In 1943, Alice Lorenz and Linda Norton’s father decided he liked going to camp so much that he was going to open his own.
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the sisters still run Gnaw Bone Camp, which, with the exception of adding electricity, hasn’t changed significantly.
Girls from around the world gather in the green woody acres each summer. They fly and drive in from places like Saudi Arabia, Boston and Europe. For parents who choose to send them here, no distance is too far.
The camp has no system of advertisement: no website, no Facebook page or Twitter to update the world.
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“People have called and offered to set us up a website or something,” Lorenz said. “I don’t want that.”
She and her team rely only on word of mouth and on tradition.
Her staffing works the same way: Counselors are often former campers, just grown up and filling different roles around the camp.
Lorenz said some counselors have been nervous to return, fearing that the place they grew up with would have changed somehow.
“They’re so relieved when they drive in and everything is the same,” Lorenz said. “We like to continue the tradition.”
Megan Levett is in her 23rd year at the camp.
“It’s a chance to be a kid again,” Levett said. “… You get to teach them life skills. That’s very rewarding.”
Levett is technically the camp’s nurse, but she steps outside of that role frequently.
“This morning I helped serve breakfast, then I helped with maintenance and repairs. I rebuilt a swing,” Levett said. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
Flexibility is something Lorenz tries to teach the campers.
‘We let them choose’
At breakfast — a leisurely affair where girls can come at either the first bell or the second, depending on when they want to get up — the girls learn of the day’s activities and choose which they want to do.
Lorenz believes allowing them a choice gives them a respite from their normal lives.
“At home, they’re told what do,” she said. “So here, we let them choose.”
But this summer’s weather has given special meaning to her emphasis on flexibility.
Each morning, Norton writes a schedule of the day’s activities. On July 9, some were crossed out. Rain had other plans for the plans she set.
On that day, there were girls in high rain boots, balancing on rocks in the middle of the creek.
“Most summers, that creek’s much lower,” Lorenz said.
Across the road, there’s another gushing creek. Normally, she said, that creek is close to being dried up by now. Near it is a large metal barrel, nearly overflowing. A steady drip fell from the side.
“That’s a rain barrel for catching the rainwater, which we use for whatever reason,” she said.
No shortage, this year.
Midway through the afternoon, a bell rang.
Girls started to flood toward a flagpole, part of the daily routine of being at camp. Some wore clear plastic ponchos. Others wore rain boots. And others flip-flopped through the mud, kicking it up behind them with each step. (Don’t bring your nice clothes to camp, Lorenz warns.)
Once they were in a circle, counselor Ellen Butler began to list their options for afternoon activities.
Butler is another former camper who decided to come back as a grown-up. Unlike Levett, she didn’t stay in the state, so her drive back to camp each summer is 1,000 miles.
“The drive is a long way, but it’s worth it,” Butler said. Because she lives in southwest Colorado, she brings her dogs with her, and the dogs, like everyone else at the camp — including Lorenz’s cats — quickly become family, as well.
For the ambitious girls at camp, Lorenz said, there is a badge system. In one of the old-styled buildings, girls can weave and use a loom for a badge.
Nearby, they can make pottery from the creek’s blue clay. In some summers, it can be difficult to gather the clay from the creek since it’s so hot. But this summer, the clay has been plentiful.
Lorenz pointed to some wet pottery projects on a table.
“If the sun doesn’t come out, we’ll have to throw these projects into the kiln and try to dry them that way,” she said.
In a cabinet nearby, some of the works of former campers were displayed. Campers who received badges had crafted pottery out of coils, then created another flat piece of pottery and glazed it.
Time stands still
All of this is done in outdoor structures that, were no one at the camp, would seem old and abandoned. The buildings are old, but Lorenz says that was done on purpose.
“My dad wanted an old Western town,” she said. So when he started his camp, that’s what he channeled.
And like a Western town, across from the pottery area, there are stables. On July 9, the donkey and the horse stayed inside. But on some days, the girls go riding.
This rainy day, some of the girls were taking turns on a tire swing. Others sat indoors, next to a fireplace, a card game splayed out in front of them. Still others occupied Foosball tables.
“We have a lot of guitar players,” Lorenz said. When they light up campfires at night, the guitar players lead songs for the group.
The girls are kept busy, and this keeps their appetites up. Leftovers, Lorenz said, are never a problem. It helps that her sister has access to fresh vegetables.
“We had 12 dozen ears of sweet corn the other day,” Lorenz said. “We put them out, and we had none left over.”
Sometimes the meals are themed. Lorenz said the girls could expect a dress-up dinner before they leave camp. Counselors throw checkered tablecloths over the tables, light candles and serve Italian food. As a treat, campers get banana splits for dessert.
“They are clever, so you keep thinking one step ahead of them,” Lorenz said.
‘A wonderful life’
Lorenz and the counselors have a respect for the girls they’re keeping. They know that some will arrive unsure, that they will dismount family vehicles nervously and perhaps be intimidated by the prospect of the two weeks before them.
They are there to show the girls that they are actually more confident than they know and smarter than they believe. For instance, sometimes dendrology walks will be on the scheduled list of activities.
“They learn how to identify trees, and it impresses their families,” Lorenz said. “It’s an important thing to know.”
That morning, some of the girls had gone on a nature walk — their umbrellas bobbing as they walked through the forest. They saw a box turtle laying eggs.
“We’re trying to help them realize that there are so many things outdoors that they don’t have to be afraid of,” Lorenz said. “Education can help them be (less afraid).”
As long as Lorenz has her way, this is how things will stay at Gnaw Bone Camp. It will remain disconnected, yet a place where people still connect.
It will stay off the grid, but keep campers and counselors returning.
It will remain a place where girls are encouraged to learn and grow and leave camp with more confidence and skills than they had before.
“It’s a wonderful life, meeting all of these great families,” Lorenz said.