Magazine article Sunset

Happy Campers

Magazine article Sunset

Happy Campers

Article excerpt

A week in the Sierra wilderness with your family ... and all your neighbors? Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of San Francisco's official city camp.

The moon, thick and milky over this High Sierra Eden, poured through the black oak and ponderosa pine to lay ghostly shadows over the still-warm ground. A nuthatch or scrub jay, sleepless in the summer night, scratched through some underbrush. When it stopped, the evening bore the same stillness that had presided here forever, from the Cambrian period on through Jedediah Smith's epic crossing up north. Then the song "Gangnam Style" came on and a dozen teenagers bounced gracelessly in a cloud of Off and hormones for the next hour.

We'd won the lottery.

That sounds metaphoric. I mean, my family had actually won the lottery. Or a lottery, anyway--the same one that fills thousands of San Franciscans every year with lust and angst and rewards a fraction with a week at the city's official family camp, northwest of Yosemite Valley.

This was our first year at Camp Mather where, every summer, 500 or so San Francisco residents arrive each week for seven days of swimming, crafts, ping-pong, hokey skits, and more. Families get a toaster-size cabin, three squares a day, and all the structured wilderness time they can handle. On their own these elements sound unremarkable. But the sum total of family camp ingredients is not to be underestimated.

Or so we'd been told by the fanatical veterans we'd long encountered at parties and playgrounds. Having lucked out with a cabin assignment--hundreds of wannabes get marooned on the wait list every summer--we came to see for ourselves, and within hours this outdoor dance extravaganza had broken out. With the zeal of new converts, my wife, Amy, and I grabbed our alarmed young children and jumped in.

Later, in our spartan plywood cabin, our 4-year-old daughter, Cora, would require a medically fascinating number of walks to the bathroom while Casper, our 7-month-old, would helpfully volunteer his thoughts on cabin life from midnight till dawn, at a volume that allowed our neighbors to appreciate them too. But these setbacks were absorbed painlessly. Something singular began that first night, with the awful music. Our girl bounced atop my shoulders. Our boy was lashed to Amy's chest. And periodically the moonlight would hit us right in the face, illuminating our shame exquisitely.

Shame? Shame! Because this is not how the wilderness is supposed to be experienced, right? From a young age Americans learn about the great solemnity awaiting us deep in the pines; ours is still a nation of Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman. "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness," John Muir wrote.

Which put my family in the pancreas. Our first morning began not with a meditative stroll but a whooping, clanging breakfast in the community dining hall. Next came a period of reflection. We reflected on whether to do friendship bracelets or T-ball by the lake. A gorgeous meadow wrapped around the shores and proved perfect for listening to tweens screech about whose towel they left at whose cabin. Come nightfall, the forest glowed with the unholy oranges and blues of a million Christmas tree lights. A trip into the woods has always been about fleeing civilization. With family camp, civilization tags along.

"I was shocked my first year," Audrey Newell told me one morning. We'd fallen in with Audrey early on and our kids were now intensely studying a teenage ping-pong match under some oaks. "We were in these incredible redwoods, but having the same conversations I have in the city. What school is your kid in? How much homework do they have? But slowly you realize there's more than one way to be in nature."

Our boy was having no trouble adjusting. At 7 months, he droolingly abstained from most activities. No archery for him, no bingo night, no arts and crafts, no twilight canoe ride. …

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