A Labor of Love

How the Pasquaney Spirit Overcame the Pandemic

by Henry Anderson (counsellor 2016-present)

The Final Soak of the 2021 Season

In the fall of 2020, when the Senior Council met for the first time to begin planning for the 2021 season, the goal was to identify all the questions that needed to be addressed before Opening Day. What would we need to do to keep campers safe? How would regulations affect Pasquaney’s structure, schedule, and traditions? Would vaccines be available for counsellors and campers? Most importantly, how would Pasquaney still be Pasquaney for the boys?

As Mr. Michael and his team prepared, there were no assurances that the season would be a success. “Camp is fragile,” is a phrase that rang particularly true when considering the stakes and scope of this undertaking: the comeback year after missing the first in-person season in Pasquaney history, a brand new Director, a global pandemic looming.

“I felt a deep belief that if any place could figure this out,” said Mr. Michael, “with the wisdom that we have in this community, with the financial resources that Pasquaney has, with the commitment that we have from the Council and… the boys, Pasquaney should be able to figure out how to give the boys a great summer.”

This is the story of how the pandemic season became a successful season, thanks to committed older-boy leadership, a tight-knit Council, and a Director with a vision.

 

‘You Just Gotta Make a Call’

 

Like any usual year, preparation for the 2021 season began the moment the previous season, the 2020 remote program, ended. Except this time, in addition to all the usual off-season work,Mr. Michael, the Board of Trustees, and his administrative team of Assistant Director, Jack Reigeluth, and Director of Finance and Administration, Aimee Wadeson, had to anticipate and execute the unique protocols that would be necessary for operating safely during a pandemic.

To make matters worse, Pasquaney’s leadership had to hit a slew of moving targets. COVID-19 cases were rising and falling unpredictably. The State of New Hampshire guidelines for overnight summer camps were continually evolving, making key planning decisions – such as how large dorms could be – an ongoing unknown until spring. It also remained uncertain whether the U.S. border would be open to prospective campers and counsellors who were foreign nationals, and the final vaccination rate of the camper body was not determined until days before the season started. “That was probably one of the hardest parts of this past year: we just kept getting so much new information to evaluate and to determine its implications,” said Mr. Michael.

Mr. Michael began meeting with counsellors on Zoom as early as October of 2020 while also reaching out to counsellors, campers, parents, other camp directors, medical experts, and Board members for consultation. While there were several areas that had clear answers, such as the testing approach researched and spearheaded by Jack Reigeluth, there were other decisions where reasonable people could disagree. “There was a bunch of stuff that fell into the category of ‘You just gotta make a call,’” said Mr. Michael. “I was lucky enough to have the Senior Council to have really good advice and perspectives on those questions… but then also to be supportive of whatever decision I made.”

 All the while, Pasquaney’s facilities team, led by Tim Curry, worked throughout the off-season to prepare all the special infrastructure that the pandemic necessitated. The facilities team built walls through the middle of Birch and Dana to allow the housing of smaller cohorts. They constructed temporary sinks connected to 10-gallon water jugs in Jackson and Wilson, outside Jackson and the Watson Theater, and under Adams by the Cardigan Mines. They built and placed portable single-stall mines near the quoits pit, the shop, and the cookout pit. They built rectangular tables to allow each cohort to eat in Memorial Hall with six feet of distance and installed fans in the lofts of each dorm and the Bathhouse to provide ventilation. The list goes on.

In late spring, Mr. Michael hosted separate Zoom meetings for the Council, campers, and parents to inform them of the restrictions they could expect during the first week of camp and to solicit their feedback. Then in mid-June, counsellors arrived for an unprecedented two week long Council Camp. The extra week allowed counsellors to quarantine together before campers arrived, but there was also plenty of work to be done. Beyond the usual pre-season chores, counsellors set their minds to establishing many of Pasquaney’s COVID protocols.

 a preseason council meeting on Zoom

 

Suddenly teams of college students were responsible for tasks that were dauntingly complex but essential to the Pasquaney schedule. “Mr. Michael did an incredible job taking an abstract, ominous, looming season and splitting it up into having different people do smaller obtainable goals,” said fifth-year counsellor Nicky Longo. To operate in cohorts, Rob Harvey and Ethan Connett diagrammed each step of a new prayers and mines routine; Evan McClure restructured the duty system, with one innovation being a 16-year-old duty rotation that addressed the absence of COIs caused by not having a 2020 season; Nicky Longo, Buckley Huffstetler, and Doug Camp restructured table duty to reduce the amount of time table boys spent near kitchen staff, who lived off campus; they also created a system for entering and exiting Mem Hall to ensure social distancing between cohorts; and Peter Denious sketched an elaborate free-time rotation that provided every camper a chance to play games like wallball and basketball without mixing with other cohorts. “Why would you trust a teenager to take kids into the backcountry for a week and not trust them to figure out how we should line up for prayers?” Mr. Michael said. “There’s a lot of leadership that I’ve learned at Camp that involves giving people a vision and then trusting them to do their job and trusting them to actually do more than just their job because they care more.”

A two week long Council Camp also had the function of strengthening bonds among the Council, 12 of whom were new to the job and many of whom had never met Mr. Michael before.

“I walked up to the museum when we were all getting [COVID] tested on the first day [of Council Camp], and it was just this pack of counsellors hanging out on the lawn,” said new counsellor and shop head Amanda Chisholm, who is Pasquaney’s first full-time woman counsellor. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, here we go. What’s this going to be like walking into this group?’ And through the crowd came Nicky Longo bouncing on his toes. He stormed up to me and put his hand out from five paces away, and was like, ‘Amanda, I’m Nicky. I’m so excited to meet you and to work with you this summer.’ And it was just such a warm welcome,” she said. “The camaraderie on the Council is something you can see, even from outside, even as someone who just comes in and visits. You can see how connected everyone is
to each other.”

 

The Pasquaney Bubble

 

Per recent tradition, 16-year-olds arrived two days early to discuss what they want from their last summer and to bond as a group. For Isaac Garcia, this experience could only be summed up in one word: “surreal.” “I felt like I wasn’t really back. It kind of took some time to adjust and finally realize that ‘Wow, I’m actually back at Camp.’ And I think when it finally settled in, I was very grateful,” he said.

The extra two days also allowed the 16-year-olds to prepare for a totally different Opening Day schedule. Rather than pulling into the theater parking lot in upper camp, families were asked at staggered arrival times to park in the field below the chapel, where their boys were led to the camp museum to receive a rapid high-sensitivity PCR COVID test. Campers would wait in the field chatting and throwing footballs or frisbees until their results came back, sometimes over forty minutes later. Then they said goodbye to their families and went up the hill to their bunk with an older boy.

Even with these deviations from tradition, Opening Day maintained its typical positive energy, but there was a lot at risk with a potential positive case. Luckily, no one arrived at Camp with the virus.

Because it takes five days after someone gets infected for a COVID test to detect the virus, Camp remained in cohorts for most of the first week until receiving the results of a second test. Cohorting drastically altered the usual camp routine. The rule of thumb was “If you’re mixed, you’re masked,” so whenever campers needed to take their masks off — during meals or vigorous exercise, for instance — they had to be in their own cohort of about twenty people.

 

Doug Camp and Mr. Michael just before the Opening Day Ceremony 

To enable cohorted activities, Doug Camp mapped out unique block schedules for each day. The planning placed an enormous burden on his shoulders, but it provided each camper the opportunity to try every activity in the first few days of Camp. “Logistically, scheduling was incredibly hard,” said Mr. Michael, “because each activity could take a different number of campers, we wanted to mix ages anywhere we could, and we had to figure out several rainy periods. Doug and I would stay up until midnight, and then he would work until two or three in the morning, and then we would meet again before Reveille.”

The week also saw several impromptu meetings after Taps — often with Mr. Michael, sometimes without — where counsellors discussed how the new routine could be refined and improved. Real changes resulted from these meetings; two of the Dana counsellors, who were sleeping in the Alumni House and headquarters while working with Dana during meals, expeditions, and free time, moved into Wilson and Jackson because it quickly grew obvious that the 12-year-olds needed more attention, and creative solutions were found to safely mix age groups during some activities. Early in the summer, the dorm council also gathered after Taps to discuss the importance of modelling and enforcing the standards that concerns about the pandemic had begun to eclipse: habits like promptly responding to bugle, tucking shirts in, and doing duties well.

When you ask campers and counsellors to reflect on that first week, the reviews are decidedly mixed. Some view it as terrible but necessary. Others are quick to point out it was a heck of a lot better than no camp at all. “Our culture is one of mixing ages and freedom of movement, and this was the opposite of that,” Mr. Michael said. “What was good about that first week was that we got through it with enough of our culture intact to still have a foundation for the next six weeks.”

 Ollie Longo, Ruisi Luo, Will Peterson, Curtis Conner, Tucker Semans, Sabby Gillis, James Crowley, Elliott Beveridge, Peter Davies, Grey Durham, Matt O’Reilly, Bennett O’Reilly, Taylor West, and Evan McClure on Mt. Garfield

 

So many of Pasquaney’s traditions and behavioral standards are communicated organically through the example of older boys. After missing a season, there were even more new campers than usual. “I thought that it would be a big challenge for us to get forty new campers on board and understanding what was going on, what was valuable, and what was fun at Pasquaney,” said counsellor Tim Jenkins. “I was worried about fun.”

In cohorts, interaction between age groups was masked, distanced, and largely limited to a restricted free time and a few mixed activities. There was no conversing during meals and limited teaching opportunities between age groups — a 16-year-old with a new boy in a canoe, for example — had to be specially scheduled by Doug. “I imagine it was pretty difficult [for new boys],” said 16-year-old and Camp President Jet Easterly. “Having everyone being in community is just one of the biggest things at Camp for me,” explained 14-year-old Grey Durham. “Like going to an activity with a new boy, seeing them on Jacob’s Ladder with a tennis racket, and your plan was also to go to tennis, so you invite them to play. That’s just something special that you couldn’t do when you were scheduled for other activities.”

The morning when the restrictions were finally lifted, campers and counsellors gathered on the porches of Dana and Birch for prayers, as the new morning routine required. Then, standing on the bridge between the two dorms, Mr. Michael announced that everyone’s test results had come back negative, and amid hoots, hollers, and fist pumps, he invited everyone to remove their masks and file inside Dana for the first regular prayers of the season.

“I felt overjoyed. It just felt really good to hear the words come out of his mouth, being the Director, telling Camp, ‘Pasquaney is going to go back to normal. Congratulations for working hard,’” said 15-year-old Wilkes Head. “It felt like a proper Opening Day for me,” added Isaac.

 

The Rest of The Summer…

 

With Camp freed from cohorts, much of the normal routine and interaction returned with its accompanying joys and learning. Expeditions went out as usual, as did weekly hikes. Boys were free to choose their activities as they usually do, only being scheduled about a third of the time. Dana once again became a hub of inter-age interaction from the chess table to the wall ball court to people playing music together. High-quality club skits brought the unique echo of laughter to the Watson Theater, as did the three plays. Boys mixed constantly at tables and duties and activities, and the whole camp could gather again as one big group at Soak, cookouts, and for singing. “Protecting our ability to operate normally once that was possible, protecting our ability to give the boys a Pasquaney experience — that is why we took all the measures we did, so no one would lose that gift,” said Mr. Michael.

However, even after Camp was freed from cohorts, Mr. Michael and the Council faced more challenges – some were related to the pandemic and some were just coincidental like a small lice outbreak. The misfortune became a running joke in skits and announcements, and the “curse” was the subject of the 2021 council play.

The summer also saw much more rain than usual, and one thunderstorm was so severe that mud and water flooded the corridor between Cardigan and Birch. At 10 p.m. in a torrential downpour, Mr. Michael and a small squadron of counsellors sprinted down the hill with grub hoes to clear drainage and shovel away debris that flowed into the dorms. “The quick reaction time of the Council, everyone hopping out of bed, running down from the Office and Centennial, protecting our cabins and boys — that was cool,” said Nicky.

 

Nicky Longo and the cast of the Theater Play.

Another persistent problem was kitchen staff and food shortages, again related to strain on the workforce from COVID. Head Chef, Randy Lampron, did what he could with the resources he had, but often there would only be one chef in Mem Hall serving the entire meal, and one night counsellors had to serve. Food deliveries were also unreliable. Sometimes only ten items would come in on a fifty-item order, and the chefs would have to purchase additional supplies at Walmart at night and make do with whatever ingredients were available.

Challenges in the kitchen made it all the sweeter on one epic dinner with steaks, moon rocks, and Long Walk shirts. Steaks, an annual gift from the Saini and Vivier families, are usually served the Saturday after expeditions, and moon rocks, a dessert of ice cream rolled in cake and Oreo crumbs, are concocted by the Council as a treat for boys whose parents could not come to Visiting Weekend. Because of the vagaries of COVID scheduling, both events had to be delayed, so they were moved to Friday of fourth week, the night of the Long Walk announcement ceremony.

“The first image that comes to my mind is seeing [counsellors] carrying the moon rocks above [their] heads out of the kitchen and everyone gasping knowing what was to come,” said Nicky. “Everybody was stomping and shrieking while we just kind of braced ourselves,” continued Amanda. “It was off the walls. So much delight. Such a tide of energy.”

At the end of announcements, Mr. Michael presented the 2021 Long Walkers with their shirts. “You could see some of the real magic of those older boys embodying the values of Pasquaney,” said Amanda. “Having names being called and them standing up to walk up carefully straight-faced to receive their Long Walk shirts with so much pride, and you could see some of the younger guys starting to look at them. I felt like I was watching the foundations being laid.”

In addition to the logistical challenges, the pandemic also impacted campers’ emotional wellbeing. “After a year and a half of very, very little social contact for most of these boys, we had lots more severe homesickness than I think is normal, and I didn’t even know about it,” said Townley. “Mr. Michael knew about them all.”

Mr. Michael’s capacity for listening and vulnerability extended well beyond his work with campers. “I think it’s very, very telling that in his first summer as Director, and in such a crazy, hectic summer, he was still one of the people that I took great comfort in speaking with when I had questions or uncertainties,” said Amanda. “[He was] just incredibly supportive and patient and good at carving out time for people.”

Some boys also struggled with social skills and making meaningful connections. “It seemed like some guys were really limited in the scope of their conversational topics that they felt comfortable engaging in,” said Tim. “Like there was one boy who really only lit up when we were talking about video games.”

“The ameliorating effects of Camp were some really basic retraining of some of those social skills, some strong structural checks on impulsivity, some real compassion for mental health, and an opportunity to build relationships with people who were different than you,” Mr. Michael said.

The pandemic had its unexpected benefits, too. Campers and counsellors were tremendously grateful to simply be at Pasquaney, surrounded by their peers, and engaged in activity. “The masks and distancing really were such a barrier to more natural interaction, so watching how excited people were to be having those interactions [without masks or distancing] was striking,” said Amanda.

 

Gideon Farr, Amanda Chisholm, and Xander Kryska

Campers were also grateful to be outdoors and in nature, and this enthusiasm seeped into expeditions. “I’ve never seen a group get more into hiking at every age,” said Tim, who led the 2021 Long Walk. “The really neat thing about this [Long Walk], the thing that makes it different from others, was that all boys were new to it, so no one was coming in with previous experience: … So the team dynamic and team formation was really, really natural and straightforward.”

It was also an excellent season for the nature program. Counsellors prioritized getting outside to explore Pasquaney’s vast grounds, and, thanks to a gift from a Pasquaney family, the activity was able to invest in new equipment that attracted heightened interest from campers: small rodent traps to catch live mice and chipmunks, a multimeter to test the water purity and health of the lake, and motion-sensor activated game cameras that captured photos of deer, turkeys, racoons, bears, porcupines, short-tailed weasels, and even a bobcat.

Mr. Michael’s Chapel Talks were especially resonant. “Every time we had a Chapel Talk… I felt like he was talking to me,” said Isaac. “I cried every Sunday,” added Tim. “I’ve never had a more emotional summer personally, and a lot of it had to do with a feeling of gratitude for Mr. Michael’s leadership and his ability to step into a role that’s pseudo-religious or religious, depending on how you want to look at it.”

Another of the summer’s high points was a visit from Mr. Vinnie during the second to last weekend of Camp. After quarantining for a week and taking two COVID tests, Mr. Vinnie’s reintroduction took place in Mem Hall. Mr. Michael staged a skit during announcements where he pretended to get a call from Mr. Vinnie, who interrogated him about whether the campers had received Mary Lamb that week. When Mr. Michael broke the news that Mary Lamb had been delayed, who should burst through the kitchen doors in outrage but Mr. Vinnie himself. “Everyone was just immediately standing up and clapping,” said Nicky. After the meal, Mr. Vinnie gathered with boys on the porch for individual greetings and unsurprisingly knew almost all the new boys’ names before giving the reading that night at Baird Hall.

 

Mr. Michael welcomes Mr. Vinnie in Mem Hall

But essential to all the triumphs — moon rocks, the Long Walk, Mr. Vinnie’s return — was a deep investment from the boys, especially the exemplary 16-year-old class.

“Dana had a blast,” said Tim. “They were going on canoeing species and bonding, and they were hugging each other at night, and there was just a really remarkable spirit there.”

“That’s one thing I think I’m most proud of this summer,” said Jet. “How we were able to come together and make a real family in Dana.”

These successes would also not have been possible without hours of thought and preparation from Mr. Michael and the Council. New counsellors adapted impressively, and returning ones brought a wealth of experience and care. It was a team built on strong relationships and a unified purpose.

 

A Fragile Thing’

 

“A camp is a fragile thing,” said Townley. “There was no guarantee that we were going to have a fantastic summer that would leave the boys and the counselors so excited and so happy about what they did together. There was no guarantee of that at all — and yet it happened, and I think that it happened because of a whole lot of work from the Council, from the older boys, and because of the kindness and enthusiasm of the younger boys.”

The responsibilities of such an exceptional season weighed so heavily on Mr. Michael that its success didn’t truly sink in until two moments at the summer’s end.

The first was Water Sports Sunday. The weekend was maybe the first ever to take place without a Saturday program of competitions, Tree Talks, and plays for parents. Instead, boys were able to spend their last activity periods freely, and we held the final Soak in the afternoon. The next day, families were invited to attend chapel because there was sufficient space for them to distance. To avoid mingling at the end of the service, families were asked to wait outside the chapel while their boys hugged each other goodbye. It was Mr. Michael’s job to wait by the exit, bid a final farewell, and release each boy to his parents.

“It was probably 15 minutes before the first camper left,” said Mr. Michael. “That was a very important moment for me where I realized, ‘Okay, this really was a very strong summer.’ Strong enough for these guys that the attraction to stay and say goodbye to Camp friends is greater than a very reasonable, natural desire to see their parents for the first time in seven weeks. That’s something I will remember for a long time.”

The second moment took place during the final Council dinner, two days after Water Sports. During a series of toasts to each counsellor with stories of their contribution to the summer, the Council presented Mr. Michael with a plaque to commemorate his first summer as Director and the collective effort that went into the 2021 season.

“I was just not expecting that at all,” he said, laughing to himself. “I knew we couldn’t have a perfectly normal summer, but I wanted to have as successful of a summer as we would normally be able to have. That plaque to me was a symbol that we met this incredible challenge with an equal amount of effort and success, for the boys who were with us this summer, and for each other.”