The Colgate Scene
The Moosilauke message
Positive risk-taking and a culture of kindness at family-run boys' camp
|By David McKay Wilson|
Boys build skills and self-confidence at Camp Moosilauke in Orford, N.H. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Bill McMahon '84, managing director
Sabina Miller McMahon '84, managing director
Gordon "Port" Miller '56, camp director
A life-sized chess game is just one of the activities that help boys at Camp Moosilauke develop self-confidence and independence.
High in the White Mountains, a steady rain falls one dreary July day as Camp Moosilauke managing directors Bill '84 and Sabina Miller '84 McMahon plan the afternoon's activities.
Although the rain has cancelled the day's regular schedule, which had included such sports as tennis, soccer, lacrosse, and windsurfing, the campers have not been relegated to their cabins to stay dry. Sabina's father, camp director Gordon Porter Miller '56 (known at camp as "Port"), dons his rain jacket and takes a group out on Upper Baker Pond to cast for perch and smallmouth bass. Bill McMahon has a dozen boys in the water to teach them the subtle art of canoeing, with lessons in the J-stroke and how to grab the gunnels to keep the canoe from capsizing. The instruction prepares them for the next day's adventure down through the Androscoggin River's white-water rapids.
Yet another group of Moosilauke campers plays Ultimate Frisbee on the field during the downpour, then ends up cavorting in the mud, finding pure delight in smearing themselves to look like a vision from the pages of William Golding's classic, Lord of the Flies. Sabina warns them not to wrestle or slide in the slop, to avoid injury. She then snaps a digital photo of the beaming mud-streaked boys. Minutes later, the image gets downloaded at www.moosilauke.com, where parents can click for a glimpse of their child who's away for a month-long session in the mountains.
"It's great to see the kids having such fun," said Sabina McMahon. "We just have to keep on top of it."
Letting boys be boys is part of the program organized by the McMahons at Camp Moosilauke that builds self-esteem through positive risk taking, and teaches kindness in a culture that stresses gratitude and politeness while having no tolerance for teasing.
The McMahons' work each summer in the White Mountains complements their jobs at The Thacher School, a boarding school 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where Bill serves as director of admissions and Sabina is dean of students.
"Self-esteem can't be handed out by parents or teachers," said Bill, who worked in a major Manhattan advertising agency for several years before turning to education. "Their love and support is important, but kids need to step out and take risks in their peer culture. That's where they develop self-esteem, and that's how they feel good about themselves. Once they get a firm sense of themselves, then they can make the leap to make a difference with others."
And it is when boys are involved in physical pursuits that they can open up — both to learning and new ways of looking at the world.
"If you take boys and do something with them, you'll have a way to reach them," Bill said. "We like to get into what we call `action talk.'"
For Port Miller and the McMahons, the rainy July afternoon was another day at the office at one of the nation's oldest continuously operating boys' camps, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004. The camp, located on 300 acres about 25 miles north of Hanover, N.H., near the Vermont line, was founded when the camping movement was in its infancy in New England, as educators turned to the outdoors to create character-building experiences for young boys.
What began as a summertime haven for students from the Horace Mann School in the Bronx developed into a camp that serves boys who hail mostly from the Northeast, and now includes a sizable contingent from California. Moosilauke's alumni include such luminaries as Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi, who was head counselor in the 1950s, and Baltimore Orioles Interim Manager Dave Trembley, who was a camper in 1960s.
Some things have changed at Moosilauke since the camp was founded in 1904. Today, the boys neither skinny dip in Upper Baker Pond nor spend half their day in academic classes. The camp now has electricity, which means there is no longer a need for kerosene lamps or the ice house that provided the means to refrigerate the food. Instead of a 10-hour train ride from Penn Station, and a ride up the mountain in a horse and buggy, the boys arrive in SUVs and minivans.
Meanwhile, tables at the dining hall include bottles of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dave's Insanity Gourmet Hot Sauce, and a hand sanitizer called Germ-X.
Still, much of the Moosilauke experience remains unchanged for the 130 boys, ages 8 to 15, who attended the camp's month-long session in July, and the 150 boys who came for 17 days in August.
There are no cell phones or computers, so the boys are liberated from the thrall of their 21st-century electronics to engage in a full range of outdoor activities. They eat their meals in the dining hall built in 1904. And the boys develop tight relationships, both with their new friends and adult counselors, as they learn what life is like on their own, away from their parents' watchful eyes.
"For me, the pleasure comes from watching the kids grow and challenge themselves and gain that confidence and independence away from home," said Sabina, who had her start in education teaching at the private Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan. "Instead of going to their parents with a problem, they have to figure out things in a different way. They find new strategies."
Sabina is part of the Miller family's third generation to run Camp Moosilauke. Port's father, Moose, purchased it in 1938, and kept it running through World War II, despite a polio scare one summer that killed a camper, and a lack of college students to serve as counselors during the conflict. By the mid-1960s, he passed on management of the camp to Port, an educator who worked for The College Board and later became a management consultant who wrote several books on decision making.
By the early 1990s, Port had turned the day-to-day operations over to Bill and Sabina. The fourth generation has become involved as well, with their sons, Colin, 14, and Griffin, 10, attending the camp, while Quinn, 16, was a counselor-in-training this past summer. And Port's son Kenny Miller '82 is camp associate director and his boys Preston, 19, and Jake, 16, also worked there this summer. Kenny, a fifth-grade teacher in Denver during the school year, oversees the sports program and staff hiring.
"Running the camp taught me virtually everything I needed to know to run a successful business," said Port, who has remained active in Colgate alumni affairs and led a group of Colgate students to New Orleans in March to renovate homes ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. "I learned about motivation, good communication, being clear about expectations and never going on the cheap side, and being honest. I tell counselors they can get an MBA in anything they want, but you will never learn as much about dealing with people as you will being a counselor in this camp."
Although Port passed on management responsibilities to Bill and Sabina, he is far from retired. He teaches campers to fish, tows them like Navy SEALs behind his Zodiac rubber boat, leads them through a bog with chest-deep mud, and tells legendary ghost stories around the campfire — be it the one about the Great White Ape or the Monkey's Paw, or the Snake Fish, which has such a voracious appetite that it could consume all the aquatic creatures in Upper Baker Pond.
"You create the atmosphere, there's just the right tone, and I'm able to create visual images that the kids can understand," said Port. "In this age of iPods and computers, it's good to have the kids sit down and just imagine. They love it, and I tell them that every one of the stories has some truth in it."
Port Miller grew up spending his summers at Moosilauke, and he recalls that Colgate undergraduates would work there as counselors. That connection to Colgate has continued. Heather Odell '01, who has worked in various posts over the past 14 years, is now the camp's office manager.
Several Colgate alumni send their children to Moosilauke, so pick-up days can lead to impromptu Colgate reunions, as it did in 2006, when classmates Ellen Rosenthal Wlody '82, Katie Bilik Sweeney '82, Lori Cohen Brown '82, and Brian Collins '82 all arrived to retrieve their sons.
"We had no idea our sons were all here," said Wlody, who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y., with her husband, Mike '82. "So, we ended up sitting by the lake, catching up after so many years."
Andy Kramer '84, an investment adviser in Manhattan, sent his 9-year-old son, Ari, this summer for a month. He was one of Bill McMahon's college chums and has kept in touch over the years.
"Ari went there this year, without knowing a soul," said Kramer. "So much of what the camp is about is what I believe in — a core mission that combines kindness with taking controlled risks. It was a gift to give my child."
The culture of kindness is developed by an experienced staff that is steeped in the Moosilauke traditions — from the hand-clapping and chants to the early morning swims with the Moose Bears (optional swim and song club). Among 47 counselors this year, 30 were either former campers or counselors. Twenty counselors came from overseas, arriving in New Hampshire in July from England, the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
The Moosilauke experience teaches community service, too. The camp maintains one section of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Cube, a 2,900-foot peak that's visible from the grounds. On that rainy July day, nine campers were up there clearing brush, and made it back before the downpour.
Positive risk taking, which is a central focus at Camp Moosilauke, comes on many levels. There are the obvious risks involved in rock climbing, taking a three-day backpacking trip across the White Mountains' Presidential Range, leaping off a bridge 10 feet over the swirling Androscoggin, or paddling 14 miles down the Connecticut River to Hanover.
But then there are the less obvious, yet just as important, risks that are built into a day at Moosilauke. After each meal, campers line up by the stone-faced fireplace in the dining hall, in front of the sepia-toned pictures of campers from the 1920s and '30s, to make announcements and express gratitude to their fellow campers and counselors.
Those accolades come in the form of what's called BTCOD — short for Beyond The Call Of Duty. On that rainy July day, there were 9-year-olds standing up in a room of 200 people, speaking to the attentive throng.
One boy recounted the three-day trip to Canada, which included stops in Montreal to shop and see the sights, as well as their adventure on the Rouge River, where they rafted down through white-water rapids. He then thanked the counselors for all their help. Another boy stepped forward to explain his friendly wager with a counselor over whether a wooden boat he'd made in woodshop would float. It did.
"There are boys who are shy when they come here, and I love to see them bloom as they get up in front of the whole camp in the dining hall and put themselves out there," said Sabina. "They see the older kids do it, there's a real sense of community so it's safe, and they are embraced."
The risk taking also includes having the boys participate in athletic activities that they might never try in their urban or suburban surroundings. This generation has been raised in a youth culture that increasingly forces youngsters to specialize at early ages. If a boy, for example, wants to play soccer, then he joins a travel soccer team, which plays year-round. And that can start as early as age 9, which makes it difficult to try out other sports like baseball or basketball.
"Kids today are over-specialized," said Kenny Miller, who comes to work in shorts, a NY Yankees hat, and a T-shirt stating `Moose is Good.' "Back home, many just don't get a chance to try things out. Here, they can learn to fish, set up a campsite, and get up on water skis."
At Moosilauke, activities include baseball, tennis, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, archery, mountain biking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, windsurfing, sailing, arts and crafts, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and fishing.
"The test of a culture is how it treats the less-popular kids," said Bill. "Boys here learn there are so many ways to find success, and they can be appreciated for who they really are."
At Moosilauke, the boys rotate through a morning schedule that over their stay includes 18 different activities. In the afternoon, they can participate in their favorite sport, or find something new to master.
The Moosilauke attitude toward sports extends to the athletic fields. During the years Lombardi was head counselor, there was a premium placed on winning, especially when going up against the boys from nearby camps like Camp Pemi. Today, Moosilauke stresses participation over winning. In fact, when recounting the latest inter-camp game in the after-lunch announcements, many of the boys talk about the "second scoreboard." That's an accounting of how the Moosilauke teams stacked up in terms of sportsmanship and team spirit.
"How we play and behave is just as important as who wins," said Kenny Miller, "We want our kids to be a class act, wherever they go."
— Wilson is a writer based in Mahopac, N.Y.
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