Imagine living in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, for your whole life, and then one day, at age 11, your mom suggests that you spend six weeks at an all-boys summer camp on an island in Maine with your nine-year-old brother. This happened to me.
I had just started middle school, and I was entirely against the idea of spending the summer at a faraway camp that I’d never heard of before. She insisted I check it out, so the camp director, Ben Swan, came to visit the D.C. area, and I talked to him face to face. He had prepared a slideshow of pictures and told me all about what life would be like if I chose to attend Pine Island Camp.
Ben explained that I’d live in a tent with an older counselor and three other boys my age. But one thing he said stood out to me the most: I would be unable to have my phone with me. Everything sounded great until he said that. I thought long and hard about this, and finally, I decided to try it out. It was only six weeks, after all.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
Fast forward to the first day of camp. We showed up to this place in Belgrade, Maine (an hour north of Portland) and drove down a long dirt road past tennis courts, an archery range, and a shooting range, until we couldn’t drive any farther. There was a lake, and, in the distance, all you could see was the “Pine Island Camp” sign and an island of green trees surrounded by water. We were greeted by some young men who helped us carry our trunks to a boat, which we then took to the island. When we arrived, I met the people I would be living with that summer: my counselor Baxter and my tent mates Josh, Jacob, and Phillip.
"I would be unable to have my phone with me. Everything sounded great until he said that. I thought long and hard about this, and finally, I decided to try it out."
When I say tent, I mean a legitimate tent. There was no electricity or plumbing, just a wooden platform and a large tent with a bunk bed and two twin beds set up inside. Pine Island has 21 living places for campers—19 tents and 2 wooden structures—split up into the “ridge,” the “range,” and the “aristocracy.” Other than the living places, the handful of other structures included a dining hall, a boathouse, and a woodshop. For the first week, I was getting settled in and meeting boys my age from other tents. After a week, I had met just about all the campers (108 total) and the counselors. Being different ages (9-15), we campers made our friends mainly based on how old we were, but we all respected one other.
Our daily schedule consisted of an 8 a.m. rude awakening to the blasting of one of the counselor’s favorite songs, when it was his turn to be assistant director. This was when we decided whether or not we wanted to jump into the cold lake, ass-naked, on a crisp Maine morning before breakfast. Sometimes we did, and enjoyed the thrill. We then ate breakfast—which gave us the energy we needed for our active day—and signed up for daily activities or trips.
The standard activities included canoeing, kayaking, sailing, fishing, and woodshop. But my favorite part of camp was the trips. Over the summer, Pine Island Camp organizes more than 40 canoe, kayak, and hiking trips, from Maine’s Allagash waterway to New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. I gravitated toward trips—they were my escape from the fun but ordinary days at camp.
During these trips, the counselors set a goal of how far the group would travel, and packed accordingly. There was no way to predict what would go down on these trips, which was part of the excitement. I’ll never forget the memories I have from these adventures. I saw at least eight bald eagles and a moose. Once, my friend was nibbled by a snake, and I even fell out of my canoe, drenching the clothes I was wearing plus the ones I had packed for the trip! Another highlight was the satisfaction that came from reaching a mountain summit after a long day of hiking, or reaching the final campsite during a week-long canoe trip. In addition to the fun, in the wild, it felt good to be fully responsible for my actions and to contribute to the morale of the community.
I should also elaborate on what it’s like to live in a tech-free environment over the summer as a kid. Summer is the time when there isn’t as much structure in the daily life of most kids; it’s when we “relax” (and play as many Fortnite games as possible to kill time...). But when you live on a remote island, summer is different. IT GETS BORING—but that’s 100% okay!
As young adults, teenagers, or children in the 21st century, we tend to depend on technology when we’re bored. The generations before us didn’t have technology to turn to whenever they were bored. Just because we have devices at our disposal now, this doesn’t mean that we, as young people, need to be reliant on them.
"There’s no limit to what we can do when we’re 'bored,' especially when we have access to nature. But with young people being used to killing time with technology, we’re limiting our creativity and our understanding of fun."
At camp I had fun doing nothing: lying in bed with the breeze kissing my face and reading books that I never thought I would like. I played games like dust ball, a chaotic version of dodgeball with kids of all ages running through the dirt. Once I made a rope swing with my friends. Another time I laughed when my friend Will caught a fish that hit him in the face with its tail.
There’s no limit to what we can do when we’re “bored,” especially when we have access to nature. But with young people being used to killing time with technology, we’re limiting our creativity and our understanding of fun.
Pine Island Camp was founded in 1902, making it one of the oldest boys camps in the country. Today, the staff continues to practice the traditions of its predecessors, immersing kids in nature and fostering strong relationships among campers. Living in a tech-free environment in the United States of the 21st century is practically impossible to imagine, but the fact that Pine Island offers this to kids around the world is unique and important, and I’m glad I had the privilege to attend.
I appreciate everyone I ever went camping with, from faculty to counselors to my campmates, because without them, I wouldn’t have the understanding of entertainment and community that I do today. I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to attend a nature-based sleepaway camp, but every kid could benefit from the experience of spending time outdoors—tech-free and happy.
Eli Austin graduated in 2018 from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. and is studying architecture in Syracuse, NY. Eli is known for being a strong collaborator and loves hearing different voices and perspectives, even when they don’t agree. In his studies, he enjoyed psychology and participating in mock trials, specifically focused on individual rights in a state of emergency. He is deeply concerned about the widespread presence and use of guns, and the ways that law enforcement engages with his community. Among the oldest in a blended family, Eli is a steady guide for his younger brother and loves to play soccer, paint, and think about the future.
Photos courtesy of Pine Island Camp.