Sierra Surroundings

Camp Snapshot

Mountain Camp

Pollock Pines, Calif.

Est. 1966

Ages: 8-16

Price: $800 per week

Session length. One- and two-week sessions

Mountain Camp, located in California's Sierra Mountains near Lake Tahoe, is a technologically-savvy anti-technology camp. These two worlds are effectively compartmentalized and utilized to the camp's advantage.

The kids benefit from a camp atmosphere free from the noise and buzz of the city and their family rooms. The camp benefits by having back-office technology that solves problems and streamlines administration.

In turn, this frees the camp to concentrate on what it does best, which is to give its campers a real woodsy, back country experience.

"We stay away from any motorized, machine-oriented or computer-oriented activities. The kids do all self-propelled, wind-propelled and self-created things," says Mountain Camp's owner and director Scott Whipple. "At the waterfront we use canoes, sailboats, kayaks and wind-surfers. At main camp we'll never get into ATVs or go-carts, but we ride mountain bikes and do the ropes course, for instance."

Stay the Course

Chuck Taylor, who was Stanford's athletic director at the time, founded Mountain Camp as a day-camp sports program. The camp soon morphed into an overnight camp when Taylor built facilities in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Whipple says that Taylor, who passed away eight years ago, told him that of all the jobs he had, his favorite was running camps. Taylor played football at Stanford and subsequently for the San Francisco 49ers, and was Stanford's football coach before he became athletic director and started the camp.

The camp moved to its current location when Taylor sold the camp to a Stanford professor. Whipple entered the picture about 11 years ago when he bought the camp.

Whipple was a commercial real estate broker and found a unique opportunity during a two-month sabbatical. He had worked as a camp counselor for three years -- two years at Riverway Day Camp in San Antonio and another year at an overnight camp in the Northeast. His initial plan was to work at camp again, but found a great camp for sale.

"I didn't know much 11 years ago. The best lesson I learned early on was not to panic; it will all work out," says Whipple. "Every season it seemed like there was some new emergency, and as a young camp person you worry, you can't sleep, but then after you've done it awhile you realize that it will work out… so don't stress."

It helps when you also realize that great staff alleviates the worries. Whipple says he made the decision early on to pay well for the right staff.

"I was amazed at how low the salary structure at camp was when I got into it. You have these absolutely incredible people making this huge sacrifice to work at camp and they don't get paid well," says Whipple. "So we're trying to structure our pay scale to be at the top of the pay scale for camps. As people come back, we try to reward them for continued service."

Whipple seeks out talented and qualified people who have the traits and background that make them qualified to lead and teach kids. Mountain Camp looks for people that have a strong education background and who actively participate in athletics or outdoor activities.

"Somebody who works, plays sports and gets good grades is someone who's used to managing their time, working hard and applying themselves. It shows good discipline," says Whipple. "When you're working with kids who are 19-22, some of them are still home with their parents getting them out of bed, and the idea of getting up and going to work is a whole new concept to them. We get a handful of those and they're pretty shell-shocked that first week. They either pick it up or go home."

Mountain Camp also relies on international staff, particularly from Australia. Whipple was able to establish a relationship with Australia's Aquatics Schools to find competent and certified waterfront instructors.

"Instead of doing PE they'll go down to the beach and learn surfing, for instance. To work at these schools you have to be a certified instructor in kayaking, sailing, diving, surfing and other water sports -- they have all the skills and certifications," explains Whipple. "Their winter is our summer, so there are all these super-qualified people who have little work in the winter. We have five directors from Australia, and all of them are full-time outdoor recreation education professionals."

Mountain Camp recruits teachers and outdoor education professionals to help run and lead the programming. Many of them have been at Mountain Camp for years.

"Having a core group of highly qualified people who are used to doing this professionally raises your standards to a whole new level," says Whipple. "Our waterfront director has 15 years' experience running a program on the open ocean and running 250 kids in the ocean at a time, versus 60 kids in a lake. The standards and procedures they set up keep you safe. The same is true at the ropes course and climbing equipment. Our ropes course director is in her 50s -- there's a whole different level of preparation and professionalism that goes along with that."

To make communication flow more effectively and to create more personal contact and accountability with the counselors, Mountain Camp created a buffer of directors -- seven directors are responsible for six to eight counselors for the entire summer.

"It helped us keep them enthused and to have someone to talk to. A big part of the program is about keeping the staff inspired," says Mountain Camp's program director, Katie Walker. "The communication between staff and directors has picked up. It goes back to a classroom; in a smaller class you're more likely to raise your hand and be involved. And, the campers leave with the impression more so of the counselors than the directors."

Program the Course

Mountain Camp is dedicated to minimal technology, but thrives on creating new and sometimes unusual programming, as long as it stays on track with the camp's mission.

The camp offers all ball sports, including team handball (a combination of Ultimate Frisbee and Lacrosse), archery, music, drama, waterfront, ropes courses and climbing, arts and crafts and other traditional camp activities.

Additionally, camp staff is encouraged to offer new activities. Whipple took a fencing class in college, and imported that into the camp programming. Fort-building is another unique activity the camp has recently added.

"We copy other camps, and remember things that were fun when we were kids, so we started fort-building, where the kids go out into the woods and build forts. City kids don't have access to the materials and space to build a fort. That was a classic one," says Whipple. "We also instituted sling shots. The counselors were using some, and the kids wanted to try it. We encourage counselors to be creative and come up with new ideas for things they've done in the past, like our drumming and photography programs."

The camp created a science and discovery class, the popularity of which surprised Whipple. The kids make gack (a Silly Putty-like substance), volcanoes, airplanes, and anything they can make with their hands with simple ingredients in an hour. Whipple reports that the classes are consistently full.

Given its high-adventure feel, Mountain Camp provides woodcraft education, like outdoor cooking and no-impact camping.

Mountain Camp's program director, Katie Walker, says the camp is shifting its programming very slightly and subtly to be more accommodating to younger age groups. Part of the reasoning is the camp is seeing an aging trend -- the average camper is getting older.

"Our program is set more for a 12 year old, so we're trying to gear ourselves more toward that younger age and a program that will be more attractive to them. It's not necessarily programming; it's more about making them feel special and self-confident," says Walker. "I remember being eight and nine and being intimidated by people who were just a couple of years older than me. Separating them for at least part of the day gives them a chance to grow in their self-confidence and how they view one another, and to feel more comfortable with others. They seem to enjoy having activities that are only for them."

Camp Focus

Mountain Camp has been successful in its niche, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's stuck to its niche and has kept things relatively simple. Whipple says that has resonated with its urban, Bay-area market.

The camp also sticks with the Bay-area market. Whipple says they used to go to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other Southwestern cities to market. Ultimately, the realization struck that it was much more effective to focus closer to home.

"We copied Camp Longhorn (a Texas camp) and started doing camp carnivals out here, and they were very effective. We rent school auditoriums and rent them for four hours on a Saturday, set up carnival games, and give out prizes," says Whipple. "Renting a school is inexpensive, there's parking, you can be there longer, and it's a lot roomier. It gives them a chance to meet the people at camp, ask questions and get a better feel for the people who work there."

Additionally the camp has what Whipple calls a "buttoned-up" Web site. It's simple, communicates effectively and offers parents the chance to do just about everything on-line, including register for camp.

"My goal is to be paperless -- to have everyone register and pay on-line. And, when we do newsletters I'd like them to be all on-line," says Whipple.

Administrative Director Kamren Johnson says the implementation of on-line registration -- utilizing InfoSnap's engine tied to the camp's EZ-Camp management software -- has helped alleviate much of the office "mess" that paperwork creates.

"We just started the on-line registration, and we weren't able to get enough publicity out, so a lot of people weren't registering on-line this season," says Johnson. "But I'm confident that we'll double or triple that number next year; that's what I've heard from the parents who didn't register on-line this year."

Bryan BuchkoComment