Independence with Responsibility

Pancake PicnicCamp Fire Starting ClassIt has always been part of Rockbrook’s mission to go beyond simply entertaining our campers and to focus also on how we can provide more lasting benefits to the girls who attend camp. We certainly work to make sure everyday here includes something delightful, surprising and fun. If you merely look at the variety of activities available, all the free time options, and daily special gatherings (Twilight periods, Evening Programs, dining hall skits, assemblies, and all-camp events), it’s clear Rockbrook girls are having a blast. They’re outside, they’re actively engaged with creative, adventure, and athletic interests, and they’re laughing their heads off along the way.

But of course camp is much more than a series of amusements. It’s almost cliché to say it— partly because we (and others) talk about it a lot! —but there’s no doubt that a positive sleepaway camp experience helps build important character traits that serve children well later in life, traits like those “21st Century Skills” you may have heard about: Communication, Confidence, Compassion, Cooperation, Collaboration, Creativity, Courage, and so forth.

There are many aspects of camp life one could name that contribute to this transformative power: its emphasis on positive human relationships and the friendly, tight-knit community we enjoy, coming immediately to mind. There’s a starting point, however, I would say even a prerequisite to this character growth, something that if missing will reduce the camp experience to merely a vacation, or some other fleeting form of entertainment.

Camp Needlecraft Class on back porchAt the most fundamental level, camp is a powerful environment for character development because to provides children an opportunity to act independently. On a daily basis, kids at camp can exercise their independence. Without being tightly managed by parents or teachers, they get to make their own choices about what they’ll do, where they’ll go and ultimately, who they’ll be. This is quite a lot of freedom for kids when you think about it, and it might even make a parent nervous! What if she doesn’t brush her hair, or wears the same dirty shirt over and over again!? What if she doesn’t take tennis and finds rock climbing more her style? What if she stays up late and sleeps less (or more!) than usual? What if the freedom of camp meant “Do whatever you want?”

This would be a legitimate worry if not for the structure of camp life. Keep in mind that at camp the campers can’t do simply anything they chose. The freedom camp provides to act independently without parental authorization comes with significant limitations as well. There are, for example, clear procedural rules at camp— a daily schedule of activities, safety protocols, and how to clear dirty tableware after a meal, to name a few. Perhaps even more importantly, there are likewise social expectations where the girls realize the importance of treating each other with kindness, caring, generosity, honesty, and respect, for example. The camp environment, our culture and community, is built upon the support of these structural and social limits, and the camp staff, our cabin counselors primarily, serve as nurturing role models who embody the ideals from which they are derived.

Girls waving while in whitewater rafting boatWhat we have at camp is freedom with limitations, or to put it differently, independence with responsibility. This is important because one without the other would critically fail our campers’ developing character. At one extreme, unstructured independence would lead to an “anything goes” form of chaos, and kids would fail to grapple with the 21st Century skills mentioned above. At the other extreme, rigidly scripted behaviors would rob kids of their decision making power leaving them with mere recipes for life poorly suited to cope with the complexities of a changing world.

Camp life finds that balance by providing girls the freedom to make their own choices while also taking great care to guide those decisions appropriately.  And it’s this balance that teaches kids how to be responsible. So while she’s choosing to go whitewater rafting, or to spend a quiet afternoon decorating a memory box in KIT, or perhaps chatting with a friend on the hill after dinner instead of taking a shower, she’s exploring how to act responsibly as well.  By absorbing the positive values of camp— things like respect for others, appreciation of Nature, and courage to try new things —she’s developing qualities that will help her navigate responsibly in the future.

Rafting the nantahala river falls

Well, I may have gotten a little carried away here, but I wanted to report that your girls aren’t just eating pancakes on the hill in their PJ’s, or learning to build a fire, or blasting through the Nantahala Falls, or singing ’till their their throats hurt, or zipping down sliding rock— all things we enjoyed today. They’re making independent decisions all day long, and you’d be very proud, maybe even a little surprised, to see how confidently and responsibly they are making their way.

Why Girls Love Rafting

Camp Rafting CrewOf all the outdoor adventure trips offered at Rockbrook, whitewater rafting continues to be the most popular. More than kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing (though that’s a clear second), day hiking and backpacking, leaving camp to raft the Nantahala River inspires campers to sign up, even as that means missing their regularly scheduled activities. In fact, I’d estimate 90% of the girls old enough to go —Middlers and Seniors only, due to a Forest Service restriction— elect to take a day trip down the river, or to raft and spend the night at our outpost camp located near the river in Swain County. Rockbrook has been guiding these whitewater trips since the early 1980s, when it received one of the few Forest Service rafting permits awarded organizations. Rockbrook remains the only girls summer camp authorized to guide its own trips like this.

Why, though, is rafting so popular with our campers? If you ask the girls, they’ll say things like “It’s just so much fun!” Or, “It’s a thrilling ride.” As you can see from these photos, they are really enjoying it, but is there something special about rafting that makes it so “awesome?”

Camp Whitewater Rafting LaughterBeyond the cool gear you get to wear (a helmet and PDF), the excellent Rockbrook guides steering the rafts down the river, and the sheer novelty of the experience, my hunch is that whitewater rafting is particularly fun for our girls because it is foremost a lighthearted social experience. More so than other adventure sports, rafting is a group event. All down the river, the girls in each boat are together, chatting with each other, singing songs, and reacting to all the bumps and splashes. In particular, each rapid of the river provides an opportunity to laugh hysterically when someone falls into the boat, or even bounces out into the river unexpectedly. Rafting, especially with a group of girls, is simply fun and funny in this way.

Likewise, even though some might wish for something warmer, I think rafting on the Nantahala river is extra fun because the water is always about 53 degrees. It makes every splash more intense, and if someone gets in the water, you can only imagine how that can produce quite a shocking scream!

We’ll be doing more rafting as the session progresses, but for now you can see more photos in the online gallery. It was a great day on the water… Warm and sunny weather, 7 Rockbrook rafts, almost 50 people, and a special experience for everyone.

Camp Rafting Cheer
Girls Whitewater Rafting

Down Right Fantastic

Dance counselors teaching girl

There’s a remarkable energy at camp right now, a current derived from almost constant action, powerful enthusiasm, smile-filled interactions, and boundless opportunity for fun. It’s an energy that has sparked to life in the context of camp— the different creative, adventure, and sports activities, the awesome food, and the beautiful wooded setting Rockbrook enjoys —but has its deepest source in what our staff members contribute to the daily lives of your girls. And that’s what’s so impressive! This summer’s staff, our cabin counselors and special activity instructors, are down right fantastic, easily the best bunch of friendly, genuinely caring young women we’ve ever assembled. Several hundred people applied to work at Rockbrook this summer, so Sofie, our staff Director, was able to be very picky and select only those applicants that shined.  And making the whole staff even better, these new hires joined a large group of veteran counselors (30% new and 70% returning overall). Combine all of this with the fact that these staff members now have (at least) 2 sessions of experience from earlier this summer to draw upon, and it’s simple to explain why this is such an outstanding bunch.

Girl aiming bow and arrow at archery camp activity

The campers are midway through their first set of activity selections that began on Monday. This means they have now mastered basic skills, are making progress on craft projects, and feeling more confident in their abilities. For example, the archers and marksmen are scoring hits closer to the center of their targets. The climbers are scaling more difficult routes up the Alpine Tower. The knitters are adding new colors to their woven cap projects. The kayakers are now comfortable performing a “wet exit.” There are smoother tennis (and teatherball) serves, bigger splashes from cannonballs off the lake diving board, and louder screams of delight flying by on the zip line. Each step, of course, only intensifies the satisfaction and fun of what we do everyday.

Girls Rafting Cheer
Girls Whitewater rafting rapid

For 75 campers and a dozen staff members, today was a day of big adventure because we went whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. About half these began their trip Monday evening by spending the night at our outpost camp over near the river in Macon County. With their clothes, sleep bags, brushes (hair and tooth), and spays (bug and sunscreen) packed, and in some cases with pillows and stuffed animals tucked safely underarms, the girls enjoyed having dinner together and then sleeping in one of the three platform cabins at the outpost. In the morning, we met our raft guides and prepared for the trip by fitting helmets, PFDs, and paddles, learning about how to stay safe in whitewater, and the basic strokes for paddling our rafts. The trip down the river lasts 2 hours and is the perfect river for a young, beginner because it includes several named rapids but also plenty of calm stretches for splashing, singing, clapping “high-fives” with paddles, and even jumping in for a quick (very quick, given the temperature of the water) swim. Today the weather was ideal too— hot and sunny, to balance that cold water.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like on these rafting trips, but this photo helps. Take a look at the faces of these girls. They are having an absolute ball! They’re screaming, laughing hilariously, and being splashed and bounced around like never before. Part of the fun is just being in the raft together, but when suddenly you hit a rock and someone falls backwards into the raft (or out into the river!) with her feet sticking high in the air, it’s uproarious fun. Like all good outdoor adventure activities, whitewater rafting feels edgy, gets your heart pumping, but is controlled and safe in the end.

Girls Smile while rafting

Back at camp, one girl turned to me as she was getting off the bus and said, “Thank you for an awesome day. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.” Wow! That’s about as good as it gets! Thanks. I had fun too.

Unforeseen Rewards

Pounding Mill Overlook NCCamp Cabin of Girls poses on ParkwayIt’s hard not to mention the weather in these posts. We spend so much of our time outside, it only makes sense that how hot or cold, wet or dry, it is outside would make a difference both in our plans and in what we might wear (raincoat or just a fleece today…?). You have to stay flexible too, because the weather can change minute by minute in this part of North Carolina. It can be hot, humid and sunny at noon, and then cool and breezy just an hour later. For example today we had a picnic lunch planned for our mini session seniors, and with everyone loaded in buses, we set out to our favorite spot in the Pisgah only to meet a huge rainstorm when we arrived.  Not to be discouraged, and with the help of a little weather radar, we continued climbing making it eventually to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pounding Mill Overlook.

Camp gils jump on Blue Ridge Parkway
At an elevation of 4700 feet, there we had risen above and away from the rainstorm and found ourselves just above the clouds with bright sunshine all around. It was gorgeous! We could easily look south and see Looking Glass Rock, and east to view Mount Pisgah (elev. 5721 ft). What better place to lounge on the grass and eat our picnic? In the end, this was an example of changed plans that were better. Being rained out meant finding unforeseen rewards. Stopping on the drive back for a quick cone of Dolly’s ice cream, while perhaps appearing unplanned, was a perfect polish to our afternoon trip.

Whitewater Rafting TeamToday we were able to complete this session’s whitewater rafting trips on the Nantahala river. Here too, a little flexibility really paid off. Most of the rivers around here are too high right now, and even the dam-controlled Nantahala was unsafe on Tuesday. With a little shuffling of the adventure schedule, we were able to run the trips today instead. We also decided to push the first trip to earlier in the day to boost our odds of avoiding the predicted afternoon thundershowers. I’m happy to report that everything went perfectly, and with no rain! Boats of singing (and at times screaming!) girls wearing white helmets, 72 people in two groups— our Rockbrook rafting days turn heads on the river.

One aspect of taking an adventure trip, like whitewater rafting, kayaking, or rock climbing, for example, is the decision to skip your regular in-camp activities. Girls know that by signing up for these trips, they’ll have to miss archery, horseback riding, pottery and any other their scheduled activities. This can be frustrating for campers attending short sessions, but it soon becomes clear that it’s impossible to do everything at camp, and you always have to choose among options, thereby skipping certain opportunities. It’s a good lesson in decision making. To select also means to neglect. Fortunately, at camp, whatever a girl selects is guaranteed to be a fun-filled, good choice.

Our evening program tonight brought the return of our friend Daphne from “Cold Blooded Encounters” and 16 of her cold-blooded friends to the gym for her animal show. One by one, she presented each animal walking it around the crowd of shocked and at times wide-eyed girls. She described whether each animal— snake or lizard for example —was poisonous, where it lives in the wild, what it eats, and other unique aspects of its behavior.

Bearded Dragon Lizard Reticulated Python

Some of the reptiles were familiar to the girls, like the Eastern Box Turtle and the Black Rat Snake, creatures that can be found at Rockbrook. Others, though, were more exotic like an Emperor Scorpion, a Tomato Frog, a Tarantula, a Bearded Dragon, and a huge Reticulated Python. At the end of the show, Daphne invited the girls to touch her python, disproving their belief that snakes are “slimy,” and showing that they are instead smooth, cool and muscular. It was an exciting, informative evening.

A Giant Success

Girls Whitewater Rafting

If you’ve been paying attention, as we do, to the weather forecasts for this area over the last few days, it would seem that rain would be a constant companion for us. Everyday we’ve been told there would be a 70, 80, or even 90 percent chance of rain. Indeed it has rained every day this week, but happily we’ve been lucky about when it has rained. For example, today we took a group of seniors whitewater rafting, and when we left camp at 7:15am there was a steady, drenching rain. Most of the camp was asleep, but these brave, determined girls woke early and headed out, nervously glancing to the sky. As we drove through the rain toward the Nantahala River, and as the sun rose to heat things up a bit, the clouds parted and we found bright sunny skies. This made for a perfect trip… Fun splashing around, “accidentally” falling in, and the thrill of crashing through each rapid’s waves. The ordinarily cold water of the Nantahala even felt a little warmer than usual for some reason. The girls had a blast on the water… the kind of outdoor adventure we love around here … enjoyed a picnic lunch by the “Worser Wesser” Falls, and were back at camp in time for their afternoon activities.

Camper wearing leather purse she made

In the craft cabin tucked into the woods just below the first cabin of the lower line, the cabin we call “Hobby Nook,” the girls taking “Folklore” have been up to something cool. They’ve been making these neat leather purses. Just a few instructions, and even fewer materials, are needed to get started. The girls cut pieces of soft leather into shapes, punch holes and sew everything together with other strands of leather. Some girls trimmed their creations with beads, while others attached braided friendship bracelet patterns… mixing media and craft activities at RBC! As you can see, the results are dazzling, and a clear source of pride for the girls.

I should probably write more about the food we are all enjoying at camp, because it’s been so yummy and good. Rick and his crew constantly amaze and satisfy us all.  There are so many examples— his baked cheese grits (with scrambled eggs and bacon) we ate for breakfast, the massive bowl of secret-recipe guacamole he added to our “taco lunch,” the baked chicken, homemade tomato soup, fresh steamed broccoli and warm focaccio bread —all examples of Rockbrook eating well. Don’t be surprised if your daughter comes home with a new favorite food. Maybe it’ll be something simple like raspberries and blueberries on waffles, but it might be lemon hummus with roasted red peppers and pine nuts!

Riflery girl bullseye target

The scattered rain showers of late haven’t stalled the action at our riflery range. The girls down there, girls of all ages, have been steadily improving their shot. And they have been shooting a lot! From the gym and even from near the lake, you can hear that “pop pop” sound of the .22 caliber rifles discharging. From this photo, you can also see that the coaching provided by instructors Leah and Haley is really paying off. Each day we hear (usually announced to cheers in the dining hall) of new members joining the riflery “Bullseye Club.” Check out Anna’s perfectly centered shot!  Awesome!

Girls Banquet posing
Girls Camp children

Dinner tonight was another surprise, and a first for Rockbrook. Our 9th graders who are staying for the current mini session presented a banquet to the camp, just as the full session 9th graders will do in a couple of weeks. We ordinarily don’t have a mini session banquet, mostly because planning one (painting decorations, rehearsing skits and dances, designing props, etc) takes more time than is really available in a short session, but this group of nine girls really wanted to do it. And they did an amazing job presenting “Rockbrook Under the Rainbow,” their banquet celebrating “colors.” Each CA dressed in a different color, all the colors of the rainbow plus white and pink (ROYGBIV + WP), and their counselors in tie dye t-shirts. Colorful designs like spirals, stripes, polka dots, and stars covered every wall. A multi-colored parachute hung from the ceiling, and the centerpiece was a “ball pool” filled with bright plastic balls and a rainbow of colored balloons. While this banquet didn’t pull out all the stops of our full session banquets, it showed the CAs’ impressive enthusiasm and their hard work. And judging from the other campers’ excited response— the dancing, singing, cheers and applause —the whole event was a giant success Thank you CAs!

Rafting Video

Here’s a little video from our recent trips down the Nantahala. Whitewater adventure at Rockbrook!

River Adventures

Here it is, only the second full day of the session, and we’ve already got almost half of the camp out whitewater rafting on the Nantahala river. This many girls excited to go, to jump right into an outdoor adventure, was no surprise because these second session Rockbrook girls are full of energy, and these trips are so awesome. The word is out, if you come to Rockbrook (and you’re old enough… Unfortunately, the US Forest Service permit we hold limits our rafting to girls who are 5th grade and older), you’ll get to go whitewater rafting.

We actually started this extravaganza day of rafting the night before with 3 buses of girls packing sleeping bags and extra clothes to go spend the night at Rockbrook’s outpost camp over near the river in Swain County. The outpost is a unique piece of property Rockbrook acquired and improved back in 1988. It adjoins the Nantahala National Forest, is more than 1000 feet higher in elevation than Rockbrook’s main camp property, and is only about a mile from the Appalachian Trail. To say it’s “in the middle of nowhere” is pretty accurate, or at least it definitely feels like it when we arrive with the girls. The outpost is a great place to spend the night with a large group too, with 3 large camping shelters (each screened in, with a tin roof, and deck jutting out into the woods), a simple bathroom, but also a dining hall where we can serve meals. With the group settled into the shelters, we first devoured our dinner of pasta, salad and fruit, and afterwards, gathered around the campfire pit for the evening. It was just getting dark as Chase finished the fire and sent the girls scurrying about looking for a marshmallow roasting stick (avoiding the slightly toxic branches from rhododendron and mountain laurel bushes). This was very exciting because she also had a basket of graham crackers and chocolate bars, which meant we were going to make s’mores. Soon there were some marshmallows burnt to a crisp, and others patiently roasted to a golden brown, allowing everyone to have fun making this classic camping treat.

Whitewater Team
Rafting Girl Campers
Summer Camp Rafting

The next morning about 9am, we met our team of raft guides at the river’s edge to gear up for our whitewater adventure, the first of two for the day. A helmet, PFD and paddle for each girl, and 5-7 girls per raft, we outfitted 7 boats for this trip. The Nantahala, which is a Cherokee word meaning “River of the noonday sun,” is a river formed by both a natural flow and extra water released through Duke Energy’s hydroelectric plant. Throughout the day, water from the bottom of the Nantahala Lake is released back into the river making it great for rafting, albeit quite cold too (about 53 degrees). This morning we had bright sunshine though, so all the splashing and even the occasional (intentional or unintended) swim felt good.

Nantahala Rafting Falls
Raft drops over nantahala river rapid

If you look at the terrified faces of the girls in these rafting photos, it might be difficult to understand why our campers love it so much. I think the answer begins with the fact that rafting is first of all a fun, social activity. In the boats there’s time to chat, sing, laugh, and goof around together, like when making up a cheer or slapping a “high five” with everyone’s paddles. Also though, rafting is a special thrill because it’s such a pure adventure.  It’s a got an element of danger (managed by established safety procedures and equipment of course), a risk that something might go wrong, like falling out of the boat, that we successfully conquer in the end. The struggle of the experience, in this case the cold water, the rocks and waves of the river, the challenge of it all, makes succeeding feel really good. The girls can sense that through their efforts, they’ve accomplished something. In this way, though they wouldn’t put it like this, whitewater rafting is a boost to their self confidence, masquerading in a wet and wild ride down the river.

dressed up camper and counselor
American Campers dressed up
Captain America Costume

With the afternoon rafting trip, which was comprised of another three vans, back at camp in time for dinner, we learned that tonight’s meal was to be “All American,” with American food, decorations, songs, and all manner of red, white and blue costumes. The decorations were a hoot. Several counselors painted banners with slogans like “America the Beautiful,” USA, and “Freedom,” but also “Walmart,” McDonalds,” and “Coke.” Flags, streamers and balloons hung from the rafters, and all kinds of American-themed songs played over the speakers: “Party in the USA,” “Proud to be an American,” “American Girl,” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” To eat, Rick had Hamburgers and all the fixings, French Fries, and Watermelon. For costumes, you can see we had a visit from Captain America, and some pretty cool red, white and blue hats, sunglasses and shirts. The whole event was pumping with energy as the girls sang their favorite songs and started cheers, laughing and chatting between bites.

A quick word about sending mail to camp… Keep it coming! The old fashioned snail mail is the most exciting thing to receive in a camper’s mailbox, but our postal service here struggles to keep up with the huge amount of mail arriving in this area (14 summer camps in the county alone!). So I would suggest writing regular lettings and sending occasional emails as well. This will make sure your daughter has something in her box most days while she’s here.

We are off to a fantastic session!

That Satisfying “Thunk”

Today we took our first outdoor adventure trip with the campers, and it was a great one. Two buses and a van of senior- and middler-aged campers took the day to go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River over in Swain County. We departed right after breakfast, and with a brief snack/bathroom stop we arrived at the river for an early picnic lunch at Ferebee park. The sun was warm and bright as the whole crew munched on the sandwiches, chips and fruit Rick packed for us. A short drive up river to the put-in, we met the Rockbrook guides who had our rafts and all the equipment we would need (lifejackets, paddle, helmets, etc.) ready to go.

Kids Whitewater Rafting

As you may know, Rockbrook is the only girls camp that has a permit to run its own rafting trips down the Nantahala. This allows us to have our own gear, hire our own expert guides, schedule the trips to our liking, and send down the river as many campers as we need without having to charge extra fees. Rockbrook was awarded this permit back in the 1980s, and since the Forest Service is not issuing any new permits, we are lucky to have it. Rafting has easily become the most popular adventure trip at Rockbrook, with just about every Middler and Senior taking the opportunity. Our permit doesn’t allow us to raft our Juniors because of age and weight restrictions. Today’s trip was perfect… Beautiful sunny warm weather, very few other rafts on the water, exhilarating moments in the rapids, and fun splashing around during the calmer parts of the river. Singing, sometimes screaming, chatting and laughing all the way down, these girls were having a ball.

Camp Kid Weaver
Girls Aims Archery bow and arrow

Meanwhile back at camp, the looms in Curosty, our fiber arts cabin, were clicking with girls weaving headbands and placemats. Curosty is one of the early buildings erected at Rockbrook that, along with the Goodwill cabin, was moved here so it predates the camp. It once was used as the camp office but now it is filled with colorful yarns, tabletop and floor looms, and girls learning an ancient craft. The whole space, filled with calm yet highly creative energy, evokes a wonderful, timeless feeling.

Down the hill toward the gym, the archery range was busy with girls firing arrows at their targets. Learning the proper way to handle the archery equipment and the important safety rules of the range are the first steps, and then with a little coaching about technique, it doesn’t take long for campers to be able to pull back an arrow and hit the target. It’s such a satisfying sound, that “thunk” the arrow makes when it hits. It’s an even more satisfying sound to hear the girls’ cheers when someone hits a bullseye, and thereby joins the “bullseye club.”

Rockbrook Camp Counselors

I wanted to call your attention to an short article by Michael Thompson recently published in the New York Times. Thompson is the author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, a book where he examines the character development benefits that come from a sleepaway camp experience. He believes that letting children go, taking breaks from the shelter and protection we parents instinctively provide, is an important milestone in a child’s development. In his NYT article, entitled “Why Camp Counselors Can Out-Parent Parents,” he makes the same point by observing that camp counselors are, different from parents, “super cool,” admirable role models that kids want to learn from. The counselors at Rockbrook are well-trained, have excellent inter-personal skills, are full of enthusiasm for life, and are simply down-to-earth, genuine good people. They are just the kind of “parents” we’d all be proud to call our own.