I was glad my husband picked the moment just before dinner to head back to the tent for sweatshirts. That way Steve wasn't around when the camp director led us all in singing grace to the tune of the Addams Family theme (complete with cross-armed finger snapping). And I was spared the eyes-to-heaven look he'd been giving me ever since we arrived at Camp Eagle Island with our two kids that August afternoon.
I was the one who'd picked this Girl Scout camp on its own 32-acre island in the Adirondacks—and not just for Hannah, our eight-year-old, but for all of us. These days it isn't only kids who are packing off to summer camp. After years of lobbying by parents (those nostalgic for the glory days of their own youth, perhaps, and, yes, maybe a few obsessive types who just can't let go), camps are suddenly opening up to families after the solo campers have departed.
Growing up, I'd gone to camp in Pennsylvania—and loved it—and I hoped the family session at Camp Eagle Island would give Hannah and Daniel, four, a taste of what a sleep-away experience of their own might be like someday. My husband, never a camper, wasn't wild about the plan; sleeping in a platform tent and eating camp chow didn't sound like much of a vacation to him. But the long weekend would cost a mere $35 a night, plus meals. And when I explained that Camp Eagle Island, founded in 1938, occupies a great camp, one of the area's legendary rustic estates, on Upper Saranac Lake, Steve, a schoolteacher and history buff, agreed to give it a try. How bad could roughing it be?
By the time we climbed out of the car after the seven-hour drive from Manhattan, it was late afternoon. As we unloaded our gear at the camp's tiny mainland dock at Gilpin Bay, ducks streamed over to meet us, and we fed them the Cheerios the kids had scattered all over the backseat. On schedule, a small motorboat bounced across the lake; we piled in for the 10-minute ride to Eagle Island. While we signed in (no need to recite the Girl Scout Promise or belong to a troop to participate), a pickup truck dumped our belongings near our unit's latrine—as close to valet service as we were to get. It didn't take us long to locate our tent, one of 27 (the camp, which also has a few cabins, holds 50 families), and to haul our things up its sturdy wooden steps. Steve tested one of the five metal cots; it sagged deeply. But with the tent's front flaps open we could see the glittering lake through the tree branches. A squirrel chattered noisily in a pine tree overhead.
Before dinner we traced the 1.25-mile trail along the perimeter of the island, a narrow path padded with pine needles that winds around mossy boulders and white birch trees. Hannah scavenged thin, parchment-like sheets of bark that had peeled off, to write on later. She and her brother invented a game of stepping only on rocks and tree roots.
At six o'clock a little girl stood on tiptoe to ring the chimes in the dining hall, and campers filed in, young and old. We ended up sharing a long table with a New Jersey family back for their second year. A handmade plaque on the wall listed song contest winners going back to 1948. Tacked here and there were the words to different versions of evening grace, including the short, sweet verse I remembered from camp: "Back of the bread is the flour. And back of the flour is the mill. And back of the mill is the wind and the rain. And the Father's will."
The dining hall was one of six buildings made out of the island's own cedar and pine, and designed by architect William Coulter for Levi Morton, vice president under Benjamin Harrison and best known for having accepted the Statue of Liberty from the French. We learned about great camp living (private rail cars, Venetian gondolas, tuxedo dinners) on the evening motorboat ride around the lake. As Hannah played tic-tac-toe with two new friends, our boat skirted tiny, piney islands, some just big enough for a single house, others too small for any structure at all. By the time we returned to our island it was completely dark. Because we'd forgotten flashlights, our real adventure was ahead of us: feeling our way on unfamiliar paths back to the tent for our toothbrushes.
At the latrine, the faucet water was freezing and some of the toilets wouldn't flush. "On our next vacation we're going to have hot running water," groused Steve; he was then the first to drop off to sleep, just as raindrops began to patter on the tent top. I lay there in a panic, fearing our camp experience would be ruined by bad weather.
I needn't have worried. When I woke up early to the call of a loon, it was warm and sunny. After a breakfast of glutinous oatmeal, egg on toast, orange juice, and weak coffee, we were ready for the day's activities. Other family camps offer horseback riding, lessons in marine biology, and wine-and-cheese parties for parents (see chart on next page), but Camp Eagle Island doesn't believe in overscheduling. It specializes in water sports, and waterskiing was an option (at $20 per half-hour), as was paddling a canoe or sailing a Sunfish (unfortunately, the sailing instructor had just departed). But most parents seemed content to just hang out with their kids, puttering around the lodge, where moose heads kept watch over a musty collection of books (Indian Crafts for Campers; a 1918 edition of The Marne by Edith Wharton). A father parked his son in front of the TV with one working channel, before settling into an Adirondack chair on the porch with a biography of Samuel Beckett. Two girls unfolded a Monopoly board.
I dropped Hannah at the morning arts and crafts program for 8- to 12-year-olds. The day's activity—decorating objects with artificial flowers—seemed pretty pathetic to me. I'd learned to weave baskets at camp, and another mother, who'd attended Camp Eagle Island in the mid seventies and had returned with her husband and two kids, remembered making rope bracelets and carving a ring out of a peach pit. But when I picked up Hannah an hour and a half later, she was extremely pleased with her efforts: a doll-sized straw hat with glue-gunned ribbon and plastic bluebird, and a flowerpot filled with florist's moss and a fake rose.
Daniel refused to join the Pixies, the afternoon program for three- to seven-year-olds, so we all headed for the serene, tree-rimmed waterfront, a sandy-bottomed slope leading to the lake. The cool water was olive green up close, steely blue in the distance. After Steve, Hannah, and I passed the deep-water test—a short swim to some buoys and back—we were allowed to take yellow plastic "funyaks" out for a spin. While Steve and Daniel paddled left, Hannah and I veered right, to explore the "islets" we'd seen from the path the night before.
She and I approached one of these big boulders, and after a few tries managed to drag our funyak up onto a scrubby spot. Steve and Daniel eventually paddled into view, having rounded Eagle Island, and they also pulled ashore. The only treasure we found on our windswept island was a rusted fishhook, but the kids were thrilled to have "discovered" land. When we finally returned the boats, we were exhilarated—and ravenous.
Camp food, I can report, is just as bad the second time around. Still, one night there was decent macaroni-and-cheese, and the next day I came across spicy tomato-okra soup. "We're trying to use up what we have in the kitchen," one of the cooks confided when I complimented her (which I guess accounted for the peas-in-mayo on the table earlier in the day). At least there was always fresh fruit and a stack of sliced bread near a sludge of peanut butter at the that's-all-there-is-folks end of the buffet.
The next day vanished—more swimming, rowing, arts and crafts, and a quick excursion into the town of Saranac Lake, where people hiking and camping in the high peaks can get a haircut and eat a lunch that doesn't require lighting a fire. At the end of dinner that night, just as families were sweeping up under their tables, the director announced that there would be a campfire with marshmallows. "Everyone bring a stick," she instructed. Hannah threw herself into finding just the right one. "It's my first campfire ever and I don't want to be late," she said urgently as I rummaged through the duffel bag for her penknife. She whittled one end to a point, then sharpened her brother's branch.
When we got to the appointed spot overlooking the water, the fire was crackling and kids were jostling for roasting positions. Soon my daughter was licking the sticky ooze of her first s'more from between her fingers, a look of bliss on her face, while Daniel, dispensing with his stick, tidily ate his chocolate bar, marshmallow, and graham cracker separately. Sparks from the fire flew up into the sky, and stars began to appear. A guitar-playing father strummed "Mr. Tambourine Man," and people quieted down, finding seats around the blaze. We launched into "Make New Friends," followed by every other round we could think of. A counselor taught us a swimming song with arm motions. Former campers like me discovered we still knew the wishful words to "Barges." On the way back to the tent Hannah was still under the campfire's spell. "Can you teach me all those songs?" she asked, reaching for my hand.
When it was time to go, Hannah clung to Roxy, the property manager Pete's sweet-natured mutt. We rode the boat to the mainland with the camp director, who was also leaving for the summer. The kids sang their new swimming song in the car, and we all took turns assessing our camp stay. "I liked the beach and the boat ride best," said Daniel. "I loved it all," said Hannah. "I finally feel clean again," said Steve, when he emerged from a long, hot shower at home. Thinking back to the campfire, I decided his grumbling was at least part show. Sometime between "If You're Happy and You Know It" and "If I Had a Hammer" I had glanced over and seen him, smiling and singing with the rest of us, looking for all the world like a happy camper.
Camp Eagle Island offers three summer family sessions of four days and three nights each. Tents and cabins are $35 a night, including activities. For more information, call 888/746-8200 or 518/891-0928.
For more camp information and camp recommendations: The American Camping Association (765/342-8456; www.acacamps.org) has 24 local organizations branches and offers a comprehensive list of Day Camps and Residential Camps across the U.S.
Camp Wayne, Preston Park, PA
Father-son weekend: three days, two nights (August 16-18) Father-son sports, including baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, sailing and rock climbing. Choose between lobster and steak for dinner.
570/798-2511; www.campwayne.com; $175 per dad, $125 per child.
Great Camp Sagamore Raquette Lake, NY
Summer family package (July 2-7) Grands Package (for grandparents and grandchildren)(July 7-12 and July 14-19)
Campers stay at the former summer retreat of the Vanderbilts. Days are devoted to games of capture the flag and croquet, arts and crafts, and outings to Sagamore Lake.
315/354-5311; www.sagamore.org; Family package: $525 per adult, $290 per child; Grandparents: $675 per adult, $390 per child.
International Riding Camp Greenfield Park, NY
Mother-daughter week, seven days, six nights (June 16-22 and August 18-24): Ring walks, facials, massages, and more.
845/647-3240; www.ridingcamp.com; $2,250 per mother and daughter.
Kennolyn Camps Soquel, CA
Four-nights over Labor day weekend: All the essentials: creaky cabins, swimming lessons, trail rides, arts and crafts, and fireside sing-alongs.
408/479-6714; www.kennolyn.com; $398 per adult, children 6 -12 $318, 3-5, $250.
Pine Forest Camp Greeley, PA
Family weekend, two days, one night (June 1-2, 2003): Parents only separated from kids for Q&A session with camp psychologist.
570-685-7141; www.pineforestcamp.com; rates to announced.
Camp Seafarer Arapahoe, NC
Three-night and week-long packages for families, mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons (six sessions, May 24-Sept. 22) Motorboating, rope courses, mother/daughter sailing, and father/son golf tournaments (at neighboring Camp Seagull).
252/249-1212; www.seagull-seafarer.org; three-night: $135 per adult and teen, $100 ages 6-12, $45 ages 5 and under; weeklong: $455 adult and teen, $355 ages 6-12, $280 five and under.
College of the Atlantic Bar Harbor, ME
Family nature camp weeks (six sessions, from June 30 to August 10): Whale watching in the Gulf of Maine, and hiking in Acadia National Park. You might spot bald eagles, harbor porpoises, seals, and seabirds.
800/597-9500 or 207/288-5015; www.coa.edu; $595 per adult, $255 ages12-18, $175 ages 5-11, $50 ages five and under.
Gunflint Lodge Grand Marais, MN
Three- and four-night family packages (from June 1 to October 17): Horseback riding, moose watching, mountain biking, fishing, and swimming in Gunflint Lake.
800/328-3325 or 218/388-2294; wwww.gunflint.com; from $269 per adult, $135 per child 5-15, 4 and under free.
Medomak Camp Washington, ME
Six-day family camp (four sessions from July 21-August 17): Canoeing, archery, fly-fishing, arts and crafts, and nightly campfires. Fresh blueberries from patch on property and lobster dinners once a week. Yoga and aromatherapy available for adults.
207/845-6001; www.medomakcamp.com; adults $450 each, children 12 and under $350, five and under $290.
Strathcona Park Lodge Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Family Adventure Week (6 nights accommodation)(7 sessions from June 30 to Aug. 31): Alpine and ocean adventures: Canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking.
250/286-3122; www.strathcona.bc.ca; $510 per adult, $357 per child.