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Lost Shoes, Wet Bathing Suits And Flagpole Drills: A Day At Camp Hochelaga

Girls stand in lake water with a giant "H" on fire.
Camp Holchelaga, Courtesy
Erica Heilman recently spent a day at Camp Holchelaga in South Hero, the last remaining overnight camp run by a YWCA in the country.

On the shores of South Hero, Camp Hochelaga is celebrating its 100th year this summer. It’s a camp for girls and nonbinary youth, and it’s the last remaining overnight camp run by a YWCA in the nation.

After lunch at Camp Hochelaga, 700 girls ages 6-17 are singing and stamping out songs. I remembered most of the songs because I went to camp here when I was twelve. I lived in a lower bunk, in a tent, changing in and out of wet bathing suits with eight girls, for two weeks. It was its own, all-consuming world, with its own rules and traditions. I went back and spent a day there talking with campers.

With Lucy

Here’s Lucy on her first day of camp. She lost her shoes.

Lucy: "When I was running, I kicked them off."

Counselor: "You can walk to the tree and back and see if you spot them." 

Me: "What’s your name?"

Lucy: "Lucy." 

Me: "Is today your first day, Lucy?"

Lucy: "Yeah."

A sailboat on a lake.
Credit Camp Holchelaga, Courtesy
Camp Holchelaga in South Hero is celebrating it's 100th year in 2019.

Me: "First day and you already lost your shoes."

Lucy: "Mmhmm."

Me: "What color are they?"

Lucy: "They're purple."

Counselor: "Do you wanna walk really carefully down the trail and we'll do a hunt for your shoes while you're at swim lessons?"

Lucy: "Yeah."

Counselor: "Cool. Game plan."

How One Establishes Cabin Rules

Kelsey is nine, and this is her fourth year at Hochelaga. She's telling me how rules are established in one's cabin.  

Kelsey: "So one of the cabin rules, we made this pretty clear: we have to sleep in PJ’s."

Me: "So tell me how you came to agreement about this."

Kelsey: "So, if there’s a rule that we think that we want, we announce it to the cabin, and then they say, 'OK, that’s fine,' or they say, 'Maybe we can adjust this rule a little.'"

Me: "What’s been the most contentious one? What's been the hardest one to settle?"

Kelsey: "It might’ve been the no-going-in-other-people's-bunks-without-asking. That was a pretty big debate." 

The Archery Range

We're at the archery range.

Counselor: "Does anybody have any questions about the bow? "

Camper: "If you, um, have trouble putting it on, can you ask the teacher to put it on for you?" 

Counselor: "Of course. We’ll teach you how to properly nock the bow."

The archers had to take turns. So, half the girls sat talking near the archery shed, comparing schedule strategies. Like, what happens if you have to swim, and you’re wet, and then you have to do an activity that requires being dry?  

Camper 1: "You did kayaking, and then you did archery?"

A woman helps a young girl use a bow and aim for a target.
Credit Camp Holchelaga, Courtesy
Archery at Camp Holchelaga.

Camper 2: "Yeah. So I had to throw on socks with my wet feet. And one day, I didn’t even bring a towel. "

Camper 1: "I’m doing kayaking and then I'm doing recess games. I think it means, like, tetherball. It sounded fun when I picked it."

Me: "Why do you come here, year after year?"

Kelsey: "I just like the activities and the opportunities I get. Just Hochelaga inspires a lot of girls. And they even inspire people who think they’re ‘they-thems’ or even a ‘he-him’. Even though it’s meant to be a girls' camp, they still let people choose whatever they want to be. Last time I was here, I was here for the first week, we had a ‘they-them’ in our cabin. Which got a little confusing at first."

Me: "Tell me, what was confusing?"

Kelsey: "At first we didn’t know she was a, they were a ‘they-them.’ ... Until she told us. And it took a little getting used to. But it worked." 

"I Was Scared Of Dentists And The Dark..."

I wandered from archery over to the senior line, where the big kid campers live. There were a bunch of girls sitting at a picnic table, singing Vance Joy's "Riptide."

I asked them how camp friends were different from regular life friends.  

Camper 1: "We talk a lot in the cabin. We know a lot about each other that you wouldn’t even tell best friends, 'cause, it's just, like, we are family. Like anything you would tell, like, your parents or your siblings, you’re gonna tell these girls. Maybe more. "

Two girls sit with shirts that read "I want every girl to know that her voice can change the world."
Credit Camp Holchelaga, Courtesy
"You make friends. That's the reason that makes this camp magic."

Camper 2: "I remember last year our entire cabin ... we all sat on the floor, we were all like crying. It was — yeah. But we were all just like, telling, like, really deep truths and secrets about ourselves, and it was just, like, things that you would never — like I don’t even know close things about some of my best friends."

Camper 3: "You make friends. That’s the reason that makes this camp magic."

The Drill

Everyone's running. A bell is ringing.

Counselor: "Go, go, go, go! Grab your stuff!"

Me: "What’s up with the running?"

Camper: "Safety drill!"

Me: "Oh. It’s a drill. So we’re running to the flagpole so that people know we’re alive."

Camper: "Yeah." 

After the flagpole drill, I sat with Matilda, and we sang one of my favorite, morbid camp songs:

"The boat began to rock and the lights began to flicker, and the captain shouted, 'Where the heck's my liquor?'"

Here’s Kelsey again. 

Me: "What kind of person would you be, if you didn’t get to go to camp?"

Kelsey: "I don’t know. But definitely not a person that I would wanna be."

Kids sit around a camp fire.
Credit Camp Holchelaga, Courtesy
For campers, Camp Holchelaga is a second home.

There are soccer camps and horse camps and science camps and debate team camps. And then there are camp-camps, like Hochelaga, where singing songs by heart is the point. Where making friends and telling secrets in the dark is the point. Where noticing the stars, is the point. 

Kelsey: "After we’re all in bed, settled down, and then counselors walk up and down the line singing different songs, like 'Taps,' it just makes you feel comforted. This camp is a second home."

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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