The Last Thing I Loved: Camp Tuolumne in the Summer

Image: The Berkeley Tuolumne Camp dining hall superimposed over the Rim Fire aftermath. (Tim Messick Photography)

Megan R. Healy relives her experiences growing up and eventually working at her former summer camp.

While there is a collective nostalgia associated with all kinds of camps and camp traditions (woodsy landscapes, camp-specific lingo, writing letters home, etc.), somehow Berkeley Tuolumne Camp (BTC) felt personal. It was a part of your family. Whether performing for the first time at the weekly talent show, finding a year-round babysitter out of the recreation staff, or having a first kiss after awkward hand-holding on the Lower Beach swing, everyone had a different yet deeply personal connection to BTC.

It wasn’t uncommon to meet families at BTC who had been camping for multiple generations; campers came and went throughout the summer, and at any given moment, the 60-person staff would cater to at least 300 campers. Most of the campers were from Berkeley, California, although we had a few families from all over the United States. While some created their own intimate family traditions, we all tapped into communal traditions: the weekly camper vs. staff volleyball game, tie-dye Tuesday, singing the camp song after campfire, jumping off the giant rock, Beaverhead, in the swimming hole, and hiking to Small Falls about half a mile upriver.

No matter which traditions certain families gravitated toward, Tuolumne was exceptional in providing nuanced experiences for all ages. My family attended BTC for a few summers in the early 1990s, and my parents describe it as the perfect vacation: they would sip coffee in the green chair circle overlooking the river, knowing that I was safely finger-painting at Kiddie Kamp and that my brother was running around with the other eight-year-old boys attempting to fish for rainbow trout downstream. We’d see each other for communal meals in the dining hall before taking hot chocolate back to our A-frame cabin sans electricity, lulled to sleep by crickets and stargazing.

I worked on staff at Tuolumne for four summers, aged 16 to 19. Walking onto staff was like walking into a newfound family of 60 best friends and older siblings. I will never forget the first night as a full-summer staff member when we divided for girls’ and boys’ staff meetings. All the older female staff basically gave the lowdown on how to survive the summer, highlighting self-care, laws and age limits (especially related to boys and partying), and above all, remembering that we were there for the campers, and we should keep any and all debauchery on the DL. After all, this wasn’t Wet Hot American Summer.

While campers had maintained traditions over 90 years, staff had developed even more, many of which were kept secret from the campers. We had our own special staff call (“AY-YO”), played Assassin and Secret Santa (“Tuolumne Trolls” in our case), and created parody cheers about our department to perform at the weekly staff meetings. I was a diehard Nature Center staffer (A.K.A. nerd), which meant I got to lead camper families on hikes in and around Yosemite, educating them on the local flora and fauna. In addition to teaching nature-y crafts (like wood burning and basket weaving), the three other Nature Center staff members and I put together nature education nights. On the 90th anniversary, I created a slideshow about the history and development of BTC for us to present. Being the unofficial historian gave me a personal feeling of dedication to and ownership of the camp.

I grew up as a child at camp, and I grew into adulthood with the immense responsibility and tight-knit community that was being a staffer. We all valued Camp Spirit and even nominated one another for the coveted Spirit Award every summer. Campers may not have known about this practice, but they certainly felt the Camp Spirit as deeply as we did. My experience on staff was the best four summers of my life; I would have stayed for more summers, but the opportunity was cut short by the Rim Fire.

In 2013, the Rim Fire just outside of Yosemite National Park was the third largest wildfire in California’s history, and it swallowed up Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. The most accurate way campers and staff could describe this loss was that it felt like your whole hometown burned down. In 2013, very few people had any reference for this level of grief. It was our exclusive trauma. In 2018, losing neighborhoods and towns to wildfires has become a communal trauma for the entire state of California. In a mask-adorned Bay Area this past fall, we suffered through some of the worst air quality in the world from the destructive Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise. Now seems only fitting to take the time to relive what I last loved: the summer camp where I grew up, grew into an adult, and now watch its regrowth after devastation.

MEGAN R. HEALY currently teaches teen sexual health education and does anti-oppression work in the Bay Area. She enjoys shamelessly flailing in Zumba classes and dreams of one day being a professional cat petter.