One of the many amazing things about the Calgary Science School is the fact that students go on two overnight Outdoor Education trips each school year. One trip is to Camp Sweet (about 90 minutes outside of Calgary), where the students sleep in tents and spend a few days camping and exploring the woods and fields – including some free time splashing in the river if it’s warm enough. The other trip is grade dependent. This year, five out of six grades (500 students) are going to Camp Sweet between mid-August and the end of September (the grade 9 fall trip was to the Bamfield Marine Station on Vancouver Island).
As a parent volunteer, I have been to Camp Sweet 6 or 7 times. It’s pretty hard work. Most of the parent volunteers’ waking hours are spent preparing three meals and 2 snacks for 50 students each day. Sometimes you manage to snatch a half hour to go for a quiet walk, but it’s more likely that if you have a break from food prep, you’ll be asked to help cut up and haul away trees that came down in a recent windstorm, chop fire wood or tidy up the portapotties.
But along with the hard work come some pretty impressive rewards. Where else would I be able to witness the reaction of a 9-year old hearing an owl hoot for the first time? Or be able to watch the sense of freedom that swells in every one of the students splashing and wading in the creek without a concerned parent calling out warnings every few minutes (there are adults – including the teachers – watching, but they tend to hang back and let the kids do their thing unless there’s a safety concern). Where else would I see the increased self-confidence that comes from staying in a tent overnight with just a few classmates to keep you safe and warm? And where else could I experience a sort of time travel, watching 50 kids leave the world of electronic devices behind and get caught up in the joy of singing camp songs and building forts in the woods?
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet developed the habit of checking K’s class website on a regular basis, so I missed the chance to volunteer for this year’s grade 8 trip to Camp Sweet. Instead, as a parent of a student with multiple allergies, my role is limited to prepping some allergy-safe food to send along and double-checking K’s duffel bag.
Most parents probably take a quick look at the menu that comes home with the camp permission slip. If their student has a food allergy or intolerance or there are religious or cultural considerations, they probably take a closer look.
I always take a very close look at the camp menu. Over the years, the school has continuously improved the level of detail included (for example, the Day 3 breakfast for this trip to Camp Sweet includes pancakes made from Krusteaz-brand mix).
My usual practice is to highlight anything that’s an allergy concern and then send an allergy-safe substitute from home. I mark all of the required substitutions right on the menu, label the menu sheet with K’s name, and send the marked-up sheet along with the allergy-safe foods in a clearly-labelled box or cooler. K is old enough now to ask the parent volunteers about the food being served and to ensure he eats the foods sent from home where applicable, but bundling everything together with a marked up menu makes it a lot easier for the parent volunteer tasked with looking after all of the special meal requirements.
One of the overnight camp traditions is for each student to bring along a dozen cookies or squares to share with the group at snack times. All of these treats go into a big tote and are served for dessert or with hot cocoa before the nightly sing-along. Last year, in response to the increasing emphasis on the importance of making healthier food choices, a small group of parent volunteers spent several hours updating the camp menus and putting together suggestions and recipes for healthier snacks and desserts.
Because of allergy concerns, I always end up doing several hours of baking whenever K heads off to camp. Today was no exception. Fortunately, K is now old enough to help out with the baking, so after he decided what kinds of treats he’d like for snack time, we got right to work. Just a few hours later, we had an assortment of goodies that will stand up well to the bus ride to camp…
Over the years, we’d developed one tried-and-true technique for packing for camp. Use lots of shopping bags! K packs each set of clothes in its own bag, plus one bag for pajamas and his toothbrush, one for his “wear in the creek” clothes / shoes and towel, and one for his really warm clothes (gloves, toque, warm jacket, thermal underwear, etc.). The “one bag, one outfit” approach means there’s no need to go digging through the whole duffel bag on a chilly morning. Plus, when things get wet they go into the bag they came in, keeping the rest of the clothes clean and dry until needed. His rain gear, bug spray, sun screen, water bottle and other essentials go into a comfortable day pack that he’ll carry with him pretty much wherever he goes.
A warm sleeping bag is essential. With 12 overnight camps between the start of grade 4 and the end of grade 9, it’s worth spending the money up front to get at least a 3-season bag. And we’ve made him practice stuffing the bag back into its sack. There’s no way the parent volunteers (or teachers) can help 50 students pack up their sleeping bags and foamies on the last morning at camp!
He’s off to camp tomorrow. A little bit of prep today sets the stage for a safe and enjoyable trip. And the weather forecast looks pretty good, too!