Welcome to Illahee…the mountains echo welcome to thee!

Today felt oddly familiar. I guess that should be no surprise. Laurie and I have watched summers evolve as directors for 34 years. I told somebody that the other day, and her reply was “that’s a long time for anything.” It sort of caught me off guard. It doesn’t really seem that long. “Odd” because opening day at camp felt like muscle memory today, which decidedly has not been the case the past three years. Camp was a refuge during the pandemic. If nothing else, summers at Illahee build resiliency, and thankfully a bunch more life skills, but at no time in our camp lives has this been more tested than in the past couple of years. I was sitting at dinner tonight thinking about how thankful I am for our camp family…you all…and then my ADD kicked in and I said to Laurie, “we should bring the honey bears back.” And Lucas, our amazing son-in-law, who we plucked from the pulpit at Downtown Church in Columbia SC to join his equally talented spouse (our daughter Gardner) as directors chimed in, “I could introduce it with a bear costume…I’m all about a good costume”!

Honey Bears were pre-pandemic and they died along with butter and jelly and peanut butter, and hand-scooped ice cream when Covid came along. We still served them, but girls peeled off a foil lid from a plastic single serve packet….

We are good at what we do, and we used that resiliency and flexibility to pivot, and with your trust and help, we had abbreviated camp in 2020, and have had full camps ever since. But today felt normal. As I greeted arriving families, I shook hands, and hugged returning campers and new…and even a brand new mom. No masks, no distancing. Just fast friends, reuniting…and new friendships being forged. We have moved on, stronger and even more resilient, and camp is more relevant than ever.

Welcome to Illahee! You are family, whether seasoned or brand new, and one us will update you each day with news from the day, insights into camp life, and rambling musings (mostly me). Ours is a family affair…our daughter Gardner and her family (Lucas, oldest son Brooks, and baby Jasper) moved back to camp from Columbia SC a few weeks ago. Lucas finished three years as Associate Pastor at an amazing Presbyterian church and will be camp’s program director this summer. Of course, many of you know Gardner as our Associate Director of the last 6 years. My younger sister Gretchen is our staff director…we have worked side by side for twenty plus years. She is also our resident staff and camper shoulder to lean on. And Laurie holds it all together We are supported by about 100 amazing staffers, 80% of whom we have known since they were campers themselves at Illahee. It’s amazing the impact you can have when trust is already “baked in.” They love this place as much as we do, and as much as your girls will.

Today was gorgeous…a perfect day for a perfect opening! As girls settled in, they rotated through lots of activities…picking up swag from the Ship Store, settling in to their bunks in the cabin, playing Pickelball…there were some older girls on the Beanstalk, our high ropes course. Nature Steve brought his Nature Pod and had some snakes and other critters to show off, and the swim lake (the happiest spot at camp) was active as girls demonstrated their ability to stay afloat. Lunch was a chance to get to know the cabin and enjoy a buffet of sandwiches, pasta salad, warm chocolate ship cookies with hummus and salad.

As the afternoon passed with all of that activity, tummies start to rumble again, and we all get so excited to feast on our traditional Sunday lunch that we have it for dinner on opening day. Heaping mounds of fresh fried chicken, wild rice, steamed broccoli, and big baskets of warm yeast rolls, with you guessed it…single serve packets of butter and honey. I’m gonna start a campaign for the return of the honey bears on each table, and a stick of butter in a bowl. I think I’ll work the environmental angle. And, I want to see Lucas in his costume.

We end the first evening with opening campfire. It is a lively affair with lots of singing, stories, skits and a few presentations. Thirty-four five-year campers received pine tree pins which they wear on their blue Illahee ties when in “whites.” Second year senior counselors are presented with a CI pin in the shape of a pine tree. There are skits of introduction from each hill, and tonight’s campfire ended with a story by Lucas. Milk and graham crackers are a goodnight stop before each cabin returns to their hill to settle in for their first night. Friendship circles are our traditional way to end an Illahee day. Girls sit with counselors in the cabin and talk about their day, their dreams and their own story. It is a good way to start the bond. It’s fun to think about girls starting their Illahee journey today, knowing full well after this many years that for most it will become a love affair that will follow them the rest of their days.

We have a big day tomorrow. All of the fun activities will begin and we’ll be here every night to fill you in. Welcome to Illahee!