By Gilah Allardice
For three months this summer I worked as a camp counsellor in California’s San Bernardino National Forest Park. Along with camp fire sing-songs and attempting to skip pool activities, chasing bears, fever endemics, and teaching the art of ‘nature-peeing’ would not be amiss on the daily camp schedule. It was an adventure unlike anything I had ever experienced, and one I most definitely was not prepared for.
This realisation struck me thousands of feet in the air, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, as the cartoon plane on the in-flight entertainment system relentlessly crept closer and closer to Los Angeles. After leaving LAX airport, I was driven hours away from civilisation and up a mountain, my stomach churning as I went.
In retrospect, I should have been prepared for this. The camp, after all, is named Camp Mountain Chai, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The opening scenes of ‘Parent Trap’ best described my surroundings: archaic wooden cabins, zero wifi, absolutely no cell service and an hour’s drive from the nearest ‘town’. What had I signed up for?
Shooting stars sliced cleanly through the deep midnight-blue skies each night.
It took several days of utter isolation and a sky-high phone bill, the result of begging my parents to book me a flight home pronto, to make peace with what I thought was the single worst decision of my life.
Annoying as it was, my parents were right. With time, the camp ‘bubble’ did “grow on [me]”. Once my initial fears had waned, I was able to appreciate both the natural beauty of the environment I was living in and a promising tan line which, with the passing of the weeks and months, only became stronger and stronger!
The views were exquisite. Waking up to gushing rivers flowing through acres of forest each morning was breathtaking. Flamingo pink and amber sunsets acted as backdrops to glowing campfires each evening. Shooting stars sliced cleanly through the deep midnight-blue skies each night. I wanted to capture every moment, but I knew no photograph could ever do the scenery justice.
The astounding Arizonian beauty reached its brilliant best during a four-day camping excursion to the Grand Canyon. Standing in the looming shadow of towering Redwall limestone really reinforced our insignificance in the face of the colossal power of nature. Unfortunately our overly-keen geographers remembered their summertime revision, as demonstrated by their enthusiastic preaching about all things metamorphic, igneous or sedimentary.
The most awesome moment, however, was when the first bolt of lightning struck in the distance. Minutes after blinding electricity flashed through the grey sky, a deafening roar of thunder followed. The canyon’s echo-construction amplified this greater to make the storm almost a God-fearing experience.
Rather than inspiring a likewise appreciation of nature, our next trip to Kern River, brought an appreciation of life. This was sparked by my white-water rafting near-death experience.
On an expert-level rapid, our raft became lodged on a smaller rock. Unable to move, another boat smashed into us head-on, forcing our raft onto its side. Falling out, I became stuck in a whirlpool current underwater.
Being churned like butter was not a fun experience
After what seemed like an age, I re-surfaced, only to then be dunked by our guide to prevent me from being crushed between our raft and another oncoming boulder. After I was clear of ‘crushing-distance’, I was hauled into the raft and I helped to negotiate the remainder of the rapid in shock. I was startled that our camping trip had the potential to turn so sour so suddenly. Being churned like butter by the white water was not a fun experience.
Toilets were the more heinous and sawdust-infused challenge of the trip. Months – and probably years – worth of shit rotted in a foul-smelling hole only metres below ground level. The sheer volume of human waste nurtured growing maggots to a grand size. The breeze did not simply carry an unpleasant odour, but rather some ungodly future biological weapon. For the next four days, I taught my campers the art of ‘nature-peeing’ and – when they proceeded to ‘expert’ level – ‘nature-shovelling’. Figure it out.
Back at Camp Mountain Chai, we had attracted some visitors. Being the hospitable environment that it was, cayotes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and scorpions often made appearances. But due to the week-long local forest fire (for which we even packed emergency evacuation bags!), one more unexpected guest appeared: Shlomo the bear.
Very sociable, he yearned for company. In fact, we had to chase him – yes, chase him – away from Shorashim cabins in the middle of the night. But Shlomo could not stay away, for the next day he inspected the staff lounge, while we were all locked inside. Later that evening, after his officially reported ‘check-out’, our fuzzy friend quite unexpectedly re-appeared right at my unlocked cabin door. He really did just want a pal.
If Camp Mountain Chai’s newest resident truly was looking for friends, rather than food, he certainly picked the perfect place. In spite of the usual camp politics, bitchy leadership and heated debates over who could skip pool activities, I could not have asked for better co-workers.
Every morning the staff woke up, totally devoted to giving their campers the best summer of their lives in every way they could. It was genuinely inspirational and it pushed me to become a better counsellor. On top of supporting their campers, staff acted as a fantastic support network for each other. When in need – and trust me, I definitely was on occasion – there were plenty of shoulders to cry on. Drawing on their own disaster stories, they helped me pick myself back up again and showed me that, in reality, none of us had any clue about what we were doing.
And yet, nothing can outshine the campers. For the first two weeks, I was a counsellor for 9th grade girls, between 13-14 years old. They were the perfect group to ease me into camp life. Always kind, always tidy, always allowing me to nap when I desperately required a recharge, they were simply angelic. Their first-kiss level boy problems were adorable, even more so when they asked for advice. I was a big sister, rather than a camp counsellor. It was the perfect combination of support-system, role-model and friend.
For the following three weeks of camp, I was bumped up to a 10th grade counsellor. Disney’s trademark Aladdin song, ‘A Whole New World’, comes to mind.
Having completed their first year of high school, these girls were more mature and much more sassy. Their issues required great sensitivity and attention: homophobia, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm and bullying. Nevertheless, I loved every second. After we’d given up making our kids stick to a dress code, even the battle against the booty shorts became surprisingly more enjoyable, believe it or not!
With such unique personalities, the camp atmosphere was more vibrant and dynamic. It was during this period that I experienced my defining moment as a counsellor; the camp ‘Olympics’, known as Maccabiah, transformed me into a fully-fledged ‘camp mum’. I was pretty conspicuous, shamelessly cheering on all my campers during their track events and art presentations. I even started calling my campers “my kids”.
Bored, my co-counsellor and I decided to create a little chaos.
Sobbing for easily over an hour as these kids left, I was reluctant to meet my third batch of campers. I did not know how they could even begin to compare. Sure enough, as the running theme seemed to be, I was wrong. It was an amazing final two weeks of camp. My 10th grade girls had zero cliques and caused zero trouble. Every counsellor’s dream, or so you would think.
Although incredibly infuriating at times, having to control a bunch of unruly kids can be one of the underappreciated joys of camp counselling. A group which is too well-behaved can quickly grow stale. Bored, my co-counsellor and I decided to create a little chaos.
Rumour had it that the office recently took delivery of the upcoming staff banquet supplies: Oreos, Diet Coke, ice cream sandwiches – all too tempting. Together with our campers, we dressed in camouflage and prepared a plan of action. Walkie-talkies in our hands, rucksacks on our backs, and Rambo-like paint on our faces, we relayed the gravity of the situation to our campers.
We could get caught. We could get sacked. We could have to face furious North-West London Jewish mothers. Our kids lapped it up. Our boss had, of course, cleared our criminal activities four days in advance and strategically placed the supposed ‘staff banquet supplies’ within our reach. But the kids didn’t need to know that.
In hindsight, we might have taken the whole charade slightly too far when campers, terrified they were going to get us fired, started having panic attacks. I panicked too… when we counted a missing fourteen campers during our mission de-brief…
It seemed that after nabbing the stash, us counsellors got somewhat carried away. We had forgotten about the vigilant ‘lookout division’, still hiding in the forests’ first line of trees for coverage…until 12:30am!
My California experience was not your typical Instagram photoshoot. It was utterly draining and one of the most demanding tasks I have ever undertaken. Nevertheless, this hard work reaped reward tenfold. I will treasure these memories and will never forget my time at Camp Mountain Chai.
Photographs: Gilah Allardice