Before the family had even unpacked, Ted Jadwin headed straight for the spots in the rustic Camp Nebagamon log cabins where he'd carved his name more than 30 years before. The carvings were still there, along with the narrow cots and bathrooms in the woods.
"Virtually nothing had changed," said Jadwin, now a 44-year-old Chicago lawyer. "I can't think of anything in my life that I can step back into like that. It's a strange and wonderful experience."
And one he's now able to share for a week every summer--complete with campfires, sing-a-longs, dining hall antics and lumpy cots--with his wife Margery and three kids. They attend family camp at the end of the regular summer season at the northern Wisconsin boy's camp in Lake Nebagamon. Together, the family lives in one of the old cabins, taking part in a full array of traditional camp activities from canoeing to archery, to arts and crafts, to swimming.
Across the country, from Long Island beaches to the California mountains, families are heading in ever-growing numbers to bona-fide family summer camps organized by private camps, the YMCA, Girl Scouts and even university alumni associations.
More than 200 camps now operate family programs--a 500% increase from a decade ago, reports the American Camping Assn. (Such programs are listed in the association's "Guide to Accredited Camps," available for $12.95. Call 800-428- 2267 to order or check your local library.)
"People are leading such hectic lives, a program like this is a true find," explained Nancy Noble, who directs UCLA's Bruin Woods Camp in Lake Arrowhead and who did a study of family camps for her doctoral dissertation. "The parents can be with the kids or not be with them. And even better, the kids can have a level of freedom they can't in the city."
"It's so relaxing. I can let the kids wander half a mile and know they're safe," explained Katie Cochran, a single parent from Hagerstown, Md., who takes her kids to family camp at Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Va. (800-873-3223). "The dress code is clean hands at dinner. And no one cares if you're single or a couple."
No wonder parents are booking months in advance. There are no meals to cook, no car pools to drive, no activities to arrange (the counselors do it all), no television and no phones or faxes to distress and distract.
"Where else can you be 12 again--and be with your kids at the same time?" asked Hugh Broder, another Camp Nebagamon veteran who takes his kids from Detroit for the week. "At night, we put the kids to bed and everyone chills out by the campfire."
Even better than the ambience is the price: typically under $1,500 for a family of four for the entire week. Many programs are less than $1,000.
But the best part, camp directors and parents agree, is the opportunity to get in some old-fashioned quality family time--with enough activities to keep the kids happy and enough breaks for the parents to feel like they've had a real vacation. They can learn to sail at one camp or play tennis at another, loll by the pool or canoe on a pristine lake, paint watercolors or hike in the mountains.
"It's the concept of a retreat," explained the American Camping Assn.'s Ruth Lister. "But you don't have to be nonstop with your kids."
Some camps such as Nebagamon (312-271-9500) just run family camp one week a year. Others, such as Timberlock in Indian Lake, N.Y. (802-457-1621), operate all season. And a small but growing number, such as the Montecito-Sequoia High Sierra Vacation Camp (800-227-9900) in Sequoia National Park near Fresno, are also open selected weeks and weekends throughout the year.
Even the city of Oakland operates Feather River Camp in Quincy, Calif. (510-238-2267). And now there are two--one in the Adirondack Mountains in New York and one in Oklahoma--designed for grandparents and grandchildren who live far apart. (Foundation for Grandparenting, Box 326, Cohasset, Mass. 02025.)
University alumni associations from UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Brigham Young, Indiana State and the University of Michigan also operate family camps in the mountains and at beaches, complete with professors offering seminars on everything from child rearing to jazz.
Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Address them to: Taking the Kids, 2859 Central St., Box 119, Evanston, Ill. 60201.