The Best Camp That Ever Was

When I was approaching nine years old, already camp-going friends regaled me with tales of a mystical place on a beautiful, secluded lake where the camp counselors had crazy names and were the most hilarious comedians that ever were. There was a “castle” haunted by a man named John Graves and days were spent swimming, and hiking, and tromping around in swamps, and roasting hot dogs, and telling stories, and and and…It was the best place on earth, they said. I missed the first year I could attend camp at eight years old. So, by the summer of 1990, having heard a years’ worth of camp stories from my friends, I was more than ready for my first week at YMCA Camp Reed.

Camp Reed isn’t just any camp. At least that’s what those of us who spent our childhood years there think. It was the place that I spent twelve summers beginning the trajectory of the person I am today. The camp (or as I know it, the best camp that ever was) sits on Fan Lake, Washington, roughly an hour north of  my hometown, Spokane. Fan Lake was small enough to feel like we had the run of the place, but big enough to feel mystical and mysterious letting our imaginations fill up with swamp monsters and ghosts of old hermits living in the mountains beyond. This summer, my beloved Camp Reed celebrates 100 years of wilderness and adventure for Inland Northwest kiddos. 

On my first day of camp oh so many years ago, I was excited, but I was nervous I wasn’t going to make friends, I was worried I would miss my parents, and mostly I was afraid that I wasn’t going to pass the dreaded swim test. As I stood on the waterfront waiting for my swim test, shivering with nerves in my favorite green and black swimsuit, my counselor approached me with that stereotypical overly excited camp voice. It’s like meeting me was the best thing to happen to her in her whole life. Her joy was contagious. I was still shaking, but I felt my body relax knowing that she’d support me no matter what.

I passed that test, at least enough so that I made “intermediate.” I was excited I wasn’t going to be relegated to the knee-deep beginners section, but a little disappointed I didn’t have that yellow advanced bracelet that would give me access to the lake beyond the docks where kids did the “Shark Swim”(a half-mile swim across the lake and back) that proved them worthy of access to the zip line which ended with an exhilarating drop into the lake.

Later in the week, nagged by the sight of my cabin mates’ yellow bracelets and the feeling that I sold myself short on my first try, I mustered up the courage during free time swim to ask one of the lifeguards if they could give me another go at the swim test. Years of swim lessons under my belt, I knew I was capable of the two full laps of the freestyle stroke that’d get me “advanced” status. And…I made it. The next day, I was swimming across the lake and back and making that satisfying descent into Fan Lake from the zip line.

That week was the beginning of an annual adventure. It was where I could test my limits within the structure and safety of camp. It’s also where I got away from the torture of adolescent cruelty and cliques and I made new friends and acted weird because that’s what was cool at camp where silliness reigned supreme. Camp is where I came into myself.

At camp, I rock climbed and did high ropes courses as a camper, biked 300 miles around Northern Idaho as a Counselor-in-Training, and cleaned toilets and played with kids as a Junior Counselor. In 1999 after I graduated from high school, I received the ultimate badge of honor in a Camp Reed person’s life: my very own camp name. For three summers, I was known only as Collizion (ColLIZion, get it?) when I served as a camp counselor at the very camp that raised me. 

Fifteen-ish years since I last slept on a Camp Reed bunk bed staring up at a cabin ceiling signed in Sharpie by generations of campers and counselors, I remember those summers as the best in my life. During those summers as a counselor, I was fully immersed in the camp culture – nine weeks of activity, outdoors, crazy antics, and laughter. Around the seventh week, I’d lose my voice, but the energy never waned. Those weeks were simultaneously full of responsibility (because your number one goal is keeping the campers alive) and completely lacking in responsibility (I didn’t have to cook for myself or pay for anything myself or produce anything other than creating an amazing experience for my campers). It was the camp person in me that went on to live in Latin America and Africa and travel the world and end up in a service-oriented field. It all started on that day in 1990 nervously awaiting a swim test on the docks of Fan Lake.

The upcoming 100 year celebration has unleashed a stream of nostalgia for those of us who spent our formative kid years all the way up to college summers as counselors on the dusty grounds next to Fan Lake. The beauty of modern technology means that our Camp Reed Staff Facebook page is blowing up with grainy photos from generations of Camp Reed memories.

The hairstyles and the people have changed over the years, but the images are essentially the same: Camp Reed counselors – who have an inordinate bond that only comes from being in close quarters for nine straight weeks – performing skits dressed in a hodgepodge of donated “costumes,” conducting crazy stunts (like riding a BMX biked strapped with an old life jacket down the dock and off a ramp into the lake), or singing camp songs at the top of their lungs surrounded by a bevy of dirt-covered campers. All of this taking place in front of the landmarks that only a Camp Reed person would know: The Graves campfire location that requires a semi-steep climb up a small mountain each Tuesday night of camp, or the “haunted” Proofer’s barn just a short hike around the lake, or the classic lake shot from the waterfront where the familiar dip of mountains across the lake is (at least to us) immediately identifiable as Fan Lake.

Just like the Fan Lake/Camp Reed backdrop, the stories also haven’t changed. The counselors are still telling the John Graves story and the Ridge Runner stories that freaked me out as a nine-year-old. And they’ll tell them for years to come. Because, camp is where time stands still. Camp Reed exists as the same place it was 100 years ago (or maybe 40 years ago when they started allowing girls to attend camp).

So, thank you Camp Reed for giving me and many more kids over your 100 years the opportunity to shed the pressures and confines and technologies of “town life” and truly be a kid in the woods with your friends.

Post-rain sunset over Fan Lake, circa 2000
Post-rain sunset over Fan Lake, circa 2000
First day of camp 1990_2
The first day of camp, circa 1990. I’m the short one on the right. Recognize that green and black swimsuit? That cut out tummy hole was all the rage in 1990.
The dreaded swim test on my first day of camp
The dreaded swim test on my first day of camp
Sad to leave my counselor and new friends on my last day of camp in 1991
Huddling with my counselor and new friends on my last day of camp in 1991
My sister joins me in 1992 for her first time at camp (the youngest one to follow five years later)
My sister joins me in 1992 for her first time at camp (the youngest one to follow five years later).
Camp Reed Staff, summer of 2000
Camp Reed Staff, summer of 2000
Camp Reed Staff Summer of 2000 all dressed up for the weekly interactive mystery theater,
Camp Reed Staff Summer of 2000 all dressed up for the weekly interactive mystery theater, “Clue”
dishwashers
One week in 2000 or 2001 as an “orphan” with Buzzsaw and Beluga. The weeks you don’t have a cabin, you’re likely dish washing after meals which is always a wonderful carefree week of little responsibility.
Me and alli at camp
One of my best buds since high school and fellow counselor, Pep R’Alli (still one of my best buds today) in 2000ish.
proofers barn
Gathering hot dog and marshmallow-roasting sticks for our Proofer’s barn “Overnight” in 2000. Overnights are the one night of the week campers sleep completely under the stars away from camp. (Also, as I was reminded by Riff Raff, 2nd on the right, this also happened to be my birthday. I probably turned 19 that day.)

*There are so many more photos where these came from. But, currently, they’re hiding somewhere in my parent’s attic. Yup, I’m 34 and I still leave crap at my parent’s house.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Mara Lindstrom ( camp Reed name- AquaMarine ) says:

    This post is amazing thank you for sharing. I was hired as a camp counselor 2013. And have worked at camp for three years. Even though the clothing style is different, the pictures are so familiar. Can’t wait to meet you!

    Keep the spirit
    Aqua

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      Hey Aqua! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. All the photos on FB were getting me all nostalgic. Sadly I won’t be able to make the celebrations this weekend. But, hopefully we’ll be meeting in the future. –Collizion

  2. Seattle Park Lover says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I went to summer camp for several years in the central Cascades and then was a camp counselor at a camp on a small lake about an hour north of Seattle for two summers. I think if those summer weeks are dear to your heart and are some of your best life memories you can relate to others who feel the same, even when from different camps, in ways that non-camp people can never understand. A camp counselor is a member of a particularly strange, and wonderful, subculture. (My camp counselor name was Bird.)

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      Being a camp counselor is a strange and wonderful culture indeed! My college friends got very tired very quickly with my camp stories every fall.

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