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Camp comeback

Pique’s guide to kids’ summer camps

If you’re of a certain age, geography and means (and your parents just wanted you out of their hair for a few weeks), chances are you spent your childhood summers at one of those sleep-away camps that, for so many kids, end up being a deeply formative time in their young lives. 

For me personally, I was lucky enough to spend a couple weeks one endless summer at a popular overnight camp in Ontario cottage country. For such a short period, it felt, at least to my pre-pubescent brain, like I had packed in a lifetime’s worth of experiences. New friendships were formed; new crushes rose and faltered; and many (so many!) fireside chants were sung. 

For generations of kids, especially in Canada, these camps marked the first time they were away from their parents for an extended period, giving them their first taste of independence and helping them shape their still-malleable identities.  

In a town like Whistler, where space comes at a premium, these kinds of overnight camps aren’t quite as common, but that’s not to say there isn’t a wide variety of summer camps on offer for local and visiting youth. Of course, you’ve got your more specialized sports camps, for the future elite athlete and curious beginner alike, along with more generalized camps that offer a range of activities and programming for kids to get their feet wet—literally, in some cases. 

Unfortunately, over the past two years of shifting COVID-19 measures, local camps have had to adapt on the fly, with some not able to operate at all. But, with B.C. opening up and restrictions loosened once more, it’s gearing up to be something of a comeback for Whistler’s slate of camps. 

Pique caught up with a few of them to hear how they coped through the pandemic, and to get the rundown of what’s on tap for yet another idyllic summer in Tiny Town. 

Building Momentum 

For 30 years now, Momentum Camps have been shaping the next generation of top snow-sport athletes. Held on Horstman Glacier, arguably some of the best summer ski and snowboard terrain in North America, Momentum offers the perfect place to quickly level up your skills, whether it be moguls, slopestyle skiing, or snowboarding. 

The proof is in the proverbial pudding—a who’s who of champion Canadian and international skiers and riders have made their way through the camps, many returning as coaches years later to pay forward what they’ve learned. Among the Olympians and world champions that have passed through Momentum are Alex Bilodeau, Dale Begg-Smith, Jenn Heil, Kristi Richards, Joss Christensen, Dara Howell, Cassie Sharpe, Mike Riddle, Max Moffatt and Sarah Burke—and that is just a fraction of the list. 

“It attracts people who are passionate about skiing and can’t get enough, so much so that they don’t even want to stop when the snow melts. They’ll come from far and wide to continue their passion,” explains camp director John Smart. 

But it’s not just snow-sport studs that attend the camps. Because Momentum has its own terrain park, a low-risk environment for the aspiring athlete to test out their latest trick without fear of injury.  

“Our summer camps are obviously very unique in that we create our own purpose-built environment up there,” Smart says. 

For the daredevils in the bunch, the camp also counts two large landing bags that are only available at its summer camps (the bags are too difficult to maintain in the cold), trampoline beds, and even a water ramp for campers to test out their latest trick without fear of injury. 

“It’s for all levels, not just for the high end. Kids can learn their first 360 with no consequences,” Smart says. 

For the past two summers, Whistler Blackcomb closed Horstman Glacier, as it did not have adequate time to prepare it for the camps with the pandemic dragging on. For a camp that welcomes more than 200 campers a week, along with a number of national teams that spend summers training there, it was a huge blow, financially. 

“The first year when it happened, it was totally understandable, but last year was very tough because it looked like we could make it and it was the last chance for national teams to train for the Olympics,” Smart says. “As a business but also for the industry of skiing in general, it’s been very, very tough.” 

Since launching in 1992, Momentum has also seen first-hand the effects climate change has had on the glacier. And although there is of course an obvious impact from running a popular ski and snowboard camp and all of its related infrastructure, the camps also help prevent ice melt on Horstman, Smart says. 

“One of our jobs when we build the park is we move the snow around, scrape it from areas, and cover the ice so it’s never exposed. That wasn’t done when we weren’t up there, so therefore it melted faster,” he says. “It’s been 30 years we’ve been running so we’ve watched the glacier change and we’ve changed with it over all these years.” 

For more information, visit momentumskicamps.com. 

Adventure abounds 

Mariano Liu and Roberto Gibbons, co-owners of one of Whistler’s newest summer camps, know a thing or two about adventure. 

Liu runs Camp Ecolart, which offers day and overnight camps in Montreal, Banff and San Diego, in addition to Whistler, while Gibbons is a travel blogger, adventure photographer and brains behind The Expeditioners, Instagram’s favourite adventure family, which sees Gibbons, his wife Bella and son Mikio touring some of the most scenic and rugged locales around the globe. 

“Eating and breathing adventure daily,” the two cousins teamed up a few years ago to launch The Expeditioners Adventure Camp in Whistler, bringing campers aged eight and up to eye-popping destinations around the Sea to Sky—doing everything from hiking, biking and paddling to get there. 

The aim of the camp isn’t necessarily to hone kids’ outdoor skills (although that is often a welcome side effect), but to spur their sense of curiosity and exploration. 

“Sometimes a kid is not into mountain biking or sailing or anything like that, so they want another option. We’re just trying to put all these things together because we’re more of an adventure camp,” Liu explains. “The biking we do, the paddling we do, the hiking is more recreational. We’re not trying to be the best hikers or bikers. We’re trying to show these kids that doing all these activities, they help you to adventure, to explore, to reach new boundaries and get farther.” 

Travelling everywhere from Panorama Ridge and Joffre Lakes to Brandywine Falls, Liu describes Ecolart as “the first real summer overnight camp experience in Whistler.” The camp also incorporates traditional camp games—think tug of war, capture the flag and scavenger hunts—that wouldn’t seem out of place at a sleep-away camp in Eastern Canada.   

“We want to give that true summer-camp experience,” Liu says. “You know you go to Ontario or Quebec … and there’s the vibe of playing, meeting new friends, having kids from all over the place. That’s what we want to give.” 

For more information, visit campecolart.com/whistler-summer-camp. 

Lateral movements 

In such a sports-obsessed town, having the Audain Art Museum’s After School Art program for kids is akin to finding a diamond in the rough. 

“It just underlines the really nice range of educational possibilities in Whistler, but this fills out the cultural side of things based on what this museum can do with its collection and our studio,” explains Dr. Curtis Collins, director and chief curator at the private museum housing a comprehensive collection of B.C. art. 

The after-school workshops, led by Elyse Feaver, allow kids in Kindergarten through Grade 5 (the program is divided into two age cohorts) to tour the museum’s extensive permanent collection, often honing in on a particular artwork or gallery of significance, like James Hart’s large, cedar The Dance Screen that welcomes visitors into the Chrystal Gallery, or the Barbeau-Owen Gallery housing a selection of vivid landscape paintings by renowned B.C. artist, E.J. Hughes, or something more contemporary like Paul Wong’s neon light installation, NO THING IS FOREVER

After learning about the work, the young artists will get to try their hand at making something of their own at the museum’s in-house studio. 

“That’s going to be the fun part, because it will be multimedia, so stuff involving carving or sculpture, whether that’s plasticine or soap. Similarly, Polaroid cameras and that sort of photo-based practice. Then, more obvious ones like painting, for example,” Collins notes. “The orientation is to have the workshops really cover a full range of practices, so the kids get a nice variety of how to
make things.” 

What’s more is the afternoon sessions are incredibly affordable, at $10 per session for museum members and $12 for non-members, thanks to a generous donation subsidizing the program from Allen Bell and Ola Dunin-Bell. 

For Collins and the Audain, it’s another way to not only engage with the local community and increase accessibility, but nurture the creativity of Whistler’s next generation. 

“I really think people underestimate the value of creativity in relation to things like language and math. The ability to think laterally in creative ways has great parallels in other disciplines that make a fuller person,” Collins says. “Whistler is quite unique in that way. Whistler kids are quite fortunate to have access to something like this. It’s our way of taking a public responsibility and making a contribution to the community, which is important for us.”  

Sessions run on the first and third Tuesday of each month, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Registration opens two weeks before each session. The first Grades 3-5 session is May 17, and the first Kindergarten to Grade 2 session is June 7. 

For more information, visit audainartmuseum.com/afterschoolart. 

One-stop shop 

If variety is the spice of life, then Whistler’s Combo Camps have crafted the perfectly seasoned dish for young campers. 

Formerly the Whistler Sport Academy, Combo Camps offers dynamic programs for kids aged five to 12, combining sports development and skills training with mountain life activities. This summer’s range of offerings includes specific bike, tennis, adventure, dance, improv, sailing, and for the first year, fencing combo camps, which allow the kids to engage in their chosen sport or activity in the mornings before hitting the lake in the afternoons for canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding. 

“It’s sort of a one-stop shop,” says Combo Camps co-owner Olly Nixon. “If you have a family of three, it doesn’t mean they’re all into biking. We’ve always wanted to offer something to everybody.” 

Along with the Combo Camps, there are also Leadership Camps for teens 13 and up to develop their leadership skills and learn the essentials of bike, tennis and water training. After successfully completing the five-day camp, the teens will get a leadership certification that will allow them to work with Combo Camps as assistant counsellors. 

“Those kids who are 13, 14, 15, who’ve maybe went to five or six Combo Camps now, we’re looking to take them on as assistant coaches,” Nixon says. “We’ve known some of them since they were six years old, so it’s cool to see them working as coaches.” 

Hosted primarily at the Whistler Racket Club, which is also operated by the Combo Camps owners, Nixon says the venue on the outskirts of the village is the perfect complement to what they do, with its range of programming, such as pickleball, axe-throwing, and more that also gives campers’ families something fun to do. 

“It’s a really cool spot and there’s literally something for everyone there,” Nixon adds. 

For more information, visit combocamps.com.