July 23, 2013

Central Maine's summer camps a getaway for the well-to-do

Out-of-staters, many with considerable means, pay five figures for summer sessions and fly in to Maine on private jets to visit their kids.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

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click image to enlarge

A pilot walks past two private jets July 16 near Maine Instrument Flight at the Augusta State Airport. Maine Instrument Flight owner William Perry said more jets are arriving earlier to visit summer campers than previous years. "It's not a weekend anymore," Perry said of the arrival of dozens of private planes in Augusta, which his company services. He expects several dozen flights this weekend.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

CAMP COSTS

Camp Location Tuition Dates
Camp Laurel Readfield $11,000 June 22 – Aug. 10
Camp Modin Belgrade $10,650 June 26 – Aug. 15
Camp All-Star Kents Hill $6,999 June 23 – Aug. 3
Camp Winnebago Fayette $11,550 June 21 – Aug. 12
Camp Vega Fayette $11,000 June 22 – Aug. 10
Camp Manitou Belgrade $11,300 June 26 – Aug. 14
Pine Island Camp For Boys Belgrade Lakes $7,550 June 28 – Aug. 11
Camp Runoia Belgrade Lakes $8,200 June 27 – Aug. 14

Source: Camp websites

For 22 years straight, she said, the family has vacationed in Maine, staying each year at the Migis Lodge, on Sebago Lake, a town over from Naples in South Casco.

Most weekends, the family drives from New Jersey to Maine to visit camps, a seven-hour ride. But this year they had been traveling, so over visiting weekend at Camp Vega, the family flew into Boston, rented a car and drove to Augusta. They will be back in Maine in August to pick up their daughter.

She said the family typically chooses car travel in case commercial flights are delayed. And the Smuklers aren't among the lucky ones to fly into Augusta.

"We don't have a private plane," she said. "I have to be at camp at 9 a.m. You don't want to let your kid down."

This year, the Smuklers stayed at the Best Western Augusta Civic Center Inn, shopping at the Marketplace and buying magazines, snacks and drinks to take to their daughter at Camp Vega, in Fayette, a half-hour's drive west on Route 17.

In summer camp-heavy Belgrade Lakes, Susan Grover, co-owner of the Village Inn, an upscale inn, restaurant and tavern, said visiting weekends mean no vacancies and busy nights at the restaurant, which is already hopping in the summer resort town.

And many of the inn's guests are regulars, Grover said.

"You get to recognize them because their kids keep coming back to camp year after year," she said.

No cellphones, computers

The camps do their best to distance campers from the outside world, and those who own the camps stress that.

Camp officials aren't as at ease talking about the money that follows their campers to the region as they are about the camp experience.

Andy Lilienthal, owner of Camp Winnebago, a boys camp in Fayette founded in 1919, said the economic contributions are impressive, but they don't change his goals.

"Camp for me, philosophically, is very simple: it's just basic premises of creating healthy young men," Lilienthal said. "The rest is just window-dressing."

Smukler said the experience is largely about life lessons.

"You're living for seven weeks with 10 girls in a small room," she said. "You have to try and make that work. You can't be a jerk. I think that's a great life lesson."

It's a steep price for that throwback life on the lake, however, and Mainers are far outnumbered at private camps.

Winnebago, which costs $11,550 for a 53-day session, attracts campers and counselors from all over the country and world. Lilienthal said of his 150 campers, 12 are from Maine. Of 100 counselors, he said 20 are Mainers.

Kyle Courtiss, co-director of Camp Vega, said 98 percent of his 280 campers are from out of state. Camp Vega, founded in 1936, costs $11,000 for a seven-week session.

But some of the comforts of a suburban lifestyle are unavailable. He said his camp went screen-free this summer, banning cellphones and computers.

His goal was simple: "To keep camp, camp and make the focus on friends more than their own devices."

"It's pretty easy for us to maintain the tradition," Courtiss added.

It's a similar experience at Winnebago. There's no electricity in the living areas. A typical day at the camp, Winnebago's website says, consists of cleaning cabins, boating, fishing, sports, swimming and the main nightcap, a campfire.

"There's no computers; there's no cellphones," Lilienthal said. "It has no meaning here, or very little meaning. It's about who you are as a person."

And it has a lasting impact, said Smukler.

The New Jersey mother said her older daughter, who last attended Vega in 2009 and is headed to college, has worked the camp's name into her school email password. Both daughters have made friends that will likely follow them to college and beyond, she said.

"There's a reason these camps have been around for so long," Smukler said. "This camp connection is a lifelong thing."

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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