Driving through the gate that opens onto serene and picturesque Lost Lake at the YMCA of Grays Harbor’s Camp Bishop is like taking a trip back to a more simple time. Campers on a recent Thursday morning range from kindergartners to sixth graders, scattered among the trees and dirt trails amid a game of “Pony Express.” They run up the hill through the forested area to reach the “sheriff,” who sits awaiting the special message, a blank piece of paper that only he can read.
Counselors, acting as ”bandits.” taunt groups as they join hands and try to pass through with their message intact.
There aren’t any cell phones out, nor headphones plugged in; kids are simply enjoying their time outside. They are making friends, they are working together, they are, what’s it called? Playing.
But it doesn’t stop there. At the timeless camp that was famously put together in one day by more than 600 community volunteers in years following the end of World War II, some things have changed but at its core it is the same camp that more than three generations of Grays Harbor residents have had the chance to experience, said the camp’s director Jan Simons.
She, along with her husband, Doug who is the camp’s facilities director, have lived at a home built on the camp’s property and supervised the operations since 2006.
Campers still sing the same songs, eat in the same dining hall, sleep in the same (renovated) cabins and engage in numerous outdoor activities and programs, including: archery, kayaking, fishing, arts and crafts, field and court sports, bouldering and slack lining, orienteering (compass work), wake-boarding and water-skiing, performing arts, low ropes, swimming, canoeing, sailing, and tubing. Some of these activities are pretty recently introduced, including rope courses and a recently donated 1920’s war canoe — once a staple at most camps— by the Aberdeen Museum of History and restored by Westport retired fisherman and paddling enthusiast, Vern Hekkila.
“The kids get super excited for this ” said Tim Webb, the camp’s summer director, of the shiny newly restored canoe, which Hekkila brings to camp for use since they do not yet have a place to store it.
“He’s very generous with his time … considering he lives all the way in Westport,” said Simons, of Hekkila who makes the trek from his home in Westport to the camp in Shelton usually once or twice a week.
“It was all rotted out, it was not good and wasn’t being used, so they (the museum) gave it to him (Hekkila) to restore it, and he said he would if it could be used for kids,” she said, adding the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association’s Northwest Chapter assisted with materials to restore it.
Kids get to list their preferences as to which activities they want to participate in each day, which sometimes means there are a range of ages in each group, but no one seems to mind, said Webb, known at camp as “Hokie.” All counselors and some campers are addressed by their “camp names” — which hang around their necks on “wooden cookies”— for fun, but also for security’s sake. The camp has a “no outside contact” policy between counselors and kids, said Webb.
“We do so many activities together as a camp, from Chapel in the morning to camp time embers at night that it’s not a huge deal,” he said, adding the kids are paired with their age groups in their cabins, so they have that socializing time together as well.
The kids benefit from the ability to try new activities they might not otherwise encounter, such as waterskiing. On this day, two 10-year-olds, Liam and Russell, explode with enthusiasm after making it up on their water-skis for a few seconds, making the rounds to their counselors for high-fives and to make sure they get their water-skiing bead, another camp tradition.
Campers get beads for such accomplishments, like a bulls-eye during archery, to put on their necklaces, which hold the wooden cookies with their camp names, made at the beginning of camp. They can also get special beads for acting in ways which reflect the camp’s core values, “Caring, responsibility, honesty and respect” which also have not changed since the camp’s introduction, said Webb while a young camper took it upon himself to sweep the basketball court.
“So at dinner I might say I noticed someone doing a great job volunteering to sweep the basketball courts today,” he said. The core values emanate throughout many of the camp’s traditions, like their flag ceremonies in which all campers line up for their meals by their cabin. They must wait for all cabins to be present to enter and will sing songs to pass the time and encourage timeliness and accountability.
“If there’s a cabin that’s late, they might sing, ’ here we sit like bears in the wilderness waiting for cabin 10” and they’ll get louder and louder,” said Simons. Then the country’s flag is raised and the campers enter as the director calls upon them. Some make silly faces, or chant to try to bribe the director to call them next. They sing songs all day long, one that is somewhat like “grace,” before they eat, and more of the traditional camp-songs in the evening, their voices echoing across the lake.
During this particular lunch-time, campers munch on some standard camp fare, homemade grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, while singing songs reprimanding a camper for being caught with her elbows on the table; no napkin in your lap is another offense that the camp has continued to enforce since its beginnings. But it’s all lighthearted fun, and the goofy, joking poking at one another is all a part of the camp experience that results in an all-inclusive feeling all around that they won’t soon forget, said Simons.
She said many former campers tell stories of how the experience made a lasting impression on them, and they often donate generously because of it.
One such man, now in his 50s, contacted Simons a few years ago, relating that although his parents could not quite afford to send him to camp, he was able to go with the help of a scholarship, which assists many current campers.
“He said that when he went to school he felt like he didn’t quite measure up, because of his house or because of whatever. But that when he went to camp he was with kids from all over Aberdeen and everyone was the same and he had the best time and made new friends and built up confidence. He wanted to provide that for someone else,” she said. “I will always remember that.”
Campers can qualify for up to 50 percent of the $240 fee(for resident campers) for a camp session, which Simons said is half the price of most similar camps.
However, she said there have been instances when they have been able to cover the whole fee for several children, some from homeless families, and that they work hard to make sure no child is turned away because of a financial situation.
“The community is extremely generous in giving through the YMCA. They see how camp builds confidence, helps kids learn to work together, stresses core values and realize that importance and are willing to give to make things happen,” said Simons, who added that some children earned their own way this year by selling YMCA peanuts as in years past, but a majority participated in a “Slide-a-thon,” where sponsors paid for a certain amount of trips down a slide.
While the numbers of participating campers, and the amount from Grays Harbor in general, has declined in recent years — they currently have around 420, whereas in past years they regularly surpassed 500, according to Webb — Simons is not quite sure why it is.
“I would like to know the answer to that, I’m sure much of it is due to the economy. But we’ve got everything here that other camps have, as well as a fabulous staff,” she said, of the college-aged counselors, and high school aged CITs (counselors-in-training) who go through a rigorous interview process with the YMCA. ” They’re the kind of people that when you see them you think I would like to have my child around that person, because they’re such ‘kids people’ and just great wholesome young people.”
She said they will continue to be creative, and “think outside the box” as to how to attract greater numbers. For now they are focused on a few updates within the camp, including an updated dining area( the current space hasn’t been changed since 1954), new bunk beds for the camp’s lodge, and expanded boathouse with a storage facility for the recently donated canoe.
“It’s really a jewel for the YMCA of Grays Harbor and for the YMCA to have its own camp, we hope to continue to build camp both in our summer camp program and also have camp available for off season,” said Simons, adding they have grown in such areas, booking church groups, family reunions and sports retreats meaning they are quite booked throughout the year.
Through that and continued emphasis on staff (they are committed to a 6 to 1 or less camper to staff ratio, said Webb) and time-honored traditional fun at Camp Bishop, Grays Harbor residents can expect to see the camp continuing to flourish for generations to come.
For more information, or to register for Camp Bishop, visit http://www.campbishop.org.
Programmable Activities include:
Arts & Crafts
Bouldering & Slacklining
Canoeing (with a newly restored historic canoe) Field & Court Sports
Low Ropes Course Orienteering & Hiking
Pioneer Mini Camp: Grades 1-3
Pioneers participate in traditional camp activities: canoeing, swimming, inner tube rides, campfires, and fun in the great outdoors.
Cost: $125 members, $145 program members
Resident Camp: Grades 2-6
Camp duties and activities are scheduled as a cabin group. However, campers also have the option of signing up for programs independent of their cabin.
Cost: $240 members, $275 program members
Jr. High Camp: Entering Grades 7-9
All of the fun and excitement of resident camp at an age appropriate level and pace!
Cost: $240 members, $275 program members
For more information or to register, do so in person at the YMCA of Grays Harbor, or online.