Working at an American summer camp – the best job I’ve ever had

Five years ago I quit my job as a journalist in Australia and had one of the best experiences of my life – I went to summer camp in America. It’s one of the great American holiday traditions for parents to pack their kids off for six weeks in the wilderness and there are thousands of camps dotted across the country ready for every year’s exodus. I was fortunate enough to be recruited by one of the highest rated – Camp Walt Whitman – and was given a new job as a sailing instructor.

looking at the water

Recruiting season for summer camps is now in full swing so if you’re looking for a new chapter in life I thoroughly recommend it. I’ll tell you my story just for kicks:

I flew to the United States after spending a few months poobing about through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand with a good mate of mine. I was a few kilograms lighter at the end of the trip than when I left Australia (local tap water is great for dieting!)  so I decided to spend a week in Boston before the camp began to get fit.

As a sailing instructor I was required to pass a Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor course – if I failed I would be out. Gulp. So I  stayed at the YMCA in downtown Boston for peanuts and spent every day I could swimming laps in the pool and climbing an indoor rock wall to build myself back up again. I hopped on a bus for New Hampshire, confident I was ready for whatever the Red Cross could put up. I was wrong.

The instructors threw everything they could at us. We swam countless laps and retrieved bricks from the bottom of the pool and learned CPR on lifelike dummies. At the end of it all we had to sit a physical and written test – and we had to pass. I did well in the physical until I had to swim backwards on my back for one lap while holding a weight. I discovered then that I was not ‘neutrally buoyant’ and sank like a stone to the bottom of the pool. So I did the only thing I could think of. I kicked like mad and held my breath and somehow made it to the other side without drowning! They gave me points for effort and I passed. Phew.

Me and a few of the 'Frontski' crew waiting our turn for duty on the lifeguard bench

Me and a few of the ‘Frontski’ crew waiting our turn for duty on the lifeguard bench

The best part of that brutal introduction to summer camp life was that I met some of the other people who would be working with me at Camp Walt Whitman’s (CWW) waterfront.

We became fast friends and hopped on the bus that would take us deep into the White Mountains of New Hampshire where CWW was waiting. When we arrived we were split up into the male and female sides of the camp and assigned bunks where scores of other camp workers were staying. We spent a week fixing the place up after it had lain dormant for the winter, getting to know each other and learning how to do our jobs. The waterfront crew was combined with the water skiing crew, so we dubbed ourselves ‘Frontski’.

Our first tasks were setting up the floating docks, rigging the sailing boats, airing out the life jackets, cleaning the pool and learning how to barrel roll in a kayak. The waterfront was run by a big friendly bloke called Josh Holland who impressed on us how crucial it was that we took the job seriously whilst enjoying it. After all, there was a real chance that someone could drown or get seriously hurt.

We got up early every morning for a week and practised a search and rescue drill where all the instructors would line up and walk in to the water, duck dive down, come up and keep going forward until the waterfront area was searched. If we ever had to do it in real life we were ready. Thankfully we only did it once that summer for a false alarm. It’s fair to say I changed my undies after that!

Just like Huck Finn -  whitewashing the fence

Just like Huck Finn – whitewashing the fence!

I was assigned to live in a bunk house with two summer camp counsellors named Devin and Julian. The three of us would be responsible for looking after a group of boys aged between 10 and 11. Devin and Julian would stay with the group during the day while I was at the waterfront teaching sailing and I would meet up with them at night for activities. We would eat together every morning and evening and it was our responsibility to ensure these kids had a good time and were well behaved. I had never done anything like that before so when the  first day of camp dawned I was pretty nervous.

An endless stream of buses pulled into the camp’s driveway and disgorged a buzzing stream of hyperactive children laden down with gigantic bags hollering at the top of their voices. Most of them had been at the summer camp before and returning there was the highlight of their lives. They were so excited. Devin, Julian and I held up a sign for the boys in our group to gather around and one by one they came over. They were a cheeky mob, full of questions and wisecracks.

I liked them instantly.

We showed them to the bunk and let them get settled in. They unpacked mountains of clothes, gear, books, toys and all manner of things their parents had equipped them with to spend summer away from home. I decided to leave Devin and Julian to deal with it! and went down to the waterfront.

Me and my summer camp bunk mucking around

Me and my summer camp bunk mucking around

Summer camp at CWW was to last for six weeks and our first task was to make sure every single child in the camp could swim and survive a ‘tip test’, which involved them getting in a boat one of the sailing instructors deliberately capsized. It was a lot of fun!

The head sailing instructor was an American guy named Trevor and he was the funniest man I had ever met. There was also Rory, a whip smart Irish bloke who was a keen sailor. Between the three of us we ran the sailing, taking it in turns to teach classes and helping the swimming instructors with lifeguard duty. It was hard work, especially in the summer sun but there was always free time to take a  swim or paddle a canoe, and my best memory is taking a sailing boat out onto the lake and tacking back and forth across the shimmering water, thinking ‘I’m getting paid to do this!’

Me and the Frontski with the beautiful lake behind us

Me and the Frontski with the beautiful lake behind us

At the end of every work day the waterfront crew had a meeting to discuss how everything was going and if we had a good day Josh would lead us in a song, usually an old tune sung by the 82nd Airborne Division in the Second World War.

It was a rousing song and we’d sing it so loud people at the other end of the camp could make out the words! Singing is a big part of camp life and whenever all the campers got together for an activity we would sing something.

To this day I still know the words to half a dozen American folk songs and the steps to a few line dances. There is a lot about camp that may seem dorky at first, and out of context it doesn’t have the same shine, but while you’re there you can’t help but be swept up in it. Most of it anyway.

Day off!

Day off!

Although, the best part of working at a summer camp are the days off. I had every Monday off and we were allowed to leave camp on the Sunday night if we wanted. I went to Montreal in Canada across the border with a huge group on my first free day and had a blast. Every day off I went somewhere new with a big group of friends, eating huge plates of American food and mucking around. I made friends I keep in touch with to this day and can still shotgun a beer with the best of them!

Six weeks went by very, very quickly and by the end of it I was happily exhausted. Saying goodbye to the kids was harder than I thought it would be, and it was even harder saying goodbye to all of the good friends I’d made. I shed a few tears. Camp exists in a bubble, a very intense bubble where there is so much happening all at once it can be overwhelming. But I would give anything to drift back to New Hampshire, where the purple lilacs grow, and do it all again. If you get the chance to work at a summer camp, do it. You will remember it for the rest of your life.

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

7 comments on “Working at an American summer camp – the best job I’ve ever had”

  1. Mary FitzGerald Reply

    Hello Dave and Carmen:

    I just wanted to say that I loved your story about CWW. I was a counselor in senior camp 1992 and 1993. To this day — they remain the best summers of my life!!!

    Best to both of you!

  2. Pingback: Why we quit our jobs to travel - Double-Barrelled Travel

  3. Sam Falk Reply

    Well written and thank you. I arrived at CWW in 1977 and stayed as a camper, CIT, and counselor through until 1989 — no required time off between CIT and counselor in the old days. I still visit nearly every year and maintain a strong connection with the place and the people there.

    You’ve captured the spirit if life in that 6 week (isn’t it 7 weeks??) bubble well. The intensity, the camaraderie, even the hokeyness of it all when viewed from outside the bubble. Even when we view it ourselves from outside.

    And I sang purple lilacs to my daughter last night before bed…

  4. Andrew Gruntovs Reply

    Hi Dave,

    I loved reading your article. It brought back so many fond memories for me. Your experience at CWW was very similar to mine.

    From Geelong, Australia, I too was lucky enough to land a position as a Camp Counsellor at CWW in 1989. It still stands today as one of the best experiences of my life. I will treasure it always.

    I returned in 1998 for a 50 Year CWW Reunion. I look forward to visiting again one day and reliving, if only for a short time, that incredible summer I had.

    I too, still sing the songs that I learnt at Camp Meetings – I remember them word for word.

    I now own my own camp in Australia and hope that when our Summer Camps commence, we might have a similar “Spirit of Life” and the “Camp Bubble” you talk about.

    Enjoy your travels.

    • Dave Allan-Petale Reply

      Thanks for sharing your memories Andrew, that’s great you went to a reunion, I’ve always wanted to go back… If you need a sailing instructor for your camp I’m always keen!

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