and full overnight weeks, all built on a non-denominational Christian mission through an affiliation with Bible Centered Ministries International. This summer’s theme is “Creating Connections.” Weeks are scheduled for kids in elementary school through high school, and the first session, a mini overnight, starts July 7.
Around the 200-acre property, you might meet one of the Liebfreds’ four dogs: beagles Dottie and Remington, yellow lab Sunshine and golden retriever Jyn.
To the south in Lewis County, the Adirondack Mennonite Camping Association’s Beaver Camp is situated along the western waterfront of Beaver Lake in the town of Lowville. Across the water, Camp Unirondack celebrates a Unitarian Universalist camping model.
In place of weekly sessions last year, Beaver Camp hosted a series of mostly self-run family camps that brought in a total of 96 people, and another 90 in the fall, Executive Director Michael L. Judd said. A handful of staff also packaged summer camp in a box — merch, activities and devotions were sent to 149 kids.
“It was definitely a good lesson in how to bring camp activities to homes,” Program Coordinator David R. Nisley said.
A few staff members were on board in 2020 to create video programming, but Beaver Camp anticipates a more normal staffing and volunteer roster this year, dozens of people, Mr. Judd said.
The state implementation rules prohibit any visitors to camps, so Beaver Camp’s traditional weekly closing ceremonies will take place virtually prior to pick-up. Most program elements will be back up and running, Mr. Nisley said, while “still bridging the gap” between the completely in-person and completely virtual extremes.
Charlie F. Helenbrook, of Potsdam, and Emily P. Lyndaker, of Lowville, are returning staffers, this year as assistant program directors for the first time. Both were longtime campers before becoming counselors.
Ms. Lyndaker said camper safety is the priority as always, and Beaver Camp programming should feel similar to previous years. Kids will still swim and canoe the lake, use the challenge course and explore the 90-acre shore.
As eager as families are for the season, Ms. Lyndaker said, staff are equally excited.
“They’re ready to go,” she said.
The camp’s 49th Annual Benefit Auction was launched virtually last week and runs through Tuesday. Typically held at the Lewis County Fairgrounds, the auction is online this year, and a drive-through Saturday barbecue supplemented the fundraiser. Auction details are posted to the Beaver Camp website.
“Camp does a world of good,” Mr. Judd said. “Kids need it now, as much as ever.”
Several weeks are already full with waitlists, and the first returning session starts July 4. The six-week season serves ages 6 to 18.
“I like to tell the summer staff that nothing is guaranteed at Beaver Camp until it happens,” Mr. Nisley said. “We can make the best plans, and then it rains, and we have to do something else. So just like last year, we’re reading guidelines and staying flexible.”
As the Mandaville and Beaver teams continue summer preparation this month, other overnight sites have opted to remain closed for the season. Saranac Lake’s Camp Guggenheim, operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, is among them.
In a message to parents and campers, Diocese Director of Youth Ministry Thomas D. Semeraro wrote “many factors contributed to reaching this decision,” including the latest state directives.
“As discouraging as this may seem, there is great hope as we forge ahead,” Mr. Semeraro wrote. “This pandemic has brought much pain and discomfort to all of us, but I feel that it also has opened our eyes and our hearts to grace. We have learned new ways to live and a new understanding about the human condition.”
The Diocese plans to use the continued pause to “dedicate energy and time to growing the summer camp program along with the camp facility itself,” he added.
The Arc Jefferson-St. Lawrence also canceled its summer camp at Dodge Pond in the town of Fine. CEO Howard W. Ganter made the announcement in April, saying “there are too many uncertainties related to the virus to ensure that the camp can operate safely at this time.”
Meanwhile, the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s network of 4-H camps is gearing up.
At the core of the 4-H model is a set of goals incorporated into the national 4-H pledge: head to clearer thinking, heart to greater loyalty, hands to larger service and health to better living.
The CCE operates nine 4-H camps across the state. The north country’s two sites are 4-H Camp Wabasso in Redwood and 4-H Camp Overlook in Mountain View.
Camp Wabasso Director Sabrina L. DeRue said the spirit of camp is enduring through uncertainty and layers of new paperwork. Every camp communication to parents, she said, is now accompanied by a caveat: “This could change.”
“They’ve been so understanding,” Ms. DeRue said of parents registering their kids or inquiring about new procedures. “I think they’re used to it by now.”
The CCE of Jefferson County manages the 177-acre Wabasso site that borders Millsite Lake. The program was born in 1925 in Chaumont, then shuffled to new locations near Adams and Theresa until the Redwood property was purchased in 1950.
Camp Wabasso, for ages 6 to 16, runs specific programs for environmental, technology and outdoor adventure interests, and general weeklong sessions with classes. Yoga, arts, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, backpacking and wilderness survival are some options.
“I’m most excited not only to see the campers, but to hear them,” Ms. DeRue said, adding that the soundtrack of summer camp is consistent laughter and play. “Camp has been really quiet.”
At Camp Overlook last week, maintenance staff readied the bath house, which sits at the edge of the recreation field. Cabins dot the treeline of the main campus where The Great Hall and several other communal buildings stand. Near the main fire circle, a wooded path leads to the beach.
The concentrated space is nestled between Indian Lake and Mountain View Lake at the base of Owl’s Head Mountain, about 15 miles south of Malone.
The site covers roughly 30 acres and is jointly owned and operated by the CCE of Franklin County and CCE of St. Lawrence County. Summer programs are designed for 8- to 18-year-olds, with two-night Cloverbud sessions for ages 6 to 8.
“There’s been such a gap in social and emotional learning this year,” Camp Overlook Program Director Casey L. Sukeforth said. “We’ve noticed the desire for families and kids to connect.”
Ms. Sukeforth is entering her eighth summer as program director and knows camp “will feel a little different.” But the back-end work, she said, shouldn’t dramatically impact the camper experience.
“The change I see in campers in just a week is amazing,” she said. “I’m really excited to see the camp magic again.”
Specific COVID protocols vary by camp, and most sites are also open year-round for retreats, rentals and winter programming. Check out some of this summer’s overnight options in the region:
Camp Mandaville, Winthrop: campmandaville.org
Beaver Camp, Lowville: beavercamp.org
4-H Camp Wabasso, Redwood: ccejefferson.org/4-h-camp-wabasso
4-H Camp Overlook, Mountain View: 4hcampoverlook.org
Camp Unirondack, Lowville: unirondack.org
Adirondack Woodcraft Camps, Old Forge: woodcraftcamps.com
Camp Chateaugay, Merrill: chateaugay.com
Camp Regis Applejack, Paul Smiths: campregisapplejack.com
North Country Camps Lincoln and Whippoorwill, Keeseville: northcountrycamps.com
Camp Talooli, Pennellville: camptalooli.org