A Summer of Fun! 2024 Summer Camp Guide

Summer memories of cold showers and flashlights at night

by Rebecca Thornburgh
Posted 3/21/24

I have a trio of distinct kinds of camp experiences, all kind of miraculous and memorable to me.

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A Summer of Fun! 2024 Summer Camp Guide

Summer memories of cold showers and flashlights at night


Okay, so my personal summer camp experiences as a kid are not all that extensive or interesting. I wasn’t particularly athletic, and I was definitely adventure-avoidant. After my dad died when I was ten, my mom didn’t have a ton of money to throw at elaborate summer plans (plus, as a teacher, she had summers off, so camp was more a luxury than a necessity). I have a trio of distinct kinds of camp experiences, all kind of miraculous and memorable to me, but mostly for the things I experienced that were somewhat adjacent to the major focus of the camp programming.

My first camp experience was the summer after my dad died: science camp, every Friday for eight weeks, in far-off Pittsburgh – yup, all us sixth graders showed up at the junior high school at six a.m. for an impossibly long two-and-a-half-hour trip by school bus. I have no clue why I signed up for this because I was not into STEM, but my very science-y older brother had gone the summer before and I think my mom was desperate for a break at least one day a week. 

Once we arrived at Buhl Planetarium, I had two classes. One was about rocks. All I remember about that is a session of gazing at an array of mineral specimens presented in a series of glass cases, sparkly bits glistening under purple, fluorescent lights. Interesting, pretty, all that, but not life-changing.

The second class, a study of insects native to western Pennsylvania, was a bit more memorable – first because each kid was given a super cool shiny brown cardboard collecting box (to keep!), which I loved, and also curating our own insect collection by poking long pins through the thoraxes of bugs and then into the interestingly cushiony bottom of the collecting box, which I did NOT love. I felt squeamish about sticking them in their little chests, even though of course the bugs were long dead at that point, and I never seemed to be able to get them stuck into place without both antennae and at least three legs falling off. 

My collection was a curiosity, more sideshow than science. But what amped up the insect inspection in a major way was that this summer was a monumental year for cicadas (what brood it was I don’t remember, but it was a Big One), and at our regular rest stop mid-way through the trip, the cicadas were so thick on the ground that every crunching step of my red Keds satisfyingly pulverized about a thousand carcasses, and every picnic table offered a thousand more recently expired specimens to add to my spectacular collection of a million examples of the orange-winged seventeen-year cicada. 

The other wondrous part of these unbelievably long days of “camp” was our weekly trip to the magnificent Carnegie Library, where I thrilled to feel myself just a tiny speck inside the gigantic echoing spaces of such marbled magnificence, AND I was allowed to take out a book – TWO books, actually – of my own choosing. Magical! I didn’t manage to get through the entire eight-week session. I think most likely because getting up at five-thirty in the summer was a skill I hadn’t yet mastered.

The next summer brought my second camp, which was, in fact, a sleep-away experience. It was an entire week long, a church-sponsored choir camp (have I mentioned I’m a choral singing nerd?) at a small college campus about ninety minutes from my hometown. 

I totally loved choir camp and went back four summers in a row – though my first time there was a bit rocky due to an unhappy roommate situation. I was the one girl left over after my other choir pals had paired themselves into dorm roomies, and so my roommate Linda was an unknown quantity from the “other” church, who had a markedly less than enthusiastic reaction to being stuck with some nerdy rando from another town. Adept at brushing her own blonde curls, she sneered at my awkward attempts to tame my long, tangled braids. No matter how I tried, the twinned plastic ball elastics that had to go at ears and ends would always untwist themselves and snap off across the room. Linda was not particularly helpful or nice about that, or really about anything about me. 

I suffered a bit and was lonely at times, but I still found a way to adapt to the routine. Choir camp was my introduction to the notion that kids grouped into teams that competed all week for points awarded for everything, from winning games to good behavior at lights’ out. Each team’s name was some musical term. I remember feeling disappointed that my team’s name was so dumb: “The Naturals” was incredibly boring and normal given the other teams’ exciting monikers like “Sharps” and “Flats.” 

In addition to a lot of singing (which I loved), we also got half-hour sessions every day to try playing the violin, the guitar, and the recorder. It was incredibly cool to be in a roomful of kids pounding away at electric pianos, everything completely silent because each of us was hearing our own music through an enormous pair of headphones, a miraculous bit of technology I’d never seen before. 

The non-musical wonder of the choir camp week was getting to eat in the actual college cafeteria, with actual college students there, at the same exact time. Every part of this experience was a minor miracle, from being on your own to slide a damp melamine tray along a gleaming metal railing where you could consider all kinds of delicacies like macaroni and cheese, applesauce, butterscotch pudding, slices of white bread, and packaged pats of butter. You plunked down your choice of five or seven small but chunky china dishes. Next, you’d hold an adorably small water glass (with a curious ridge around the top) against the white plastic flap in a hole at the bottom of an enormous silver rectangle, to fill with chocolate milk, as many glasses as you wanted, and over the course of the week finally getting the hang of releasing the glass before the milk slopped over the rim. 

Eating in the dining center at the same time as the COLLEGE kids! Getting to pick out so many (admittedly mostly beige) choices of whatever we wanted to eat! All SO amazing!

The camp director was mysteriously, and embarrassingly, interested in making sure we all had regular digestive health – if you know what I mean – so the counselors would make regular rounds of the tables to urge us to add at least one green or juicy thing to our selections of mashed potatoes and pudding.

My team, always the mind-numbingly boring Naturals, never managed to win the week’s competition in any of the four years I went to that camp, but what’s most memorable to me are the 45 minutes we spent each afternoon, lying on our dorm room beds listening to peaceful classical music piped through the PA system. Or the evenings spent on scavenger hunts, running free around campus, giddy with the magic of lighting the growing dark with the weak beams of our cheap flashlights.

My third and most indelible camp experience, at a Presbyterian church camp, stretched over seven years, from childhood to college student – first just a week as a timid camper, later a month as a counselor-in-training, then all summer long as a counselor, a staff cook, and finally as director of arts and crafts. 

Those years encompass so many rich and profound experiences, far too many to list here, but the firsts of that first summer are unforgettable. An incomplete list:

  • Stumbling along a rock-strewn, root-tangled path on a giggly night-time trip to the bathhouse without a flashlight but with your new best friend.
  • Learning to take the fastest shower of your life under a freezing trickle of water in a wooden stall, where the chilly concrete floor of the bathhouse challenged you to pull on your clean jeans without trailing a leg through a puddle.
  • Sitting sardine-like on a splintered picnic bench, as the day turns to dark, listening to guitars strummed and voices lifted in the sweet harmonies of a Pete Seeger folk tune, accompanied by the hiss of the Coleman lanterns with cast circles of light picking out the growing collection of fried bugs unable to resist their allure. 
  • Getting the best sleep ever on a creaky camp bed made of aged, fusty canvas stretched over a rickety wooden frame. 
  • Being drummed to sleep by the sound of rain on the roof of the canvas tent.
  • Walking into an open field at night, enveloped in the most total darkness you’ve ever experienced, and having the utter shock of looking up to a sky studded with a miracle of stars, millions of stars, more than you’d ever seen and could ever imagine. 
  • Living outdoors every day, all day and all night long too, not seeing a TV screen or hearing a radio or riding in a car, for an entire week.

Everybody’s summer camp experiences are uniquely their own, as different as they are themselves. What every summer camp experience has in common is this: You’re in a new world, something away from your routine. It’s a different space, a different community with its own customs, activities, and people. 

All that can be tough to get used to – trying new things and meeting new people can be hard, even scary, and not everything will turn out great. What you get out of it, though – no matter what – is that you’ll know yourself better. When you put yourself in a different world, you get to see yourself more clearly. 

Even when things are hard, in the end, you’ll always know that you got through it. As you try out what it’s like to be something different, you know much more about who you are.