The Pre-Camp Countdown: Preparing for Opening Day

The countdown is on for Maine camps. Their websites list the days, hours, even seconds, until opening day, when girls and boys from here and afar descend on the scores and scores of camps throughout the state. But while campers are still immersed in school and activities, camp directors are keeping their eyes on the weather and their to-do lists. Camp is a couple months away, and every moment counts.

Matt Pines, director of Maine Teen Camp in Porter, says preparing for camp fills up every moment between the time the snow has melted and day campers arrive. “The earlier the snow is gone, the less stressful it is,” he says.

The stress comes from a variety of issues. Is it warm enough to turn on the water? Are camp roads and fields dry enough to accommodate vehicles? Are overnight temperatures high enough to allow exterior painting?

This year’s late winter means a compressed maintenance schedule, Pines says. “It’s the same amount of work.” And there may be maintenance surprises. For example, at Maine Teen Camp, a flooded music studio went on the list of repairs.

Much of camp prep depends on the weather. Pines says that when it gets warm enough, grass seed can be planted and paint and floor finishes applied. “We start collecting a running tally” of tasks to accomplish, he says, while at the same time focusing on planned projects. At Maine Teen Camp that includes a bathroom renovation and a significant field repair.

Not everything gets done prior to staff’s arrival a couple of weeks before camp, Pines says. “Over the years, we’ve found that when staff do some pre-camp work, they take a lot of pride in it, and it helps connect them to the facility.”

“Once they’ve got a little sweat in the game, it really is a noticeable effect.”

But a whole lot of sweat goes in prior to that.

“Most people only see camp when it looks like a postcard,” Pines says. “It doesn’t clean itself up.”

In Freedom, at Hidden Valley Camp, director Peter Kassen puts pre-camp preparations this way: “You do what you can in whatever order you can do it.”

Last week, warm weather permitted painting. This week’s temperatures meant raking leaves and moving supplies. “We have a list and every day we figure out, ‘this is what the weather is,’ and we go in one direction or the other,” Kassen says.

A building project this winter posed the problem of frozen gravel piles, Kassen says. When they were thawed enough to move, the roads were too muddy to accommodate trucks. “For about a month we couldn’t do a thing,” he says. “People from away don’t understand that.”

Nor do they necessarily need to. Camps take springtime to get the behind-the-scenes work done, so that when campers pull in on opening day, everything is a go.

Karen Malm, assistant director at Camp Agawam, a boys’ camp in Raymond, agrees that much pre-camp work depends on the weather. There’s still snow on the ground, she says, and low temperatures mean the water still can’t be turned on. Mowing and painting must wait, she says.

But alongside efforts to spruce up the physical plant, camp preparations include finalizing hiring, and gathering documentation from campers and staff, Malm says. Funds coming in mean supplies and equipment can be purchased, and camp administrators are looking at what certifications their staff may need, Malm says. Agawam offers a wilderness first aid course each spring; other area camps also offer a broad range of certification courses.

Malm says this time of year brings both stress and excitement. “We talk to parents with questions, about what’s coming up for sons, and there are staff calling in,” she says. “There’s a lot more personal contact. That’s the fun part of job.”

At the same time, she says, “we’ve got camp approaching, and we want to get everything in as great shape as possible.”

“There’s a little bit of ramping up that happens,” she says.

Camp Agawam differs from many camps because it offers its Main Idea camp program for a week before the seven-week summer session begins. The Main Idea gives a camp opportunity, free of charge, to deserving boys from Maine who might otherwise not be able to attend camp. Malm says efforts are in full force recruiting volunteers for that week, while also preparing for the traditional camp season.

It all adds up to a chock-full schedule with a close eye on the forecast.

“We’ve only got ‘x’ number of days,” Malm says. “There’s a push to get ready. And we stop getting ready when the campers arrive.”

While camps are putting the physical plant in top shape, they are also thinking about staff training, which takes place immediately prior to campers’ arrival. Next week’s blog will explore just how extensive staff training is, and how camps prepare their counselors and staff to offer the best possible experience for campers. The clock is ticking, and camps and campers alike have their eyes on the calendar. And the weather forecast.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.