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Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage, and Loyalty
By Iris Krasnow
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Iris Krasnow was 8 years old when she first attended sleep-away camp, building lasting friendships and essential life skills amid the towering pine trees and open skies of Wisconsin. Decades later, she returned to Camp Agawak as a staff member to help resurrect Agalog, the camp's defunct magazine that she wrote for as a child. There, she revisits the activities she loved as a young girl: singing songs around a campfire, swimming in a pristine lake, sleeping under the stars—experiences that continue to fill her with wisdom and perspective.
A nostalgic, inspiring memoir with a universal message on the importance of long-term friendship for campers and non-campers alike, Camp Girls weaves between past and present, filling the page in delicious detail with cabin pranks, canoe trips in rainstorms, and the joy of finding both your independence and your interdependence in nature alongside your peers. Through rich storytelling, Iris shares her own and other campers' adventures and the lessons from childhood that can shape fulfilling and successful adulthoods. Ultimately, Iris powerfully demonstrates that camp is more than a place or a collection of activities: it's where we learn what it means to be human and what it feels like to truly belong to a family—not of blood, but of history, loyalty, and tradition.
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I still go to the summer camp I loved as a child, having returned after a forty-year hiatus to resurrect the camp magazine where I got my literary start at the age of eight. Just like when I was a young camper, leaving at the end of the season is so sad, so hard.
We stay up all night and sob.
Summers long ago, when camp was over and school was starting, I had to wait a whole ten months to return. As a sixty-four-year-old woman with grown children, I can go back to visit any time. Last fall, I was called—yanked really—to do just that.
Several weeks after the official end of the Camp Agawak season, I was longing for the solitude of the woods, to savor the Wisconsin forest without the cacophony of 250 girls. So I traveled for a weekend retreat to the cabin I have inhabited for the past six summers.
I left seventy-two-degree Annapolis for forty-two-degree Minocqua, a journey that took a forty-minute car ride to the airport in Baltimore and a two-hour plane ride to Chicago, where I was picked up by a camp bestie, Liz Weinstein, for a five-hour drive to northern Wisconsin.
We agreed to spend the first morning apart, and I sought out the bench near Blue Lake where I have sat many mornings, over many decades. The docks were down, as were the royal-blue blow-up slide and yellow floating trampoline, toys we did not have in the old days but now are planted on many camp waterfronts.
It was only me and the water and the sky and the memories. There were no screaming campers or loud motorboats.
In an empty camp, my history holder, I was every age.
I saw myself walking slowly out of the lake in our uniform navy-blue Jantzen one-piece swimsuit, cold and exhausted the day I passed the last dive for my advanced yellow cap. I saw myself as the fifteen-year-old captain of the Blue Team, at the stern of the war canoe, beating the White Team boat by a mere two yards.
I saw dozens of tiny boats crafted out of birch bark and ablaze with candles, lolling in the shallow end and set adrift by campers, after we each made a wish the last night of camp.
My wish was always the same: that I would return to Agawak next June, on a bus with my camp girls, chewing Bazooka and singing: "In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, beneath the sky so blue, where the pine trees are above us and the friendships are so true."
I saw that I would travel a thousand miles and a thousand hours just for a glimpse of the shimmer of this lake, to the place where I feel whole and more of everything.
Soon after returning home, I am visiting with Gail Watkins, my next-door neighbor, and she is showing me black-and-white Polaroids of the tent she slept in seventy years ago, at Echo Hill Camp, on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.
"Some of the happiest times of my life," Gail is saying, misty-eyed, as she sifts through the tattered pages of her photo album, with its peeling green canvas cover and broken spine. The pictures are hardly decipherable, the black now gray, the white a pale yellow.
Yet as she approaches her eightieth birthday, there is nothing faded in her memory as Gail recalls vivid snapshots of the twelve summers spent at Echo Hill, starting at the age of six. She evokes clear scenes of treasure hunts through the woods, with the treasure being trunks filled with Creamsicles, and of her beloved counselor Gracie, who stroked Gail's hair at night as she read the campers bedtime stories.
The creativity spawned in Arts & Crafts helped seed Gail's lengthy career as an acclaimed visual artist who shows her work in galleries worldwide.
Gail hands me a rough mosaic collage, made of triangle cutouts of construction paper, pieced together with Elmer's Glue at camp in 1952. "This is where it all started," she says.
Camp, too, is where it all started for me. I spent my first summer at Camp Agawak for Girls in 1963, which would turn into ten summers as a camper and counselor. All that is very adventurous, very sentimental, very brave, and very naughty about who I am today was birthed and nurtured there.
My Polaroid pictures of sleepaway summers more than a half century ago are also blurred with time. Though, like Gail's, my exalted memories of childhood are pristine, present, and ever powerful.
It helps that I still go to Agawak, as the second-to-oldest staff member. Before this comeback, my last stint on staff was in 1973. Margie Gordon, sixty-six and a camp buddy since the old days, works there, too. She takes the youngest girls on overnight camping trips and also teaches yoga. My jobs range from camp historian to alumni coordinator to director of the writing program that produces our Agawak publication, Agalog.
The spine of my own photo album is also broken, yet the takeaways from camp form the unbroken spine of my life. Ours is a traditional camp that offers a mix of dozens of land and water sports, and an arts program of handcrafts, dance, music, and theater. In my day, we went for eight straight weeks.
Like most modern full-season camps, Agawak is now divided into two sessions, catering to the rise of youth who need to get home before school begins to train for team sports.
Today, there is a summer camp suited for virtually any child, ranging from those with a focus on film-making, science, circus training, or the performing arts. Most notably in the last category are French Woods, the camp that launched Zooey Deschanel and Adam Levine, and Stagedoor Manor, where Mandy Moore and Natalie Portman got their start.
The smorgasbord of sleepaway camps is varied in rigor and specialty, but camp is camp—a place for children to grow and play. We learn self-care and figure out how to get along with and care for others, away from parental rules and protection. In school we make sequential sets of friends, as we are dispatched to different institutions in the elementary, middle, and upper grades. We see each other in spurts during the day, then go home to our other lives.
While spaced nearly a year apart, weeks spent at camp seem to flow into one continual life, as kids return summer after summer and form relationships that are enduring and substantial. We see each other at our worst and at our best, in tight sleeping quarters, competing in activities, smoothing cabin clashes, reveling in each other's victories, and comforting each other in our defeats.
Immersed in nature and each other, the intimate community of camp offers a whole other kind of education. We learn teamwork, courage, resilience, and empathy, skills of the heart that lay the foundation for transforming camp kids into successful adults, adults who can deal.
Nearly all of the twenty-four hundred camps accredited by the American Camp Association ban technology. By disconnecting from texting, Snapchat, and Instagram, campers learn how to truly connect with each other.
And it turns out, like school, nature can even enhance our brain function. In the book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, the prize-winning author Florence Williams traverses the planet, from the forests of South Korea to the rivers of Idaho, and excavates new research on how nature expands our minds, boosts our moods, and can even reduce the symptoms of ADHD. This is a key discovery in times of mounting childhood depression, anxiety, and attention disorders.
A front-row witness to the restorative perks that come from open sky and open fields, Florence sent her own two children to summer camps.
"Unplugged from technology, studies show that kids who go to camp become better at reading emotions and expressions on people's faces," Florence told me in an interview. "This is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. My children came away from camp feeling very comfortable talking to people of all backgrounds, and of all ages.
"The science shows that the experience of natural beauty makes us feel more connected to each other," she continued. "Nature makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. This is a fundamental lesson children need more than ever as they grow up today largely indoors, inundated with social media: that they're not just individuals in a cog; that they need social bonding to grow in all ways. Nature facilitates the shared adventures that form the kernels for deep connections that last a lifetime."
Florence Williams follows the lead of other iconic naturalists who believed the wind and the woods, the mountains and the sea, are a human's best healers. As a summer camp lifer, I know this as deeply as Henry David Thoreau knew it when he wrote Walden in the mid-1800s during his two-year two-month two-day retreat to Walden Pond, in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
When nature surrounds, we dig deeply into self-discovery and our worries can be wiped clean, just like the bare and glisteny bones from which I love to suck clean every trace of marrow, that pungent paste that tastes of the earth.
This is the marrow and this is the life we cannot get anywhere else, no matter how grand are our indoor spaces or how many "friends" we have on Facebook.
Developing these genuine and ongoing relationships is the greatest gift I received of the many gifts from Agawak, a girl gang that became a family, bound not by blood but by history, love, and loyalty.
These friends have tracked me and stuck with me, as a chubby child, a skinny bride, over bumps in raising four sons and staying married to one husband. They have held me up through the sudden death of my father and the long illness of my late mother, and through the recurring sting of an empty nest.
Through rapture and rage, they have met me on the other side, as I have for them, and we are still holding each other up, with sturdy arms and open hearts and with soft shoulders to melt into. We have shared some of the most enchanted hours of our lives, some of the saddest, some of the scariest—all of it.
There is nobody else that knows this about us, that feels all of this for us. Even our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, partners and spouses, do not know what we know. I speak to a camp friend by phone nearly every day. A lifeline, yes.
These are my people.
These are indestructible relationships cultivated during hundreds of days that started with shivering together in a cold cabin when the morning bell rang and ended with whispering our secrets from our warm beds.
We met as timid youth and grew together from flirty teenagers into a powerful sisterhood that includes some grandmothers. We used to compare bra sizes; we now compare maps of wrinkles.
The transformation that happens in these summers away are immediately noticed by our families. My mom used to say I was so much nicer after two months at camp. Harriet Lowe heard lots of similar stories as the longtime editor in chief of Camping Magazine. In her role at the helm of the publication of the American Camp Association, Harriet tapped experts in all areas of camping to pen personal testimonials and share professional expertise on how sleepaway summers impact child development.
Nothing documents that better for Harriet, though, than what she witnesses close up.
"My grandson Corbin, who is seventeen, went to camp from the time he was eight," Harriet tells me. "I truly see how camp changed his life. He is stronger and kinder, more compassionate, confident, and adventurous.
"He says it's his 'happiest place on earth,' and really, that's camp," she adds. "The entire environment is designed totally for kids to have fun, and to climb beyond their comfort zones, to fall and get up again, to become resilient. We have found through our ACA research, that whether the children go for two weeks or the entire summer, they get many of the same benefits across the board: They gain confidence and a real sense of community; they learn to work as a team; they become self-starters; they learn the value of perseverance. My grandson says that he has never been homesick at camp. But when he returns home, he misses camp terribly. We call it 'camp-sick.'"
The social skills learned in real time away from screen time are also the skill set top companies view as markers of a top employee, even by those companies that reign in the computer and tech industry.
Since 2008, Google has conducted a study known as Project Oxygen to explore the hypothesis that what makes for exceptional company managers goes far beyond a superstar background in STEM. Google executives have examined every nugget of personnel data gathered by the company since its 1998 beginnings.
The conclusions of Project Oxygen mirror what you will read in this book about character traits gleaned at summer camp. Among the top markers of a successful career at Google, one of the world's top three brands, are, in corporate lingo, "soft skills," which come from face-to-face interaction: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; creating an inclusive team environment; showing concern for others; being productive and results oriented.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a national coalition of business leaders, educators, and policy makers, underscores Google's findings. Since its inception in 2001, the organization's research points to "the four Cs" as pillars that reinforce professional success: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
These four Cs that lead to achievement in the workplace are lessons also strengthened through the camping experience. I would add two more Cs we get from sleepaway summers—confidence and a desire to contribute to the greater good of a community.
I am not a big organization that has done a far-flung longitudinal study. Yet during several years of long talks with hundreds of camp lovers in researching this book, here is what I know for sure. All these Cs that emerge from official studies come from this overarching C: feeling comfortable in a setting that empowers kids to try new things, to fail, to keep trying, to gain self-esteem from success, to make friends with all sorts of people.
These are skills they start acquiring the minute they board buses bound for the first summer away from their comfortable nests, to live on their own in rustic lodging, among strangers.
Indeed, becoming independent comes quickly and is key. Camp requires kids to sculpt a life apart from the interference of parents, who can be of the hovering-helicopter or barreling-snowplow varieties.
"Some parents have bubble-wrapped their children, who have the potential to become deeply distracted by technology," says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association. "Camp is an opportunity to unwrap those kids, giving them the chance to engage in human connections and have human-powered adventures, removed from those that are digital-driven.
"Camp is therefore more essential than ever before," Tom continues. "In an era when America's youth are facing a complex landscape of mental, emotional, and social health changes, clearly the social interaction that is a mainstay of camp helps to alleviate the loneliness and depression experienced by more youth today than in the past. While camp life is scheduled, it runs at a slower pace. Kids have time to reflect on who they are, who they want to be, how they may want to change the world. They have time to play and be joyful, and just be kids."
These human-powered adventures continue to seed the social and emotional skills that are essential for victorious grown-up years.
In the ACA's five-year Youth Impact Study completed in 2019, a sample of nearly five hundred former campers, ages eighteen to twenty-five, were asked how their experiences as children at camp played out in school and in their emerging adult lives.
The most consistent outcomes from participants in the study, when asked what was most important in their lives today, which camp played a major role in developing, were: "Relationship skills, independence and responsibility, appreciation for living in the moment, appreciation for diversity, perseverance, and willingness to try new things."
I know from my own experience that these so-called soft skills make for hard workers and stand out for professional recruiters.
Just out of college, with my only prior professional experience being a waitress and a camp counselor, I talked about all of the life skills learned from these challenging jobs during my first interviews. The boss that hired me in an entry-level position at a public relations firm told me later that what I said about getting food orders out fast to impatient diners and herding young girls while being so young myself was a testament to my level of responsibility, people skills, and work ethic.
He said he also appreciated when I shared that I knew the Heimlich maneuver and CPR, in case anyone in the office choked or dropped.
Decades later, I became acquainted with Daniel Goleman's bestseller Emotional Intelligence, in which he identifies five major EQ competencies that surmount IQ in forecasting those who will become leaders in the workplace: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.
There is no place like camp to build all of the above.
My first year at Agawak, the four other girls in Cabin 3 were a year older. They hung out in two groups of two, and I was the party of one.
Motivated to fit in, I would play jacks alone on the cabin floor and say that if anyone wanted to join me, I would share my Pez and bubble gum. Bribery eventually got me some respect, as I was really good at jacks and the other girls were impressed I managed to hide the forbidden sweets from our counselors.
This was my toughest camp summer, and the most crucial one in teaching me self-awareness of a resilience I did not know I possessed. This also was an early lesson in developing empathy, another EQ cited by author Goleman, to reach out to other girls who may feel excluded by cliques.
Jill Hirschfield, a camp friend from the 1960s, recalls how learning the art of self-regulation as a young child led to her ability to make smart choices during her university years.
"Camp really helped me adjust easily when I went away to college, because I had already experienced taking care of myself and living with other people," says Jill of her years at the University of Denver. "I was not going crazy with this newfound freedom. Many of my friends from college drank too much and partied too hard, and didn't know how to set their own limits."
While this is a book of lessons and stories that spill from this forever camp girl with forever camp friends, the values and memories are not gender-specific.
I met Bobby Fisher when he was a counselor at our brother camp, Kawaga, and I was a counselor at Agawak—Kawaga spelled backward. Like me, Bobby had spent many years as a camper, and still counts his old bunkmates as among his best friends, a few of whom were groomsmen in his wedding. The sixty-three-year-old entrepreneur who has started many businesses loved Kawaga so much that he and his three brothers bought the camp in 1986.
When Bobby talks about Kawaga, one of the oldest traditional camps in the country, and his achievements from his time as a camper there, his face seems childlike, as if those events happened last week and not forty-five years ago. Three times, Bobby was awarded the highest honor of Wachi Counza, chief of one of the camp's tribes, and was named All-Around Camper.
My emotions swell with understanding as he exudes undying pride from camper victories. Being elected Blue Team captain in 1970 remains one of the crowning achievements of my life. Only a camper gets how these seemingly little things are monumental memories that unfailingly anchor and empower us.
- "A heartwarmer. A nostalgic treat about a simpler time, it also offers a valuable message for today."—People
- "Camp Girls is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking camp memoirs I have ever read. Iris Krasnow encapsulates the transformative essence of immersive summer camp experiences and also serves as a timely call-to-action for all parents. Findings from decades of camp research suggest that summer camp is an optimal context for social-emotional learning experiences which help young people thrive in school, in 21st century workplaces and in life. Iris's masterful storytelling had me laughing and crying while powerfully illuminating the lasting impacts of positive mindsets and skills nurtured in undistracted, human-centered, and adventurous camp communities."—Tom Rosenberg, President/CEO of American CampAssociation
- "Iris Krasnow brings us back to the place where memories were made, campfires were lit, songs were sung and friendships were formed. We didn't know it then, but those formative summers spent in cabins, lakes, and canoes made us into the athletes, artists, leaders, and loyal friends we are today. Reading Camp Girls is like finding that old camp photo album in your parent's basement and flipping through its pages with laughter and tears."—Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of Women & Politics Institute at American University, former executive producer of Meet the Press, NBC News, camper at Camp Feliciana, Norwood Louisiana (1979-1983)
- "A thoroughly enjoyable dip into nostalgia for the simpler times of youth."—Publishers Weekly
- "In this love letter to summer camp, bestselling memoirist Krasnow (The Secret Lives of Wives, 2011) reflects on her experiences over the years...Former campers, particularly women, will revel in the nostalgia emanating from these pages."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing