If you’ve been around here for any amount of time you know the summer vacation drill — our family drives to a lake where we jump off the dock a thousand times, catch a catfish, and line the kids up at the end of the week for a forced cousin picture.
This year we completely pulled up anchor for something new: a week at a family camp.
If you hear the phrase “family camp” and a few question marks reflexively pop up above your head, you’re not alone. After months of explanations, photos, videos, and a very detailed packing list, when we were driving to Deer Valley I still didn’t really know what we were in for.
Tom grew up going to Deer Valley every summer, so for him this was sort of like going home. But for me it was all new.
After spending a week there, here’s my best description: Family camp is just like any sleep-away summer camp you went to as a kid, except your family is there. They do all the normal “camp” things, like dining hall-style eating, sing-a-longs, and making bracelets at the craft shop. The kids have a group activity in the morning, but besides that it’s all wide-open family time at the most beautiful lakefront camp. (But, I’ll be honest, anywhere without humidity in August is paradise. My standards might be low, but take my word for it, this place is a special kind of gorgeous.)
Just like every summer camp I can remember, lodging is rustic. We actually stayed in a lodge that was a decent walk from the main part of camp. The lodge was large enough to accommodate our family and Steve and Lindsay’s family (eight kids, four adults), but most families stay in cabins that are closer to all of the activity.
The main difference between being at camp as a kid and being at camp as an adult is that when you’re a grown up you get to do what you want. I remember being a kid at camp and carrying around the schedule wherever I went because Amanda did not want to be late for evening devotionals. And if you need a post-lunch nap? Too bad. We’re having three-legged races on the quad. As a kid you spend camp going from activity to activity and you relish the 15 minutes of free time before lights out.
As an adult at camp, you do what you want. You can hike, bike, swim, or take a nap in a kayak. You can leave camp for lunch, you can bail on family game night, you can even take your kid out of group because, guess what? It’s your kid and you’re a grown up.
I’ll be honest, I spent the first few days at Deer Valley feeling a bit disoriented and overwhelmed. There were sign-ups, camp-wide inside jokes, and I kept confusing the snack bar and the dining hall. And if you know me at all, you know that when Mama needs a snack, she needs to know where to go.
It also didn’t help that the very first thing that happened was that David wrecked his bike. He didn’t get seriously injured, but it was bad enough that he couldn’t ride his bike, he was limping, and he couldn’t swim. It all left me on edge, unsure. Apprehensive.
At some point in the week my mood changed and I started to settle in and truly enjoy myself. As I’ve been writing this, I tried to pinpoint the change. Surely it didn’t hurt that I got a few good nights of sleep, made friends, and once and for all finally remembered how to get to the snack bar.
Those things were helpful, of course, but I think the change happened when I saw my kids settling in. David, whose bumps and scrapes limited what he could do physically, found a book nook in the dining hall. He couldn’t walk fast and so he was always at the back of his group, and a counselor walked with him. “Mom, I really enjoy talking with Sam,” he told me after the first day of group. (That’s a direct quote. My kid said he enjoyed talking with his counselor. My entire summer is made.)
Meanwhile, Mary conquered the swimming test and spent every afternoon out on the waterfront. She hated the food (no surprise there) but loved the afternoon ice cream. Thomas, my kid who plays independently and didn’t know the names of anyone in his preschool class, made a friend in his group, a REAL friend who would come over and visit during meals. And Anna? Queen of Deer Valley, she loved every minute. She pounded on her tray when the dining hall erupted in stomps and claps, and tried to do the hand motions at sing-a-longs.
Most mornings when the kids were in their group, Tom and I went for a hike or bike ride. I did the swim across the lake twice, and Tom played volleyball at every single opportunity.
Every night we were sore, exhausted, and didn’t want to go to sleep because there was still more to do.
I’ve never spent time with my kids at a place like Deer Valley, so it’s fair that I didn’t know what to expect. I was fumbling through the first day or so, with my head down, preoccupied by rounding up first aid supplies for David and trying my darndest to keep up with six water bottles. Meanwhile, my kids’ eyes were wide, soaking in everything the camp had to offer.
This is why family-centered vacations are so great. Because moms can relegate themselves to the sidelines. They take on the role of supervisor, ready to apply sunscreen to anyone who wanders close enough. But sometimes what mom needs is for one of her kids to say, “Hey, Mom? Can you take me to the low ropes course?” Otherwise, they’d never even consider smiling in response, “Race ya.”