An Adirondack Tradition for Generations
Doug Furman, director of Camp Lincoln for Boys at North Country Camps in Keeseville, chuckles when asked, “What is it about Adirondack summer camps?” He admits that the Northeast is the epicenter. “They’re definitely a cultural phenomenon.”
Pete Gucker, former executive director of the camps, has a simple response. “What better place is there for today’s often over protected children to find real outdoor adventure, than in the protected wilderness of the Forever Wild Adirondack Park? Urban and suburban kids, especially, are starved for such opportunity (although many don’t know it until given the chance).”
North Country Camps—Camp Lincoln for Boys and Camp Whippoorwill for Girls—have the distinctive character that’s made the traditional Adirondack summer camp experience so special to generations of families. They’ve been family owned since 1920, when Colba F. “Chief” Gucker established Camp Lincoln; Camp Whippoorwill followed in 1931. His son, Pete Gucker, and his daughter, Janet Farrington, took over directorship of Lincoln and Whippoorwill in the late 1950s, and now serve in consulting roles. Pete’s daughter, Nancy Gucker Birdsall, directed Whippoorwill from 1984–2006 and now serves as executive director of North Country Camps. Kate Green has been director of Camp Whippoorwill since 2007, and Furman has directed Camp Lincoln since 2009.
Furman is a third-generation camper himself. His grandfather taught with Colba Gucker in New York City, and spent summers in the 1930s and ’40s working with “Chief.” Furman’s father experienced camp then—as an infant. And like his father, Furman spent summers at camp from an early age while his father worked as a section head at Camp Lincoln and his mother worked as the camp nurse. He continued going back every summer as a camper, and later as a dishwasher, a counselor, and section head.
Like Furman’s family, many alumni still have strong connections to the camps. Every other year at the end of the season, North Country Camps hosts a well-attended alumni weekend. “Most of our alums will tell you that some of their closest friends are the ones they made at camp. It’s true for me,” says Furman. “We’ve had many marriages that started at camp, and many, many generations of kids. My oldest son is a fourth generation camper now.”
When he talks about the continuing appeal of the Adirondack summer camp experience, Furman paraphrases Pete Gucker: “Pete often says, ‘Kids haven’t changed; it’s just that the world they live in has changed a lot.’ I think working with kids is much the same as it always has been.”
“We’re still a very traditional, wilderness-based summer camp,” says Furman. “It’s like you live in the tiniest little village in the middle of the woods. It’s really an idyllic way to spend the summer.” The camps preserve that feeling with their size, programming, and the tradition of a full seven-week summer season. A key tenet of the camp experience is creating that special sense of community; the full summer experience is integral to creating those bonds. Although they’ve made some concessions to offer five- and three-week sessions, a full three-quarters of their campers stay for the entire seven weeks.
Camp Lincoln and Camp Whippoorwill are located about a half-mile apart on Augur Lake. They operate independently, although some activities, such as horseback riding and the ropes course, are shared, and groups of girls and boys often mix together in the afternoon to sail, play tennis, soccer and other field games. Nancy Birdsall Gucker has been able to move the nearly 100-year-old camps into the 21st century. Pete Gucker credits her with leading the boys’ camp and the girls’ camp, “once stubbornly independent of each other,” to bond as a single community where everyone, camper and counselor alike, is motivated to pitch in and help make the place go.
Each camp has about 90 campers aged 8–15 who live in simple, rustic cabins. The majority come from within an hour’s radius of New York City, but they also come from Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, as well as the Washington, D.C. area. They even have a few international campers, and kids from the west coast and the Midwest, although Furman says those tend to be children of camp alumni.
The camps remain technology free. “It might seem like a big step for kids to set aside phones and video games,” says Furman. However, he observes it’s almost effortless, considering how much time kids usually spend on their devices. People often ask him if parents put up a fight about leaving technology at home, and the answer is an emphatic no. “I think if we changed our policy there would be an uproar. Parents are strongly behind it because they really want their kids to separate from their screens for a little while.”
What helps makes it so easy is a varied program with a lot of different options to suit any kind of camper—in camp and in the woods and on the water. Each camp has a vegetable garden where campers grow food, and animals to take care of over the summer; last year they raised chicks and baby goats. On any given day kids can routinely choose from horseback riding, ropes course, mountain biking, archery, tennis, soccer, baseball or soft- ball, ultimate Frisbee, and other field games, woodshop, arts and crafts including pottery, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, wind surfing, paddleboarding, and swimming.
“Our camps have always operated under the philosophy that kids should create their own program,” says Furman. For their mornings, campers choose activities they’ll do for an entire week. Because of the time invested, these tend to be more instructional. In the afternoons, they choose things to do just for a day. “Afternoons tend to focus more on just having fun,” says Furman. “They’re also a great opportunity for kids to try things they might be nervous about committing to for a whole week.”
He admits that it’s a whole lot of work: “It would be easier if we just came up with an assigned rotation, but we really want the kids to be doing what they want to do.” Each camp has a program director whose sole responsibility is to make the schedule work on a daily basis. “Every week is a puzzle.”
Into that mix, they add a key part of the camp culture: camp trips. As with daily and weekly activities, campers participate in these trips by choice in smaller groups, based on their interests and ability levels. All trips are wilderness excursions—usually involving mountain climbing or paddling—and they progress in difficulty. Younger campers might start with a short half-day hike, a day paddle, or an overnight on the lakefront at camp where they learn to set up their own tents. Older campers embark on progressively longer trips that ultimately involve packing in their own camping gear to paddle a lake or river or summit one of the 46 peaks. “We’ve had many set their sights on becoming 46ers,” says Furman, “and every summer, three or four kids at each camp complete that goal.” Many of the groups come back with their own trip song, which adds to the allure for younger campers.
“I don’t think a lot of our kids come to camp thinking the trips will be their favorite part— most don’t come from backgrounds where they camp with their families—but it ends up happening,” says Furman. “They’re going out in small groups with their friends into this beautiful place, and they accomplish a lot. Climbing a mountain is hard, but you get such a great reward. There’s such a clear payoff—aside from the feeling of accomplishment— when you climb a beautiful mountain. It tends to speak to a lot of kids.”
When he hears parents say that they could never send their child away for the whole summer, Furman says that what people don’t realize is just how much kids get from the experience. “If you talk to parents who have been campers themselves, you’ll hear them say ‘I’m giving them this incredible gift.’ To live apart from your parents for a little while and figure out what that means, to learn how to solve challenges on your own, to learn how to make your own choices and live with the consequences, and to dabble in that independence you may not have experienced before…there’s a lot of self-confidence that can come out of that, as well as pure enjoyment, lifelong skills, and lifelong friends.”