New England Rituals: Summer Camp

New England Rituals: Summer Camp

A Q&A with Jody Skelton, Executive Director of Camp Huckins

Story and Photos by Ashley Herrin

I snaked my way around the southern tip of Lake Ossipee one Friday afternoon; the sun dipping behind a cluster of ominously dark clouds, threatening the possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm. Temperatures had soared into the nineties that day and the ride north seemed to take forever.  The grip of the city was seemingly unrelenting as the onslaught of weekend traffic began pouring into the streets early in an attempt to beat the heat. Gridlock eventually gave way to New Hampshire’s scenic lakes region and the feeling of joy returned once again as I cruised up 16 North, catching glimpses of Mount Chocorua and its friends as I went.

And Lake Ossipee looked inviting as ever. A hot breeze had kicked up small white caps, rocking the buoyed boats and canoes in a synchronized sway. The clouds began to break and the sun began to return. The afternoon was shaping itself into an evening that was going to be another mark of picture-perfect New England.

I turned left onto Huckins Road, an eager anticipation building as I realized I was almost at my destination. Marked by a humble green sign at the corner of the road, Camp Nellie Huckins lie tucked in the woods and alongside Broad Bay. That afternoon I was meeting with Jody Skelton, the Executive Director of Huckins.

There is a magic that surrounds Camp Huckins. The feeling of nostalgia that you get when you enter the premises immediately brings you back to those carefree days of your youth. But, the magic is also created by the staff itself; those who care for and look after the summer camp and the campers each and every year. Jody in particular, emanated a sense of euphoria and pride about the camp that seems unmatched.

Jody Skelton began her journey to Huckins like many of those who came before and after her. She was a camper. Looking for a summer camp that would be the perfect fit for his daughters, Jody’s father began asking around their hometown in Maine for good summer camp recommendations. It took three tries before they landed at Huckins, but after their first summer in Freedom, NH, the (then) nine-year-old knew that this was undoubtedly the one. 47 summers later, and Jody is still a part of Camp Huckins. I sat down with her that afternoon to learn more about the camp, and what makes this place so extraordinary.

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What makes Huckins so special and unique?

There are a lot of things that makes Huckins so special and unique, but one of the things is that we’re an all-girls camp. I think that that’s becoming very unique. We also grow our own leadership – that our campers become our counselors - really makes a huge difference for the right reason. They’re coming to camp because they want to give back.

Another strength of ours is that every day, from 2:45 to 5:00 is free selection of activities; so the girls get to choose what they want to do… they’re able to be totally independent.

Kids tell me, when they write they’re five-year Huckster card, that the reason they come to Huckins is so that ‘I can be myself.’ That makes me think ‘how sad it is for fifty weeks of the year that they’re not, but how wonderful it is that they have a place that they can come and be themselves.’ And, camp friendships are true friendships – it’s not where you’re from, where you go to school or what clothes you wear, but it’s really about who you are, and that builds friendships.

How long has Camp Huckins been open? Tell me a bit about the history of the camp.

This was our 89th year, next summer is our 90th season. The camp opened for two weeks for the boys in the summer of 1928. The next summer, in 1929, it opened for 1 month for boys and then 1 month for girls. It operated this way up until the 60s. And then in the 60s, they started letting more girls come… it was down to about two weeks for the boys and six weeks for the girls, and finally they went all girls.

How long is each camper’s session? How many girls per session?

We have four 2-week sessions and 382 campers per session. By the time camp is over, we’ll have over 1400 girls that have gone through.

As a former camper, what is your favorite memory or part of Huckins? And as the director, what is your favorite memory or part of Huckins?

As a camper, I was able to play softball on a team every afternoon and on weekends we would actually go to other camps and play games. I also learned how to water ski… I was able to do things at camp that I couldn’t do at home. I also just really loved working with children, so that kept drawing me back. Once I got here I just sort of realized ‘man, I want to be a counselor when I’m old enough”… so that had always been a goal.

Beyond being a camper, how did you end up here at Huckins as the Camp Director?

I ended up getting a degree in teaching and taught elementary school. I taught for two years when the (former) Camp Director asked if I wanted to work for Camp (Huckins) full time… I said “absolutely!” We ended up creating a full-time position for me. That director ended up retiring and a new director came in. I then became the Assistant Camp Director and was in that position for 14 years. I became Camp Director after that… and I think this is my fourteenth year as Camp Director. Time flies!

What sort of activities does Huckins offer?

We have canoeing, sailing, paddle boarding, wind surfing, swimming and of course water skiing. For sports, we have everything form tennis to archery, a BB range, lacrosse, volleyball, soccer, softball and horseback riding. We also have a craft shop, a nature program in environmental education and a dance and drum program.

How has evolving technologies affected Camp Huckins?

We’ve gone totally tech-free in the sense that the kids aren’t allowed to bring their cell phones and our counselors aren’t allowed to use their cell phones during the day. We really don’t want kids putting (headphones) in their ears or being distracted. We want them to enjoy each other and to enjoy camp. We don’t put pictures up either of campers… there’s other places that post pictures every day online of the campers and camp, but we try to stay away from that. Write a letter… two weeks is very short!

For someone who hasn’t been to summer camp, or might be looking to go to a summer camp, how would you describe this experience to them?

I think the experience of summer camp is you’re living outside in nature, but you’re also living in a cabin with 10 other campers… so it’s a huge experience in team-building and cooperation as you’re learning to live and work together. Each morning we have capers, you have to clean the cabin, you have inspection, you need to make you’re bed and even go work in the kitchen. That’s a huge experience for kids. It’s being away from home but it’s also having the opportunity to make your own choices and be independent. In the afternoons you get to choose what you want to do… the girls are actually not programmed, they have the opportunity to program themselves, which I think is really powerful. The opportunity for making friends is huge… the experience of living together in a small space is when you genuinely learn different things about people. Friendships are so much more genuine. And just being outdoors is unbelievable.

At camp we celebrate the little things. We might celebrate that the sun is out or that you passed your swim test, you hit the target or got up on water skis. Those little things make a difference.

Our counselors are unbelievable role models for kids. And, I think girls listen to their peers more than they listen to their parents… we have a unique opportunity with counselors helping girls grow up and become independent.

What does a typically day at camp look like?

Reveille blows at 7:15 for wake-up. At 7:40 is the waitress call… each cabin has two waitresses that then head down to the dining hall to set the table. At 7:50, “Soupy” blows which means everyone comes down to the dining hall to eat. We ring the bell at 8:00, we sing grace and then everyone eats breakfast. After breakfast we go to flag and have flag raising and general morning announcements. At that time, each counselor has the opportunity to do a ‘Chapel Talk,’ which is essentially a thought for the day… and a nice way to start the day.

After that, everyone returns to their cabins for clean up and inspection. At 9:15 we begin three instructional periods, 9:15-10:10, 10:10-11:05 and 11:05-12:00, where they might go to archery, the craft shop and then swim lessons. At 12:00 they head back to their cabins, get dressed and get ready for lunch. Lunch is back in the dining hall at 1:00. After lunch we have rest hour… which is probably the best thing... we can hand out the mail, girls can read or write letters home. But it’s pretty much quiet time and we’re out of the sun at the hottest part of the day, which is really great. At 2:45 begins the free selection of activities block. At 5:00, campers return to their cabins and get ready for dinner at 6:00. After dinner we take the flag down and have evening program time which is 7:00-8:30. Taps is at 9:00 for the juniors and middlers and 9:15 for the seniors. They then go to bed and get up and do it all over again the next day

Where do you see Huckins in five years?

We actually just had a capital campaign that (enabled) us to add a division… we actually didn’t add a division to get bigger, we added a division to get smaller, so that we can have less kids in each cabin. We were able to build some new tennis courts, and added a porch to our craft shop.

This year we are building a new year-round facility for the Camp Director and we are looking to build a history cabin or some type of area that we can meet with alumni and have our history on display. We would also like to install more solar panels and renovate our program lodge, which was built in 1928.  

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After finishing our interview, Jody gave me a golf-cart tour of the camp itself. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that I was a camper myself at Huckins the summer going into 6th grade. Driving around the property, it felt as though nothing had changed... that time has completely stood still. And even though it had been well over a decade since I had been at Huckins, the memories came flooding back. I was half expecting to see myself standing at the outdoor sinks washing my hands or walking down to the beach with my towel draped over my shoulders eager for a swimming lesson.

I returned the next morning with my parents to pick up my younger cousin, Sophia, who was just finishing her first session at Camp Huckins… the other reason for my return trip to Huckins. At first sighting, you could tell she was converted to a camper for life. Surrounded by new friends and the biggest smile on her face, her heart was full. It had clearly been an unforgettable two weeks. To say I was surprised by that would be a lie, you could actually say it was inevitable, like it was in her DNA. In fact, her mom, my aunt, was a camper too… and was and currently is, one of Jody’s good friends. Jody and my aunt met at Huckins when they were kids and have remained friends since... a perfect example of “camp friendships are true friendships” that Jody described to me the previous day. As we packed the last of Sophia’s belongings in the back of the car, she snagged Jody for one last hug goodbye. Few words were exchanged, but the embrace said it all.

Returning to Camp Nellie Huckins made me realize just how magical the place truly is. Time seems to stand still. Life is so effortless and carefree. You can be exactly who you are and not feel judged or self-conscious. Friendships are built and are built to last. And that’s exactly how summer camp is meant to be.