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Kids camp for grownups

Summer camps like the one in Gibsons are opening their doors to adult-style fun.

It's 7 a.m. when I roll out of my bunk Sunday morning; most of the other campers in my room are still sound asleep. The sun is shining on a rain-soaked field from yesterday's monsoon-like storms as I head down to the beach for an early-morning canoe, my hungover eyes hiding behind dark sunglasses. A few plucky campers are down there too, clutching tiny little paddles made for 10-year-olds and struggling into size-small life jackets. "Is this right?" they ask. The bemused camp staffers sort them out with the right-sized gear, and tell us not to go too far. Just because we're grown-ups doesn't mean we know what we're doing.

The last time I was here at the YMCA's Camp Elphinstone on the Sunshine Coast I was a spotty pre-teen, scared to be away from home and desperate not to embarrass myself. I remember a lot of rain and doing a lot of dishes. Some things at summer camp are still the same: the rain, the rustic bunk houses and the crowded dining hall. But things are a whole lot better at grown-up camp. The food has had an upgrade (no mac and cheese!), evening sing-alongs have been replaced by a booze-fuelled rave, and the usual camp activities have been supplemented by high-powered yoga classes. This particular camp experience is brought to us by Camp Yoga, which advertises "Stand-up paddleboard yoga, ninja training, archery, epic naps, Pilates, group runs, high-rope course, hiking and, did we mention, booze?"

Camp Yoga is the latest addition to the growing trend of kids-camps-for-grownups. Nineteen-plus'ers are increasingly opting for a kind of ultra-low-cost Club Med on their own home turf, going to the same summer camp locations they might have visited as kids to release their inner child. Across North America, more than one million adults attend camp each summer and adult attendance is going up about 10 per cent a year, according to Apparently the appeal of bonfires and burnt marshmallows, like fine wine, only grows stronger with age.

"It's awesome," says James Fahey, a Whistlerite carpenter who was convinced to come for the yoga. "I liked camp as a kid. It's pretty similar to what I remember — except for that party last night," he says with a smile.

That guy

Camp Yoga was started by Chesley Long, a high-energy, super-friendly Canadian whose beard and the fact that he's a 'he' consistently startle yoga-class attendees who misread their teacher's name as "Chelsey" (me included). "Yes, that happens all the time," he laughs. Long grew up in a tiny lumber-mill town in Nova Scotia, where his family taught him the importance of hospitality: there was always room in their home for friends and travellers. Growing up, Long was always "that guy," he says – the one who rented the limo for prom, organized stag nights, and got all the friends together every summer for a group trip. He studied forensic science for a while, till he realized it wasn't nearly as exciting as it looks on TV. He had a job selling forklifts and then stumbled into yoga. "That changed my life," he says. He became a certified teacher and travelled the world, including going on a kind of missionary expedition as part of the Africa Yoga Project.

Long went to Wanderlust in Whistler and, shocked by the cost of the experience, rented a place and ran his own personal hostel for the week. That went so well he wondered if he could rent out a bigger place and do his own low-budget yoga camp. A place like, well, a kid's camp. In September 2015 he rented a camp in Parry Sound, Ont., and invited mostly yoga teachers to come and practice together. "It was a passion project," he says. He didn't advertise, but 150 people showed up, some of them paying high prices for private cabins he thought for sure would never sell. "So I walked back into my job and quit," he says.

Long has since been travelling around teaching yoga (including at the White Gold studio in Whistler) and looking for new camp venues. This May 27 to 29 was the first run for the Gibsons location. On Sept. 9 he's going back to Parry Sound, and on Sept. 16 the camp hits Canmore.

The combination of yoga and kid-style play seems to have struck a chord. This year about 200 people showed up for the Gibsons camp, mostly in their 20s to early 40s, at least 90 per cent of them women, including me. People have come from all over. Over falafel, I meet a couple who drove all the way down from 100 Mile House just for the camp. One guy, who met Long in Thailand, flew in from Florida for it. Some are yoga teachers keen to try new styles; some have hardly stepped into a yoga studio before. I spy one person walking around with a sweatshirt that says: "I'm just here for the shavasana" (that bit at the end of a class where you lie on your back for a long time in corpse pose and fall asleep). Some are self-described camp lifers while others missed out on camp as kids and are just now popping their camp cherry.

Everyone is upbeat, even through the rain that fell all Saturday and wiped out all the watersports (weirdly, the high ropes course was still running — I traversed a wobbly wooden bridge with a new friend more than 10 metres up, in crocs, in the pouring rain). "You're not at camp unless it rains!" says one camper at lunch, who is met with a round of enthusiastic cheers from a table of people who were strangers before yesterday, but who now seem like fast friends. "The rain helped me to rediscover my love of hot chocolate," he adds. After lunch Long sets up a soapy slip-and-slide on the field in an epic "if you can't beat it join it" embrace of the rain.

Wet and wild

The rain has given the inaugural B.C. event a kind of trial-by-fire. "Rain was my worst fear," says Long, who worried that soggy campers would go home in disgust or mope around. "But it's all fine. So that's good." And it is fine. All that happens is that Camp Yoga becomes more about yoga, in the big indoor halls. And there is some very cool yoga.

Katie Thacker of Victoria, for one, is teaching AcroYoga, which I'd never even heard of before. This is basically circus sports without a trapeze. In a giant, fireplace-heated room filled with 50 campers escaping the rain, Thacker demos some insane manoeuvres with her partner (in yoga and romance) Brandon Sherbrook. Lying on his back, he lifts her up on her belly with his feet and then proceeds to fling her about as if gravity had stopped working; she ends up sitting yogi-style perched on his feet. We all giggle, as this is clearly impossible. But nope, it's our turn! And by the end of an hour we have pretty much all succeeded in being both the "base" and the "flyer." It's a huge rush.

Later on Saturday I hit a class called Social Yoga taught by Vancouverite Anita Cheung. I'd never heard of that before either; apparently Cheung invented it. Basically she's doing for yoga what Hash House Harriers did for running: making it more social and fun by making it silly. She teaches a class in Oakridge where the yoga is always accompanied by something new and odd. Once she had people do yoga with acupuncture needles in place. Once the class was held in a brewery. Soon it will be a gang bike ride followed by yoga and then beers, and another day a kind of TedX-style lecture series, including a modern retelling of Indian folklore. Today's yoga is accompanied by a DJ. At one point we all end up in so-called "dead rat" pose, lying on our backs with arms and legs straight up in the air. People spontaneously start swaying to the pop music and singing along. "That was awesome," Cheung congratulates us.

Long, Cheung, Thacker and the other instructors here are almost all Lululemon ambassadors. The Vancouver-based clothing company is in the habit of trawling sports studios looking for teachers they like, and giving them a title, coupons for free clothing, and career development opportunities — such as teaching at Camp Yoga. Long says this has been hugely helpful to him in his life in general and for the camp in particular. "They're a personal-development company, not a clothing company," Long says. (I called the company twice and the local store three times, but they didn't give me an interview for this article). "They're really neat. They give back," says Cheung. "I've been an ambassador for other brands before and they're really profit driven. These guys really want to get to know you and sponsor community events." Weirdly, there isn't even a Lululemon booth in the handful of vendor stalls that dot the dining hall.

Instead there is yet more yoga, a motivational class called Find Your Fun, meditation, circuit training, smoothie-making, firefighter training, wine tasting and necklace-making. If you have the energy, you could fit in about eight classes a day. Or go for a walk in the woods and try to find the teepees. Or just take a nap.

After all the classes on Saturday a clutch of campers end up swilling red wine at a covered picnic table, swapping ice-breakers and stories (that I have been sworn not to reproduce here). The conversation gets raunchy as the wine flows. Soon we all head down to the rec hall for the advertised rave — a dance party with glow-in-the-dark paint and glow sticks, and more booze for sale. The dancers are having a blast. Some are still wearing their sweaty yoga togs while others have dressed up for the occasion; a few are in full-body leotards with, I think, leopards printed dramatically up their tummies. It's a look I couldn't get away with but they're rocking it.

Whistler local character Stephanie Reesor (aka the Princess) is here with a handful of girlfriends celebrating her 51st birthday. For her 50th, she says, she had a sold-out party at the Garibaldi Lift Co. that lasted for three days. "So far this has been healthier," she says with a grin, though maybe not so much so this evening. "We definitely feel like the seniors here," she laughs. About 10 seconds after we met she has invited me to the rest of her extended birthday bash and taken me, literally, under her wing.

If anyone is going to get up to shenanigans this weekend it will be Reesor's crew (she and a few holdouts kept the party going after 2 a.m.). Last year at the Parry Sound camp, Long tells me, someone had too much to drink, went outside to pee and fell in the lake. He then wandered into the wrong cabin, got naked, grabbed all the towels, fell asleep in the middle of the room and started snoring. Nothing quite like that has happened this year — yet.

Authentic play

On Sunday morning over 8 a.m. pancakes with strawberry sauce and whipped cream, there is a surprising number of chipper faces. Overall I confess I'm surprised there isn't a little more grumbling about hangovers, the rain, the extremely basic bunkroom accommodation, or the price (it starts at $485 plus tax for the three days). But amid the general giddy air of camp the only complaint I hear is about the food: there isn't enough, they say, and it isn't organic. One woman was devastated that there were no 'smores on Friday night. "But wasn't the bonfire rained out?" I say. "Even so!" she says. "I still want 'smores. It isn't camp without 'smores." The price point seems fair, they say, given the class schedule. It's certainly a lot cheaper than ClubMed, which has a similar high-energy fun vibe but comes with more tropical locations (and warmer rain).

Long won't break down his profit margin for me, which is fair enough. Camp Elphinstone tells me it costs $1,000 to rent the whole place out for three days, plus about $50 per person per day for food and other services. Long has 200 guests, but many are staff, volunteers, or are here on a discount. I reckon he has taken in about $75,000 but paid out at least $30,000, not including food upgrades, insurance, transport, teacher salaries or other expenses. "My intention is to make a living but make it affordable," says Long.

"It's not a massive money-maker," says Danielle Goldfinger, who runs a similar camp called Two Islands Weekend in Haliburton, Ont., starting at $375 for two nights. "Sure you can rent a cottage with a bunch of friends for cheaper, but that takes a lot of work and you don't have all these activities at your fingertips," she adds. "The luxury of having someone else take care of you isn't something you can usually get at that price. And you can get a huge group of friends doing it together. Everyone can afford the money and the time. That's very hard to find."

The whole trend of grown-up camps seems to have exploded at about the same time, says Goldfinger. When she thought up her camp they didn't exist; but in 2013, when hers launched, so did the U.S. Camp Grounded (which has a "no booze, no technology" ethos; you're not even allowed to wear a watch), and Camp No Councilors (at the more raucous end of the spectrum). B.C. now also has Camp Wild Rumpus (see sidebar), on Gambier for the first time on the Canada Day long weekend.

At Camp Elphinstone, "kids are always our main focus," says YMCA communications manager Nadia Gormley. But, she adds, the adult groups have let them fill up weekends in the shoulder season. Those bookings were sporadic in 2014, she says, but everything got booked up fast for 2016. "While we are certainly not seeing a decline in the number of children who visit us, we are seeing an increase in the adult bookings," she says. That includes weddings and corporate retreats; Camp Yoga is the first event of its kind at this spot.

Summer camp isn't the only way that adults are seeking innocent, childlike forms of stress-relief that aren't as competitive as, say, sport. The trends for Sudoku puzzles and adult colouring books are other examples of the same phenomenon. U.S. physician and psychologist Stuart Brown has made a career out of studying play, and specifically how play deprivation in kids creates anti-social behaviour later in life; he has even linked it to murder. "Play behaviour is very very important to human behaviour, and suppressing it has serious consequences," says Brown, who runs the National Institute of Play out of an office in his yard in Carmel Valley California, right under the tree house. "Not everybody murders someone," he adds.

Brown says that embracing adult play can make you more productive and creative, elevate your mood and manage your stress. They key is to not mistake Las Vegas-style hedonism and escapism for authentic play. "You don't want to escape yourself, you want to find yourself," he says. "The thing about play is it tickles something deep inside yourself without outcome demands; something where you don't feel you have to succeed."

Here at Camp Yoga, as the sun finally comes out on Sunday morning, there really is a sense of authentic play. At the rock-climbing wall, Vancouverite Jodi Eckland and her mom are having a laugh trying to ring the bell at the top of the routes and falling off. Jodi doesn't do yoga but came for the fun activities, and is having that fun despite challenging circumstances. She has a rare autoimmune disease — cardiac sarcoidosis — attacking her heart and liver, which caused heart to stop during a gym workout in January 2015, leading to her diagnosis and a subsequent pacemaker. "This was supposed to be my all-clear celebration," she says. "But it didn't happen that way." She still grins after she says it.

Just past the climbing wall, Vanessa Giornofelice — who I met on the high ropes and who confesses to being nervous about coming to the camp alone — is having a ball playing around with acro yoga on the field with Leonel Franco. "This is my jam. I am definitely coming back next year," says Franco, who teaches in a style he just calls Leo Yoga in Coquitlam. Then he picks up Giornofelice again and lifts her high into the air, flipping her up into the sunshine. I can still hear her giggling from the other side of the field as I walk away.


Camp style

Camp Summit

women's only weekend; Squamish

Base price: $175 for two nights

Bargain weekend in the autumn with fun add-ons, such as massage.

Wilderness Survival,

North Vancouver

Base price: $245 for one night

Notable: No accommodation included. They give you a crash course in survival skills then let you loose in the wilderness for a night.

Camp Elphinstone

women's only weekend; Sunshine Coast

Base price: $275 for two nights

Notable: An overnight kayak adventure is an option.

Camp Yoga

Gibsons, Parry Sound, Canmore

Base price: $485 for two nights

Notable: Weird and wacky yoga.