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I briefly considered bringing a rolling suitcase so I could accommodate the entire packing list: running shoes, sandals, bug spray, sunscreen, multiple hot-weather tank tops plus a few fleece sweaters for cold nights, a Wonder Woman costume, a Woodstock costume, heart-shaped sunglasses. I stopped short at one of the suggested items — “tribal tattoos” — because I’m not a fucking idiot. It felt like a lot to carry in a backpack, but I was more concerned about being teased for bringing luggage into the woods. I was heading to Camp No Counselors, a three-day summer camp for adults with locations across North America, complete with activities, dance parties, and open bars.
The older we get, the harder it becomes to make friends, or to develop real human connections with strangers, particularly as we get further from school, the place where human connection was mandatory for survival. By your mid-twenties, you can largely live your life knowing the same three people in your same industry, in your little corner of the world. But in the last few years, there’s been a boon in adult camps — Zombie Survival Camp, Camp Reset, Camp Grounded — environments where moderately affluent twentysomethings can manufacture those childhood human connections.
A CNC weekend was happening just a few hours away from me north of Toronto in late June, so I forked over nearly $700 (Canadian, so I guess it barely counts), booked a seat on their chartered bus, and got ready for a three-night sleepover with a group of strangers.
Camp No Counselors started as a camp weekend in 2013, the brainchild of founder Adam Tichauer, when he first rented a campground for himself and his “20 closest friends.” The camp required a minimum of 30 people to be booked entirely, so he told his friends to invite their friends, and it ballooned to 90 people. “This group became the best of friends” and stayed friends long after the camp weekend was over, he says. “So when there was a bike ride or a hike or a birthday, everyone would go.” Everyone who went to that original camp, in fact, is going to Tichauer’s wedding later this summer. Last spring, CNC appeared on Shark Tank (Tichauer served the Sharks some drinks but, alas, no deal) and later expanded their camps to 10 North American cities. This camp is CNC's first Canadian expansion. Tichauer himself was in attendance; he tries to go to as many camps as he can, walking around the site, making sure everyone is having fun and making new friends.
On the most base level, the purpose of the camp is to have fun, to act like a kid again, to recapture the same feeling you had at 12. Beyond that, though, it’s about making connections. “Our mission, when we write it down, is to enable adults to make genuine friendships through shared experience,” he says. “Camp is a place of firsts: first kiss, first time away from your parents, first independence. To go back to that special place of firsts and silliness is fun and very unique.”
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At CNC, the staff is expressly called “Non-Counselors” — it’s even emblazoned on the back of their indigo T-shirts. While we drive off, they teach us a chant (Call: “You down with CNC?” Response: “Yeah, you know me!”), we sign liability waivers, we’re given Molson beer from fellow campers as well as from the staff, and are generally pumped up. A troupe of beautiful, tall blondes sits in front of me (they flew here from Florida just for camp), and a guy walks to the very back of the bus, carrying a cooler filled with bottles of brown liquor and half-cold beers. Plastic cups filled with tequila are passed around the bus while we drive toward camp. Arun, an Australian transplant sitting next to me, hands me a Jager shot.
I ask him what he does for a living but he wags his finger. “Ah, we’re not supposed to ask that!” Non-Counselors tell us we’re not allowed to ask one another what we do but rather what we are. Everyone here, thus far, is very drunk: The six Floridians in front of me, the 14-person (14!) bachelorette party further up, the cooler guy in the back who is now standing with a group of 10 or so attractive girls and guys, all drinking and laughing together like they’ve been friends for years.
Going to an adult summer camp forces you to think about what kind of person you would be if you returned to camp, or returned to the youth that you squandered. I like to think that the confidence I acquired as an adult and the brashness I’ve developed in my twenties would translate if put in the same situations. I’m certainly trying — I’m handing out compliments like my life depends on it — but I can already feel myself slip. Arun makes fun of me for holding a notebook and my phone for most of the drive, and when I put them away he yells, “Finally! Now you can have fun.” I tell myself I will try harder to ignore the voices of self-doubt that first entered my brain at 13 and went dormant sometime around 2010. I will make a friend. Just one.
I stand up to look behind me and see a small blonde Reese Witherspoon doppelgänger with a sharp chin and light eyes, sitting by herself and not talking to anyone. Danielle came alone, like me. She’s a budding actress and generally seems unimpressed with everyone here. I like her. She says she’s going to another camp later this summer, a technology-free, sober one. A clear departure from CNC, where there are early-evening happy hours and nighttime open bars for the whole weekend, plus mimosas at breakfast and beer and wine at lunch and dinner. The LA camp was sponsored by Shock Top beer; ours doesn’t seem to have a sponsor, but we are given a lot of complimentary flavored coconut waters, perhaps to undo what we are about to do to our bodies.
We get to Camp Manitou in Muskoka, Ontario (usually used for actual children’s camps), at nearly 8 p.m. The camp is on acres of sprawling land, with a handful of cabins set apart from the main campsite down a poorly lit dirt road. There’s a lake with a few docks and a campfire next to it where we all congregate for our happy hours, plus a mess hall for meals and, later, dancing. As I get off the bus, a staffer wraps a woven green-and-blue bracelet around my wrist. “This,” says Non-Counselor Jules, “is your first friendship bracelet.” In reality, it’s an indicator that I can drink, but I giggle when I receive it and say thank you before setting off to find my bunk. A few strangers ask me, “What bunk are you?!” and I yell back, “B9!” like it’s an inherent part of my identity. I fucking am B9. B9 for life.
We are given a lot of complimentary flavored coconut waters, perhaps to undo what we are about to do to our bodies.
By the time I get to B9, most of my bunkmates have already staked out their beds. Our cabin is filled out by Olivia, an opera singer; her friend who calls herself “Asian Anna”; Jess, who is traveling alone; and a group of five guys here for a bachelor party. Olivia is tall and lithe, and ties her hair in a bun with a pen. She laughs at all of my jokes and touches my hand whenever we talk. Anna, meanwhile, is boisterous and busty: She wears tiny shorts and no underwear (I know this because she tells me a few times) and is wearing 2-inch-long eyelash extensions. She calls me Princess Jasmine almost immediately, and while my instinct is to be somewhat insulted, she says it with such sweetness that instead, I’m blushing putty. Once I set up my sleeping bag and tuck my bag away (there’s nowhere to lock your things, nor are there locks on the bathroom or shower doors), I walk toward the campfire next to the dock.
Only a fraction of us are here on this first day — the rest are coming tomorrow — but the bar is open and they’re serving chicken wings and chicken fingers and crudités. It’s dark, so I can barely make out a few faces that I saw on the bus ride over: a tall, heavily muscled lawyer named Evan, who seems to be constantly losing his shirt; the group of blonde somethings from Florida who all look vaguely related and love to clink Solo cups with me when they walk by; and Arun who now seems intent on avoiding me whenever I’m near him.
By 2 a.m., the crowd drinking by the fireplace near the docks is 30 or 40 people thick, and it’s starting to get sloppy. One of the Floridians drapes a string of twinkle lights disguised as Solo cups around my neck and makes fun of me for having to bunk with Asian Anna because she doesn’t like her. (Later, she hugs a Non-Counselor by pressing her face into her breasts; the NC gets out of it by dancing and saying, “Girl, girl, girl.”) The Floridian is very drunk, noticeably, and by the fire; I hear a guy warning his friend about her, how she’s a “mess,” and how they should “keep away from her.” They’re laughing and keeping their eyes on the women in the crowd, sober enough, I guess, to be worth engaging with. Arun, who is hooked on the fact that I’m a writer, raises his eyebrows when I’m near and says things like, “Found your angle yet?” When I finally find Danielle again she betrays a look of utter relief. “Oh my god, there you are,” she says. It’s like we’ve known each other for weeks, like we planned this trip together. “Are you having fun?”
I say yes but before I can ask her the same question, one of the other attendees waddles up to her saying, “There she is!” He’s twice Danielle’s size, bear-hugging her, pulling her around, telling her and everyone else how pretty she is. In the dim light it looks like he’s kissing her head. “Isn’t she great?” he asks me and I say yes, yes she is. She locks her eyes on me in a kind of desperation, the kind that says, I know we just met but who else is going to help me here?
“Are you tired?” I ask her.
We make eye contact and I can see her irises shine even in the dark. “Yeah.”
“Don’t go!” he says. He begs us — but really, just Danielle — to stay; he wants to hang out with her more because she’s “so cool.” I take her arm and start walking away. “We’re tired,” I say, because while I’m starting to have fun and could probably stay for another drink, I feel like the one real camp friend I’ve made is begging me for an out.
Danielle and I trot up the hill to our bunks, arms linked. “Thanks,” she tells me. “I hope he’s not in my cabin.” I wish she were in mine.
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Danielle shows up to breakfast, her sunken eyes darker than the night before. She’s scowling and holding a muffin. “I didn’t sleep at all last night,” she says. “Some girl was having the loudest sex last night, like it was obvious and rude.” I can barely hear her story because I am cracking up at the idea of two people having “obvious and rude” sex on the top bunk of a shared cabin.
“Didn’t anyone stop them?” I ask her. “Maybe they thought they were being quiet?”
“There was a Non-Counselor in the room!” she says. “She didn’t do anything!” I am wheezing now I am laughing so hard, but Danielle clearly doesn’t find this as funny as I do. She wants to move cabins to get away from the girl in question, calling her “disrespectful.” I suggest she move into mine, since there are a few free bunks and no one in my cabin seems susceptible to weirdly loud sex.
Eagerness is rarely cool in the real world but here, it is everything.
Later, when I talk to Adam Tichauer about the incident, he says that Jeana, a staffer who was in Danielle’s bunk at the time, should have intervened. “That wasn’t the first issue we had with that specific camper.” Tichauer says the girl came off the bus drunk (though, many people did), insulted Tichauer’s music choice for that evening’s happy hour, made “inappropriate comments” toward the camp director’s fiancé who was in attendance, and then, finally, had very loud sex in a shared cabin on the top bunk. The morning after the incident, they decided to move her out of Danielle’s bunk into her own cabin, alone and on the other side of camp. “We tried to make an issue that affected others not affect others anymore,” Tichauer said. While CNC requires you fill out an application for the camp and can decline admittance based on your answers or, say, what you post publicly on Twitter, it doesn’t weed out every bad egg.
A new, larger group of campers arrives later that morning, so camp finally starts in earnest: A table in the mess hall is covered in sign-up sheets for tubing or sailing or free swim or kickball or capture the flag. I sit by the dock, next to one of three bachelorette parties, a pregnant woman here with her friends, and a few rowdy boys. I notice Danielle on the other side of the docks, chatting up some new guys who must have just gotten in this morning. I try to wave to her but she doesn’t see me; instead, she jumps in the water and swims over to the trampoline floating farther out on the lake. There’s a good 20 people sitting on it and talking, a literal circle that feels unbreakable to me. I think about swimming over to join her in making new friends but the possibility of looking like an idiot while trying to swim 60 feet overrides any interest I have in talking to Danielle. Instead, I try striking up a conversation with one of the women in the bachelorette party, but while turning over to get an even tan, I fall into the water. It’s so cold that I literally lose my breath. “Did…did you do that on purpose?” she asks me.
I spit scummy lake water out of my mouth and cling to the dock. “Sure.”
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Eagerness is rarely cool in the real world, but here, it is everything. Everyone here is so jazzed about the smallest human interaction that I, too, have grown to care about the camp-wide game of Rock, Paper, Scissors we’re about to have.
The entire camp is split into teams early on — red, blue, green, and gray, based on our cabin numbers, and given T-shirts with our corresponding colors. (Though, we’re told not to wear them until the last day.) I meet the blue team near the flagpole to kick off the game that ends up being a part of what CNC calls “Color Wars,” a camp-wide competition between the four teams. Everyone, all 160 or so of us, play Rock, Paper, Scissors with each other, and whoever wins goes on to play another winner, and so on until there is one winner from each team. Then, they play each other for the final victor. It’s intoxicating to be in the presence of this kind of unbridled enthusiasm, where everyone is so fucking excited about getting rock. But it’s a foreign feeling, too: If you, like me, made friends by being sarcastic and unwilling, these are not your people. These are the people who love participating so much that they’ve made it cool. One of the guys in my bunk loses for our team, and yet, people are lifting him onto their shoulders and chanting his name because while he lost Rock, Paper, Scissors, he’s still somehow a champion.
If you, like me, made friends by being sarcastic and unwilling, these are not your people.