Written by Natalie Viset from Australia
CHI Camp Leaders participant
I’m just throwing it out there first up, that I have the best job in the world and my life has infinitely been changed for the better… If you’d told me at the beginning of this year that I would have done half the things I’ve done this summer, I would have laughed at you. From the moment I got into the Camp Carolina van at the airport, I knew I was going to a special place. Within the first week, I fell absolutely head over heels crazy in love with Camp, Brevard and the surrounds. Forests, lakes, whitewater, hundred mile long caves, waterfalls a plenty… how could you not?
Being a photo video counsellor means it’s not just enough to be there when the action is happening, you’ve got be one step ahead at all times, so in the first week I was thrown into mountain bike training, white water raft training, and outdoor rock climbing and bouldering training, none of which I had ever done before. From never doing these activities in my life, I am now able to ride up and down crazy mountain bike trails, face my fear of heights and climb epic outdoor rock faces, and navigate my way down class 3 rapids in an inflatable kayak all while being able to stop to capture that amazing video and photo. I didn’t come to camp with that many expectations, in fact, truth be told, after 8 years working in a corporate environment I just wanted a break, and being a camp counsellor was something I always wanted to do. My background is in media, television and acting so I thought I might be able to make a contribution, while fulfilling my own goals and coming to a camp that has the best outdoor tripping program in the country. I won’t lie, some of my motivations were selfish and I didn’t expect camp to have such an impact on me, but it has and now I never want to leave.
The outdoor program here is next level awesome, on any given day the boys can decide in the morning to sign up for a half day, full day, or overnight trip out of camp. They can go mountain biking, mountain boarding, rock climbing, wakeboarding, sea kayaking, white water rafting, white water kayaking, horse trail riding, hiking, waterfall diving, backpacking, tubing, paddleboarding, caving, and even on a 3 day surf trip on the other side of the state. These kids are genuinely the luckiest kids in the world, but I feel even luckier that I get to meet them and experience all these trips and also the awesome in camp activities with them. Most camp counsellors have one activity they work on, or one job to do for the summer and then only get the chance to explore or try activities in their time off. Over the course of the summer I felt like I was a camper myself and got the opportunity to go with boys of all ages to ALL these different trips and activities… seriously, pinch me… how can I get to do this and call it work? BUT despite all the awesome activities I’ve gotten to do (and they’re phenomenal high adrenaline, super active trips), and all the amazing places I’ve seen (do yourself a favour and visit North Carolina), none of that compares to the experience of being with the boys themselves, to watching them develop in their confidence, their self esteem, facing their fears, increasing skills in a sport, or just helping clear the table after dinner and earning their good citizenship award for being a True Gentleman, a paddle that gets branded each time they come back to camp.
There are too many moments to talk about in one post, but I do want to share with you a few of the most memorable moments where I’ve been lost for words, or covered in goosebumps because I realised how special a moment I was part of while working here at Camp Carolina.
Probably the first moment I realised I was part of something incredibly special was on a wakeboarding trip out to the beautiful lake Jocassee in South Carolina. I was having the best day sitting on the back of the boat, chatting to the boys, swimming in waterfalls and taking videos and photos of the boys wakeboarding. This was a trip with the oldest boys in camp, so most of them had been coming for years, and so were at the level that they were starting to do tricks, but there was one boy who still hadn’t been able to get up on the board. He had been trying and trying all day, but couldn’t manage to stand up. They were about to take the boats in for the day when he decided to have one last go. The first time, no luck, second time, no luck, but the third time he managed to get up. It was only for a split second, but the look of joy on his face, in that instant became the happiest moment in my life. To make it even better I managed to get a photo. I can’t actually explain or put properly into words the joy I felt as I watched this boy have this moment. It was met by huge cheers from all the other boys on the boat and the counsellors, and he eagerly got ready to go again. I’ve actually got goosebumps even writing about this moment. In the 5 minutes following that moment he progressed remarkably and was able to stay up for a good 30 seconds. I could have cried both for happiness for him, but also for the realization that I wasn’t just at a fun activity camp, I wasn’t just enjoying a day in the sun and taking a few shots, I was somewhere where boys grew and developed in skills and independence and confidence and it didn’t matter where they came from, this camp and the incredible counsellors were shaping these boys lives in a way that I never could have imagined.
I came to camp as a pretty adventurous person, ready to try or do anything, but the one thing that scared me a little (ok a lot) was the idea of sitting up on a rock face looking down to shoot photos and videos of kids while only tied to a rope. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights so much as I’m afraid of falling and dying. As luck happened I was the only one on my team able to go on the climbing trips, so fear or no fear I was getting up that wall. Pisgah National Forest is home to an amazing rock called Looking Glass rock, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and it is at this rock that I fell in love with rock climbing. I swiftly invested in my own climbing shoes and helmet, and whenever there was a climbing trip that needed a photographer or videographer and I was free I jumped at the chance to face the fear over and over again. This led to the rock climbing prize trip, a double overnight climbing and bouldering trip to the beautiful Linville Gorge. For those folk from Australia, it’s like looking over the Blue Mountains. 8 lucky kids got the chance to go on this trip every session, and got to climb with the most epic views, and in my unbiased opinion get the best photos to show Mom and Dad when they get home. On the second of these trips we ventured a different direction and discovered this amazing rappel, probably about 50m (165ft) high and down into a cave. The boys were ecstatic, as were the really keen instructors, so the enthusiasm and buzz was infectious. After a few of the boys had had their turn I noticed one of the boys was getting a little nervous though as his turn approached… he was starting to worry and say he couldn’t do it but also didn’t want to have come all that way not to. Jonny, the amazing instructor, (and now one of my dearest friends) a pro climber from Scotland noticed this too and told the boy, whose nickname was Hollywood because he had the Hollywood child actor charm, that it was all going to be okay. Jonny preceded to tell Hollywood about how he too gets scared about things all the time, so he likes to do breathing exercises to help get through it. So picture this, we’re at the top of these mountains on the edge of a cliff face and I watched as one breath at a time the two of them did some deep breaths while Jonny clipped him into the harness. After a few more words of encouragement from Jonny and a “you’ve got this” from me, Hollywood then nervously started rappelling down towards Axel the other instructor who was on the ground. After taking the photo at the top I ran down and around the side then to get the other view and watched like a super proud Mom as Hollywood slowly started making his way down. He got about halfway down the wall when he suddenly stopped gritting his teeth, put on the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and yelled up the cliff “Jonny thank you so much for helping me down, this is the best moment of my life.” I somehow through all that managed to get that all on camera and in photos, and if I hadn’t it still would have been one of the best moments of my life. As a 31 year old it was hard enough for me to face that fear, but seeing Hollywood have that moment, and then seeing him get on every climbing trip after, and talk about all the climbing he’s going to do when he gets home, that, that right there is why I really came to camp. I didn’t know it before but I certainly knew it now, but I could have sat there all day smiling, and I welled up with tears at the time. That photo gives me so much joy and I know it will for the rest of my life. His friends and family will see that photo and think it’s crazy cool, but they won’t see what Jonny, Axel and I saw, and that’s priceless.
These were just stories of two boys in over 600 who I encountered this summer. There are an infinite number of other things that made my summer incredible, from as simple as kids remembering my name, or them telling me how proud they are of their high score in riflery, or calling me over to video their awesome backflip skills off the high dive, or even down to the kids who weren’t as well behaved and needed a gentle reminder of what the right thing to do was and then made me proud by their actions that followed. I conducted over 100 interviews with kids throughout the summer, each one of them offering me a new perspective on camp, and realised not only the individuality in each boys activity likes and dislikes, but also asking what camp means to them and hearing their unique perspective. Not a bad word was said. The most surprising thing in fact was they all talked about how great it was to be away from technology for a month. Things I never thought I’d hear from this generation of kids.
This is a magical place and every boy that comes here leaves a little bit better, and I’m so happy that true gentlemen like these young men are shaping up to be, are going to help shape an awesome future for their families, friends and the world as a whole. I just hope I get the chance to see more of them making their mark on camp and the world.
My life won’t ever be the same after my experience working at Camp Carolina. Not only can I now raft guide, rock climb, mountain bike, kayak, turn around videos and photos on quick deadlines and run around camp with a camera and shoot on the fly like a superhero… I have made incredible friends from all over the world, spanning every continent. I don’t know what is next for me in the book of Natalie, but I know I have a new great love, and that is Camp Carolina. And at Camp Carolina I have found a new home. At campfire once a week the boys sing a song that says: “there aren’t many reasons I would leave, because I have found me some peace, I have found me a home, you can have the rest, of everything I own, cause I have found me a home.” So that sums up my experience in one word… HOME. Can someone else tell me family and friends back in Australia that for me though pretty please? 🙂
Camp Carolina, Camp leaders, thank you for making this happen.