It's Simply Complex

Last week my camp, Pathfinder, wrapped up a six-month staff-enrichment project with the ‘kicker,’ a three-day June symposium on wilderness leadership, attracting 18 world-class presenters traveling all the way to backcountry Algonquin Park to meet our 24 college-aged trip guides on their home turf.

The persuasion campaign and event logistics required to gin up this kind of woodsmen’s TED conference often seemed perilously complex. The cerebral info-explosion at the event was massive, sometimes daunting. But the result of the gathering was so simple. Sharing the island life, and a love of the canoe trip trail, young and old bonded over this kind of camping, and everyone parted company full of ideas and energy, recharging their work.

Likewise, for you readers owning and directing camps, the spring satisfaction of reaching a full enrollment follows a complex full-court press throughout the off-season. You probably feel like your winter was a working year before you ever get to this camp season! Of course, then there’s also the juggling of staff recruitment, vendors and contractors, food service, regulatory compliance, capital projects, cash management, all to be performed in your copious off-season free time.

Simple, right? Even that paragraph got too complex.

The onion layers of camp complexity are infinite. You’re probably like me, and want to keep pushing the envelope every year, polishing up the program, staff development, alumni relations, parent contact, and retention. These efforts are all meant to pay dividends to the life and health of your organizations. But I’ve had to learn to be careful: am I still directing all efforts toward the right goal? Despite trying to do more and more, and piling on the layers of complexity, I’m forcing myself this year to keep eyes on a prize: simple!

What’s still simple in this crazy-complex camp world?  My goal is what must stay simple: A rich, positive experience for all the campers and staff.

I dislike the faddish acronym KISS--‘keep it simple, stupid.’ We know there’s nothing stupid about either the reasons we let our work get complex, or the intricate ecology of efforts that result in a simply great camp season.

Instead, I’m thinking, ‘We’re working toward Simple’ … and that’s simply complex. It might involve hard choices, but I’m determined to toss aside any complicated efforts that won’t guarantee they enhance the simple goal of the current season.

Think, too, about how it feels on our camp families’ end. The affinity parents, campers, alumni and staff feel for Pathfinder comes from the happiness we all get simply being together on the island and on the trip trail. In the early years of our 21st century, we are drawn back to camp for the same simple rewards enjoyed by camp’s original members 100 years ago at the outset of another century.

Summer camp has to be simple for the camper. Pack a few clothes and a sleeping bag, pillow, towel, beam. Hop on a bus, maybe a boat. Make a home simply by making up your bunk. Sign up with some buddies for a trip. What’s simpler than meeting the challenges and basking in the rewards of the trail? Push into lands where life’s like it was 100 or 1,000 years ago. Simple gear for safety and comfort fits in a backpack, which simply must be carried on your back. Simple craft are powered simply by your paddle stroke, your muscle, and the basic open fire food that fuels it. You simply have to get across the trail, through the mud to the deep water at the shore, simply have to stand out in the rain, or run the rapids in front of you. You simply can’t help meshing with your fellows so that everyone contributes, everyone matters, everyone gets through.

Life in camp? Should be simple, too. The dawn-day-dusk cycle, the daily program, the simplicity of days without screens, messages, news or ads, motors, wires or ‘wireless.’ The simplicity of breeze in the pine tops, loon calls, sun warmed cedar dock boards, rain on canvas rooflines. Of ‘Cree’ campers simply working toward becoming ‘Ottawas.’

Simple, too, that success means a skilled camp staff is leading by example, building an atmosphere of trust, shared privilege and obligation, of social connection, even as they pile on the challenges and the new skills, and a few decisive character moments. Their tools for this kind of work can be as varied as camps are varied. With luck, the staff is wrapping it all in ‘camp’ humor.

Wait a sec … that all sounds ridiculously complex! The internal symphony of the child’s mental and emotional world? The alchemy you expect of your staff to bring the kids through it all? The logistics of maintaining and stocking the island? The training, practice and discipline of keeping life safe for all? Conducting the serious business of serious fun?

So which is it? Is camp simple or complicated? Whatever’s complex can distill down to the simplest of simple: we love the way we feel at camp, the way we savor it when it’s done right, the way we keep coming back for more.

Everyone’s answer will be uniquely their own, but whatever your answer you know it’s addictive, this place where simple satisfactions resonate above the complex din of contemporary life, this life of spinning a million plates so every participants’ plate is full.

Yup, it’s complex. How simple!

Mike Sladden is the director and co-owner of Camp Pathfinder, a century-old boys’ canoe trip camp in world-famous Algonquin Park, Ontario. A third-generation Pathfinder camper and guide since 1969, he now lives for six months each year at camp’s rustic island base in the Algonquin interior, where he leads Pathfinder’s wilderness tripping, scholastic outdoor education, and in-camp programs. “Sladds” and his wife Leslie have raised two sons at camp and in their hometown of Rochester, N.Y.