Why A Camp Director Still Leads Wilderness Overnights at 50

By Bill McMahon, Co-Director

As far as I can tell, peer camp directors, especially those nearing or past the 50-year-old milestone, are not leading wilderness overnight trips with their campers.  And there are probably a number of good reasons for this: they have their hands full being a director; they don’t think their camp can run if they are gone for two days; they have outdoor specialists on staff who may be more skilled in leading trips; and they may not be up to it physically.

Every summer I try and lead a number of wilderness trips during our seven weeks in session.  This past summer I led a hike in the White Mountains and an overnight canoe trip on Lake Umbagog and the class II rapids of the Androscoggin River.  I still lead trips for a number of reasons.  First off, a trip during the very beginning of camp–especially with a large group of new campers–is a great way to jump start learning every camper’s name.  My wife Sabina and I pride ourselves on knowing all 130+ campers names within the first few days of camp.

Leading trips also gives me insight into the lives of my campers that I might not get via the ordinary exchanges in camp.  William Pollack, the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, makes the point that effective and meaningful mentoring between adults and boys happens best when it is activity based.  Pollock calls it “Action Talk.”  Being with boys when they are doing things creates powerful opportunities for communication, guidance and bonding.  There is nothing like a couple of hours of canoeing or hiking to give one a chance to really hear what campers are feeling about themselves, their peers, their counselors, and the camp.  Nuggets of wisdom gleaned this past summer during trips included opinions on meals we should stop serving (sweet and sour chicken), counselors we should definitely hire back, and activities we should do more of in the evenings (fishing, dodge ball, and Wiffle ball).

I also believe it is important to lead trips because it keeps me in touch with what my staff are experiencing.  Even for those counselors who love being in the backcountry, and are highly skilled at it, being in charge of campers for an extended period in the wilderness can be very demanding, both physically and mentally.  And this is when everything goes perfectly.  Add on to a normal trip a camper injury or illness, bad weather, and maybe a gear malfunction and even the heartiest counselor can be tested.

A few years ago I led a trip that included a ten-mile flat-water paddle on the first day to a remote wilderness campsite.  Everything went well until the moment we began putting up our tents.  (A golden rule at Moose is that you always set up camp before you do anything else, even if the weather appears perfect.)  All of a sudden a torrential rain and windstorm hit that the campers later dubbed “the perfect storm.”  Within fifteen minutes our campsite was covered with downed branches and our half erected tents were sitting in 6 inches of water in our flooded campsite.  And it was late in the afternoon.  Once the rain stopped we decided that the best course of action was to pack everything up (wet tents in garbage bags) and paddle five more miles to a road that would allow me to access our Suburban and trailer.  It made for a long day, but one that ended with dry, warm, safe, and happy boys, with a great tale to tell for the rest of their lives.

A motto we live by at Moose when heading to the backcountry is “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”  We reiterate with our campers and counselors to always go the extra yard relative to being safe and smart.  I was once on a sea-kayaking trip in the Pacific that involved camping on a secluded beach.  We pulled our kayaks up as far as we could against the cliffs, which were at least 30 feet above the highest tide line we could see on the beach.  Just before dark I decided to go down to the beach and tie up all the kayaks “just in case.”  Good thing I did because the next morning the rope I used was so tight due to a freakishly high tide that had almost swept our kayaks out to sea.

Another motto at Moosilauke is “don’t assume anything.”  We routinely remind campers and counselors that just because something was true last year does not mean it will be true this year.  A case in point from this past year involved the “jumping bridge.”  On the last day of the Moosilauke Androscoggin canoe adventure it has been tradition for decades to let the campers jump off the bridge at the seven-mile mark outside Erroll (feet first with life jackets) into the rapids below.  The height is just high enough so that the campers all pause and take a deep breath before making the plunge.  Even though for as long as we can remember the water has been high enough to jump safely I always tell our staff to cancel the jump (and be the bad guy in the eyes of the campers) if the water looks even remotely low.  (Of course, counselors always check the depth before any one jumps.)  This year I had to take my own advice and disappoint the campers by cancelling the jump.

Leading trips with my Backcountry Leadership Staff also gives me a chance to personally evaluate how well they perform their incredibly important responsibilities, and how well they interact with the campers.  The staff that I tripped with this past summer was so capable and positive that I immediately committed to rehiring them for the following year.

There are a number of factors that make it possible for me to continue to lead trips into my second 50 years (good health and training as a Wilderness First responder, among them) but most importantly it is the peace of mind brought on by having Sabina, my co-director, (and my brother-in-law Ken and sister-in-law Ingrid) at Camp helming the SS Moosilauke while I am gone.

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