Shortly after I became a commissioner for the Charleston Soil & Water Conservation District, Debbie Eckard, the district manager, asked me to help recruit campers for Camp Wildwood of South Carolina. Participants must have completed the ninth grade; since the district sponsors two campers each year, my day job as a high school English teacher gives me the perfect opportunity to promote the camp.
I initially did not know a whole lot about Camp Wildwood. The week-long camp of 100 campers — consisting an equal number of boys and girls — is held in a Civilian Conservation Corps facility at Kings Mountain State Park. This natural resources experience is made possible by the Garden Club of South Carolina, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, the Hampton Wildlife Fund and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Additional partners include the South Carolina Wildlife Federation and South Carolina State Parks. Local garden clubs and conservation-minded organizations donate fees for attendees and sponsored campers must be recommended by adults.
My students told me how much they enjoyed Camp Wildwood and I was surprised to see pictures of a few stoic young men emotionally embracing their counselors upon departure. A few years later, my daughter, English Calhoun, and her cousin, Caroline Rumph, went to Wildwood and they passionately relayed their camp experience — that is, until they fell asleep on the ride home.
Recently my son, Ned, and my nephew, Campbell Rumph, had the opportunity to attend Camp Wildwood. The boys, far more reticent than their sisters, glowed with an awakened passion for their state and its natural resources. In uncharacteristic fashion, the boys sang camp songs and chants and exuberantly shared stories.
At Camp Wildwood, young people are appropriately divided into niches. In ecology, of course, a niche is defined as “the specific area where an organism inhabits” and “the role or function of an organism or species in an ecosystem.” Campers take classes in wildlife, forestry, hunter education and fisheries. They also learn teambuilding, boater education, archery, creative games and activities and shagging — the skills of which may be shown off at the nightly dances. In addition, campers shoot skeet and go fishing. Visitors include a herpetologist and his slithery pets and a representative from Clemson University who educates campers about the school’s natural resources majors.
As interesting as the content is, Camp Wildwood is far more special than your average outdoors camp. Forestry instructor and longtime DNR writer Greg Lucas reflects on the unique experience. “It’s a remarkable process and I’m not sure that I can entirely explain it. It’s magical, really. Some of these young people at the camp, when they arrive, they really don’t want to be there. And the conditions are so primitive, like where they sleep and the bathrooms. They don’t have their phones for a week. Yet these very same campers who didn’t want to be there on Sunday, by Friday night, they’re crying about leaving their new friends and not wanting to go home!”
BeBe Dalton Harrison is a former camper and counselor and continues to serve on staff. She attributes the uniqueness to “the fact that you get a taste of all aspects of the outdoors and natural resources. It is a true natural resources camp. These are older kids thinking: ‘this might be something I want to do with my life.’
“Campers who do not go into natural resources fields develop a passion to incorporate the protection of natural resources into their careers, such as engineering or teaching. We’ve got a ton of teachers who pull from the knowledge they learned at camp into their classrooms and beyond. For instance, Melissa Hogan Seigler is leading a STEM camp for at-risk middle schoolers: Readiness & Enrichment Summer Experience, RISE, at Dacusville Middle School,” Harrison says in capturing the camp’s impact.
Forrest Sessions has been teaching fisheries at Camp Wildwood since 1994. “I tell you,” he explains, “It’s been such an uplifting experience as an instructor. I enjoy the kids. My son and two daughters grew up there. My youngest Natalie Claire met her husband, Parker Rikard, at Camp Wildwood; they were both campers and counselors together.
Fisheries class, Sessions goes on, “is more of an aquatic education class. We learn about fish and aquatic life. The way I try to teach it is by looking at adaptations. We look at the role of organisms in their environment and talk about how organisms need to adapt to survive in that environment.
“One reason I focus on adaptations of fish and insects is because of these kids. For many of them, this is their first time away from home alone and they don’t know anybody. They have had to adapt as campers, just like the living things we have talked about in camp.”
From a true ecological perspective, Camp Wildwood instills broad lessons about life. “They force you out of your comfort zone,” my son Ned points out. “You have to cheer and scream to get into the mess hall to eat. At first, you get embarrassed, but you soon became more and more comfortable and start having fun!”
BeBe continues. “You feel safe in your niche. They make you square dance. Some people aren’t good dancers and some are great, but everybody square dances the same! You get everybody participating in the same way.
“Look at Dan DuPre, the camp coordinator,” Harrison continues. “Dan was this shy little guy from Walterboro. But when he got to camp, it was like a switch went off! At Camp Wildwood, he literally became the person he is today; he reinvented himself by discovering his true self!” DuPre directly attributes his later roles as student body president of Charleston Southern and his current leadership positions within DNR to his life-changing experiences at Camp Wildwood.
Forrest Sessions goes on: “There is a total focus on these kids growing as individuals during this week. The emphasis is on personal growth. They are placed in niches and cabins with people they don’t know and these kids make friends with people from all different backgrounds and they make friends for life; it doesn’t matter what life looks like at home.”
Counselors learn to cultivate an innate goodness, as evidenced by a story close to Forrest’s heart. “My neighbor Russell has Down syndrome and he went to Camp. Wildwood. The counselors stuck by him the whole week. Russell’s dad later told me: ‘Russell had the best week of his life because the counselors poured everything into him and his time there’. That is still one of the most touching experiences of my life,” Sessions proudly declares.
Greg Lucas discusses “the method of choosing and training counselors. All of the counselors are former campers — no exceptions. Out of the 100 campers at Camp Wildwood, 20 — 10 boys, 10 girls — are chosen to return the following summer for Camp Wildwood Two.
“They come the same week as regular camp and start out and end at Kings Mountain State Park, but during the week they leave for mountain adventures (camping this year at Oconee State Park), such as whitewater rafting on the Chattooga River, visiting the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery, taking a boat ride on Lake Jocassee and navigating the high ropes course at the Clemson University Outdoor Lab,” Lucas notes.
“The next summer, they return for Camp Wildwood Three, which is usually held in July (not the same week as regular camp) and on the coast. Typically, campers get to see loggerhead sea turtles hatching and making their way to the sea and have other coastal adventures while staying at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area in the ACE Basin in Colleton County.
“From those that make it through Wildwood 3, the Counselors in Training (CITs) are chosen (depending on how many counselors are needed, but all will not be selected) and they spend the next Camp Wildwood (the following summer) training under the regular counselors. Many continue to be counselors throughout college and some even beyond that. It’s quite a process, takes four years and by the time that they become counselors, these young people have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the ‘Wildwood Way’,” Lucas says.
And according to Ned, “The Wildwood Way” is a great way. “Not knowing many people forced me to make friends and I got really closed with the members of my niche. Not having my phone for a whole week was refreshing — and that says a lot coming from a 15-year-old!” To hesitant future campers, Ned offers the following advice: “Just don’t worry about it; go have fun! It was the best week of my whole life and Camp Wildwood is definitely going to change you!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.