Life lessons learned at summer camp

Camp Eagle Island

In 1970, my two best friends and I went to camp where we learned life lessons we’ve never forgotten. Jill is second from the right in the bottom row, Shelly is first on the left in the second, and I’m leaning on my elbow, top right.

The news is universally depressing, as anyone who’s been keeping up can attest. But one particular story today made me sad. It was parents trying to recreate the summer camp experience at home, since many programs have been cancelled in the wake of Covid-19.

Some of the suggestions were to play camp games with your kids, make low-stress outdoor meals, and create camp crafts. I suppose the sentiment is nice, but fashioning the wonderful world of sleep-away camp at home is simply not possible.

As any avid camper will tell you, camping is about being away from home. For many of us that first experience on our own – mine came at the tender age of eight – can be magical. Mommy and Daddy aren’t around. There are new adults and new kids, all who need to find ways to connect. Yes, it can be scary, but we learn so much in the process.

My dear friend Jill, who I practically dragged to camp fifty years ago, remembers that experience today.

“I learned to come together with girls from all over – different towns, races, religions – and finally felt and understood the camaraderie that everyone always talked about when they talked about camp,” she said.

Our mutual friend Shelly also joined us, and though like Jill she was uncertain that first year, she quickly fell in love with camping.


The lodge at Eagle Island peeks out over Saranac Lake in Upstate New York.

“The camp was on an island in a huge lake in the Adirondacks. Maybe the place was just too beautiful,” Shelly said. “But honestly, I think the reason I enjoyed it so much and came to understand how much I loved being outdoors…is because it was a Girl Scout Camp. The place was built on traditions, stories, special kid rituals, and camping lore.”

In my case, camping, especially those first few years, gave me a new perspective on who I was. I was overweight until I was 14 and was sometimes bullied. I am a low-level dyslexic which back then got me called stupid and lazy. The cool kids didn’t invite me to their parties. So, imagine my surprise when I became a cool kid at camp. The fact that I was an excellent swimmer was a big deal. That skill allowed me unfettered access to every water activity available at Eagle Island: canoeing, sailing, water skiing, scuba diving. Then there was music. We sang all the time and since I played the guitar, I felt admiration whenever I toted the instrument to the campfire. Yep, I was popular at camp, which made returning home to that other life difficult. Tears were usually involved.

“There was unlimited opportunity to learn about myself,” Shelly said of camp. “What I valued in a friend, in a group, in a leader, in myself. I went back two more years. In each subsequent year, I could feel myself emulating the counselors more and more. Like them, I wanted our group to learn new things and have fun and take care of each other, and the more I knew what I was doing, the better time I had.”

All these years later, my friends and I recall the one time none of us can forget.


Our canoe trip took us through Blue Mountain Lake and led to a string of other lakes in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

“The highlight of camp was the canoe trip through the Blue Mountain chain – the mist rolling off the flat, silvery lake, the quiet slip, slip, slip of the paddles, dipping in as we shoved off the pine-needled shores of the campsite,” Jill said. “I learned how to recover when falling out of the canoe and how to carry a canoe on my head. I learned to help pitch a tent, how to cook spam over a campfire. And how to lay on a flat rock amongst wild blueberry bushes in the pitch black and look for shooting stars “

“(The) canoe trip of my life, where we almost gave up, but didn’t and completed the whole lake chain,” Shelly recalled. “Because all of that gave me incredible memories of shared joy and improved self-confidence and deep appreciation of time spent adventuring.”

On that canoe trip — eight days of never being indoors or sheltered from the elements — I learned not to give up the moment I most wanted to. We’d spent the night on the rocky ground in a rainstorm. No tents. No blow-up mattresses. My flannel sleeping bag soaked and heavy. No one slept, so we were tired and cranky the next morning as dark clouds massed over the water. Our food was running low. We took a vote in that drippy, pine forest on the edge of a lake. Should we call the trip or continue on? I’m embarrassed to admit here that I voted to end our adventure and head back to camp, but I was overruled. For the rest of my life, whenever I faced a decision to quit something that felt too difficult to finish, I have remembered that moment and the joy I experienced when I guided my canoe to that final beach.


The time my friends and I shared in the Adirondack  Mountains changed us forever.

“Camping taught me that if someone gave me a job, then other people needed me to do it, or hey, maybe we wouldn’t eat,” Shelly said. “If I didn’t paddle, the canoe didn’t get to the campground. If I didn’t hold on, I couldn’t water ski. If I didn’t get wood, we wouldn’t have a campfire. If I wanted to be good at something, I had to do the work.”

My friends and I have carried the life skills we learned at camp with us through half a century, and I sense we will never give them up, nor will we forget where we learned them. In fact, we have decided to return to our island camp. Three women now in their sixties, back in a canoe with the bow pointed toward Eagle Island. I do believe when we step on that beautiful rock again, there will be tears marking our return to the place we learned so much about life.

Does anyone still believe you can recreate summer camp at home?


Wild Horses on the Salt Cover 2

Wild Horses on the Salt

A woman flees an abusive husband

and finds hope in the wilds of the Arizona desert.

Published by Liaison – A Next Chapter Imprint

Order your copy here:

Rebecca Quinn escapes her controlling husband and, with nowhere else to go, hops the red-eye to Arizona. There, Gaby Strand – her aunt’s college roommate – gives her shelter at the Salt River Inn, a 1930’s guesthouse located in the wildly beautiful Tonto National Forest.

Becca struggles with post-traumatic stress, but is enthralled by the splendor and fragility of the Sonoran Desert. The once aspiring artist meets Noah Tanner, a cattle rancher and beekeeper, Oscar Billingsley, a retired psychiatrist and avid birder, and a blacksmith named Walt. Thanks to her new friends and a small band of wild horses, Becca adjusts to life in the desert and rekindles her love of art.

Then, Becca’s husband tracks her down, forcing her to summon all her strength. But can she finally stop running away?












6 thoughts on “Life lessons learned at summer camp

  1. Sabra Steinsiek says:

    Girl Scout Camp memories. Your blog brought it all back. I was a counselor in training foe a month that summer. There were 10 or 12 of us from all over the Southwest. It was both the worst and best time of my life. From a distance of 50 years, I can now see what I learned that gave me the skills I would need in my librarian and storytelling life. I’ll always be grateful to the Girl Scouts.


    • annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

      I think there are a lot os us, Sabra. We were so lucky. I feel badly for kids today. I think in our world of electronics they miss a lot.


  2. Geri Lawhon says:

    Great story about camping. Home camping cannot be the same as going to camp and the learning and freedom it provides. My fiance’s daughter grew up in a small town in Canada, and part of the curriculum was 1 week camping trip in the spring. He said that she had the time of her life.


    • annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

      Camping was wonderful, Geri. As a teacher of 20 years, it saddens me that kids are so content with their cellphones and other electronic devices that they don’t even want to go outside. I feel sorry for them. I wonder if, when they’re older, they’ll realize how much they’ve missed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

    My boys are all grown, as well, but I would take them camping too, Geri! Though taking their phones might be iffy. 😉 And some camps today are no-cellphone zones. But many kids won’t go to them.


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