Outward Bound photo
Whitney Montgomery, the director of N.C. Outward Bound, takes on a ropes course with his own daughter, Catherine, during the parent-child wilderness expedition.
Kate Mooneyham never thought she would catch her first salamander at the age of 48. Or lie under a tree, sketching its tangle of branches against the sky. Or see her teenage son voluntarily eat a salad.
When Mooneyham signed up for family camp in the Tennessee wilds of the Great Smokies Institute at Tremont three years ago, she discovered an unparalleled escape from the harrowing pace of daily life, a place where families are able to reconnect among the backdrop of nature. Going to Tremont has now become an annual tradition for Mooneyham, her three kids and their grandfather.
“We were looking for a vacation where everyone would have something to do, where we could visit without having to play host and cook and house clean,” said Mooneyham. “My favorite part is not having to get in the car all week. Here in New Jersey I drive 10 times a day.”
Family camps in the mountains are growing in popularity as parents and grandparents crave an alternative vacation—one that isn’t packed with sightseeing yet is not as mundane as the ubiquitous week at the beach.
Family camps are flush with activities such as hiking, canoeing, lake swimming, creek exploring, rope swings, plus the standard litany of camp games, crafts, silly skits and songs, and evening campfires. Most parents also relish stealing time to do nothing at all while their kids trot off with the counselors.
“We tell people you can go on strike. If all you want to do is read books on the dock, you can,” said Missy Schenk, the director of Green River Preserve near Brevard, N.C. “Family camp allows you to totally unwind. It is a slowed down feeling when you are at camp.”
It’s also a steal; with meals and lodging included, there is little else on which to spend money.
“You aren’t reaching into your pocket every five minutes to pay for something,” Mooneyham said.
Despite the many virtues of family camp, hanging up the pots and pans for a week seems to be the universal selling point.
“That’s my favorite part. I sit down and eat and then get up and leave. I don’t have to wash a dish, and I don’t have to plan it. For a whole week I don’t have to plan a meal,” said Mille Hudson, 59, who every year takes her children and grandchildren to family camp at Kanuga near Hendersonville, N.C.
Without the looming chores that define daily life back home, families can simply have fun at camp.
“At home if you say ‘We are going to play Monopoly tonight,’ your teenager might roll their eyes and say ‘I’m watching ‘Jersey Shore’ instead,’” said Nicole Bentley, reservations director at Kanuga. “But here people bring cards and board games and spend time as a family because there are not the distractions of the outside world.”
With the exception of Kanuga, where families have been retreating for generations, family camps were rare until a decade ago. But today an increasing number of traditional youth camps are carving out time in their summer schedule for family camp sessions. Camp Tekoa, a youth camp run by the Methodist church near Hendersonville, N.C., morphed into family camp for the first time last year at the urging of parents.
“During check-in for their kids, parents would look around and ask ‘When can we come to camp?’ Sometimes it was jokingly andsometimes it was serious,” said Mike Pruett, program director at Camp Tekoa. “These parents wanted to be intentional about spending time together as a family in a relaxed environment. We have so much going on in our every day lives. Your time in the car transporting kids to and from soccer practice is still time together, but it doesn’t open up opportunities for growth.”
Families come home from camp with postcard memories that remain with them for a lifetime, like a row of kids sitting on the dock at Camp Tekoa, dangling their homemade fishing poles into the lake, made from bamboo stalks they cut down themselves.
For Schenk, the summer tradition of family camp at Kanuga as a child was what inspired her to develop Green River Preserve.“We loved being in the mountains and loved hiking. It was such a time of independence,” Schenk said. “We couldn’t wait to get back there every year.”
When she was 13, Schenk begged to stay at Kanuga after her week of camp was over. The director let her stay for the summer in exchange for doing odd jobs. She worked there every summer through high school and college.
Today, Schenk and her husband are co-directors of Green River Preserve, and four of her six children also work in various facets of running the camp.
Family camp caters to all ages from babies to grandparents.
Schenk recalled a family last year with three boys under the age of 5 and a fourth child on the way. The mom surprised her husband with family camp as a Father’s Day present.
“She wanted to be in a setting where she could handle the boys and have the food taken care of and her husband could do the hikes,” Schenk said.
Family camp is equally popular among parents of teens.
Be forewarned, however, cell reception is spotty at best at most family camps in the Smokies. Cells are totally useless at Tremont, but kids nonetheless devote the first few minutes of their arrival to pacing around in a circle, their phone extended to the sky, hunting for a signal.
But unplugging—even if it means foregoing text messaging for a week—is an essential part of family camp, especially in a national park, Lloyd said.
“Families actually get to be with one another,” Lloyd said.
And once the phobia of being disconnected passes, the fun can begin.
“I have not seen a single kid who has ever resisted the temptation of getting wet in the river, of handling a salamander, of throwing water balloons in a field,” said Jeremy Lloyd, program director at Tremont. “I have not seen a kid sit something out because it is outside their comfort zone.”
Lifetime leisure skills
Nature is an inescapable part of camp. It’s not somewhere out yonder: it’s an immersion.
While a midnight bathroom trip may involve a tad more work—slipping on some shoes, groping about for a flashlight, and stumbling down a path to the community bathhouse—it’s part of living among nature for the week, a chance to savor the hollow call of a hoot owl or stare up at the Milky Way.
“This is an experience that is going to sink in and change the person in some way whether they know it or not,” Lloyd said.
At the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, families spend their days tracking wildlife, exploring streams in search of salamanders and hiking through old growth forests. It’s one of only half a dozen camps in the country located entirely inside a national park.
“There is a magic created when parents and children can both experience nature at the same time,” said Lloyd. “When they go back home they realize they can do that anytime. They don’t have to wait for that one weekend in summer. They can do it on any Sunday afternoon, just go out and mess around in the woods.”
What was once an ingrained part of being a kid has been lost to today’s children who spend most of their time plugged in indoors. Family camp gives kids a new lease on the natural world.
For Mooneyham, a crowded state park is the closest thing her children get to nature in New Jersey.
“Almost any trail you take you can hear the freeway off to the side,” Mooneyham said.
Nevertheless, Mooneyham hopes their experiences in nature will be carried with them in life.
“Right now they are caught in the culture of consumerism. I hope they will learn to value the simpler things and not feel the need to have commercial experiences,” she said.
One nature exercise at Tremont is making “tree friends.” You pick a tree you like and get to know it—draw it, do a leaf rubbing, describe what makes it unique. The naturalists even photograph each person with his or her tree to take home in a scrapbook.Family camp isn’t a time to test one’s mettle as an outdoorsman, however. Knowing tree species or how to build a fire is not a pre-requisite.
“In general we don’t get people decked out in Patagonia. This is for very normal people, your average American,” Lloyd said.
Even in the rugged Outward Bound course where parents and children backpack through the wilderness, novices are welcome. Participants learn compass skills and map reading, how to set up camp and navigate stream crossings—even the proper way to go to the bathroom in the woods.
Trish Haitz, an instructor on the parent-child Outward Bound courses, recalled one pair who had never set foot in the woods.
“They showed up fresh from the Bronx all excited. They were looking for an adventure to do on top of spending time with one another,” Haitz said.
Most family camps build a healthy dose of silliness into the weekly line-up. During the last day of camp at Tremont, families suit up for an afternoon of classic field games, complete with a water balloon fight and kickball match with parents versus kids.
“They get to see their parents do things like dress up in funny clothes as part of a relay race,” Lloyd said.
At Camp Tekoa, parents have the chance to wallow in a mud pit with their kids or ride down a 450-foot zipline kamikaze style. They also play old-fashioned games like bean bag toss, ping pong, and four square, an obstacle course riddled with hula-hoops, and a dizzying run through cones.
A classic part of traditional youth camps is the talent show in which the whole camp rolls with laughter watching compatriots perform silly skits and lip synching acts. During family camp at Tekoa, kids get to rope their parents into the action as they create and put on skits as a family.
“I think these kind of experiences will help them grow in their communication with each other,” Pruett said. “It wouldn’t be worth it if they just had a fun experience at camp and just left it at camp. There needs to be a way to translate it into their everyday life. How is this experience on the high ropes course going to help you out in the situations that come up as a family?”
Of course, no camp life would be complete without arts and crafts. The artistic endeavors at family camp are far from standard preschool projects of gluing together pom-pom critters.
At Green River Preserve, rotating artists introduce families to new crafts each year. One year, families gathered their own grape vines to make baskets. The next, they went home with their own hand-carved flute. Some favorites, like watercolors, are offered year after year.
“I think the activities that a family camp provides are more like lifetime leisure skills,” Schenk said.
At Kanuga, activities are tailored for different age groups, from crafts and games for preschoolers to rock climbing and whitewater rafting for teens. Adults chose from yoga, tennis, hiking, photography and crafts including watercolors, basket making, scrap booking, felting, woodcarving and soap making.
Tie-die shirts are a decade-long tradition at Kanuga. Repeat families have an entire collection documenting their years at camp. The whole camp makes tie-die on Tuesday and wears their creations on Friday; from babies to grandparents, all are decked out in wild patterns and funky colors.
At Kanuga, Bentley said parents relish not having to plan the activities and invent entertainment for their kids.
“It takes the burden of planning a vacation off the shoulders of mom and dad,” Bentley said. “I certainly remember family trips with my parents getting frustrated trying to find the putt-putt course or figure out which restaurant we were going to. We have taken away the fuss of all that planning.”
While it’s all there for the taking, campers pick and choose when to jump in—and when to soak it in from the comfort of their cabin’s porch.
“My favorite thing to do is sit in a rocking chair and rock and read and visit,” Hudson said. “That’s the nice thing—you don’t have to do anything. It is the best vacation in the whole world.”
For more information
Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont • gsmit.org• Sample activities: Wildlife programs, hands-on science and research, stream ecology, hikes, tracking, morning yoga, evening bingo.• Special perk: One of the only family camps in the country to be located within a national park. Counselors are called “teacher naturalists” because of their knowledge and emphasis on environmental education.• Accommodations: Dormitory style lodging with bunk beds and shared bathrooms.• When: Five days in July.• Cost: $1,103 for a family of four, and $230 for each additional person.
Green River Preserve • greenriverpreserve.org• Sample activities: Swimming in the lake, hiking climbing, fly-fishing, crafts, square dance, family talent show.• Special perk: Explore the 3,400-acre preserve that is home to caves, petroglyphs and waterfalls.• Accommodations: Private cabins that sleep up to 8. Cabins have two bedrooms and their own bathroom with sinks and toilets.• When: Four days in September over Labor Day.• Cost: $300 for adults and teens; $250 for ages 8-12; $125 for ages 5-7. Free under 5.
Camp Tekoa • camptekoa.org• Sample activities: Zipline, talent show, white-water canoeing, swimming, tubing on the lake.• Special perk: As a Methodist camp, families will share “God moments” with prayer subtly integrated into activities.• Accommodations: Private cabins with bunk beds, some with their own baths and others that use a community bathhouse.• When: Four days in mid-August.• Cost: $175 for adults and teens; $90 for ages 5 to 13; $50 for ages 2 to 4. Free under 2.
Outward Bound • ncobs.org/course/35• Sample activities: Backpacking, hiking, rappelling, map reading.• Special perk: Instructors teach participants to navigate the backcountry while working as a team and building confidence and trust.• Accommodations: Pitch tents while backpacking.• When: Four days in June, July or August for parent/child course; four days in September for father/son course.• Cost: $1,045 per person, includes gear and food.
Kanuga • kanuga.org/guestperiods/index.asp• Sample activities: Yoga, lake swimming, talent show, hiking, crafts for adults and kids, square dance, tennis, entertainment.• Special perk: One of the longest running family camps with a retreat-like feel. Activities for kids in three age groups: 3 to 6, 7 to 10 and 11 and up. Nursery for children under 3.• Accommodations: Rooms in an inn or cabin with its own bathroom.• When: Several weeks in summer, plus fall, Thanksgiving and Christmas.• Cost: Varies depending on accommodations and age of children. $1,800 for two parents and two children under the age of 10 staying in a room in the Inn.
* Cost for family camps include activities and meals. Cost is for 2011.