All was quiet at Camp Belknap. After another full day of swimming, boating, and games, campers were asleep in their cots - except for one hungry boy. He tiptoed out of his cabin and headed for the camp's highest point. There, in the pitch dark, he pulled out his cellphone and ordered a pizza.
Ah, technology. Can't live without it.
Minutes later, the pizzeria called back to confirm the delivery location - but to the camp office instead of to the boy who placed the order.
So much for his midnight snack: Camp Belknap is one of a number of camps that ban cellphones - and Game Boys, computers, or CD players. Who would have guessed, when this New Hampshire YMCA camp was founded in 1905, that anyone would even have to think about an electronics policy?
But in today's world, where some teens are more tech-savvy than their parents, and they often won't leave home without their electronic toys, that's reality. And camp directors are having to respond to this new reality and decide how much they will let the wired world into their simpler, far more rustic communities.
Many, like the staff of Camp Belknap, which the pizza-ordering camper attended, simply confiscate the items. "We took away his cellphone until the end of camp, and then laughed about it privately," recalls Christopher Thurber of the camp's senior staff, who, like others in this story, was interviewed by phone.
Camps that oppose electronics say that tech toys involve solitary and sedentary activities that clash with what camp is all about - developing social skills, building community, sharing traditions, learning to write letters, cultivating an appreciation for the natural world, and being so physically active that kids drop into bed after taps.
And camps don't want to be responsible if electronics break, get lost, or are stolen. They also don't want to be responsible for storing confiscated items.
Cellphones are the most common contraband. Many campers consider them a cool way to talk to friends. And parents often buy them to keep tabs on their teens, especially since Sept. 11. So even after being informed of the rules,parents might look the other way if a cellphone gets slipped into a duffel bag.
Laurel Barrie is founder of Camp Connection, a service that matches kids to camps. Ms. Barrie now includes more than just helping parents decide if Billy should attend camp at the beach or in the mountains; she might also ask to what extent they want his experience to be "plugged" or "unplugged." For example, does it matter whether he can listen to CDs during rest hour, play with his Gameboy on a rainy day, or send Mom an occasional e-mail?
If so, a camp such as Maine's Camp Chewonki would be a mismatch. In pre-camp notes, Camp Chewonki warns parents about "things not to pack," including "radios, Walkmans, cellphones, computer games, and all similar devices.
"Campers will learn," the notes continue, "while at Chewonki, or out in the wilderness, that many of the things which they feel are essential parts of their life are perhaps not as necessary as they thought."
This is exactly what Claire Gentil and Katie Burton discovered. Both girls, who have spent many summers at Camp Songadeewin of Keewaydin in Salisbury, Vt., instant-message (or "IM") friends often. Katie, from Baltimore, has 50 camp pals on her "buddy list," and Claire, from Richmond, Va., isn't far behind. Claire is returning for her fourth summer this year, and she and her pals are counting down the days - via IM - until camp.
Neither of these teenagers could bear the thought of going without this trendy tool during the school year. But somehow, after settling into their cabins and jumping into a flurry of activity, they forget all about computers.
"You feel out of touch for the first week," says Katie, "but then you get into the camp groove and you forget all about it."
Claire also adapts easily. "Sailing is my favorite activity," she says, adding: "I also like canoeing, kayaking, photography, archery ... oh, I just love it all!"
The ability to IM friends is typically not an option at summer camps. And like Claire and Katie, most campers are too busy practicing the backstroke, playing kickball, or roasting marshmallows to miss hanging out online.
But while many camps are trying to keep electronics out, others are finding that they must allow some forms in.
A recent survey by the National Camping Association found that 70 percent of camps in America use e-mail. Of those, 60 percent use it for one-way communication, from parents to campers. Camp staff then distribute the e-mail the day it arrives, and kids must still jot a handwritten response.
The remaining 40 percent allow kids to e-mail back, especially those campers from foreign countries, as snail mail can take several weeks.
Camp directors who allow e-mail may joke about needing to hire a second staff just to field e-mails, distribute them, and make sure kids aren't surfing the Net when they should be messaging their folks. Still, these same camps feel the extra work is necessary, if they want to remain competitive.
About 95 percent of camps now havewebsites, and many camps that won't allow e-mailing will post photos of happy campers on the site for parents, who access the pictures with a password.
Barrie, the camp consultant, is all for posting photos - as long as no camper is left out, causing parents to wonder what's wrong. But she's opposed to e-mailing.
Often what happens, she explains, is that a child will write home complaining of homesickness, the parent will call the camp, and by that time, the child has decided that camp's not so bad.
"With e-mail," she says, "this communication is instantaneous and parents intercede instead of letting a camp deal with the situation themselves or letting it unravel on its own, and then you have too many fingers in the pie."
Katie puts it another way: "E-mailing parents all the time takes away from trying out new things by yourself, taking on the world, and making your own decisions."
Adam Sulkis has no regrets about unplugging for five summers when he went to camp. "The whole point of camp is to get away from everything," he says.
Adam laughs when he recalls "chick-mail competitions," where he and his cabin mates would compete for who could receive the most letters from girls. "Letters became cool," he says. Of course, he had to write the required letters home to his family in Wayland, Mass., as well.
Letters are important, even if they are to your sweetheart, says Mr. Thurber, who teaches and counsels boys at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire during the school year and is also coauthor of "The Summer Camp Handbook" ($14.95, Perspective Publishing).
"Letter writing," he says, "is a cognitive skill that all people need to develop. As camps become more wired, I hope this isn't resulting in a loss of letter writing."
He finds it helpful, when considering the role of electronics at camp, to take a look back. "At the inception of overnight summer camps in the late 1800s and early 1900s," he explains, "they were a response to increasing urbanization, industrialization, and the vices of the city. Parents wanted their children to spend summer in the country, to stay out of trouble, and to get away from something."
The "vices" may be different today, but the need to get away hasn't changed. Neither has the "I can't live without it" cry of some kids.
When Thurber was a boy at camp, he craved TV so much that he wrote home that he couldn't wait for the "ultraviolet rays to soak into my brain again." His mother saved the letter, as it gave her a good laugh.
And today, Thurber chuckles over it, too - especially since he feels so differently. "If I could wave a magic wand," he says, "I would make all camps electronics-free. Kids get plenty of electronics during the rest of the year; why not expose them to activities they can't do at home?"
The camping experience is one that stays with kidslong past those days at the lake.
Maureen Bleday, a mom from Westwood, Mass., says her two boys are "mellower" after camp.
And Margaret Gentil says camp has made her daughter Claire more resourceful and creative. Claire might not pass up a chance to IM her pals, but she isn't quite as anxious to jump online after unpacking her bags.
And Katie Burton says that after camp, she enjoys her computer "like it was the first time."
But she also realizes that she can "live without it."
Despite a shaky economy and some parental concerns about parting with children during uncertain times, camp enrollment is still strong. The American Camping Association estimates that more than 10 million children are enrolled in day camp or overnight camp this year. In 2001, that figure was more than 9 million. Summer camp is now a $19.8 billion industry.
If a child isn't the scouting type and doesn't care about kayaking or campfires, parents could still find a good fit among the 6,300 overnight summer camps in the US, many of which are not traditional outdoors camps.
The most popular specialty camps focus on sports, fine arts or performing arts, academics, or wilderness trips. But the variety doesn't stop there. According to Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association, summer camps are more diverse today than ever.
Here are a handful of the unusual programs we discovered:
Children in Grades 4 through 12, as well as adults, observe wolf-pack structure and social behavior among 30 of these intriguing canines at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. (Two-day program.) www.wildlifesciencecenter.org
Leadership in Business Camp
Forget easy living. At Julian Krinksy's camp, summer is a time for high schoolers to develop skills that will serve them well in the corporate world. (Four-week program.)
Combines adventure travel and camp with a "purpose" for kids ages 14 to 18 who perform service projects that become the bridge for cultural exchange and language learning. Campers can choose among service stints in Costa Rica, Fiji, France, Spain, and other far-flung lands. (Three-week program) www.globalworksinc.com
Hollywood Stunt Camp or Rock Star Camp
Both camps, offered by Pali Overnight Adventures, are led by professionals from the entertainment industry and geared for those who might be flirting with a career in showbiz. Watch out, Jackie Chan and Mick Jagger! (Two- to three-week programs) www.paliadventures.com
For more information on summer camps and to find programs that match a child's interests, visit the websites of the American Camping Association (www.acacamps.org) and the National Camping Association (www.summercamp.org).
As the number of visitors to federal and state lands skyrockets, so does the amount of environmental damage, a result that seriously diminishes the natural outdoor experience visitors seek, says David Chambers, outdoor programs director at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.
"Finding ways to enjoy the outdoors and still preserve it is not as difficult as [people] first imagine," he says.
Mr. Chambers says hikes and campers can enjoy the outdoors but have minimal effect on it by following these principles advocated by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:
• Research the geographical area, water levels, environmental conditions, trail conditions, even animal behaviors of the area you plan to visit.
• Use established campsites and trails so that you camp and travel on durable surfaces that will not be damaged.
• Dispose of waste properly. Trash left in the outdoors doesn't just disappear. Always pack out what you pack in.
• Leash your dog. Pets can stress the wildlife enough to interfere with eating habits and reproduction.
• Respect other visitors. Leave radios, CD players, and cellphones at home or off. Speak quietly.
• Minimize campfire use. Find alternatives to fire, but if you must use a campfire, check regulations and use only dead wood from the ground. If possible, build fires in existing campfire rings. Make sure the fire is "dead and cold" before leaving, and spread unburned wood and ashes to minimize their visibility.
• Leave what you find. It's against the law to remove items deemed to be artifacts (more than 50 years old) from federal land without proper permission. Taking such items as artifacts, relics, flowers, or animals has an impact on the ecosystem and the enjoyment of others.
"As we explore natural areas, it's good to remember that our visits have long-lasting impact not only to the environment but also to the hundreds or thousands who follow behind us," says Chambers.
• For more information about the Leave No Trace program, visit http://lnt.org or call 800 332-4100.
Source: PR Newswire