What is camp? It’s many things of course, and some of them can still be surprising in all the right ways. This story comes to us from Lara Willis, co-director at Wilvaken in the Quebec Townships.
Two weeks after I was born, I was brought to camp by my parents who were/are the owners and directors of Wilvaken. I have spent more of my life at camp than probably anywhere else in the world. From a young age, my parents encouraged me to try out other camps during the summer, but I never did. I was afraid that I would miss out on making new friendships at Wilvaken, reconnecting with people I only ever saw for 2 weeks or a month of the year, and that I wouldn't see the crazy and unique theme days that I looked forward to each summer. I cried at the end of every month when my friends would leave. I remember the staff asking me why I was crying – I had the chance to stay longer! Really, it was because they - the connections that I built during that short period of time - were leaving. Although it turns out, they were connections that would last a lifetime.
Finally, when I was 16, I went to work at a different camp for 3 summers. I met some of my best friends there, but I was always thinking about when I would return to Wilvaken. When I did, I knew that I was making the right choice and that there was something special about camp; about my camp.
photo: Alex Chénier
One tradition we have at Wilvaken happens during the second to last night. We have a campfire, accompanied by lots of songs and guitar playing (of course!). Once it gets dark out, we send the campers cabin by cabin down to the beach. In silence, they follow a candle-lit path through the woods so that they may reflect on their time here. There are always tears, hand-holding, and hugs. As they make their way down to the beach, a final tune is heard through the trees. Words written by a staff member years ago who tried to capture the essence of Wilvaken. “Now it's time to say our goodbyes and part in different ways. Don't forget all our great times that we had day after day. And to all the campers here, I think you all know what I mean when I say that we are not just friends, but a great big family.”
Once on the beach, the entire camp gathers in a circle and has the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the time they spent together. To an outsider, this may sound a bit like a cult. But to someone who has done this almost every summer of her life, it is one of the most touching experiences. As a camper, I was often intimidated to step into the circle and speak in front of everyone. It was daunting; what if I said the wrong thing? What if somebody laughed? But this year, for my first summer as camp director, I was the one to initiate the sharing. I was the one to ensure that everyone felt comfortable.
I stepped into the circle, trembling slightly and unsure of what I would say. Funny how I was able to address the entire camp on a regular basis, but this one moment really stuck with me. I invited campers and staff alike to share their thoughts on what Wilvaken brought to them this summer. I explained how honoured I was to have grown up in this place and that I could welcome each of them into my Wilvaken family.
Little by little, campers and staff stepped in. One of our youngest campers shared that he no longer called Wilvaken a second home, but rather, just his home. Others with similar feelings piped up. I stood on the edge of the circle and watched the magic happen. This is what we call the Wilvy Spirit. I can't capture it in a picture, but it certainly is beautiful to hear the words.
How can one put camp into words? When I tell people that I'm a 'camp person,' an image automatically pops into their head that I spend every day dressed up in costume, I sing around the campfire, and I have an endless amount of energy; I'm also probably quite good at remembering people's names, coming up with games on the spot, and I can keep track of a large group of youth like none other.
As much as all that is quite true, there's a whole other side to the camp world that can't easily be captured in an image. Yes, a picture says a thousand words, but when you have a moment to sit quietly and chat with someone by a campfire, or to sit on a dock in silence and enjoy a beautiful sunset, no one is around with a camera. These are the important moments at camp – a time when you develop a sense of self, and an appreciation for the world around you.
Words, pictures, songs... I'm not sure anything will ever truly capture the essence of what it feels like to belong here, but we all try anyway. After all, once another camp season has sung its last song, the memories in photographs and writing are all that we have left of each other until next time. As a past camper mused:
“I don't know how to capture what has happened to me over the course of five years at Wilvaken, but I know for sure that it is more than the sailing or the theme days, or anything else; it cannot be summed up by the word fun. I don't know just where I'm going, and I'm scared, but this place takes me away like no person or song ever will be able to, and I thank it for that.”
- Henri, camper 2006-2010
Wilvaken is known for its small, welcoming community. Campers of all ages learn together in a natural environment. Situated in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, we offer a traditional experience with the opportunity to get to know everyone and everything! Our natural beach allows for many waterfront activities, while our land sports include archery, tennis, riding, survival skills and more! Our bilingual approach allows campers to develop their language skills outside of a classroom setting. We host campers from Quebec, Ontario and internationally. We are proud of the warm & caring atmosphere, carried on into its third generation of a family-run camp. Be a part of our Wilvaken family this year - Where everyone knows your name.
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