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An Adirondacks Playground: Summer at Camp Treetops

As spring shifts to summer, and the school year transitions to holiday break, NYSOM’S Adirondacks Correspondent takes a peek at one very special summer camp.


I have never before spent time at a summer camp. It always seemed goofy to me. Spend several weeks away from home, with kids I have never met before, only to get bitten by a bunch of mosquitos? No way. I would rather have spent time in my hometown with my friends; in our family pool; on the computer. It didn’t make a lot of sense to have my parents spend money for me to experience something I could encounter on my own at Dad’s hunting camp. It wasn’t until after high school graduation when I enrolled at the local liberal arts college, SUNY Potsdam, that I started to wonder if maybe I had made a mistake. My friend Sean McGloon regaled me with endless stories about his time as a counselor at one such summer camp, called Camp Treetops. The camp is located just outside of Lake Placid, N.Y., and caters to kids ranging from eight to 14 years of age. Campers are instructed in a variety of subjects, including visual arts, music and gardening. When I sat down to talk with Sean, he spoke of the camp in grand terms; to him, it's so much more than a mere summer retreat. Sean sums up Camp Treetops by describing it as, “a seven-week-long, life-changing experience in the Adirondacks.” Heavy words, for sure. But his description certainly fulfills the hopes of what the camp’s website claims; it says, “Our rustic Adirondack setting and unhurried pace provide children with the space and time for childhood. Treetops offers a life of simplicity — free from the pull of computers, television and other electronics — where during a summer unplugged, children come to appreciate their own imaginations, the company of others, and wonders of the natural world.” Sean explained that campers and counselors alike forget about their connection to modern technology that they shirk their digital obligations and really get in touch with Mother Earth. “[We] really connect with each other as well as nature. We learn about where our food actually comes from; we do chores helping around camp and supporting ourselves,” Sean said. Tuition at Camp Treetops is expensive, at around $9,000 a summer. A large portion of the population comes from an affluent background, whether the child of a diplomat, a prince or an American celebrity; Sean does not mention who, specifically, for fairly obvious reasons. But the expensive price tag does not aim to exclude anyone, and the student body is widely inclusive and highly eclectic. Nearly 25 percent of the campers attend Treetops on a full-scholarship, and over the last several years, a handful of campers have come from as far away as Africa, with their tuition paid for by an alumnus. Indeed, campers and counselors venture to this Adirondack camp from all over the world. And that $9,000 will be well spent, and pay dividends for years to come. The focus is on learning about how the natural world operates. The belief is that in order for one to be successful and survive on their own, one must work with their hands. That practice starts early each day. Beginning at 7 a.m., before breakfast, campers help with morning chores, which rotate every week. This includes feeding and tending to the barn animals — which range from pigs and chickens to turkeys and goats — and also helping the cooks prepare the morning garden harvest. The camp grows its own food, with supplemental groceries to feed the 200-plus residents their three meals each day. Still, Sean says that this ritual is all about learning and respecting where our food comes from.
campers doing chores Campers share harvesting chores. Photo: Camp Treetops.
Should the children choose, they are allowed to help with the chicken harvest after listening to a serious talk about respecting animals and food. “It’s an extremely powerful day filled with tears for some,” Sean said. “It’s humbling and gives an appreciation for our meat after having cared for the animals for weeks to then harvest and butcher.” The kids won’t actually hold the knife that slaughters the animal, but they will be made aware of the fact that an animal for which they have cared will die. The older campers are able to witness the actual killing, but they never participate actively; “the head farmer doesn’t trust anyone else to do the kill,” Sean says. When it comes to the cleaning of chickens, however, the kids will play a part. The campers will pluck feathers, and help in the cleaning and gutting process. When the average day comes to a close, chores continue around the camp. Campers are expected to clean the main houses and the nurse station, as well as the craft shops where there are pottery wheels and woodworking stations. Older campers will also help with composting the garden and trimming trees, including a number of other odd jobs. Though there are chores, ultimately Camp Treetops is about expanding a young adult’s mind and their creative spirit. The children have very few strict responsibilities, and any time after that is focused on crafting a well-rounded, well-educated person. In fact, it sounds a lot like what most colleges aim to engender in the student: an appreciation for the world and its wide array of possibilities. At a very young age, campers can indulge in acting, in music, in horseback riding, in gardening — whatever they want, so long as they are not attached to their iPhone.
campers working with clay Learning visual arts and crafts. Photo:  Camp Treetops.
What really make Camp Treetops different from any other camp that you can experience in the Adirondacks is the fact that the emphasis is placed on working the farm and getting to know nature. Campers grow to understand and benefit from the fruits of their own labor. Students and counselors alike learn how to take care of the natural world and how to cultivate it, not only to use it to their own ends but also to improve upon and respect it. “All camps have crafts,” Sean acknowledges, “but the way that ours differs is the quality we strive for.” Each of the craftsmen and women who teach courses has years, sometimes decades, of experience under their belt. “So really, crafts, it’s the quality, same with the environment. Other nature camps are just about living there; we are actually about taking care of it and learning about it. Get it?”
kids playing in the mud
Kids will be kids on a rainy, muddy day. Photo:  Camp Treetops.
Camp Treetops truly seems like it is a program that is about celebrating youth, about exploring a pedagogy that is slightly to the left of the road. Before we left each other, Sean told me, “All I can say is that it was the best experience of my life. I think most people that go there agree that it’s life changing. Like I said, not using technology — no iPods, phones, watches — just living in the woods and enjoying people and nature and working with your hands; It’s the experience of a lifetime.”

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