Mud: A First Experience at Camp

One morning earlier this month I read Emily Parnell’s column in The Kansas City Star, entitled “Letting Out the Wild Child Within” (July 14, 2015). I laughed at her humorous account of her son’s time at summer camp, which she compared to Lord of the Flies. Her story took me right back to my son’s first experience at camp.

I think he was nine that year, though he might only have been eight. My husband did legal work for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, and we were members of the local Y, so it seemed natural to investigate YMCA camps in the Midwest. We found Camp Wood, outside Elmdale, Kansas, about a two-hour drive from our home. Camp Wood had a week-long residential camp that sounded about right for a kid our son’s age.

Camp Wood today

Camp Wood today

The Camp Wood website today says:

“Campers participate in life-changing, outdoor experiences that foster healthy decision-making, lasting friendships, skill development, and strengthened values in a safe, friendly environment.”

Camp Wood describes the residential camp for grade-school kids as follows:

“Traditional resident camp is an unforgettable adventure designed for making new friends, learning new skills, and trying new things!  Campers live in cabins and choose their own programming from choices offered, while developing independence, confidence and a greater awareness of the world around them.”

Camp Wood 2I’m not sure what Camp Wood espoused in 1990 or ’91, but it was probably something similar.

My husband had loved his summer camp experiences as a kid. I had only gone to summer camp once, and my time there had not gone well. But I didn’t want my lack of enthusiasm to limit my children.

We signed our son up.

On the appointed day, our whole family drove to Camp Wood to drop him off. The camp was in the middle of nowhere atop the Flint Hills of Kansas. The site’s central grounds were barren and dry—just a little dead grass covering a think layer of cracked dusty earth. Dark brown buildings surrounded by light brown fields.

“It looked like a German prison camp,” is my husband’s recollection.

Camp Wood today

Camp Wood today

I think the cabin where our son was assigned had four bunks for kids and one for a counselor. Seemed like a good ratio. We toured the camp, finding the dining hall, the creek and swimming area, the crafts building, and other typical accoutrements of a kid’s summer adventure. I seem to remember a zip line and archery, and maybe some stables. And our tour guide mentioned a mud hole by the creek.

With some trepidation (but no tears) on the parts of both parents and child, we left our son behind.

A week later my husband returned alone to pick our son up. The kid had had a blast. He and his new cabin-mate buddy proudly conducted my husband around camp on their own, showing him all their haunts and favorite activities. They’d shot arrows and tie-dyed shirts and held snakes.

They pulled my husband to the mud hole, where the crowning achievement of the week had been to stick their heads completely into the mud.

My son brought home the Camp Wood t-shirt he’d worn for the mud-dunking feat. I washed it several times, but it never lost its dingy brownish-gray tint. My son kept the shirt—and wore it—long after he outgrew it. He was always proud to describe the time he’d stuck his head in the ground.

Despite the wonderful time our son had at Camp Wood, he never went back. He attended other camps, which were less pleasant experiences, and somehow Camp Wood never rose to the top of his summer to-do list.

Many years later—enough years later that our son had graduated from college—my husband and I decided to detour to Camp Wood on our way home from Wichita. The camp looked much better than it had when our son attended. The YMCA had put some money into sprucing it up, and the grounds and cabins displayed more hues than brown.

Today, the Camp Wood Facebook page shows kids having a lot of fun. They still sport tie-dyed shirts. There’s a climbing tower and tennis courts, nature walks and a lake, and an outdoor amphitheater. And a lot of smiling faces.

I wonder if the mud hole is still there.

That week at Camp Wood was the best summer camp adventure our son had. It allowed him the same “wild child” time that Emily Parnell described for her son.

But maybe all boys react the same way to freedom from parental controls. I remember my mother exclaiming when my 11-year-old brother came home from camp, “He wore the same pair of underpants FOR TEN DAYS!” Which both she and I, as girls, thought was disgusting.

What do you remember about summer camp as a kid?

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