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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Group leaders and campers sing together to begin their day during the Franke Park Day Camp this month. The camp, in its 72nd year, offers six one-week sessions that emphasize nature education, basic camping skills and Native American lore.

  • Jack Mitchell, 9, smears bloodroot on the forehead of Terri Richardson, The Journal Gazette’s features editor, as part of her first summer camp experience.

  • Group Leader Alexis Madden shows campers how to tie-dye shirts. Some of them have been attending since they were much younger and know enough to enlighten an older, less experienced camper.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Features editor Terri Richardson finds her place among fellow campers during her day at Franke Park.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Jack Mitchell, 9, smears bloodroot, a perennial, herbaceous flowering plant on his fraternal twin brother Charlie during the Franke Park Day Camp on Thursday June 14, 2018. The camp ran from June 11-15 and has a strong emphasis on nature education, basic camping skills and Native American lore. The camp provides an environment which fosters cooperation, problem solving and socialization. VIDEO

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette From right: Lainey Allison, 11, Terri Richardson, features editor for The Journal Gazette, and Evelyn Schaekel, 10, work on filling canteens during the Franke Park Day Camp on Thursday June 14, 2018. The camp ran from June 11-15 and has a strong emphasis on nature education, basic camping skills and Native American lore. The camp provides an environment which fosters cooperation, problem solving and socialization. VIDEO    

Sunday, June 24, 2018 1:00 am

Renewing childhood at camp

Franke Park novice follows seasoned kids' footsteps

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Growing up in West Virginia, I never went to summer camp.

I guess my parents figured that with a mountainside in our backyard and a creek running through our front yard, we had plenty of opportunities to experience Mother Nature at home.

But I always wanted to go.

I remember watching movies that had kids going off to summer camp, where they would swim, hike, canoe and do crafts, not to mention make friends. Of course there were always those summer camp hijinks and letters written home to mom and dad about what they were doing at summer camp.

Now that thousands of kids are attending or heading off to summer camps across the country, I decided I would go to summer camp too.

On a Thursday morning this month, I put on my camp clothes, doused myself with sunblock and bug spray, packed up my backpack and headed out to Franke Park Day Camp to spend a day with hundreds of other kids.

So, “Dear Mom and Dad, here's what I did at summer camp.”

Lots to learn

When I got to Franke Park, I wasn't too sure what I was supposed to do. I remember a little about the camp from when my children attended years ago.

The fact that the camp is multigenerational is what makes it so special, says camp supervisor Chris Freehill, who is marking his 41st year on staff and his 50th summer in the park. He says the camp, which is in its 72nd year, has families whose children, parents and grandparents have all attended. Freehill himself spent 10 years as a camper before eventually becoming camp supervisor.

I joined the Miami tribe headed by camp counselor Alexis Madden. Madden, from Fort Wayne, also was a Franke Park camper who graduated to a camp counselor.

The Miami was a group of a dozen 9- to 11-year-olds. I would be No. 13.

As I sat among the other campers, I discovered that we would be heading to Bloody Gorge on this day. The campers excitedly talked about the upcoming hike.

It also was at this point that I realized I was wearing shorts and everyone else was wearing long pants. This may not be starting off on a good note.

Freehill says the campers spend six hours a day at camp and half that time is in the woods. With that in mind, I decided I should probably get some tips for what I should be doing from someone who knows the ropes. That turned out to be 10-year-old Zade Voelker, who has been going to the Franke Park camp since he was 4.

His first bit of advice was “Don't touch the fungus.” Really? Is that something I should be concerned about, I thought.

Second, “Stay on the trails.” Wait, what happens if I get off the trails? “Poison ivy,” he says with a serious look. Good point.

And finally, “Don't get lost.”

Making friends

It appeared the biggest decision for that morning was what type of design the campers wanted on their tie-dyed shirts. Upon deciding, Madden would use string to tie the shirts so that it would develop into that design when dyed.

Then it was time for singing. Admittedly, I was having a little trouble shifting into a 9-year-old mindset.

As I looked around, kids were yelling out the words and moving along to the motions demonstrated by the counselors. Did someone say do the beaver jive? Is that even a thing?

After singing, we gathered up our backpacks and headed to tie-dye. I was wrong about choosing the design. I guess choosing the right colors is pretty important too.

When the campers' artwork was finished, Madden laid the shirts in the grass to dry in the sun.

This presented an opportunity for Elijah Duvalon, 9, to become a fashion critic.

“Good,” he says pointing to one shirt. “I like that one,” he says about another. “Good, good, Gucci.” Hold up. Gucci? “That means good,” Elijah adds. Got it.

We then moved on to collect the gear we would need to take with us into the woods. Hot dog sticks. Cutting boards. Carrying baskets. Rope. And canteens. I got to carry one of those.

We then lined up to head out. However, I was still not really feeling like part of the group, even though I was now in charge of a canteen. Every time we lined up, the other campers would continue to get in front of me like I wasn't even there. I needed to make a friend.

That's when I met Addison Hawkins.

I asked her if this was her first year. “Yes,” she replied. Yeah, it's my first day.

She told me she was 9. I told her I wasn't going to tell her how old I was. She guessed 19.

I declared she was my new best friend.

Facing nature

Hiking through the woods, Madden pointed out several plants that the kids would need to identify to get their badge. One of those was bloodroot, a plant that when cut provides a reddish-orange sap. Native Americans used this to make designs on their faces, Madden says. That's all that needed to be said. Kids were finding bloodroot, pulling it up and then applying the sap to their face.

I wanted some, too. So I asked if someone would put it on my face. I felt really cool, until another kid said, “What happened? Did you cut your face?” Apparently instead of a design, mine looked like an injury. But maybe that can be cool too, right?

Once to our spot in the woods, we tied up our backpacks to a rope stretched between two trees and then began to hunt for sticks for the campfire. Our counselor proceeded to sharpen our hot dog sticks.

After gathering a bunch of sticks and preparing the site, it was time to start the fire. Many hands shot up when asked who would like to light the fire.

But Madden asked me if I would like to do it. Yes!

I took the piece of flint and steel and followed Madden's instructions, striking the flint downward so the sparks would land on the sticks. It only took two strikes and success.

But keeping the fire lit was a chore. I can see why we gathered so many sticks.

Sitting near the campfire while eating their lunch provided the kids time to socialize. And that's what camp is really about – finding your sense of place.

Freehill says the camp exposes the kids to an environment they are unfamiliar with so they can gain that confidence.

And if there's one thing I am confident about, it's that I really would have had a great time if I would have done this when I was actually 9 and not “19.”

trich@jg.net