By Zoë Mason,
Bruce Peninsula Press
When I wound up the drive that enters Camp Celtic in Stokes Bay on a warm afternoon, I was immediately struck by two things. First, the overwhelming green of well-manicured lawn and far off forest that stretched behind the log-cabin office and dining hall behind. And second, a sprinkling of people. After months of driving through towns left deserted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of absence was striking.
Tim Matheson, the camp’s Senior Director, emerged from the office to greet me. An imposing figure, Matheson towers over me, but he exudes an unexpected warmth and excitement that is disarming.
For the better part of an hour, I was treated to a tour of the camp. The property, 200 acres plus a beachfront that is leased from the municipality every year, is a whimsical world unto itself. Cabins old and new — named after trees, the general outdoors, or in the case of Big Rock Candy Mountain, a song featured in a Clooney flick — are nestled between the trees and accessible by gravel paths.
The paths take campers to a variety of facilities, including a radio tower, home to Camp Celtic’s broadcast, The Donkey — “the voice of the swamp;” “the Cave,” an indoor recreational facility, normally used for basketball and floor hockey and currently used by several squatting pigeons; several archery ranges — Matheson blames the Hunger Games for a steep increase in demand for archery; and an organic garden. “Not certified organic,” says Matheson, “but by all measures, it’s organic.”
As we wound through the camp, Matheson — known affectionately at Celtic by his camp name, “Lumpy” — told me its story.
As a young couple in London, Matheson and his then partner, Kris, scraped together the funds to purchase the swath of land that would grow to become Camp Celtic in 1983. Having spent a few years of his early youth in Lion’s Head, Matheson had an affinity for the Bruce Peninsula, and dreamt of starting a summer camp there.
The camp he envisioned was what he called an “instructional camp in a traditional camp framework.” He wanted educational activities — such as “environmental studies,” an early program about wildlife and ecosystems that has evolved beyond its bookish title and its early topics to include new lessons, such tracing food back to its source (enter, the organic garden). But above that, he wanted to cultivate the classic camp experience: campfires, singing, and plenty of the great outdoors.
The first camp ran in the summer of 1984. Over five weeks, the Mathesons — by then newlyweds — hosted 91 kids total. Today, the camp can host 160 kids at a time, at full capacity. But despite some new additions — the garden, the climbing wall, the archery range — the fundamentals of Camp Celtic have largely remained the same.
“It’s simply our belief that one of the key ingredients in the recipe that is camp, they’re things like sense of adventure, being away from home, appreciation of the outdoors, singing, playing games, laughing, being away from home, jumping into cold water, and being away from home. And so the exact amounts of those things I don’t know. But I do know that when they all come together, it works. And it wouldn’t work if one of those key ingredients wasn’t there.”
While the Matheson family recipe may have remained the same over the last thirty years, the world outside of Celtic has not.
“One of the things that’s happened in my lifetime is that people started being afraid,” said Matheson as we concluded our tour.
As the years wore on, Matheson said that he saw the average age of his campers was increasing as parents became more and more nervous to let their children spend their summers away from home. It was with the intention of attracting the younger demographic that the Rookie Camp was born — a 48-hour mini camp for first-time campers aged 6-8, with the objective of “demystifying” camp, in the words of Matheson. Rookie Camp was such a hit that Celtic opened a second Rookie Camp. This summer, Celtic was anticipating its highest enrollment numbers since its conception.
Camp Celtic has also grown against the backdrop of the digital revolution.
“it’s a philosophy. It’s not a rule. Really, it’s a condition of being at camp is that there are no cell phones or internet,” says Matheson.
The cell phone is detrimental to the camp experience because it actively undermines the principle Matheson stressed the most — being away from home. More often than not, it’s the parents, not the campers, who insist on maintaining a connection throughout.
“They think they’re throwing their child a lifeline by sneaking a cell phone into their duffel bag. And I like to say to that parent when it comes out, because it always comes out, ‘you’re not throwing them a lifeline. You’re throwing them in with a cement block.’”
The enduring importance of sleepaway summer camps, according to Matheson, is severing those ties.
“You know, I’m 60 years old and you don’t stop trying to become more aware,” he says. “But camp accelerates a kid’s ability to appreciate who they are, (to understand) how it’s okay to be who they are, and (to learn that) there are lots of other people out there not exactly the same as them, or exactly the same as anybody else. And it’s okay to be them too. And it does that because when you come to camp and leave all your other stuff at home, you get to be a blank page, or sometimes, a different entity.”
Matheson’s own experiences at camp informed his philosophy of self-discovery.
“I went to a little church camp for one week of summer. It was a landlocked little church camp. And I was a better person at camp that week than I was the rest of the year,” he says. “When I became a counselor there and eventually a director there, I always felt I left camp a better person than when I started it. It was renewal, I guess. Maybe it’s a form of rehab. We all need our own escapes and our own rebirths and rejuvenation. Camp, for some reason, keeps doing that generation after generation.”
It’s a philosophy that seems to resonate with many. As we toured the Celtic grounds, we came periodically across the small groups of smiling youth I’d seen when I arrived.
Camp Celtic, I learned, had employed over 40 counselors for the summer season prior to the pandemic. When COVID restrictions were announced, many were laid off, but for 16 of the most senior counselors, Matheson found a unique way to keep camp going.
After two weeks of quarantine, they moved back to Celtic, doing maintenance and groundskeeping work that doubled as a hopeful preparation for a late opening — a hope only dashed midway through the month of May, when sleepaway summer camps were confirmed to remain closed by the Ontario government — and as a loophole that allowed counselors to return to a place that for many, felt like home.
The work is gruelling — cutting down trees, renovating cabins, chopping new trails — but invariably, the pods of workers we encountered were in high spirits. And the whimsy that permeates the camp is unrelenting; the teams of workers identify themselves collectively by group names — I met the Trailblazers and the Nailbangers on my walkabout — and individually, by camp names.
“I would never call Bolt ‘Jake,’” Julia Cressman, or ‘Viola,’ told me.
“I wouldn’t want you to!’” responded Jake Godfrey, or ‘Bolt.’
Godfrey has been on staff at Celtic for seven years, and he shares Matheson’s vision of camp as a great place to wipe the slate clean.
“This was the first place where I could really be who I wanted to be. And then, when I was in the LIT (Leader in Training) program, I saw it as a chance where I could help other people have that same moment.”
Cressman, too, cites Lumpy’s philosophies as one of the reasons she’s come back for twelve years.
“We call it here ‘camp magic’ — it’s moments where you catch yourself being like, ‘this is the best, and I’m probably never gonna be in a place like this again,’” she says. “When I was a kid and I was camper, Lumpy would give his philosophy at the end of camp, at the end of the session. He would make us really think about ‘what parts of camp do you want to take home?’ And I really took that to heart as a kid. We get so caught up in the real world and frivolous things and material things. It’s just really cool to see every kid, from age eight to 16, questioning their priorities.”
For some, it’s a realignment that lasts a lifetime. Geoffrey Yayes — better known around camp as Guppy — is today the camp’s Facilities and Waterfront Director, and has been a fixture at Camp Celtic for over thirty years.
“I truly appreciate being amongst the youth,” he says with a smile. “It keeps me young.”
There’s appreciation abounding for the select few who have spent the last few weeks at Celtic.
“I always said that if anything apocalyptic or crazy were to happen in the world or make the world stop, I would like to come to camp,” adds Rebecca Thompson, a counselor in her fifth year on staff.
Herself, her twin brother, and her older sister have all spent time as counselors at Celtic. Her brother and herself — known around camp as Major and Fawcett, respectively — spent only a couple short sessions there before applying to be LITs.
“We weren’t campers for very long, not even for a regular summer session. But every time we came we were like ‘holy crap, this is the best place in the world.’” she says.
All of them have stories — from rained-out all-camp games to campfire revelations to sailboat bonding. But this short reprieve from the turbulent world outside Celtic has become a particularly memorable one.
“I think this right here is pretty special, we’ve never done anything like this,” says James Hanna, another counselor. “Having no kids here is pretty weird. I think this might be the most memorable thing to happen to me (at camp). I do miss the kids and actual camp, but this has been a pretty awesome thing.”
In two weeks, the work camp will disband, and all of the counselors will find themselves — some, for the first time in a long time — with an empty summer stretching ahead.
Guppy summarizes the feeling in a manner that truly encompasses the spirit of the camp: “If we can’t sit at a campfire with each other, what’s the point?”
Consequences of COVID
Like all Ontario businesses, Camp Celtic has been thrown into a state of limbo as the uncertainty caused by the pandemic persists. Unlike other Ontario businesses, however, there is very little that sleepaway summer camps can do to adapt their revenue model to these turbulent times.
“There’s a chance that come mid summer, residential children’s camps could be the only business in Ontario that is mandated to be closed and whose entire income for the year will be zero,” says Matheson. “There’ll be lots of other businesses that choose to close, or don’t make it because of bankruptcy, there may be even businesses that are mandated to be closed a little longer. But it would be hard to think of one that not only will they be mandated to be closed, but that their entire year’s income is encompassed in that closure.”
The camp’s closure summons a lot of complex emotions for its longtime staff.
“The day we found out was kind of weird. (We were told to) meet by bell, and we thought they were just gonna tell us about another job we had to do, or something good,” recalls Cressman. “Just that morning, Lumpy was just talking about how things were looking up. And then he brought us all down there and he told us that summer camps were a no-go and that Celtic couldn’t run. Everybody was so quiet and tearing up. I was tearing up. You kind of knew it was gonna happen, but it didn’t seem real until he said it.”
For Guppy, closure means doing things that a lifetime at Celtic has kept him from.
“It was settling to finally have an answer. It didn’t take long for me to come to terms with it. Maybe (I can) afford to do something in the summer. Maybe (something) that I’ve never done before. I’m 47. My birthday is in August, and I’ve not spent my birthday with my parents since I was 14 years old.”
Camp Celtic remains a family business, after nearly forty years. Matheson and his ex-wife, Kris, remain involved in its administration, but today, the camp is overseen by Scott and Ryan Matheson, two of their three sons. For the past five and three years respectively, they have assumed the roles of Directors, which have become their full time jobs. Understandably, cancellation resonates especially strongly with the Mathesons.
“It’s like losing a child,” said Matheson. Even somber, he was able to summon a laugh at his own hyperbole. “No, it’s not that bad. But I think I’m suffering physical manifestations of stress over it. It’s a body blow for sure.”
That said, he and the rest of Celtic’s administrative staff are trying their best to make use of the time that the vacuum of the pandemic affords them.
“In making lemonade out of those lemons, there are two things you can do. One of them is continuing with staff development, which we’re doing here with our company. And we’ll continue to do that through the fall and winter. And we can work on projects that are only suitable to be done in the summer, ones that we’ve been saying, ‘well, we should do this,’ but you never have time because you’re busy running camps. So we’re just going to try to tackle a couple of those things.”
As for Lumpy himself, he hopes to follow in Yates’ footsteps and find the time to do things that his role at Celtic has prevented in the past, including his first summer holiday since he was eleven years old. And as for Celtic? Matheson seems confident that the once-a-camper, always-a-camper attitude he cultivates will keep it afloat.
“One of the weird things about being the director here is that the generations of counselors who work here, they often work here for three, four, five, six years, sometimes longer,” says Matheson. “Some of them come back as coaches when they’re off teaching school somewhere, coaching somewhere. Many of them now come back as parents dropping off their own kids. But to me, when those moms and dads who used to be counselors drive in the lane, and drop off their kid, they’re still Bunny and Bird and Simmer and Seven. They’re all still whoever they were when they were at their best at camp.”
And he doesn’t see the importance of that summer camp self-reinvention fading any time soon.
“We all need that. And I would go so far as to say, without sounding like the old guy, that we need it more and more, not less and less.”