Summer camps rebound after year lost to COVID-19
For Legionville School Safety Patrol Camp, 2020 was particularly difficult after losing 2018 to a problematic floating bog on North Long Lake that put all camp activities on hold.
As summer officially descends on central Minnesota and kids trickle into camps across the region for seasonal fun, it’ll mark a milestone in more ways than one.
The COVID-19 pandemic is on the final stretch — well, at least on the decline enough for society to return to a semblance of normalcy — and so places like Legionville School Safety Patrol Camp near Merrifield and Camp Knutson by Crosslake are opening their doors to campers for the first time in more than a year. It’s a moment many camp organizers have been working toward and waiting in anticipation of for months.
'We did it! '- Volunteers finally move troublesome bog on North Long Lake - Legionville camp still closed for the summer
“We're all here doing all these projects, landscaping, but the thing that was missing is the kids. I mean, that's the whole point of the program,” said Tom Sanford, the director of programming for Legionville. “The first camper came in from Little Falls and it's like, ‘Yes, all that work and here they are, now we got them back.’ … To see the joy on the faces of the parents and children that came here, that makes it all worth it.”
As it is, COVID-19 was only the second sucker punch in three years for Legionville camp. The pandemic ended any chance of hosting summer camp activities in 2020, but 2018 was a lost year as well. A large floating bog was the scourge of North Long Lake for much of the year and it was problematic enough to put camp activities on hold. As such, Sanford noted, campers and counselors alike had to live with a gaping hole in their typical summer schedules.
Lakes area campgrounds come roaring back after Memorial Day losses
Now, in 2021, kids will run around the grounds once more.
“I like going in our cabins and just playing a game that our counselor taught us and it's fun to play,” said Marin Duchene, a 10-year-old from Faribault who started her first week of camp ever at Legionville Monday, June 21. “It’s called ‘Happy Salmon.’ You get cards and you have to do actions and stuff to get rid of the cards and whoever gets rid of all their cards wins.”
“The first camper came in from Little Falls and it's like, ‘Yes, all that work and here they are, now we got them back.’ … To see the joy on the faces of the parents and children that came here, that makes it all worth it."
— Tom Sanford, director of programming at Legionville Safety Camp
For the record, of all camp activities, Duchene looked forward to swimming in North Long Lake the most — a common sentiment shared by her fellow campers.
The fact children can swim in North Long Lake represents hours of work and toil camp staffers put into the grounds, said Adam Felton, a camp manager at Legionville. The beach and swimming area of the camp had to be cleared up, especially after the floating bog passed through the area in 2018, and workers labored to expand the beach itself, create embankments and install a donated dock.
The improvements don’t stop there. While the camp was inactive through 2020, staff and volunteers worked to repaint and refurbish all seven cabins on site, the mess hall, canteen and education center. Roughly 70 trees were cut down and brush removed throughout the camp’s trail system — much of it remains from a violent storm in 2015 — and now organizers have set their sights on revamping the hot water systems of a camp that has, in the case for many of its buildings, remained virtually unchanged since it was established in the mid-1950s.
More than $30,000 has been put into sprucing the camp up, Felton said, and hope is that by the end of next year, Legionville will feature both healthy attendance numbers and updated, more modern facilities.
“There’s all these improvements. We took advantage of (the year off),” Felton said. “As of now, we can hold 84 kids per week. So the numbers are starting to come back up, but we’d like to see everything running at full capacity again.”
Brainerd Lakes area campgrounds steady, optimistic about summer prospects
At Camp Foley by Pine River, full capacity might come sooner rather than later. Just weeks after the managers were struggling to fill staff vacancies, the camp is fully staffed now and is seeing thriving attendance from kids excited to attend summer camp, said camp director Alli Faricy, but Camp Foley only just managed to avoid a shortage that’s affecting summer camps across the nation.
“Staffing has been really hard for us and I know lots of other camps are struggling finding enough staff. We have enough staff now, but it was kind of late for the counselors that we needed to take care of the kids,” said Faricy, who noted the initial shortage prompted organizers to be more cautious about COVID-19 protocols and the number of campers they’ll take in per session. “We were just careful. I know there are a lot of summer camps that are still hurting for staff pretty bad, but we’re caught up here at Foley, fortunately.”
“We’re able to reclaim what we are and what we’re doing here at Camp Knutson, even if it may be at a smaller scale than what we’re used to seeing pre-pandemic. It means a lot to the community to be back, even if we’re inching out of this."
— Jared Griffen, camp director at Camp Knutson
Faricy noted camp staffers are going into summer camp weeks with the understanding they will have to reacclimate and socialize kids to interact in groups again after more than a year of isolation in some cases.
On the other hand, Crosslake’s Camp Knutson — as a nationally recognized camp for children with medical conditions, disabilities or cognitive delays — has to approach this summer differently than most camps. Jared Griffin, camp director, said Camp Knutson is diversifying its options for campers, even to the point that children can participate in camp activities remotely, while staffers have formulated a dense schedule from mid-June through mid-August.
This enables the camp to handle campers in smaller, more manageable groups, as well as to protect campers if they’re physically or emotionally vulnerable after more than a year of COVID-19.
“Honestly, it feels good. It’s good to see campers back on campus, to hear the giggles and laughter, and to see the bright smiles,” Griffin said. “We’re able to reclaim what we are and what we’re doing here at Camp Knutson, even if it may be at a smaller scale than what we’re used to seeing pre-pandemic. It means a lot to the community to be back, even if we’re inching out of this.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .