EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 28, 2010

Camp Runels holds traditions close after 80 years

By Terry Date
tdate@eagletribune.com

PELHAM — Seventy-one years later and the words to the songs the Girl Scouts sang around the fire at Camp Runels in 1939 haltingly came back to Jean Hollis.

"Sunset and everything glows ... and it's ... the inspiration most that makes us ... love it so," Hollis, 86, sang yesterday.

Singing, swimming and sleeping under the stars on the shore of Little Island Pond was part of camp life the year Runels opened in 1930. They still are this summer, when Runels celebrates its 80th anniversary. Over time, little has changed on the 300-acre site.

The time in the woods gives the girls a chance to grow, said Hollis and camp staffers. The girls find steppingstones to adult life, away from the commotion of life in cities and towns across the Merrimack Valley, said Hollis, who learned to canoe at the camp.

She still is friends with some of the girls she met 70 years ago.

Today's girls, in their one-week sessions between June and August, are not allowed cell phones, radios or television. They can't even have chewing gum. They learn that if animals eat discarded gum it's not good for them.

They also find role models and learn they can do things like light a campfire or sail.

Ruby Shaw, 21, was a camper for 10 years, a counselor for four years, and is now a program director. At 12, she learned to sail on a windy day and it was thrilling. Her role model was a counselor named Vera, who helped the preteens navigate the choppy waters of camp friendships that could change in a day.

Shaw does the same thing with young campers today.

Yesterday, while 18 girls practiced their backstroke and learned breathing techniques while swimming at the camp beach, Shaw and another 15 girls tie-dyed socks and shirts outside the dining hall. It's the same dining hall built in 1939 from pines that fell in the hurricane of 1938.

Yesterday, Estelle Mandeville, 10, of Londonderry dipped socks in a soda ash and water mixture before having blue dye applied to her socks. She said her favorite activity at camp is swimming.

Stella Vallon, 9, said her favorite activity was what she was doing — tie-dyeing.

Molly DeLorenzo, 10, sat next to her and sang a few lines from the "Elephant Song," sung by campers in their cabins.

"Have you seen what's in the air tonight?" she sang, throwing out her arm to represent an elephant's trunk.

Nature plays a big part in the camp experience. Girls think of themselves as outdoorswomen and find career paths in biology, recreation and other fields, said Amy Svedberg, one of two camp directors.

Hollis, visiting her old camp yesterday, went on to study outdoor recreation at the University of Massachusetts in the 1940s after her time at Runels. She woke up from sleeping under a tree the first night at camp in 1939 and saw a whippoorwill above her head.

One night, she and other girls headed into the wetlands with flashlights. Their light reflected diamonds in the eyes of frogs.

These nights, girls sit around in circles and clap in ascending rhythms, calling in bats swooping over their heads.

These experiences, then and now, seal the children's love for nature.

Camp will always be the same, Svedberg said.

"Different activities but the same experience," she said.