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We are in the middle of our first session color wars and the girls are having a blast. Without giving too much away, part of the super secret opening ceremony involves the whole camp being outside late at night. There is some gentle mood music and the group sits collectively looking at the stars while waiting for the ceremony to begin. On Sunday night, during our opening ceremonies, the night sky was crystal clear and the stars were shining brilliantly.
Quite often, our campers and staff will stargaze at night. It’s always great to hear them talk about how different it is to see the night sky at camp, far from the light pollution of cities. And on Sunday night, as the whole camp sat together watching the same dazzling night sky, there was a sense of bonding due to the collective sense of peace and wonder we all felt. All of us gazing up at the same night sky, so calm and peaceful, yet also so excited for the energy of the upcoming color wars, was a great moment.
It’s moments like these that get woven together to create the summer camp experience. If a child is lucky enough, they will have many summers at camp filled with these types of awe-inspiring moments. Many return to camp as a counselor where they will not only continue to grow, but guide their campers towards their own experiences. One such camper and staff member who grew up and went into the real world recently came back to camp for a week.
I hope you enjoy reading about her return to camp as much as I did:
After the summer of 1998, a little girl cried to her parents that she did not want to go back to the camp in Northern Michigan where she had spent the past two summers. Her parents sent out for introductory videos of countless other camps, but when they watched the Birch Trail VHS, they put it away without even showing it to their daughter. The girls in the Birch Trail video were confident, crazy and carefree; their kid, on the other hand, liked to hang in the background and cried when people sang her happy birthday.
Yet, somehow, the little girl got her hands on the video, watched it on her own, and informed her parents, in no uncertain terms, that she would be going to Birch Trail. This insistence on attending a camp of which she’d never heard was certainly out of the ordinary for a kid who misguidedly believed that fitting in was the key to happiness. But her parents heard her, listened, and sent her off to Minong, Wisconsin, a place that would become her second home and sanctuary over the course of seven incredible summers.
Nearly two decades have passed since I found that VHS tucked away in my kitchen. Still, my parents continue to believe that my unwavering decision at 11 to go to Birch Trail remains one of the three most influential decisions I have made in my life to date. I certainly have never disagreed, as my time in the Northwoods transformed me from a scared, insecure little girl into a strong, independent woman. But there’s nothing quite like returning to camp as an adult only to realize, as my eyeliner came off and my guard came down, that I’m not quite as figured out as I’d like to believe.
Until June 15, 2018, it had been 12 years since I had been to Birch Trail as anything other than a weekend visitor. The last time I was on staff, I was an 18-year-old high school graduate whose home base was the Detroit suburb in which I was born and raised; today, I’m a 30-year-old public defender who has lived in Washington, DC for all eight of my post-college years and for whom my professional work as a public defender is only not a job—it’s who I am.
Perhaps this is why, until June 15, I hadn’t used a vacation day in two years. But when my former camper (and now adult friend) told me she was heading to Birch Trail to lend an extra set of hands for the end of staff training and the first week of camp, the magnetic pull to Minong was too strong to ignore. So on June 15, off I went with my work laptop, an overweight suitcase of sweats, and the same filthy uggs I lived in during the summer of 2006.
Stepping foot on Birch Trail soil will always feel like coming home, but, if I’m honest, stepping back into staff training after so long was a bit of an out-of-body experience. The last time I was on staff, I at least recognized, if not knew, nearly every camper and the majority of the counselors. This time around, I knew no one, and no one knew me.
I’m sure I looked strange that first night, walking from photo to photo in the lodge, searching for the faces of those with whom I had shared nearly all of my camp memories. I’m sure I wasn’t particularly inviting, standing at a bit of a distance as I tried to feel normal in a place that simultaneously fit like a glove but had, of course, moved on without me. But when the shock value wore off and I woke up the next morning in the cool woodsy air, what stood out most of all was that being a public defender had become so much of my identity that I had forgotten I was ever someone else without it.
Leave it to Birch Trail to force me to remember. Within 24 hours of being back, I found myself leaving my work phone in the cabin, setting an out-of-office email message, and delegating tasks to my amazing interns. Instead of combing through discovery and responding to emails, I moved duffels and swam alongside campers at their swim checks. Instead of compulsively checking for emergencies, I laughed and played on the airstrip. Instead of Jewish-mothering my clients over text message, I hung out with homesick campers. And for the first time in years, I found myself able to actually let go, to define my day and my worth by more than what I was able to accomplish—or failed to accomplish—for the kids I represent.
Since leaving camp this Sunday, my life in D.C. has largely returned to normal. I’m back to arguing with the judges, putting out fires, and hearing from my clients at all times of the day and night. But part of me is not the same. Returning to Birch Trail this summer forced me to strip off the makeup (both literally and figuratively) and take a long look at the truest and most genuine version of myself. And while I am still, of course, a public defender, being at camp granted me the space to remember what Birch Trail engrains in every little girl that walks its path: that no matter what we look like or what we do, we are, all on our own, enough.