Camp Fire: Over a century of bringing kids of all backgrounds into the great outdoors to discover their true natures

Campers walking through the forest trails at Camp Fire // Photo courtesy Camp Fire

Catching a frog is something of a rite of passage at Camp Fire Minnesota. The wetlands at Tanadoona—the primary camp and nature-based learning property for the national youth development organization’s Minnesota branch—are teeming with the amphibians, and marketing director Kelly Abraham says that regardless of the kid’s age, background, and familiarity with nature, sooner or later they will present their slimy discovery to the camp’s on-site naturalist. “Every kid, you accept it, will catch a frog,” she says. “You let them have fun and build their relationship with nature in a way that’s right for them.”

Camp Fire was formed in 1910 to provide immersive, educational outdoor experiences to youth historically excluded from nature camp programs. Around the turn of the century, this meant, simply, a nature camp for girls. Its founding was in part a response to the fact that comparable clubs and camps at the time either served boys alone—Boy Scouts began in February 1910—or were rooted in religion. Camp Fire emerged as the first nonsectarian organization for girls of its time. It established a branch in Minnesota in 1912. In 1975, Camp Fire decided that its commitment to inclusivity should involve boys, too, and began offering co-ed programs. Now, in 2019, Camp Fire actively promotes participation by transgender, low-income, immigrant, and urban youth.

“We feel a moral obligation that all young people deserve and have the right to access nature,” says Marnie K. Wells, CEO of Camp Fire Minnesota and a former camp alum herself. 

Campers at Hercules cabin // Photo courtesy Camp Fire

Programming includes weeklong overnight camps, weekend family camps, day camps, and leadership development programs. Most are held at Tanadoona, the sprawling nature reserve hidden in plain sight just outside of Chanhassen. A second campsite, Camp Bluewater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, serves as a jumping-off point for canoe trips through the Wabana Chain of Lakes. In 2017, Camp Fire further increased the number of kids they serve by providing year-round environmental education and team-building field trips to Tanadoona.

Fourteen-year-old Izzy Fossing is going on her seventh summer of Camp Fire day camp and says she’s looking forward to reconnecting with camp friends and counselors—and also disconnecting (no phones are allowed during camp). “I really like being outside all day and not having to worry about anything else going on,” she says. “A lot of kids, especially now, are always on electronics. And especially in the summer if they don’t have something to do besides that, they would just stay inside and watch TV.” 

Izzy’s list of favorite camp activities spans from canoeing to the public beach on Lake Minnewashta, to setting up hammocks and hanging out with her friends. Her mother, Cate Fossing, says the organization successfully balances structured activities with free time that invites exploration. “The way the day was structured, they had activities planned but they had a lot of downtime where they could find their own things to do and play cards and make friendship bracelets and make friendships,” she says.

Day camp coordinator Rachael Chapman has attended Camp Fire for the past eight years—five as a camper and three as a counselor/camp staff member. “I’ve always thought of Tanadoona as my second home,” Chapman says. Now a junior studying elementary education at the University of Minnesota, Chapman says she’s attended other camps but never experienced the same level of connection with nature or fellow campers as she did at Camp Fire. “I met so many people I still have bonds with,” she says. “Some of them still work [at Tanadoona]. We all kind of grew up there together.”

Camp counselor Rachel Chapman demonstrating archery at Camp Tandoona // Photo courtesy Camp Fire

Programs are designed to make nature exciting and inviting, responding to the fact that many campers are unfamiliar with spending the whole day outdoors and can be hesitant to embrace the elements that come with the experience. Tanadoona’s low ropes course offers tiers of challenges campers can tackle as they grow—whether that’s day by day or year by year. (Abraham estimates 55 percent of students return annually.) Campers also receive a swimming assessment at the start of camp and are assigned appropriate water activities that provide experiences that empower, rather than overwhelm, participants. “It’s about meeting kids where they’re at and starting where they’re comfortable,” says Abraham.

To further establish a comfortable environment, practices of inclusivity are built into all Camp Fire programs. At the start of camp, each participant shares a name and preferred pronoun. They’re even encouraged to use a new name if they so desire. It’s all part of creating an environment where kids can be who they are, or find out who they want to be.

Lucia Copland’s daughter, Lauren, has been involved in Camp Fire programming for the past 11 years, first as a camper, then as a counselor in training, and now as a full-time summer counselor. Copland says she appreciates how Camp Fire weaves the promotion and celebration of diversity into its programming, including actively recruiting international counselors so campers can get a window into cultures and customs from around the globe. “Speaking as a mother by adoption of a child from China, I would say that there is a lot of racial diversity at Camp Tanadoona as compared with the relative lack of diversity in most Twin Cities neighborhoods,” Copland says. “This diversity of staff and campers makes Camp [Fire] a level playing field in the truest sense.”

The organization’s scholarship program provides economic diversity as well, although it isn’t visible in the same way. Chapman says she attended camp on scholarship but never felt singled out because of it: “Economic diversity doesn’t show up so much because kids don’t pay attention to that.”

Campers often leave visibly more self-aware and confident. Copland said she’s seen Lauren’s leadership skills develop and deepen through her camp experiences. “She learned how to get along in groups of kids she didn’t know, how to make friends in circumstances that seemed very far from her ordinary life, how to organize herself and others, how to lead a group into decision-making, and how to be in charge when needed,” Copland says.

Camp Fire seeks to introduce even more kids to nature in the context of their everyday surroundings through five Out-of-School clubs held across the Twin Cities. Via partnerships with schools and affordable housing communities like Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis, the Out-of-School programs offer homework help, outdoor and nature-based activities, and field trips to Tanadoona for kids in kindergarten up to sixth grade. In 2018, the clubs provided programming for 212 kids. “Even on the West Bank [of Minneapolis], nature is all around us and we want kids to be aware of that,” says Wells. “Ultimately, we are raising a generation that will hopefully help save the planet.”

Out-of-School clubs also help raise awareness about camp scholarship opportunities, which support approximately 45 percent of students attending Camp Fire Minnesota programs.

Harnessed in and helmeted up Camp Fire campers work through the ropes course // Photo courtesy Camp Fire

Camp Fire currently has several initiatives in progress designed to better support the growing number of kids it serves. In 2018, its camp and after-school programs reached 5,800 kids; that number is projected to be 7,000 in 2019. 

One of the biggest projects underway is a new community and dining center at Tanadoona that will hold twice as many children as the current facility, have gender-neutral bathrooms, and offer year-round programming. The strategic initiatives go beyond the physical, too. Camp Fire is in the midst of organizing community listening sessions to better understand what types of access and interaction with nature diverse communities want, and what barriers or challenges are preventing them from accessing these experiences. This research will inform and build on existing outreach efforts, all conducted under the perspective that bringing nature and youth together is mutually beneficial.

“Our entire premise—our entire hope—is that we help youth discover the spark within themselves and that they see themselves and their contributions as a valued member of our community regardless of their background,” Wells says. “We stand firm in being inclusive. We believe so firmly that nature is a catalyst for change and all children deserve an experience in the outdoors.”

Campers gathered listening to their counselor // Photo courtesy Camp Fire