Story and pictures by Tim LaBarge.
Pulling into the parking lot at Tryon Creek State Natural Area on the first day of summer camp, you’ll see a collection of children weaving about, saying goodbye to parents, chattering like little birds in a chaotic flock. In time, the flock gets split into smaller teams and they disperse down the trail on their way to a lifetime of memories.
This year, Tryon will welcome nearly 800 campers in its 41st year of offering day camps.
The hairstyles and trail fashion have changed since those first camps in the mid-70s, but the wide-eyed look of the camper as she discovers the natural world has not. Encouraging young people to be good stewards of the forest has always been the goal of the camp, and that continues today.
The camp director and the camp counselors’ main goal is to provide a safe place to encourage responsible enjoyment of the land. Their activities are designed so campers experience a boost in their confidence and leadership skills as they explore new territory, pushing their boundaries of comfort.
It turns out, the campers take with them something just as incredible as all of this growth and understanding: Friendships. Friendships start with doing, they start with experiences and working together. From day one, campers participate in inclusive exercises designed to create little families. Lori Stepper, Camp Director, says, “Camp is a place where everyone belongs. If a child is having a hard time, the group discusses a way to help that camper out.”
Respect for the land is right up there with respecting each other. Lori says it’s easy to be a steward if you follow the simplest ideas: “Respect wildlife, stay on the trail and be a good role model. When other visitors see the way you treat the park, they will do the same.”
Camp Instructor Ian Anderson, known as Phi at camp, encourages that sense of ownership in the park. “Tryon Creek belongs to everyone and owning something means it’s your job to care for it.” In her role as a camp leader, Erin Cathcart sees how the quiet kids begin to open up. She sees how the kids who don’t always feel like super stars at school or on the sports field find success at camp. She watches them become more independent throughout the week, becoming more confident and taking on leadership qualities.
By the end of the week, she says, they’re acting as a team. “Kids work together to build their forts and they help each other. There’s no war, it’s all collaboration. They’ve not only built a fort, they’ve built a community.”
Each year, on the last day of camp, Erin sees a familiar scene: “When the final ceremony is over, the kids have this look of sudden realization that they have to do something about those relationships and they’re eagerly exchanging numbers.”
Months or years later, she’s seen those same kids meet up at the park for a mini-reunion and to take their families for a walk in the woods to show them where their fort was or where they saw a pileated woodpecker.