Todd McKinlay, 63, has missed summer camp just twice in the past 60 years.
“I was about 2 years old the first time, so I can’t really remember that one,” chuckled McKinlay, the director of Hidden Valley Camp in Granite Falls, Snohomish County. “And the second time was when my family transitioned into being a part of Hidden Valley Camp in 1973.”
This summer will mark the third year of his life that McKinley will go without camp songs, not-so-secret hiding places, horseback riding, skit-performing, friend-making, and the magical way summer camps make you forget — even if just for a moment — that there is life outside of camp.
Coronavirus has dramatically changed industries that rely on in-person connections. Now, with the school year ending, families are realizing that coronavirus is about to take away another sense of structured normality: summer camps.
Many summer camps don’t come cheap. One session at Hidden Valley Camp ranges from $1,500-$2,150 for a two-to-three-week stay, while Moss Bay charges $405 for one week of day camp. Seattle Parks and Recreation usually holds a more affordable day camp, but that has been canceled this summer due to coronavirus.
“With both limited funding and staffing, along with the operational impacts of implementing social distancing standards, we have had to greatly reduce our recreation offerings,” said Joaquin Uy, the external affairs manager for the city of Seattle.
The city is still offering summer child care; admission to this program prioritizes children who are already enrolled in emergency child care and those who qualify for financial scholarships.
Most Seattle-area camps have been canceled due to the pandemic. Some day camps switched to online platforms while others are attempting to continue in-person interactions — with some major modifications. Moss Bay, a seasonal boating company located on Lake Union, has already canceled the first three weeks of its kids camp. When they are finally allowed to reopen, the company has plans to step up safety precautions.
Camps are considered large group gatherings and therefore will not be permitted to open until July at the very earliest, McKinlay estimated.
With all that in mind, Hidden Valley decided to shut down for the summer. Like many businesses affected by coronavirus, the decision came after months of thinking, planning and waiting for good news that just never came.
Plus, Hidden Valley’s camp organizers say the true sleep-away camp experience isn’t something that can be replicated online because it’s the complete opposite of social distancing.
“Camp is the quintessential community,” said Hidden Valley camp alum and parent Randolph Silver. “You’re with your camp group, you get close around the campfire. There’s just no way to do it when you’re 6 feet apart.”
Silver first attended Hidden Valley in 1978, when Todd McKinlay’s father, Bob McKinlay, was camp director, and Todd was a 21-year-old in charge of the horses.
Silver worked at Hidden Valley as a counselor during college, helping re-create the world he’d loved so much as a camper. Now, he has his own children, and they’ve attended Hidden Valley camp, too.
“My kids started going to camp when they were 7 years old,” said Silver. “Before they even got to camp they already knew all the songs. Turns out, when you’re trying to calm down restless toddlers, you end up singing a lot of camp songs.”
But summer camp isn’t only a resource for kids. Parents, especially those with full-time jobs, count on camps — both day and sleep-away — to occupy their children. This year, some parents are out of jobs, while others have already been working from home for a couple of months while trying to help their kids with school. So after the school year ends, kids already restless from home schooling will have less to occupy themselves with.
“As parents, we’re going to try to get through the summer but it’s going to be hard,” said Silver.
Sleep-away camps such as Hidden Valley come with a controlled freedom that allows kids to roam paths and pull apart pinecones under a tree. There’s boredom — but not in a quarantine sense, clarifies Silver. It’s the kind that lets you make friendship bracelets for people you barely know, and discover hiding spots in plain sight. That, Silver says, is what makes Hidden Valley Camp so special.
“I think I learned a young person’s self-reliance and appreciation of community and nature. I could never get that in a schoolroom with a paper and a pen. It just wasn’t going to happen. And you can’t get that online either,” Silver said.
Moss Bay took a different route. Right now, camp isn’t open for the summer — but when camps are allowed to open up, Moss Bay is ready. The company has employed various safety precautions, including limiting the number of campers allowed on-site, requiring staff to wear masks and reequipping their dock with hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer.
“Safety has to come first as it always does,” said Moss Bay owner Kevin Bynum. “But this year especially. We want to be open but only if it’s safe.”
For Silver and his family, camp is yet another thing to fall by the wayside over the past couple of months.
“It was not an isolated loss,” said Silver.
Still, despite the pandemic and the cancellations, Silver believes in camp. Hidden Valley has been here for over 70 years and it’s not going away any time soon.
“Camps have endured for such a long time for a reason,” said Silver. “So if you missed it this year, it’s not disappearing. Just be hopeful that camp will happen in 2021. I know all the goodness that comes with camp will still be there next year. Don’t lose hope.”