Sleep-over camp, then and now.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Oliver was my horse. A hunter-jumper in his previous life, Ollie was tall, well over 16 hands, and feisty. He w as an auburn bay, with a thick black mane and tail—one of the very few thoroughbreds at horse camp. And for one week each summer, he was mine.
I taught Ollie tricks. I’d hold a carrot in my mouth with most of it sticking out and squat down on the ground in front of him. He’d stretch his neck down and eat the carrot and it looked like we were kissing. I probably have a dozen pictures of Ollie “kissing” me.
He wasn’t an easy horse on trail rides—he’d spook crossing the creek, or catching sight of a moving branch. Then he’d jump around a bit, which I thought was great fun because, A) I thought it made me look really cool—I could handle the crazy horse on the trail ride. And B) riding on the back of a jumpy, trotting horse beat walking slowly through the wooded hills.
Jumping was a blast with Ollie. Most horses just trot over low-to-the-ground cavaletties. Ollie cleared them by a foot. He flew over poles and gates.
Ollie wasn’t my first horse-camp horse, but he was far and away my favorite. And after falling in love with Ollie, I requested him every summer thereafter, and for mother-daughter camping weekends in the off-season. I continued to ride Ollie once I transitioned from camper to counselor.
I guess I wasn’t the only girl to dream about what the other 357 days of the year would be like if only Ollie were my horse in real life, but I never thought about Ollie’s other girls back then. It would have been too painful. Saying goodbye after the end-of-camp show on Saturday was hard enough. I remember tears, which fell for my horse and my camp friends, none of whom I’d see for another year. Other friends, from school, or the neighborhood, or dance class didn’t share the same memories of waking up early to instant hot chocolate, which somehow tasted better at camp. Thinking back, everything, from green beans to spaghetti, tasted better at camp.
I remember, in my first year at camp—I think I was 10—my best friend Toby and I took as few showers as possible during the week. One seemed plenty. After all, we swam in the lake—with water snakes that would occasionally slither over your belly or back—every day. But then, as a teenager in a coed-camp week, I remember waking up at 4am or 5am to get a hot shower (there was only one women’s shower, and an unusually small water heater) and put on makeup.
I first started wearing lipstick at camp. Piper, a girl in my cabin, wore this dark, metallic brown color by Clinique. I don’t remember the name, just the silver spiral tube. Upon returning home from a week at camp, I had to go to Nordstrom’s and buy myself the same lipstick.
Every morning, we were tasked with cleaning our cabin, which would then be judged by the counselors. (The winning cabin got to be first in line for meals and snacks.) As young girls, we’d straighten out our sleeping bags, pillows and stuffed animals before dusting the window sills and sweeping the floors. Then, we’d pick flowers and place them on our pillows, and draw pictures and write notes, intended to bribe the counselors. We usually wrote about how smart and pretty and what accomplished riders they all were.
When we got older, however, we didn’t care so much about being first in line for food. Sometimes, in the senior girls’ cabin, we got in trouble for refusing to do any cabin chores. The counselors didn’t seem to understand that tidying up the place cut into our primping time.
I remember skits, songs and scary stories around the campfire, creek walks and riding lessons, and playing capture-the-flag in the middle of the night on the pitch-dark campgrounds. These sound like generic memories, but I can still smell the eucalyptus along the creek and the dust from the barn, which would clog my nose and turn my snot black. And I can feel the excitement at receiving letters from home—we had to tell a joke for every letter received—and the adrenaline rush before taking a riding test.
It’s a visceral, vivid set of memories that can only be understood by others who spent their childhood summers attending sleep-over camps. It’s completely lost on non-summer-camp types.
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Steve Ehrhardt gets it. Ehrhardt, camp director at Douglas Ranch Camps in Carmel Valley, spent all of his summers at Douglas. His parents, Carole Douglas Ehrhardt and Franklin Ehrhardt, ran the place, as did his grandparents, and great-grandparents before them.
Steve remembers doing archery with his cabin of boys around 1974. He says he was 9 or 10. He recalls that his buddy, Alex, missed the target. “By the way, he’s a really good archer now,” Steve adds. But back then, Alex could have used more practice.
It’s part of a cute camp story. After shooting all of the arrows at the bulls-eye targets, Steve and his fellow campers would trek off among the oak trees to collect the strays that had missed. They couldn’t find Alex’s arrow. “We were looking, and looking, and finally we found it, sticking out of a hole in the ground,” Steve says. Alex pulled his arrow out of the hole and it brought something with it. “He had pegged a gopher,” Steve says. At the end of camp, staff “honored” Alex with a gopher trophy. “He has that award, to this day.”
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Steve’s great-grandmother, Grace Parsons Douglas, founded the camp in 1925. At the time, it was located at Pebble Beach. Grace had four daughters. Her husband volunteered as a Boy Scout leaders, and Grace didn’t find it fair that only the boys got to go to camp and hike and learn archery. She thought there should be similar options for girls. So she founded Douglas as an all-girls camp.
Things were different back then. The girls did learn archery, and they did it on horseback, and while jumping off high-dives into swimming pools.
Campers spent their first summer at the current location—120 acres in the hills of Carmel Valley—in the summer of 1949. Samuel Morse chose the site.
“It was during World War II,” Steve says. “They were supposed to watch out for Japanese submarine attacks along the coast, so they spent the first summer here, near the Carmel River. They basically had to jump over the river. Now we have the bridge. The property was built as a kids camp, designed by my great-grandmother.”
Her daughter, Marjorie Jefferson, continued the family business until 1976, when daughter Carole Ehrhardt took over. Fourth-generation owner Steve Ehrhardt became camp director in 1996. “The main reason is that I wanted to raise my son here,” he says.
Douglas is a traditional summer camp that exudes a back-to-basics style and attitude. Boys and girls participate in separate daytime activities and eat in different sections of the dining room, where mountain goat and deer heads line the walls, and stuffed birds sit on the mantles. Co-ed activities and programs take place each night, and the senior girls’ cabins are located as far away from the boys’ as possible, which means the 14-year-old girls have to hike to get to the pool, or the dining hall, or anywhere else on the property.
During their three- and four-week sessions, all campers participate in six basic activities: Western horseback riding, swimming, arts and crafts, tennis, riflery and archery.
Campers sleep in communal cabins, with counselors, and are tasked with various chores around the property—cleaning toilets, sweeping the dining room, watering plants. The are expected to practice table manners—sitting up straight, keeping elbows off the table, saying please and thank you—and values like helpfulness, courtesy and punctuality.
Activities are structured and campers stick to a set schedule that begins at 7am, when they awake to 1940s music playing in the trees. Soon after, they head out to the flagpole and raise the flag. And campers do everything as a group: brushing their teeth at a row of sinks in the bathroom, eating in the dining room, shooting rifles or attending a barn dance.
“We try to teach them really old-fashioned sorts of values,” Steve says. “Cleanliness. Kindness. Respect for self and others. All of these go hand in hand with building this sense of community and one-on-one relationships.”
Douglas friends remain friends for life. Steve stays in touch with his former cabin mates, who now send their kids to Douglas. And this year, Steve’s son Logan, who’s 6, will be able to attend Douglas’ day camp—the first time a day-camp has been offered in Douglas’ 83-year history. Five and 6-year-old children may attend the day camp; overnight sessions are limited to campers ages 7 to 14.
Third- and fourth-generation campers are common at Douglas. Weekly Art Director Karen Loutzenheiser is a second-generation camper—her mom was a counselor in the early ’60s. Karen went to Douglas as a camper and then a counselor starting in the in the late ’80s. She remembers staying on the property when her mom worked on staff, riding her tricycle near the ranch house where Steve, his wife Laurie and son Logan now live.
Steve shares the opinion with most former campers that all kids should attend summer sleep-over camp—it teaches kids about independence and community; helps them acquire new skills that encourage physical activity enhance their self-esteem; and creates lasting friendships. “You leave the Internet behind, the PSPs behind,” he says, “and you hang out with your peers. You’re talking, reading books, writing letters back home. You’re making friends.”
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT DOUGLAS CAMPS, OR TO ENROLL FOR A SUMMER SESSION, VISIT DOUGLASCAMP.COM