The life-changing, course-altering, happy-making days of summer camp in Maine
When it came time to shoot the video for her song Dog Years, singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers returned to the place she loves most in the world, Wohelo Camps in Raymond. She got famous fast in 2017, after a video of Pharrell Williams swooning over her music the year before went viral and landed her a recording deal. But instead of going for some glitzy setting, Rogers headed up to the shores of Maine’s Sebago Lake. Wohelo was the place where a cabin mate taught her how to play guitar the summer she was 13 and where one extremely rainy summer, she started writing songs.
“I am who I am because I am a Wohelo girl,” Rogers said. “Camp was the place where I always felt the most like me. I felt empowered and strong and confident.”
If you watch the video (more than 4.5 million people already have) you’ll see Rogers, wearing her “favorite red sweater,” singing her heart out at Wohelo, where she spent a total of 12 seasons, eight as camper and four as counselor. “I made the best friends of my life,” Rogers said. “Friends who I hug in every corner of the world as I’m touring.”
Opportunities for empowerment while running around lakes or mountains in Maine are extensive and varied. Today the word “camp” is used for everything from local park and recreation programs that double as child care to intensive summer programs for learning skills as varied as musical performance and robotics. But, here in Maine, the classic summer camp experience born at the turn of the twentieth century lives on. Maine even boasts the nation’s continuously run camp for girls in America, Wyonegonic, established on Moose Pond in Denmark in 1902, and there are a host of camps that have celebrated their 100th anniversary in recent years.
“There’s a camp for everybody,” said Catriona Sangster, president of Maine Summer Camps and director of Camp Wawenock, a girls camp on Sebago Lake in Raymond. “Camps offer a unique space to disconnect from the expectations of the outside world.”
Gov. Janet Mills and her sister Dr. Dora Anne Mills attended several summer camps, including Cedar Cove, which was a Girl Scouts camp on Lake Cobbosseecontee. “Summer camps not only helped all of us to explore the outdoors of Maine but also helped us to learn independence, build our self-esteem and confidence, as well as improve our abilities to work as a team and get along with others,” said Dr. Mills, vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England.
Meredith Strang Burgess, president and CEO of an advertising and marketing firm in Falmouth, fondly remembers her summers at Alford Lake Camp in the 1960s. Her father was the camp dentist, but her days were filled with swimming, sailing, canoeing, archery, tying knots, identifying trees and riding a horse named Skyboy.
“We always had some international kids, and it was hugely eye-opening for me to meet those girls from all over,” Strang Burgess said. The uniform was an equalizer. “Everybody looked the same, whether you had money or not. And your hair never smells better than when you wash it in the lake.”
Lake Alford Camp is a tradition for families, as well, with some now sending a fourth and fifth generation of girls. “Camp is so much more than playing in the sun and learning how to sail,” said Sue McMullan, only the fourth director in the camp’s 113-year history. “It’s about relationships and character development. It’s one of the best forms of education that a child—or anyone—can have.”
Campers learn to live with others (and without hovering parents), a practical skill that Camp Arcadia alum Belle Bocal says put her in good stead when she went away to college. Over six summers, from 1998 to 2003, Bocal learned to play tennis, knit and play ukulele. She took synchronized swimming lessons, was in Macbeth and rowed across Sebago Lake.
“For a kid from Portland, going to Casco wasn’t that far,” Bocal says. “But I was a scholarship kid, and it was an experience I just wouldn’t have had.”
Jessica Graham, a high school social studies teacher who lives in Waterville, went to sleepover camp as a Girl Scout at Camp Pondicherry in Bridgton as a child and has returned a few times as leader of Troop 151. “I get kind of emotional sometimes seeing them going through all that Maine summer camp joy, that idyllic Maine childhood,” Graham said. “As someone who loves history, it was incredible to learn songs from 50 or 60 years ago and bring those back to my troop and sing them around the campfire. Generations ago, girls were in those same Maine woods, looking at the stars and roasting marshmallows.”
And now a new generation in her own family. Graham sent her own daughter, Penny, to the same camp. “We were a little nervous because she was only 6,” Graham said, laughing about how a week didn’t seem long enough for Penny.
That tradition of going back to the Maine camp you love runs strong. Strang Burgess returned to Alford Lake Camp to be a counselor in the summer of 1976. Belle Bocal went back to Camp Arcadia in 2005 and 2006, sharing what she’d learned with a new generation and revisiting territory that looked comfortingly familiar. “You drive under this gate and the first thing you see is girls running around in blue T-shirts and shorts with lots of friendship bracelets around their ankles,” Bocal says.
As for Rogers, being suddenly famous, touring the world, appearing as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, none of that can keep her away from Wohelo. “Every summer I go back to teach a songwriting workshop,” Rogers said. “And while it is my way of giving back to the girls and that place, it’s also just as much for me—to connect to that core part of myself that laughs with my full face and creates with my whole heart.”
Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.