A Letter to Past Me (a.k.a. What I Wish I Had Known before Camp)

Written By: Abbey W.


A quick note from NYQUEST:

Abbey has sent us four excellently written, and inspiring blog posts about what it’s like to be an international staff member coming to work as a counsellor at a summer camp in Canada.  We wanted to take this opportunity to thank her publicly for taking us on this journey with her.  All of the NYQUEST team are previous camp counsellors (most of us from overseas too!) so we live our summer lives through our camp participants, and it’s been amazing for us to see how much of a great adventure she has had this summer, and all the new things she has learned! You can find her first blog here, second blog here, third blog here, and fourth blog here!

Summer camps are a huge part of North American culture, but it’s a very unique and fresh experience for anyone coming from overseas, so it’s really great to be able to see the whole thing from an international staff member’s first time at camp!

Thanks for another great post Abbey – and we look forward to having you back with us in Canada very soon!

– NYQUEST Camp Canada


Now that I’m nearing the end of the summer here at Ahmek, I thought I would take the time to think about some things to know before working at summer camp, and also some of the things that everyone who is going to work at a camp in Canada should be aware of. Some of these are just personal reassurances, while some of them are a bit more general. Hope you enjoy!


1. Bears are not as scary as you think. You won’t see one this summer, but others will, sometimes nerve-wrackingly close to camp. When you’re walking down from the car park at night, remember that bears don’t make a sloshing noise – that’s just your water bottle in your bag.

2. Competition is everything here. If you make your activity into a competition between groups of kids, they will love it. You’ll even get competitive against yourself.

3. Learn how to canoe. It’s really not as hard as it appears. Ask a camp veteran how to J-stroke; they’ll all be willing to help once you sum up the courage to ask.

4. Ask questions. All the time. Camp is all about tradition and history, so learn it. Learn why they sing that particular song after dinner, why that chant happens before the sailing race, what that ‘camp jargon’ means.

5. Experience every single activity. Go to sailing, swimming, kayaking, high ropes, riding, archery. All of them. Pick up new skills while you’re there.

6. Speaking of new skills, you will learn how to flip a canoe this summer. You’ll start with the lightest one – called a swift, made from Kevlar – and fail miserably, with shaking arms and bruises everywhere. You’ll give up, and then a few days later you’ll want to do it even more. Pick a time when there are few spectators and a friendly face to help you. Use your legs, not your arms. Go to bed with even more bruises, but happy. Eventually, you’ll do it proudly in front of a group of long-trippers, and they’ll applaud!

7. Gossip is just a part of living with so many people in such close quarters. Try not to spread it, and remember if people are talking about you then it just means that they don’t have anything interesting to talk about.

8. Learn campers’ names. Don’t just learn the ones that are here for the whole summer, learn those of the quiet ones, the ones who stay back during lessons, the ones who really need it. If you see a camper sitting by themselves, speak to them. Ask them about their trip, their favourite activity, what they like about camp. You’ll both get satisfaction from it.

9. Don’t let kids get away with bad language, no matter whether it’s in the middle of camp or overhearing it from far away. They’ll get into bad habits, which they’ll then take home, and nobody wants their child to come back from camp swearing.

10. Get to know the counsellors. It means you can give them feedback and pass on praise to those in charge, so they can get rewarded. When you know everyone and have spoken to them all, camp is a far friendlier place. It will take you much longer to get places because you’ll keep stopping for conversations.

11. Speaking of which, buy a watch. Be on time. It’s the easiest thing to do, but it’s noticed the most when you’re late. Know when you have five minutes left of a session, and ask the kids to help out with cleaning up.

12. Don’t complain about how cold the lake is. Try to swim as often as possible, except when there is thunder (because nobody can swim then).

13. The food is very high in calories, and there is lots of it all the time. The kids love it, but you have to attempt to not stuff your face every single meal. The desserts are amazing. Be sure to make friends with the kitchen staff, it can get you far.

14. Kids will do anything to get sweets (candy for the Canadians). They will get sent it in care packages and will be distraught when it’s confiscated.

15. Have campfires often. Try to get marshmallows. Invite everyone, and get someone to come with a guitar.

16. Even though it’s not your scheduled working time, go to evening activities. Watch the kids playing Murderball, listen to them playing music and join in whenever you can.

17. Never ever let a kid be bullied in front of you. Speak to them, speak to their counsellor, and make it stop. They will appreciate it, and they will remember you.

18. Fire drills are exhausting, but treat them like the real thing. Camper searches are terrifying, but the relief when they’re found and you find out it was also a drill is wonderful.

19. You will always have slightly dirty knees, unexplainable bruises, and uncountable mosquito bites.

20. Jumping in the lake is not equal to taking a shower.

21. Don’t wear a white shirt and expect it to ever be white again.

22. Be friends with the laundry ladies and the cleaners. They have the worst job in camp but are always the most willing to make conversation.

23. Don’t miss social media. If you’re going to miss anything, miss your family and friends back home. Try to hold off on the homesickness until you’re most of the way through the summer.

24. You’ll only need to charge your phone once a week because you’re never going to use it.

25. Take lots of photos, but never of campers. Always have your camera in your pocket. Take them for yourself, not for Facebook. There are photo opportunities every day, from a canoe in the sunset to mist rolling across the lake.

26. Keep it up writing your journal. It will seem like a chore for the first few weeks, but then it will become second nature to document the day before bed. You’ll appreciate it when you begin to forget what you did every day all summer.

27. Get into the spirit of your camp. Sing along to every song with gusto; learn the words to as many as you can. Stomp on the ground, bang on the tables, shout when everyone else does.

28. Read as many books as you can. Books are better than television. Ask for recommendations, borrow books, you’ll never again have so much time to read.

29. Be in awe of nature. The thunderstorms are impressive, and the lightning will be enough entertainment for a whole evening. Watch the animals. You will see several moose this summer, two of which will be on the road in the middle of the night, and will give you the fright of your life. Laugh at how slow and ungainly they are.

30. Learn how to use an axe. You will feel like you fit in once you can paddle, flip a canoe, and use an axe. And all the campers will be very impressed.


And that sums up my summer at camp in Canada. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading along!




Check out Abbey’s Instagram feed here, and her blog: http://thescottishkiwi.tumblr.com/