July 27, 2012
Camp Owahta immerses children in nature, social life and fun
SOLON — Reilly Record had a question for Capt. Henry Morgan, the noted pirate: What happened to Tinkerbell?
The pirate listened to a couple of guesses by Record and the other six Camp Owahta campers in her group, who were searching for clues during a hunt to find Tinkerbell.
He told them that their guess — rum did something to Tinkerbell — was not correct.
“Now leave me in peace,” he growled, sitting on the porch of a cabin Thursday morning. “You’re blocking my sun.”
Record, 10, from Cortland, walked away with her group and the counselor who was their lead character for the activity: Jim Van Deuson II, playing Peter Pan, complete with green costume and red hair.
It was pirate day at Camp Owahta, the 4-H camp on a hilltop off Syrian Hill Road.
The roughly 110 children, ages 6 to 15, had been divided into 12 groups, each with at least one counselor, and were going from station to station to ask characters from “Peter Pan,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and others for clues.
The camp operates Sunday through Friday for six weeks, with about 110 children per week. It has 48 staff, 42 of whom are counselors of high school or college age.
Each cabin has at least two counselors who stay with the campers, for a ratio of roughly eight campers to one counselor.
Overnight campers wake up at 8 a.m. and are in bed by 9 p.m.
The 128-acre camp opened in 1953.
Camp Director Todd James said the numbers of campers had dwindled to about 30 per week when he took over as director 21 years ago.
James said each day is divided into periods, with five activity periods where campers can use the waterfront for swimming, explore the forest surrounding the camp, do arts and crafts, or play a sport such as soccer. For one period, they can choose from the other four, sometimes doing a project that lasts all week.
One group spent three weeks planning a production of “Cinderella,” which was scheduled for performance Thursday evening or Friday at noon, depending on the weather.
The campers are divided into three age groups: Cadets, ages 6-8; Juniors, ages 9-11; Seniors, ages 12-15. Day and overnight campers are mixed during the day into four “tribes,” to give day campers a taste of camp life so they might choose to be overnight campers later in the summer or next year.
“My mom wanted me to go because she never had a chance to,” said Record, who will be a sixth-grader at Randall Elementary School. “My uncle got to go but she didn’t and she wanted me to have the chance.”
Record said she spent three years as a day camper and then became a resident camper last year.
“I didn’t want to go, the first year as a resident camper, but after 20 minutes I loved it,” she said. “If I could stay weekends, I would. It’s like a place to get away from home and meet new people.”
James said Camp Owahta does not have Internet access, although he can receive emails from parents on his cell phone. There are no computers or XBox stations, so campers play board games or outdoor games for amusement.
They also tell stories and occasionally might have a movie shown at the camp’s outdoor stage area, which was built with $8,000 in community donations, led by the Cortland Community Service Club.
James said community groups and campers themselves donate money, with the campers sometimes donating coupons left over at the end of their week.
They each receive coupons to use for purchasing snacks from the camp store, from their registration fee.
“One of our campers from about 15 years ago recently wrote to tell me how much she liked being here,” James said. “She gave money for a scholarship, to pay for one week for a resident camper.”
Meals are served in the “mess hall,” a large building that smells of old wood and years of pancakes and hamburgers.
James said the older campers go on an overnight trip during the week, usually to a camping spot in a far corner of the property. He said the goal is to teach not just lessons about wildlife or the forest or crafts, but independence.
Counselor Brian Bailey, who portrayed Captain Morgan, said he wanted to work as a counselor because he might enroll in graduate school in education and his previous summers were spent working at a McDonald’s restaurant.
The SUNY Fredonia senior from Marathon said counselors handle a range of problems among their campers, with homesickness being one. The job requires compassion, firmness, creativity, a sense of humor and maturity.
James said many of the counselors were campers at Camp Owahta at one time. He said counselors serve for more than one year, usually.
“I only have about six openings per year,” he said.
The final week every year has an Olympic theme. Counselors carry a torch from the Cortland County Office Building to the camp, about 11 miles, and campers have swimming, soccer, street hockey and track competitions.
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