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Reports From the Bug-Juice Brigade

Campers who want to wear flip-flops on hikes and other war stories from counselors

By the end of the summer, half a million college students will have bushwhacked up mountains, pitched more tents than the US Army, comforted the homesick, warded off raccoons, perfected the square corner, and persuaded a few more kids to try carrots.

They are camp counselors.

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For those who have never worn the badge, the job conjures up romantic images of roasting marshmallows by a campfire and singing "Kumbaya."

But for those who have spent eight weeks guarding and guiding America's youths (myself included), it's anything but relaxing.

"You do get to roast marshmallows, but before you can, you have to build a fire, find [roasting sticks], and make sure no one is poking each other with them," jokes Michael Rocha, who worked as a counselor and trip leader for four summers at Camp Wyman in Eureka, Mo.

"You're with the kids 24 hours a day," says the sixth-grade social studies teacher, who met his wife at the camp. "On our days off, we would go into town and go to a park and just sleep."

This summer 6.5 million campers will descend on the 8,500 camps in the US.

The number of campers has been rising between 7 and 10 percent a year since 1993, according to the American Camping Association (AMA), as more working parents search for supervised summer activities for their children.

Indeed, being a camp counselor leaves indelible memories of midnight hikes, pajama breakfasts, council fires on the beach, and endless games of mud soccer.

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But for most, the war stories are the real rights of passage, like: trying to extract a skunk from a cabin; convincing a camper that wearing flip-flops on a five-mile hike isn't a good idea; and playing tooth fairy.

One counselor got a recent phone call from an anxious first-time camper who quizzed him on everything from meal time to how many soccer balls the camp owned.

"I think the Peace Corps stole our thunder when they said, 'It's the hardest job you'll ever love,' " says Don Cheley, AMA's president and a third-generation director of Cheley Colorado Camp in Estes Park.

Yet, "I like the satisfaction you get from doing a good job as a counselor," says John Morton, who was cabin counselor and swimming instructor at Camp Nawaka in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.

"My cabin won inspection the three summers I was there, and I take great pride in that," he says. "I had some kids who didn't have a lot of experience with a broom."

For others, just learning how to "live in the wild" was the real adventure.

"I had never camped before. I didn't even know how to light a camp fire or go to the bathroom in the woods," quips Ann Rocha of Corvalis, Mont., who worked at Camp Wyman. "You also learn how to walk without a flashlight in the dark."

Then there are those camping trips that don't always go quite as planned.

"I remember going up to a nearby park for a camp out," reminisces Mr. Rocha, who is still known affectionally by his camp nickname "Weedie." "We had about about 40 campers with us. It suddenly started to pour, and I'm standing there holding this tarp up over these kids ... [meanwhile], I'm getting soaked. I looked like a human tent pole."

Eventually, he says it got so bad that they went back home and camped out on the cabin floor.

But for all the memories, there are also challenges.

"I think camps are going to face staffing [problems] forever," says Mr. Cheley. "The expectations for staff are a lot greater than they used to be ... because they're dealing with kids who are bringing an awful lot of excess baggage with them to camp."

He now arranges for a child psychologist, an attorney, and the local police chief to talk to his 200 staff members during orientation.

Many counselors agree that today's campers arrive with a lot more on their minds. "I could have used some additional training or [help] from a child psychologist," Mr. Morton says. In one of his first cabins, he says, he had to deal with several bedwetters and a fistfighter.

But seeing campers succeed is what is most rewarding.

"How many jobs are there where you can say you've made a huge difference in a life every day?" says Leigh Hiester, a seven-year counselor at Cheley Colorado Camp and an elementary-school teacher. "I learned that at Cheley, which made me really want to go into teaching."

She remembers coaxing a young camper on a mountain-biking trip back to camp. "We had to set small goals:, 'Let's go 50 yards.' When she did make it back," she says, "she was so excited that she signed up for every mountain-bike trip."

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