Amazing things happen when young people spend their days outside and their nights sleeping among new friends—and a week far, far away from their parents. Kids learn to take care of themselves, and each other. But strange things happen, too, like that time a camp’s beloved pet snake chomped down on a counselor’s hand and wouldn’t let go. Or when a moth flew deep inside a camper’s ear and had to be extracted with an ancient and bizarre technique. Then there was the camper who brought her grandma’s ashes to camp… and wasn’t very careful with them. In this first episode of a two-part series, we begin our exploration of the specialness and weirdness of summer camp with a collection of true-life tales submitted by Outside Podcast listeners that will make you wish you could go to camp right now—and also question why anyone would ever send their kids.
This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Avocado Green Mattress, makers of 100 percent organic-certified mattresses—and more products, like their new meditation pillow. Visit avocadogreenmattress.com to learn more. And to save $175 dollars on any mattress, use the code OUTSIDE175 at checkout.
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Sarah: Kids puke, it happens all the time. We were used to kids puking, can't explain it, they just do. But Tuesday rolls around. And like, we've noticed that since Sunday, there's been a few more kids puking than what we're usually exposed to.
Michael Roberts (host): Now, hold on, please don’t stop listening! This episode is not going to be about kids throwing up. It’s just that when we announced our interest in hearing people’s most memorable experiences from summer camp, a whole lot of you submitted stories about, well... kids throwing up.
That’s because it does happen all the time at camp, like the former counselor you just heard said. But it’s also because a lot of those stories tend to be as funny as they are gross. And they are certainly memorable.
This is Michael Roberts, and for the next couple weeks, I’m delighted to share with you a number of true and impossible-to-forget stories from sleepover summer camp. Some of them are outrageous. Others are kind of sweet. And all of them remind us of the amazing things that happen when young people enjoy the freedom that comes with being outside all day—and far, far away from their parents.
This summer, many sleepover camps are on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, based on the enthusiastic response we got to our request for your stories, has only amped up people’s desire to relive the glory and agony of camp.
Our first couple of stories this week are not about throwing up… but they do involve the infirmary because, the truth is, at camp, that’s where the action is.
D: I absolutely loved every aspect of camp. The activities that they would have. Sardines is always my favorite, the opposite of hide and seek where you'd have to go find the counselor type of stuff and you get to spend a week away from your parents, which is -- what's not to love about that.
Roberts: This is D. Like everyone in this series, I’ve changed his name so that he can be more forthcoming with details about his experiences.
D used to go to a large co-ed summer camp in Colorado. It was run by his church, and there were all kinds of traditional camp activities. He had a great time every year he went, though he also developed a reputation for being the boy who gets injured.
His first accident happened the summer before he entered 6th grade, when he and other boys volunteered to collect wood for a planned bonfire.
D: So we all go out and as being preteen boys, we were trying to see who could bring back the bigger stick. We were bringing back logs and just completely unrealistic size pieces of wood for this fire.
Roberts: In order to get the oversized pieces of wood small enough to fit in the firepit, D came up with the crafty idea of leaning them on a big log and then jumping on them to break them in half.
You probably know where this is going.
D: And then there was one that we just couldn't break. And so we're jumping on it and jumping on it. And I was one of the bigger kids there. So I said, all right, I'll jump on it. So I jumped as high as I could and then jumped down on the stick and then the end of the stick pops up and hits me in my eye.
Roberts: Of course it did. His face swelled up, and eventually he was taken to the infirmary, and then a hospital emergency room. He had a deep scratch on his eyeball, and returned to camp wearing a patch, which meant he had to spend the rest of his session helping the camp cook and enduring a lot of pirate jokes..
So, a stick in the eye … Kind of a standard, predictable kid injury story, right? But it was also preparation for a bizarre incident that took place two summers later, when D’s camp was helping restore the property of another camp
D: We were middle schoolers and they actually, at one point gave us chainsaws, which looking back was probably a bad idea.
Roberts: Don’t worry. There’s no blood in this story. D’s accident took place in the evening, after a long day of hard work.
D: I'm walking back to where we were sleeping. And if you've ever been in the mountains of Colorado, if there's anywhere where there's a light, there's a bunch of moths around those lights. So I was walking by and I felt something buzz by my ear. So I went to swat the moth away from my ear, and I swatted the moth deep into my ear canal. And the moth was still alive and started flooding around, deep in my ear canal.
Roberts: (to D) So you sort of took a hand and like smacked in at your ear and the next thing, you know, it's like way in there?
D: It was a one in a million type of shot. It's trying to shoot an arrow with another arrow type of shot to get that moth into my ear.
Roberts: (voiceover) D did what you would do: he stuck his finger in his ear and tried to get the bug out. That didn’t work, so he went to a bathroom and tried to look into his ear in the mirror. He couldn’t see anything.
Pretty soon, the head counselor—the same one who driven D to the emergency room two years earlier, for his scratched eye—has a flashlight and tweezers and is attempting to yank the moth out. But... the thing was deep in there.
Then, just as D was getting ready for another trip to the ER, the owner of the camp comes to the rescue.
D: Basically the picture perfect version of a mountain man that owns a camp in Colorado -- plaid vest, plaid shirt, hiking boots, big beard -- comes walking in with these -- they look like these paper funnels. And he explains that they're ear candles.
Roberts: Ah, yes, ear candles. In case you’re not familiar, they are hollow cones made out of cloth and soaked in wax. Place one end into your ear, light the other end … and wait for the magic to happen.
D: So what they did is they laid me down on my side with my ear up and they explained to me that they're going to put this candle into my ear, light the candle on fire. And the fire is going to create some sort of vortex that's going to pull all the ear wax out of my ear. And hopefully while it's pulling the ear wax, it would pull the moth out of my ear as well.
Roberts: You’d think D might have been freaked out by this plan. But no.
D: The people that knew about ear candles had so much confidence in them. And also they were, they were pastors at the church and other things, so I respected them. So when they said, Hey, this is what we need to do. I'm like, okay, let's go. It takes probably about 15 minutes for this thing to burn all the way down.
And then as the candle was burning down, I could feel my ear canal getting wider because of the ear wax that was coming out of my ear. As the candle was burning, you could feel the moth moving less and less. And about halfway through the candle, there was no movement left at all.
And as soon as it burns down, they blow out the ear candle so it doesn't burn me. They sit me up and they take the ear candle and lay it down and the old man that owns the camp, pulls out his pocket knife and cuts into the ear candle and start sifting through the ear wax and everybody's kind of standing around very anxiously waiting to see if it actually worked
So he cuts into it. He's moving things around with his knife. And then he finally sees the body of the moth and everybody, at this point it starts getting relieved. And also very curious at the time, even myself, I was very curious to see what size, the size of the moth that was in my ear. And it was actually fairly small and it makes sense on why this moth was able to fit inside in my ear canal.
Roberts: But that’s not the end of the story. Poor D, on his last day of camp, jumped into a freezing cold pond and accidentally swallowed a mouthful of water. Several hours later, on the van ride home, he started to feel not so good.
D: So I tell the driver that I'm starting to feel really nauseous and I'm getting a headache. So what he does, he says, Oh, you're fine. I'll just turn up the air conditioning. And I was sitting towards the back of the van. The air conditioning did not work at all.
Roberts: We won’t describe what happened next, because I made you a promise earlier that we wouldn’t talk about that. Let’s just say it was a very long, very messy ride.
But that's still not the end of the story.
D: So it was, it was about a year later.I was just taking a normal shower -- get out of the shower, pull out, pull out some Q-tips. I start cleaning my ear and I felt something not like normal ear wax inside of my ear. So I pulled it out and stuck to the Q-tip was the wing of the moth that didn't come out with the ear candle and had been stuck in my ear for essentially the last year.
Roberts: D says he never told anybody about finding the wing—until now.
A number of other listeners wrote in with stories about accidents and injuries, but the most shocking tale from came from a first-time camp nurse, who had an experience at an idyllic YMCA camp in the midwest that feels right out of an awesomely stupid summer movie. Or maybe South Park.
Emily: When I showed up, I had no sort of orientation. I mean, I agreed to be the camp nurse because I just thought, why not mix things up in my middle aged routine life with two kids.
Roberts: Meet Emily, a professional nurse practitioner, who not too long ago accepted an invitation to be a camp nurse for a week because it was a chance to do something different. Plus, her kids would get to go for free.
Emily: Like right before going, I sort of had regret, like all my friends, they're sending their kids to summer camp and they get a week alone, but I was packing my stuff and going to camp too.
Roberts: As a veteran nurse who’d worked in a range of communities, including stints internationally and on a Native American reservation, Emily had encountered all kinds of medical situations though none of them prepared her for a most unexpected camp emergency.
It happened several days into her weeklong session, which had already been much more chaotic and exhausting than she expected.
Emily: I'm used to working in a very regimented -- I have patients with appointments, there's none of this sort of bombarding and the camp day it's structured where they have these different activities. And so when the hour and a half activity, if they were doing archery or the high ropes course, when that was over, they would come with their counselor or whoever. And so there would just be these waves of eight kids standing in the doorway waiting. And it was sorta difficult to figure out if this was a legitimate thing or if they’re trying to go with their friend to have a break.
It got to a point that I just stopped asking what happened, with their bleeding or minor injury because literally they had no memory.
Like they could not remember why they were bleeding or what had happened because they were having so much fun.
Roberts: One evening after dinner, Emily was in the infirmary, when a call came in over the camp radio: she needed to come to the Nature Center with the crash bag, a backpack that contained emergency medical supplies.
Emily: And usually when you get a distressed call, there's sort of anxiety in the voice and you can tell, okay, this is a true emergency, and I need to act fact fast, but this voice was sort of like -- like they weren't laughing, but you can tell that they had a smile in their voice and it was not any sort of urgency or pressured speech coming in.
Roberts: Emily admits that she didn’t even know the camp had a nature center. But she jumped in her golf cart with her college-aged assistant, who knew the way. When they entered the building, there was nobody around, just a lot of aquariums with turtles and other local creatures, plus some taxidermied animals on the walls.
Emily: I was thinking maybe this is sort of a prank. And I sort of felt hesitant like what am I walking into because no one was there and we were told to go there. And then at that point, a counselor ran up and kind of grabbed us and he basically says, no, it's over here. And he’s talking so fast so I don’t really know what’s going on. And I see a counselor and she is very distraught sobbing and she is very upset. And I see there is a snake that has clamped down on her hand and there's another counselor holding the weight of the snake because the snake is so massive. And I don’t know much about types of snakes but this is a snake I’ve never seen in my life. And its sort of yellow and white, and turns out an albino bullsnake.
Roberts: As Emily would later learn, the snake was a rockstar at the camp, beloved by both counselors and campers, who often made it a goal of their session to hold or feed it. It was ten feet long. We can’t tell you the snake’s real name, because we want to protect it’s true identity, so we’ll call it Martha.
Emily: And the counselor is just sobbing and trying not to scream. And I'm assuming that it's because she's in so much pain but she is just very worried that something is going to happen to Martha and that Martha will get hurt. And apparently as a story comes out, they've already tried to dunk the snake and water and all the sort of usual tricks because apparently this has happened before. But none of the usual tricks to unclamp this bullsnake has worked. So at this point I just make the camp decision. Like we have to get out of here, we have to go to the emergency room.
I knew that we could not just be standing here with this massive snake clamping down onto the sobbing counselor. I mean, it was quite the scene and it would be totally traumatic for the camp campers to see this. So I just felt like we just had to eject out of the scenario.
Roberts: A counselor drove a car down to the nature center, but Emily still had to get her patient—and Martha—into the car without any of the nearby campers getting a glimpse of the horror show.
Emily: The counselors instinctively know, why don't we just all sort of stand in a line with our backs to all the campers that are running around playing basketball and we'll just make a human barrier.
Roberts: It worked, and fairly quickly, Emily, her patient, Martha, and two other counselors were on their way to the hospital. On the way, Emily rolls up her sleeves and does her job.
Emily: I don't have a snake phobia, but I don't really seek snakes out. And to examine her hand to get an idea of like, does she have a pulse? Is there a sensation? You know, what is going on with her hand? I have to be right there with a snake's head and it's just sort of this pool of blood viscous, saliva mixed altogether all kind of on her hand and dripping down from her hand and the red snake eyes of this albino snake. And I can see the teeth and that is like completely clamped down on her hand that is sort of now a bluish hue and she is so upset and she just keeps repeating, I don't want anything to happen to Martha.
Roberts: Emily thought about calling the emergency room, to prepare them for what was coming, but didn’t have her phone and struggled to figure out the one she borrowed from one of the counselors.
Emily: I'm shaking a little bit too, because like, this is just clearly completely out of my, my normal day to day. And also I'm just thinking like, why me? Like, I have no idea how to handle a snake and who really is the patient? Is it the snake? Is it the counselor? And so I think at that point I sort of realized, okay, like, is the ER the right place to go?
I mean, should I be calling a vet? Should I be going to a zoo? It was just so chaotic in this, this car. And it was trying to calm down the counselor because I figured that she was so upset, which was upsetting the snake. And then during the car ride, she's announcing that the snake is clamping harder and harder and she can't feel her thumb.
And we rolled into the emergency room and like literally right when we're pulling into the ER, the snake detaches just suddenly.
So the other counselor in the backseat is now holding this snake that has now detached and we're just sort of stunned like, okay, well now what we're at the ER. And, but we also have a huge snake in this tiny little compact car.
Roberts: Thinking fast, they drop the snake into a canvas bag with a drawstring top that was in the back of the car. One of the counselors shouldered it … and the four of them strolled into the emergency room.
Emily: And there's a woman checking in with the receptionist and she has her infant in her car seat. And we're just standing sort of in line at the ER holding the snake and just thinking, Oh my gosh, what are we doing?
Roberts: (to Emily) Okay. So help me understand. There's a decision here that I'm curious about. You put Martha in this bag. Why did you bring the snake into the ER?
Emily: I really do not know the answer to that, but like this snake is such a loved snake that I think it actually was like, how could you leave the snake in the car? Like, of course she's going with us.
Roberts: The counselor who was bitten? She was fine. But in the weeks and months after the incident, Emily couldn’t stop second guessing her own decisions.
Emily: And I just kept thinking like, what should I have done? And I was up that night thinking like, did I handle this correctly? Like, I really didn't do anything.What should have been done in a scenario? So I asked an ER friend, a vet, and then that sort of friend we all have that just knows everything about everything about what they would do in this scenario.
And the ER doc, I said, what would you do if a patient came in with a 10 foot snake attached to her hand. And I asked a couple of ER docs. One was just like, Oh, chop off the snake. You know, obviously, and then another one was like, Oh, well maybe I'd inject a paralytic into the side where the jaw is and see if it lets go. And he had a very carefully, snake preservation answer. And the vet ended up asking some other exotic animal vets and I guess you can apply alcohol to Q-tips and cotton balls and sometimes with the smell, the snake, let go, let's go. Or sometimes I guess sometimes you can push really hard on the snake's eyeballs and it causes a vasovagal response and they let go. And I don't know, knowing all these options. I mean, I don't think if I had known that I would've done any of those. I mean I can't imagine squishing snake eyeballs while it was attached to someone and hoping for the best, but I was sort of just left with like God, was that a failure moment? Or I don't know what my role was and I still, to this day, I feel a little confused by the whole scenario.
Roberts: We’ll be right back.
Roberts: Remember the former counselor who spoke at the start of the episode, the one who talked about puking? We’ll call her Sarah. She’d worked at an all-girls camp for a few years and told me that, after a while, she wasn’t surprised by anything that happened at camp anymore. And then something really, really surprising happened.
Sarah: It was like right after lunch and all the kids were like getting their stuff together for like their afternoon sessions. And this kid comes up and she's like, Hey, what should I do with this? And she was holding what was distinctly a small purple urn.
So I asked her, I was like, what is that? And she was like, it's my grandma's ashes. And so I was like, yeah, just put it away. For the love of God, don't bring grandma around camp with you. We don't need grandma getting lost anywhere. And so she's like, okay. And I think that she comprehends what I'm saying, but she's gotta be like nine years old. So, you know, me thinking that she understands me and her actually understanding are two very different things. So later in the day, I think that grandma’s taken care of or whatever, but I hear talk from the other counselors and they're like, did you hear what happened at the pool?
I was like, what happened at the pool? And so apparently she was changing in the changing area and she like, drops her bag and out comes grandma, purple urn and all, and is just everywhere on the pool deck.
Roberts: Sarah says it took a while for the pool director to understand exactly what had been spilled, partly because the poor young camper was rather upset. Eventually, though, grandma was swept up and returned to the urn. Afterwards, the counselors put in a call to the camper’s parents to let them know what happened ...and also, to ask, Why did grandma come to camp?
Sarah: And her parents were just like, yeah, it's part of her grieving process, which okay, like I can respect that. Maybe just put a tighter lid on the earth next time.
Roberts: So, yeah, a lot of outrageous stuff happens at camp. But, you know, a lot of really powerful moments happen, too—the kinds of experiences that can change young people… and ideally make them stronger, healthier adults.
Bonnie: Camp was a really big part of my life and it really shaped me to be the person that I am today.
Roberts: This is Bonnie. She went to the same camp from seventh grade through college, first as a camper, then as a counselor. It was in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, a long way from her home in California. The base was a ranch set at 9,000 feet, and there were rope courses, horses, and exceptional access to wilderness backpacking. For Bonnie, it offered an escape from traumas she was enduring in a critical stage of her development.
Bonnie: And then to have a safe place to go to every summer was literally a saving grace for me in my life.
Roberts: Her most impactful experience took place during her first year at the camp, when she was between sixth and seventh grade. She was part of a group of eight girls that had decided to focus on backpacking, and during the latter part of their camp session, they set out into the mountains for a three-day adventure with a few of their counselors. The goal was to summit a 14,000-foot peak, and the trip began on a gorgeous day.
Bonnie: We're hiking away and we're just having a grand old time. I remember we sang a lot of songs. We told a lot of stories as we're out there hiking and just really enjoying the scenery. And later in the afternoon, as we’re getting higher in elevation, we see the clouds start to roll in.
Roberts: Soon a big thunderstorm was soaking the campers. They threw on ponchos and kept going, until the rain got really, really heavy.
Bonnie: And all of a sudden, like we see there's just like water, like flooding down the mountain and it feels like we're literally hiking up a river.
Roberts: The counselors decided to scout ahead along the trail—only to find that another group had claimed their planned campsite. This meant that Bonnie’s crew would have to trudge along a good bit farther before they could stop to make their shelters.
Bonnie: Eventually, we hear those beloved words of we're going to camp here for the night. And so we were so relieved. And at this point it's, it's almost dark and it's still raining.
We pull off to the side and find our little spot. We are so cold that we find we can't even take off our backpacks. We can't unclip the belt that goes around the waist. We can't untie our shoes. We can't take off our socks. So we actually start helping each other. And so it was a lot easier to untie somebody else's shoes then bend down and kind of do your own shoes. And so we really started to bond together by really helping each other out. And we were helping each other take off our packs. Cause it was just, we were frozen stiff basically.
Roberts: The counselors set up tarps and in shorter order, everyone was comfortable and happy.
Bonnie: Eight girls, you know, underneath one tarp and we're very warm and cozy and time to get fresh clothes. They brought us hot chocolate as we sat in our sleeping bags. We had flashlights on and told stories and, and really just had an amazing time together.
Roberts: The next day, the group decided that they’d skip the 14,000-foot peak. Instead, some of them went hiking, while others relaxed. That night would be their last out in the wild before their trek back down to the ranch
Bonnie: We wake up in the morning, kind of come out of our tarps, look around and our counselors are nowhere to be found. There was no note left for us. All of their stuff was gone. All that was left behind was a stove and some granola for all of us to share for breakfast. So we look around, we're kind of looking at each other. We're like, all right, is this for real here? And you start yelling out into the woods, see if we can get any response. But of course we hear nothing, nothing in return. And after a while, it kind of sinks in they're not coming back for us, we decide that we were gonna make some moves.
Roberts: The campers cooked their breakfast and started getting their gear together for the hike down. All of them, that is, except one. There was a girl who was a bit younger than everyone else, and she was having a hard time.
Bonnie: She was laying in her sleeping bag, pulled over her head refusing to move. And so we were like, all right, well, let's just get our stuff together. Let's do everything we can do on our end and kind of see how this goes.
Roberts: Soon, everything was ready, except for this one camper.
Bonnie: And at one point, you know, we literally had to essentially rip the sleeping bag out from underneath her. We really didn't know what else to do at the time. And so we start kind of packing up her stuff. We roll up her sleeping bag. We put her things in her bag and still she's refusing to move.
Roberts: Bonnie and the other campers didn’t know what to do. But then, without really thinking about it, they started to sing—a habit that had been a big part of their camp experience.
Bonnie: And there was this one particular song that we were singing almost the whole weekend. And that was a Smash Mouth song. And so here we are singing, Hey, now you're an all star, get your game on, go play. Hey, now you're a rockstar. Get the show on, get paid. So that was our jam. We sang that song and I could see this person, the sixth grader who was having such trouble, I could see it start to make a difference and pretty soon she was bopping her head along to the music. You could see her start to like mouth the words and it made a difference. Next thing we know she's hopping up and getting dressed and is ready to kind of move on with the day.
Roberts: Not long after the group was on the trail, the younger again started having trouble. The hike was just too much for her.
Bonnie: And she sat down on a rock and refused to move. And so luckily we had an amazing leader in our group and she went right over to her and she said, I'm gonna carry your backpack. If I carry your backpack, will you keep walking? And the girl said, yes. And she carried that backpack all the way down that mountain. I was so in awe. We were ready to just go -- the rest of us, we were kind of picking ourselves up and moving, like, why can't this person? But that wasn't the point. And that's what she saw. She saw that wasn't the point. She saw that in order to get us all home, we needed to do something different.
And she did the most selfless deed she could possibly have done. And that's what got us down the mountain.
Roberts: As Bonnie would later learn when she became a counselor, having campers take on a big challenge without letting them know it was coming was a regular practice at the camp. And given where she was at in her own life , it was exactly what she needed.
Bonnie: So imagine going into seventh grade, brand new school, bottom of the totem pole, but having this experience of walking up a river as it's raining and pouring, and being able to hike on your own solo, being able to take care of yourself in the wilderness, without any adults. Like this whole experience built a ton of resiliency, that in some ways with the things I was experiencing in my childhood, this was lifesaving.
Roberts: Bonnie says her years at camp ultimately helped her find her purpose.
Bonnie: I have been working with youth since I was a camp counselor. I'm a mentor, I'm a mental health professional. I do a lot of leadership with the youth that I work with. I do a lot of leadership with adults, so it no doubt shaped who I am as a person and the career path that I've taken.
Roberts: Bonnie’s camp experiences may have influenced her more profoundly than the other people I spoke with for this episode, but interestingly, all of them agreed that camp is a very special place and they’d happily go back—or at least send their kids.
This despite the risk they might get an insect stuck inside their head.
D: So I have a 10 year old daughter and every year that she's been able to go to camp, I've always sent her because I think it's a great place for memories, for personal growth to try things out when your parents aren't around.
Roberts: Or the chance that they’d be asked to pry a giant snake off someone’s hand.
Emily: Broken bones, blood splinters, poor sleep on my part, but I think I would do be the camp nurse again.
Roberts: (to Emily) So you would actually do it again. Why?
Emily: I mean, my life as a middle aged professional is so rote. I mean, it’s the same thing with kids, job, all that. To be just plucked in this scenario of total chaos and surrounded by the happiest kids and young adults having the best time of their life. It's pretty amazing. I mean, you forget about that joy as an adult.
Roberts: And even if they might be asked to to clean up grandma’s ashes.
(to Sarah) With everything that happened, I don’t know if you plan to have kids, but would you ever send your kids to camp?
Sarah: Absolutely. It's hell and everyone should have to go through it.
Roberts: This episode is the first in a two-part series focusing on summer camp. Next week we’ll be back with stories of campers going way, way out there… and also taking illicit shortcuts.
This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.
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