February 10, 2013

The way camp should be


---- — WILLSBORO — Forty seventh-grade boys from the Fairfield Country Day School hiked four to six hours in single digits in the High Peaks to challenge each other and foster teamwork.

This is the third year the Connecticut students have traveled to the Outdoor Education Center at Pok-O-MacCready Camps, dubbed “the greatest camp in the universe.”

“We don’t really have specialists here,” said Brian DeGroat, director. “Everyone teaches everything. One of the things I really pride the center on is that we can offer many different classes, and we can be extremely flexible with whatever group is coming. So, we can offer a custom experience for every single group. And even when they get here, we can make changes on the fly. Just like last night, when we realized it was going to be 65 (below zero) on top of Hurricane Mountain, and we thought we should probably hike something different.”


Pok-O-MacCready Camps is the amalgamation of Camp Pok-O-Moonshine for boys and Camp MacCready for girls.

The boys’ camp was founded in 1905 by Sarah Westcott and Dr. Charles Robinson, headmaster of the Peekskill Military Academy.

“A lot of the parents of the students attending Peekskill Military Academy asked Dr. Robinson if there was something that their children could do in the summertime,” said Sarah Disney, executive director. “At that time, a lot of the students came from Venezuela. By the time those students took a boat all the way back to Venezuela, it was time to turn around and come back for the next school season.”

Robinson purchased the 300-acre tract in Willsboro to establish the camp on a peninsula on Long Pond. The camp’s philosophy is “to help each camper develop an awareness of, and appreciation for, the natural environment while participating in new experiences, learning new skills and making new friends.”

“At that point in time, he (Robinson) felt it was equally important to exercise one’s body as well as one’s brains,” Disney said. “So the morning was filled with educational classes — philosophy, Latin, Greek, those sorts of classes. Then, the afternoon was doing physical pursuits. Every section at the boys’ camp had a tennis court. They had a baseball team. They would hike. At that time, when they were hiking in the High Peaks, they would actually hike from here to the Hike Peaks and then hike the High Peaks because there wasn’t transportation.”

In the early 20th century, the boys disembarked at Willsboro Train Station.

“They would be on a horse-drawn wagon to get up to camp,” Disney said. “That was the beginning of camp in 1905. It continued that way, all the way up until 1967, when Jack Swan, who is Dr. Robinson’s grandson and our current owner, started the girls’ camp in 1967. Then, Jack had the vision for also starting the Outdoor Education Center, which he did in 1974. It’s always been in continuous operation ever since.”


Pok-O-MacCready has a plethora of mottoes, which include “Hydrate or die.”

“Dr. Robinson’s motto when he started the camp was ‘Making boys into men,’” Disney said.

“That’s been shortened to ‘Boys to men’ by campers,” DeGroat said.

“That motto’s a little sexist now, and I think that we do much more than that,” Disney said.

“We also make girls into men,” DeGroat quipped.

“That’s only according to the girls,” said Shai Walker, maintenance director.

“That’s what the girls shout out,” Disney said.

Their easy banter was punctuated with laughter. In the summer, their ranks explode to 90 staffers, which run a myriad of programs. The downsized winter staff includes Tim Oprzadek, assistant director; Erin DeBusk, marketing director; Scott McIntyre, financial director; Taylor Smith, manager of The Crux; and Blythe Czaja, maple-sugaring specialist. Instructors are Andy LaBar, Lindsay Comeau and Jill Zdenek.


Pok-O-MacCready Outdoor Education Center has four major subject areas: living history, natural sciences, team building and high adventure.

“Each of those is broken down further,” DeGroat said. “For example, high adventure could be the rock-climbing center (The Crux). It could be the hikes the students are on today on the High Peaks. It could be local hikes on Sugar Loaf Mountain or Bear Mountain or Rattlesnake or Pok-o-Moonshine. It could be the mountain-biking classes that we teach, canoeing, kayaking snowshoeing, cross-country skiing.”

The natural sciences encompass sensory, winter ecology, pond ecology, forest ecology and wildlife ecology.

“We have our living-history classes,” DeGroat said. “We do a simulation of the Underground Railroad that’s very popular. We also do a simulation on the Revolutionary War. We also do homestead demonstrations where we go down to the 1812 Homestead at the end of the road. We take them through a schoolhouse lesson; a wood-shop lesson; hearth baking; candle making; a tour of the inn, which was built in 1813. We do all our living-history simulations down at the Homestead to give the kids a more authentic feel.”

Team building is an important area where campers learn skills in communication and teamwork.

“We go up to our Low Ropes Course and work on facilitating group interactions,” DeGroat said. “We go to our Teams Course, which is very similar to the Low Ropes Course, but it has lower elements and usually requires a little bit more strategy. We have what we call action-socialization exercises, and those really can be done anywhere. They just focus on making the participants work with each other and learn from each other and learn how to work with each other to get through whatever frustrations that they may encounter to achieve a goal.”

The Outdoor Education Center attracts fifth-, sixth-, seventh- or eighth-graders as well as some ninth-graders.

“Every once in awhile, we’ll have a college group. They are coming from Montreal, New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Quebec City and also a lot of the local towns — Peru, Saranac, AuSable Forks, Keene, Morrisonville and Lake Placid,” DeGroat said.

The center’s tagline is “making learning natural.”

“Our mission statement is to create awe in the presence of nature,” he said.


“Winter programming is basically the same as all our other programming, it’s just colder and with more snow,” DeGroat said. “That’s when we’ll do ice fishing. We’ll do cross-country skiing. We’ll do winter survival where we teach kids how to make survival structures out of snow. Yesterday, we made a quincy (snow shelter). The snow is not bad for making ice blocks right now. So, you could make an igloo if you had a lot of time. We do ice climbing instead of rock climbing in the winter. We spend more evenings inside than outside in the winter months, especially during these temperatures.”

Winter is really a very busy time at Camp Pok-O, the widely used diminutive.

“We also do a Winter Break Camp for local students during their winter break. So in February (from Feb. 18 to 22), we will have 30 kids from all over Plattsburgh, Peru and Beekmantown coming here, and that’s a day camp,” DeGroat said.


Pok-O is in the midst of its Cabin Fever Lecture Series, a community event.

“Tonight is our second in a four-part series,” DeGroat said. “We have Steve Hall from the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge coming to discuss bears and people in the Adirondacks. Last week, we did a lecture on the history of maple sugaring in the North Country, which was paired up with a maple-syrup seminar that we’ve been putting on ... We’re teaching local people how to get involved with maple sugaring. We feel it’s a very valuable resource that is going untapped literally in New York. We were able to partner with the Wild Center and the Northeast New York Maple Producers Association.”


Disney’s brothers started as campers in 1968.

“So there has been a member of my family every year here, except for two, since 1968,” she said. “So, for me, this is home. Three of my daughters attended camp here. They all work on staff here.”

Walker’s grandmother once ran Camp MacCready.

“It feels like home,” he said. “It’s comfortable. It’s a very welcoming and loving environment.”

DeGroat, a N.J. native, first attended as an instructor in 2008.

“It’s really like a big family once you’re part of it,” he said. “In the past four and half years, we’ve really tried to extend that family out into the broader community by doing more community events and getting people up here for lectures or break camps or things of that nature to share these wonderful facilities with kids from all over the East Coast, from New Jersey to Quebec City. In summer camp, they’re coming from all over the world.”

“We have a really large international presence in summer camp,” Disney said.

“Quite a few alumni have purchased houses in town, most of them seasonal,” Walker said.

“There are campers that are attending now that their moms were my campers back in the ‘70s or I was on staff with their parents back in the ‘70s,” Disney said. “The legacy is phenomenal. We have great-great-grandchildren of boys that were here back in the day. It really speaks to the feeling of family here.”

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