Bug juice, canoes, lanyards, s'mores and summers that change lives

I often tell people I love my job. It’s true. I do.

What I don’t tell them is I’ve had a better one.

I was a counselor at Mystic Lake YMCA Camp for three summers. Without question, it’s directly responsible for who I am today.

From a Mystic alum’s perspective, there are two distinct groups of people in the world – those who spent summers attending or working at sleep-away camp and will rhapsodize endlessly about it, and those who did not and will look at the former people as if they are a little crazy.

I’m proudly, happily, a little crazy.

As much fun as camp was as a camper, it wasn’t until I became a counselor at the ripe old age of 15 that I truly appreciated the depth of the experience. Spending the entire summer away from home – away from friends, TV and phones – seemed a bit daunting that first summer. How would I survive without that essential trifecta of teendom? But I did survive. And I couldn’t wait to get back up there.

Looking back, the idea that hormonal teenagers were in charge of the safety, growth and entertainment of small packs of children week after week somehow startles me now. And yet, in the thick of it, I remember feeling immensely mature and responsible. (I’m sure our camp program director would beg to differ.)

Mystic Lake, located 15 miles west of Clare, is coming up on its 89th summer serving Lansing-area youth. Earlier this month, the camp hosted an alumni gathering for campers, counselors and their families at Woldumar Nature Center in Lansing. And while it was a great opportunity to hear how camp has grown and changed over the years, the best part for many of us was the very real, instant time-shift that happened, returning us to those special, perfect summers.

We filled in gaps in each other’s memories. We poked fun. We looked at school pictures of the next generation. We updated each other on long-forgotten friends. We hugged – a lot.

I can’t think of another time in life when a season-long experience has been so special, so central to who I’ve become. College shapes lives, sure. Overseas study programs, sports tournaments and class trips can definitely deepen the bonds of friendship.

But there’s something special about being isolated far from home, with people who aren’t part of your day-to-day life. When you’re a teenager, much of your time is spent figuring out how to fit in with the world and people around you. Lots of kids are afraid to let their real personalities shine through for fear of being teased.

Not at camp.

At camp, you meet your most authentic self. You get to embrace your independence and try on new adventures. For many kids, it’s the first time they climb a rock wall, paddle a canoe, make a necklace, sleep under the stars or ride a horse. There’s a real freedom in letting people get to know the real you.

Many people don’t learn how to do that until much later in life. Some never really do. But if you’re lucky enough to spend a summer at camp, it’s thrust upon you in the best way. Want to give your kid a gift that will linger literally decades after you spent your money? Sign him or her up for camp. I can’t think of a better investment in the person that kid will grow up to be.

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Fri, 04/11/2014 - 2:29pm
I've been to Mystic Lake, it wasen't for a summer camp program but something else, I can't remember now exactly what it was (so long ago) it is a nice place.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 2:41pm
It really is lovely. Thanks for stopping by :)
Sun, 04/13/2014 - 8:06am
I was a camper there in the 50's.Cabin name Wisconsin.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 2:40pm
I never knew the cabins were named for states — thanks for sharing that! When I was there, we referred to the cabins and forts mostly by their numbers, although each building did have a name on it. When they replaced all the signs at camp more than a decade ago, they sold the old ones as a fundraiser. "Deer Run 5/6" (cabins 5 & 6) proudly hangs in my own cabin up north now :)
Sun, 04/13/2014 - 10:51am
Robin, great article and I can relate indirectly to what you describe and feel. My cousin grew up in a camp in VanBuren Co. and is now on their board of directors. She's still a camper at heart, like you. They now do an annual folk fest fund raiser called Big Bear Folk Fest at the camp which is a family friendly wonderful event. Bill and Mary, Sec. 126, Breslin Cntr.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 2:36pm
Thanks, Bill (and Mary)! Camper at heart — I like that. :)
John Q. Public
Sun, 04/13/2014 - 8:34pm
Lots of kids who went to camp have memories that aren't quite so fond. More like nightmares .
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 04/14/2014 - 2:38pm
I'm sure there's a gamut of experiences. I can honestly say in my three years as a counselor, I only had one camper who was so homesick and inconsolable that we had to call her parents to come and pick her up after only a day. I hope that, on balance, most kids find it to be a positive experience. The overwhelming number of kids I encountered were crying when they were dropped off because they didn't want to leave their parents ... and were crying when their parents came to pick them up a week later because they didn't want to leave camp.
John Q. Public
Mon, 04/21/2014 - 9:40pm
Wow. Homesickness isn't even close to the nightmares I was talking about. Think "Jerry Sandusky."
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 3:13pm
John, this is a serious and perpetual concern. I'm a camp director (Skyline, in Almont, MI). Camps these days have serious responsibilities and requirements for background checks, training, and practices to prevent these kinds of things. Camps that are licensed by the State and Accredited by the American Camp Association have good practices and support. I encourage parents to grill camps about their policies and how their training and pre-camp preparation is done, as well as the practices during camp time itself. - Matt
JoAnn Klein
Tue, 06/03/2014 - 11:19am
Hello Robin, I stumbled upon this and promptly sent to my Mystic-lovin' daughter who can hardly wait to get dirty, see her camp friends, eat foil dinners and commune with nature at another week of ML camp coming up in 3 weeks. It forever changed her outlook on the bigger world 3 years ago and she can't wait to be old enough for LIT and CIT.