by Grace Ryan

Cornell Cooperative Extension recently took over the management of the Arnot Forest Field Campus allowing Primitive Pursuits an opportunity to offer extended camps and programming to both youth and adults.This past week marked the very first week-long overnight (Bear Camp) offered by Primitive Pursuits. The campers, a group of 11-15 year olds had a full six days to be immersed in the experience. I joined them for their fifth day and final overnight at camp. Driving up the long drive to the grounds, I saw an open field with cabins dotting the right side, two lodges, and a dozen kids scattered and happily running around in the grass with six counselors

As I approached, I noticed I felt a little nervous, seeing immediately that they had forged a bond with each other that I was not a part of. I joined a group of five campers with two counselors circled around a baseball cap on the ground. I watched as each person took a turn creeping, tip-toeing, and slithering towards the hat, and picking it up. Each turn, the circle would react excitedly, showing which approaches had been successful and which hadn’t. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before I was expected to be a part of this game and apparent that I was the only one who hadn’t yet figured out its secret!

I was given one hint: the key to the game was auditory. I tried stomping up to it, cartwheeling over it, and actually just yelling aloud while picking it up. It was very funny and the campers were clearly very amused watching me try to figure it out.

In the end I learned that they key (to this round) was to cough before picking up the cap, and that everything else you did was irrelevant. I could see that these campers had attuned their observation skills this week.

Next I joined a few campers as they sat in a circle and shucked corn to help prepare for dinner, telling jokes and never running out of stories and riddles to tell each other.

Soon everyone was called together after completing their tasks of cleaning and setting up, dinner was served family style.

After dinner we headed into the woods where. I was amazed to see the shelters the campers had built, and the amount of knowledge they displayed about trees, bird calls, and how to build fires. After an opening dialogue, counselors sent the kids out to go to their “sit spots” where they would sit alone with nature in silence. I was not all that familiar or comfortable with pure silence myself but found that sitting in silence in the woods for 10-15 minutes really cleared my head and gave me a sense of balance I don’t usually get to appreciate in my hectic daily life.

After being called back, the next exercise required the campers to put on blindfolds, hold onto a rope, and be lead through the forest. I realized that they had established a sense of trust with one another that made the task easier for them than it was for me. After walking cautiously and communicating to each other where different tree branches and rocks were, we came to an open clearing where a counselor with charcoal on her face was beating a drum next to a fire. Each camper took off their blindfolds and naturally circled around it.

At the fire, campers shared their favorite memory of the week. No one was shy, and everyone easily was able to share an original thing that was special to them, from fire making to bow making and some funny inside jokes that got everyone laughing. Then they each took a turn to recognize someone and say what they appreciated about them, passing a string to each person as they gave a compliment, creating a sort of web of friendship.

Back at the campsite, after each of us carrying a piece of coal from that fire back to the other fire that was set up, everyone helped get it ignited and then joined together for the fire song (which is constantly stuck in my head).

“Burn fire burn,
stoke your inner fire,
let the flame inside you rise,

bring that flame to life”.

The night ended with a bedtime that kept everyone captivated as they ate their banana s’mores-a banana split open with marshmallow and chocolate chips wrapped in tinfoil and stowed in the fire to warm up. Exhausted and content, the kids walked to their tents and shelters and went to sleep. I went back to my cabin happy that I was able to witness something like the bond of camping in nature with a group of such inquisitive, confidant and inspiring young people.

Gracie Ryan is a writing intern with Primitive Pursuits.