By TOM WOODMAN
Spend a half-day with Brian DeGroat and you’ll notice he uses the word connection a lot. Not in the texting-tweeting-digital-everything sense of the word. As executive director of Camp Pok-O-MacCready and its Outdoor Education Center, he’s the leader of an ever-changing community where mobile depends on muscles, not bandwidth.
What he and his colleagues are all about is connecting young people with nature and with each other.
“We have a no-screens policy,” he says. “No smart phones. We want kids to be interacting with each other. Socializing and not worrying about their digital lives.”
Camp Pok-O-MacCready can be found on the same Willsboro property it has occupied since it opened in 112 years ago. And it is owned by Jack Swan, a member of the family that founded the camp as Camp Pok-O-Moonshine for Boys in 1905 and has operated it ever sense. The camp became co-ed in 1967. In an era when summer camps face stiff competition from academic and other youth programs, Pok-O-MacCready has remained a constant.
We walk through its three hundred acres and encounter a meadow where young people set out blindfolded in an exercise in experiencing the world with senses other than sight. In an open woodland another sensory class follows ropes through the trees. Past that is the beach where a group of beginning canoeists launches onto Long Pond.
It’s late spring, and a group of sixth-graders from Montreal has come for three days to be immersed in an English-language program and in the Adirondack environment. It’s a last chance for classmates to be together before dispersing to other schools.
Christian Verret watches as the students learn about paddles and personal flotation devices. He first came here eight years ago as a parent. His son and daughter got so much from the experience that now he volunteers as a chaperone for other classes.
“This makes a big difference in their lives,” he says. “Montreal is a big city. Here it is quiet, and you can hear the birds. You can hear a lot of things. We climb Bear Mountain to see the colors as the sun goes down. Then we can see the stars. We cannot see this in the big city.”
This group is attending the Outdoor Education Center, which houses and instructs school classes and other groups of young people. It focuses on four core themes: natural sciences; high adventure; living history; and team building. In June, the community will make the transition to the traditional summer camp where boys and girls from six to sixteen years old will spend up to seven weeks exploring the Adirondacks and their own abilities to connect with others in ways that matter.
“We give kids an opportunity to be creative, to explore, to push their limits, and to experience something they don’t get in their everyday lives,” Brian says.
Much of this growth takes place on mountain trails.
“We send out eight to twelve trips a week,” says Brian. “All over the High Peaks with a variety of difficulty. Some are going to want to do Marcy, Gray, and Skylight in a day.” For those who don’t know, that last one is a big day. There are shorter trips on the itinerary, including nearby Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain.
Pok-O campers are known for their backcountry achievements. Brian says hikers associated with camp make up the single biggest contingent of Adirondack Forty-Sixers. One camper a few years ago finished summiting the forty-six high peaks at the age of nine.
Every five years they recreate the experience of the first campers in a time before automobiles. On a four-day backpacking trip they hike the fifty-four miles from Willsboro to the summit of the state’s highest peak.
Many alumni return to the Adirondacks as residents or visitors, a pattern you can find with other summer camps in the Park. Summer camps are portals to a lifetime of enjoying the Park. The ties campers forge are lasting.
Many of the counselors and instructors, young people in their late teens and early twenties, were campers themselves. “They want to be able to give back to the camp that gave them so much,” says Brian.
Pok-O is not a religious or faith-based camp, but it does look for deeper meanings in campers’ experiences.
“I would say that the one spiritual aspect of camp is rooted in the interconnectivity of our campers with the greater camp family and community,” Brian says. “We have a non-denominational vespers ceremony every Sunday night. It’s one of the very few times when we’re quiet and all together. It’s a time for reflection, to think about what was important about this week or this summer. Who were the friends that you made? I have seen some of the most amazing displays of emotion at vespers. Because camp is a family, people feel comfortable sharing things here that they don’t share other places.”