Swamp Monster: Elyse & Klein Head Back to (YMCA) Summer Camp
By Elyse Notarianni

In my mind, there are 2 types of kids in this world: Summer camp kids, and everybody else.

For 6 years, I spent 2 weeks at Camp Hilltop in Hancock, New York. Not only was I a summer camp kid, but I was an ultra-enthusiastic, live-all-year-for-a-few-weeks-at-camp, sing-campfire-songs-in-December kind of kid. Which to everyone else was probably incredibly annoying, but for summer camp kids – you get it.

So when I drove up the dirt road leading to the YMCA of the Pines camp in Medford, even SJ Mag Digital Editor/ Producer Klein Aleardi was laughing at just how excited I was about trying the high ropes course for our Facebook video series “It’s a South Jersey Summer.”

We started at the rock wall, which was almost exactly like the one at Hilltop when I was a kid – 52 feet tall, faded wood with colorful rocks snaking toward the top.

I approached it with a little more confidence than the first time I stood at the base of a rock wall 16 years ago. (And let me say, I am astounded at that number. When did I get this old?!). Back then, it took about 10 days of convincing me to do it, and when I got to the top, I started crying. Like, bawling. How was I going to get down? Because I was not purposefully stepping back off the side of a tower. Maybe I’d just live there for the rest of camp, have them lift my meals up to me on a rope.

Eventually, the counselor convinced me to trust him – he wouldn’t let anything happen as he lowered all 80 lbs of me down. The next time, I wasn’t so scared. The time after that, not at all. I knew there was always someone to catch me if I fell, which is such a camp cliché, but when you’re a 9-year-old who’s scared of everything, that’s a big thing.

And it stuck with me all the way leading up to my visit to the YMCA last month.

The belayer, Zane, called “Climb on.” I scurried off toward the top, even attempting to climb on the side with the bump jutting out before giving up halfway through because, well, you try climbing with a Go-Pro in hand. I rang the bell at the top and lowered down as if it were no big deal, as if every muscle in my body wasn’t shaking from the effort. Seriously, I was not in good enough shape for this.

Klein was a bit more hesitant. It took her a little longer to find her footing on the wall, and I spent a while shouting encouragement to her from the ground – all of which she thought was sarcastic, but I was genuinely encouraging her for at least 85% of the time. Maybe 75%. But she nailed it because Klein’s a rockstar (get it?!). She gave me a big high-five when she came down.

Then came a 30-feet-in-the-air team-building exercise.

Klein and I held on to either end of a rope as we tiptoed along a log suspended in the air. The goal was to pull ourselves toward each other, then find a way to swap places to get back to each other’s starting points. On a log that’s about a foot and a half wide, that’s no easy task. It’s a good thing we’re good friends, because I don’t know that just any coworker would risk toppling over to reach out a hand when I slipped off.

After one more go up the rock wall (to make it all the way over the bump this time!), I was feeling pretty proud of myself and definitely wanted a power nap. Then someone mentioned the swamp.

The swamp?

Apparently, we’d be doing the same types of ropes courses we had just done, except instead of being attached to a safety line if we fell, we’d just fall straight into the swamp. Looks like Klein forgot to mention that before we arrived.

The “water” was covered in balance beams, tire swings, thin wires with a clothesline hanging over top – all sorts of obstacles. The goal, they told us, was to make it across the water without falling into the muck. There are a lot of ways to succeed and a lot of ways to fail – and they weren’t going to tell us any of them.

No problem, because it took me all of 2 minutes to find my own ways to fail. I tipped back…and back…and back off the first wire, straight into the swamp. My feet suctioned out of the mud with every step back to shore. There was dirt caked to my lip. Klein thought it was hysterical.

But then I had the advantage: Once you fall into the swamp, there’s nothing left to lose. I kept trying the obstacles, which I swear must have a zero percent success rate because I ended up back in the muck every time. When Klein finally fell, she hit the water even harder than I did. That’s what you get for laughing at your friends, kids.

After about 30 more (mostly unsuccessful) tries across the water, we trudged back to the car. That was fun because you may leave the swamp, but the swamp doesn’t leave you (at least, judging by the inches of mud squishing against the soles of my feet with every step). Then we got a little gift.

There’s nothing more wholesome than summer camp traditions, and at the YMCA of the Pines, they give out rubber bracelets that symbolize character traits campers can earn throughout the summer. I got the Storm bracelet because of my resilience in going back and trying something again. Klein got the Stargazer because she’s always on the lookout to try and discover new things. We took photos with our wristbands side by side – it was maybe the cutest thing that’s happened to us all summer.

That’s the magic of summer camp. You get to go out there, try something new, hang out with your friends, make a fool out of yourself and just have a good time. It doesn’t matter how you look (thankfully, because by the end I was not looking good). You get to go out of your comfort zone in the best way possible, and we all need that from time to time – no matter what age you are.


September 2021
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