The Untainted Utopia of Summer Camp in Big Sur.

Camp staff and campers salute during an evening flag lowering ceremony.

“Hi, gang, I’m here for another year!”

“Hi, here for another year!” roars a crowd of a few hundred Boy Scouts, adult leaders, parents and a few dozen camp staff.

“No, no, no, that’s not my name! I’m the Head Whammy!”

“Hi, the Head Whammy!” roars the crowd again. Most of them don’t really know how to react, except with confused laughter, to the man standing in front of two roaring campfires. He is dressed in a light gray sweatsuit and wearing a white head cover with a forest green hexagonal cardboard brim. This is long-time staffer Jeff Doane in his signature character.

For many years, Doane was the master of ceremonies for the week’s opening campfire program – a Sunday evening tradition to introduce camp to Boy Scouts every June through August at Pico Blanco Scout Reservation in Big Sur.

• • •

Doane, who passed away in 2006, had worked on camp staff for nearly 35 summers. He was a good friend and a mentor during the 10 summers I spent as a camp counselor at Pico Blanco. But he had been in my life even longer than that – I was a Boy Scout and he was the handicraft director who helped me earn a few badges starting in 1995, when I was 11. His dedication as a positive role model in the Boy Scouts influenced me to continue to help out with the scouts and scouters who came down the 3-mile dusty road in Palo Colorado canyon near Big Sur. 

We were good influences on younger generations. It could be something as simple as showing a young scout how to properly aim and fire a rifle or explain how you can tie 10 basic knots in under a minute. There is a great moment of pride when they realize they learned how to do something for the first time. But it was more than just physical skills, it was character building.

The inspiration we provided showed up in little ways and often, unknowing ways. I remember one summer when I was the archery rangemaster and had full classes one week. On Monday evening, one scoutmaster asked if I could add one of his scouts, Joe – a child with a slight mental disability – to my class, even though we had finished a day of important material already. In my not-so-free time that week, I helped Joe learn the basics of archery and making an arrow. On Friday, the kids in my class could qualify with a certain number of points to earn the merit badge and not everyone was able to do it. Joe paid attention during the week and qualified with a very respectable score. He earned his first merit badge.

On Saturday, the same scoutmaster who had asked me to help Joe out told me that Joe was ecstatic all night that he had finally gotten some positive reinforcement in his life. He went on to say that Joe’s parents had never really thought he was good at much, because he was slow. All I had done was shown him how to shoot a bow and arrow.

At camp, being silly was encouraged and that gave me confidence and self-esteem. It was what helped me jump up in front of the campfires and sing songs by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary and tell really bad jokes to 300 people. Parents still see me in town, out of my uniform and say, “Hi, Dr. Nic!” (I was one of the medic-types one summer… ) They always thank me for working at camp and say their kids still talk about us years later. I remember those moments from being a Cub Scout and thinking the older counselors were so cool and how I wanted to be like them when I got older.

For many people who know me, I often bring up camp and working at Pico in conversation and usually not out of consciousness. It just shows up in the things I am passionate about and one of those things was summer camp. Running through the redwoods, teaching rock climbing, archery, rowing and swimming merit badges and acting in ridiculously silly skits.

Working at Pico Blanco was an escape. According to a pamphlet of Pico Blanco history, one of many historical records we can thank Doane for, “Pico Blanco stands on this land, set aside to the sole end that it be preserved as a primitive area where the American boy can have the inestimable experience of untouched wilderness and unspoiled natural beauty. It is a reservation for boys away from civilization, intended to offset the softening influence of our modern social life, and to help in the development of America’s future men to be self-reliant, of strong character and physically fit.”

For many of the close friends I made at camp and a few of whom I still count as my best friends, the above phrase is what we took in while camping along the Little Sur river for eight weeks every summer. 

Every December, staffers from many different years still gather for our annual holiday party and reunion. We spend hours retelling stories of campfire skits gone awry, memorable troops and excursions into the Ventana Wilderness. 

For us, summer camp was freedom.

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