S’mores Beat

Summer Camp Is in Limbo, Just Like Everything Else

Will it be “Kumbaya” around a virtual campfire this year?

By Margaret Seiler April 14, 2020

After the canceled spring breaks, sure-to-be-virtual proms and spring festivals, and it’s-just-not-the-same well-spaced versions of clap-outs and graduations, families with kids might be facing another major disappointment: the annual social distancing ritual of children from their parents known as sleepaway camp.

“At this stage, as of today, we’re planning on running camp,” Todd McDonald, director of program and member experience at the Cascade Pacific Council of the Boy Scouts of America, told Portland Monthly the morning of Monday, April 13. He said he hoped they’d be able to make an official decision by mid-May.

In a normal summer, there would be about 1,000 kids at any one time camping on the 3,000 to 4,000 acres of land managed by the Cascade Pacific Council, which operates in 18 counties in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington. “We have a working assumption—just to have something you can hold on to, but definitely not a commitment—that on June 21 camp would be open,” he says. Still, McDonald emphasizes that plans are still very much up in the air. “We have a tremendous amount of contingencies: virtual camp, mail-order camp, camp restricted to groups of 30.... we have six pages of innovative ideas, and are adding more.

“We’re not running camp if it’s not safe, and the health department is going to tell us if it’s safe or not,” he says. “All this planning might be for naught.”

“We’re making contingency plans based on a shorter summer or smaller numbers—a lot of contingency plans,” says Willard Burks, executive director of YMCA Camp Collins, perched along the Sandy River in Gresham. “The big things are what the governor’s going to do, when this is going to end, and what this will look like on the backside.” It’s not just a matter of turning on the lights and opening up, Burks says. “It’s planning for check-in, group size, meals, a lot of things,” including the staff training period for the college and high school students who make up much of the summer staff.

CampFire Columbia’s Camp Namanu, a few miles upriver on the Sandy from Camp Collins, has put its registration “on pause,” according to a statement on its website “until we have more clarity about the length of physical distancing and the full impact on the school year calendar.... Our hope is that we will see all of you as scheduled this summer, but in the event that camp programming must be reduced or canceled, refunds will be issued to registered families. We are continuing to monitor the situation and will make additional adjustments as needed to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, families, and most importantly our campers.”

Now turning their attention from the immediate tasks of closing the museum and suspending current programming, OMSI is “monitoring the latest updates and developments in this situation and considering how they could potentially impact our programs,” says Steve Tritz, the museum’s director of outdoor education. “I’m confident we will be ready to deliver a positive and enriching experience for our campers while observing the health and safety guidelines issued by the state of Oregon and the CDC.” Tritz says they’re looking at ways they might need to adapt their summer programs, including their overnight camps at the Coastal Discovery Center at Camp Gray in Newport and at the Hancock Field Station near Fossil, surrounded by the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. “Summer camp may look a little different this year,” Tritz notes, “but we are excited to make sure it is full of fun, science, and lifelong memories.”

A March 31 statement on the website for B’nai B’rith Camp, on Devil’s Lake near Lincoln City, says the camp “is in constant communication amidst this COVID-19 situation with the American Camp Association and a myriad of other national resources and medical experts to ensure our staff are prepared for the summer.” The statement also mentions a “Program Protector Plan insurance option” and details future credit or refund options in the event that camp sessions are canceled. “This will have a lasting impact on our budget, our programming, and our organization for years to come,” the statement continues. “We want to retain staff throughout the duration of this pandemic in order to continue to provide a growing range of on-line programs and services alongside planning for what we expect to be a fabulous summer at BB Overnight and BB Day Camps!”

Since the stay-at-home order began, Burks says Camp Collins has so far had to cancel or postpone events that had been scheduled from the second week of March through May—rentals, retreats, conferences, and programming for Oregon’s treasured Outdoor School—all of it representing about $400,000 in booked revenue.

McDonald says the Cascade Pacific Council has also had many cancellations already. OMSI normally would have rented out the scouts’ largest camp (Camp Meriwether, south of Tillamook) to run its Outdoor School programming, and there would be weekend horse camps (“run by real cowboys,” McDonald says). “Scouts would be out there camping every weekend,” he says, and scout facilities would also host service projects, weddings, family campouts over Memorial Day weekend. The group also had to close its two winter lodges, on Mount Hood, earlier than it usually does.

There is a silver lining, though, says McDonald: “Because nobody can go to our camps right now, we can get a lot of work done.” The organization had started upgrading a lot of its sanitation facilities last year, in part due to the inclusion of girls in more of the scout programming and the need for changes in showers and toilets. Conveniently, the changes include an increased number of handwashing stations. Some upgrades were tested last summer, and installation kicked off in September. The work is nearly done at many sites, McDonald says.

In the meantime, camp organizers and hopeful families must wait and see, just like the rest of us.

“We’re excited about the day we can have campers,” says Burks. “We’re planning for that day when we can be together again.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its initial publication to include additional information from OMSI.

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