Summer camp is a special place. It is a safe place for youth to express themselves, to learn, to make friends and to keep traditions alive. We were gearing up for our busiest camp season to date back in early 2020 when the world was turned upside down and we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. While we tried to stay optimistic about running our Bird Camps in the summer of 2020, the pandemic had other plans. We were in uncharted territory. How could we possibly run a safe, summer camp experience in the middle of a pandemic? How would it be possible to socially distance during camp activities, especially during our overnight camps? Would we ever be able to have camp again?
We pondered these questions and many more, and concluded that we were not ready or equipped to run an in-person camp in 2020. We attended many webinars on COVID in schools and camps, but there was not enough information out there for us to feel comfortable running in-person camps. Like many camps across the country, Bird Camps 2020 went virtual. Did our campers connect during virtual camp? Sure. Did they learn? Sure. Was it the same as in-person camp? Not at all. After a summer of virtual camp and a year of learning, we believed we could successfully run in-person camps in the summer of 2021, pandemic or not.
The camp community is a strong and resilient one. I appreciate this community’s willingness to help each other, share resources and not reinvent wheels. One particularly valuable resource last year was the Field Guide for Camps on Implementation of CDC Guidelines from the American Camp Association (ACA), which we used (along with many hours of research and webinars) to write our COVID-19 Preparation and Action Plan. This plan was sent out to our camp families and detailed not only everything we would do to keep our campers and staff safe and healthy during camp, but also what our action plan would be if a communicable disease (like COVID) did appear in camp.
After countless hours planning and preparing for the worst, the time finally came to start our summer Bird Camp season. Our overnight camps take place at Highlands Presbyterian Camp & Retreat Center in Allenspark, CO with a beautiful view of Mount Meeker in the distance. Our first camp was Taking Flight, a camp for participants aged 12-14 that lasts 6 days and 5 nights. As the campers and parents arrived, we could feel the excitement, but also the nervousness. This was the first time getting out of our routine of lockdown and virtual learning. However, as the hours went on we began to feel a sense of normalcy. We were back at camp and ready to be ourselves. Our week was filled with birds, beautiful warm weather, laughter and nature. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of campers to get back into the summer camp rhythm with.
Our overnight camp experience ended with our award winning On The Wing camp for ages 15-17. Since 1993 On The Wing has given this age group a summer camp experience unlike any other. For 9 days and 8 nights, On The Wing campers learn how to conduct a mini research project by coming up with their own research question, collecting data, writing a research paper and presenting their findings with the group. We were excited to have both returning and first time campers that came from as far away as Hawaii and North Carolina. While we focus on careers in the science field we also create a community where it is OK to just be yourself. We provided a safe place for campers to talk through the events of the last year and a half and be a support system for them.
Our overnight camps ended as they always do – with a campfire and gratitude and reflection circle. But the feeling was different at the end of overnight camp 2021. We felt accomplished, exhausted, refreshed and ready to take on the world. We completed our overnight camp season with no COVID cases, while also embracing a sense of normalcy in our program.
Even though our overnight camps had come to an end, summer was really just beginning. After a long weekend off for camp staff to rest and rejuvenate it was time for our Day Camp sessions to begin. Our day camps are based out of the Environmental Learning Center in Brighton, CO. We are lucky to be situated inside Barr Lake State Park which is a birding hotspot in Colorado. We run 5 weeks of day camps for ages 4 – 12, each of which has a different theme and age group. We keep a small staff-to-camper ratio and also have our Leaders in Training (aged 13-17) help us with camp activities. We followed the state and local guidelines by wearing masks while we were inside and taking them off while outside, if comfortable. The great thing with summer camp is we are outside 98% of the time, which helped keep us safe and healthy.
While it took more effort to plan camp this year, and we had to make last minute adjustments based on the most recent guidelines, it was our most successful camp season to date! A majority of our day camps were full (with waitlists!) and our overnight camps had the highest attendance to date. All of the planning and flexibility paid off as we made it through the entire camp season with zero COVID cases and many happy campers and staff. Most of the changes we made for 2021 will roll over to camp 2022 because they made camp run more efficiently.
I am already hard at work planning for our Bird Camps in 2022 and have a feeling the success will continue. Registration will open November 1, 2021 and I hope to see many returning campers and new faces attending camp. If we can run a successful camp during a pandemic, I feel very confident that each year camp will get better for our campers, families and our organization.
I would like to thank Highlands Presbyterian camp for always being amazing hosts for our overnight camps and keeping everyone healthy. I would also like to thank our staff, campers and families for making our Bird Camps a success. I am already looking forward to another great camp season in 2022.
For more information about our Bird Camps visit our Camps page and be ready to register on November 1, 2021. I have a feeling our camps will fill up early so don’t miss out by being late! Scholarships are available.
Tyler Cash (based in Brighton, CO) is the Camp & Community Coordinator at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. All photos were taken by Tyler.