DAN VANCE: Draw of Franke Park Day Camp hasn’t changed in over 25 years

The Miami tribe at Franke Park Day Camp on June 28. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Chris Freehill, supervisor of Franke Park Day Camp, helps young campers raise the American flag to start the day. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe helps a camper prepare his white t-shirt to be tie dyed. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers tie dye their shirts. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Tie dyed shirts lay out in the hot sun to dry. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers of the Miami tribe ask counselor Reyer Howe questions by their bullpen in the camp longhouse prior to heading to their campsite for the day. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
The Miami tribe heads out for their day in the woods. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe talks to his tribe about how to figure out which direction they are walking in. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers from the Miami tribe play in a log near their campsite. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
A camper peaks through the trees at 'bloody gorge.' (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers from the Miami tribe cover themselves in mud, clay and water at Franke Park Day Camp's infamous 'bloody gorge.' (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
The Miami tribe takes a creek walk back to camp after visiting bloody gorge. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe balances himself on a log over the creek. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe works to build a fire with his campers. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
An 11-year old camper with the Miami tribe blows into the handmade birds nest used to start the tribe's fire back at their campsite. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers from the Miami tribe roast hot dogs as part of their lunch. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe applies "face paint" to a camper made from the wet and cooled ashes of a camp fire. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
A camper applies "face paint" made from the wet and cooled ashes of a camp fire. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
A camper wears "face paint" made from the wet and cooled ashes of a camp fire. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Campers from the Miami tribe wrestle each other with plates of chocolate pudding after pudding races to help close out the afternoon. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
The result of pudding races and post race pudding fights. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
The name tag of Miami tribe counselor Reyer Howe, made by burning a design and name into the piece of wood. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Franke Park Day Camp counselors lead camp songs by the singing tree to help close out the day. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
A sign along the trail at Franke Park Day Camp. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Franke Park Day Camp supervisor Chris Freehill cuts loose with a dance during end of the day songs. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)

Put down your iPads and your Fortnite, it’s time to go to camp.

Yes, camp. Yes, outdoors. Yes, mud, sweat, bug spray and campfires. But today’s kid couldn’t possibly be ready for Franke Park Day Camp the way I remember it, led then — as it is now — by Chris Freehill. Before I turned double digits, I logged several years at Franke Park and they are some of my favorite memories of my youth.

We sang old camp songs, visited bullet hill and the notorious (in Franke Park Day Camp circles) bloody gorge. It was the pure childhood that anybody my age or older touts to their kids and grandkids. And today’s kid? Its video games and cell phones — any light but natural light. Right?

Wrong.

Freehill said to me, as we discussed the draw of Franke Park just a week ago, that they have taken all of these tools from over the years and changed in little ways for today’s kid. It is only at this part of our talk that I have to disagree with. I don’t think Franke Park Day Camp adapts to today’s kid. I think they adapt today’s kid to this camp. And they do it masterfully.

“The basic foundation of the program has not changed. Kids interact with each other and have the opportunity to experience camping, nature and Native Americans,” Freehill said when explaining the roots of the camp that is celebrating its 72nd season.

Freehill is quick to give praise of the camp to Dennis L. Gerlock, who ran the camp in 1950 through 1975. But Freehill, who also happened to be my 5th grade teacher at Forest Park Elementary School, has been the man pulling the strings for 28 years now. He served on the staff for 13 seasons before taking over the camp.

“We are the caretakers, we are following that program. He [Gerlock] was way ahead of his time in knowing what is important for kids, giving them an opportunity to get in the great outdoors and make connections with other kids playing, singing, laughing, learning, having fun together, even problem solving together,” Freehill said.

Getting the opportunity to go back to camp was mind-boggling to me. Freehill is the same man he was 25 years ago, even if he doesn’t tower over me like he does the kids at camp or like he did to me, my sister and our friends all those years ago. It is the fingerprint of his personality that makes Franke Park Day Camp what it was all of those years ago. I probably didn’t realize this until now.

It was a great day matched up with the Miami tribe and first year counselor Reyer Howe, who I know I would have thought was a pretty cool counselor when I was the age of the kids he was leading. You don’t see when you are a kid what I saw on my day with the Miami tribe: that Howe is just a kid himself and at an age where he has grown up with an overflow of technology, it is refreshing to see he, and the other college-age counselors that take an interest in the camp, using that Freehill fingerprint to continue his legacy just as Freehill feels he continues Gerlock’s.

Howe is part of a generation that you think would have lost the purity of camp for these elementary-age kids today. Instead, he was a bright light to showcase just how pure it can still be.

“The most appealing thing to me being at the day camp is we are outside. Kids today, all they talk about is Fortnite, iPhones or tablet devices that they have,” Howe told me, his face lighting up with its own childlike sense of wonderment. “I love it when kids come out here and to find out there is a waiting list to come to this park where they get to come out and be in the woods like this.”

His wonderment has to come in some part, like my own, because this place truly is a throwback. I forgot what day camp smelled like until I walked into the long house that is kind of the home base for campers. Yep, that is what camp smelled like. Just the same as I left it.

I forgot even what camp sounded like until I heard the songs of counselors and campers by the singing tree. And then all these songs locked away in some part of my brain came flooding back to me. Yep, that is what camp sounded like. Just the same as I left it.

There was tie-dying of shirts (and socks in the case of one of the Miami), pudding races, a soap slide and the attempted (and semi-successful) sinking of Howe, a tradition first year counselors are put through that is exactly what it sounds like.

But the real magic of day camp did happen and still happens in the woods. That magic is more real in 2018 than it was in 1993 for the reasons Howe pointed out.

“It’s awesome to see them go run around and explore new things in the forest, telling me about the bugs that they’ve seen,” he said.

The 11 year-old campers of the Miami tribe Evan, Cash and Kyle worked to get a fire started for lunch, other campers tracked down animal prints in the mud and every single one of them enjoyed the time sloshing through the mud and clay of bloody gorge.

“It’s awesome, it feels amazing,” exclaimed camper Emma.

“Whenever I go into the woods, I feel way better,” added her cohort, Sydney.

Nothing like the freedom of the woods and just being a kid.

And of course camp ends every day the same way it begins: everyone gathers around the flag pole as the American flag is lowered for the day into the hands of kids learning how to properly treat the flag.

Each week ends with a small pow wow, harkening to those Native-American foundations of the camp. Each summer also ends with a big pow wow for every camper from the six weeks of the summer. But Franke Park Day Camp never ends; my trip back taught me that. I hadn’t thought about my days at the camp in a long time. Because of Freehill and Howe and the campers of the Miami tribe, I will probably spend every summer thinking about ways to go back again.

MORE ABOUT FRANKE PARK DAY CAMP

Location: Franke Park

Address: 3411 Sherman Blvd. in Fort Wayne

Phone: (260) 427-6725 (in season), (260) 427-6000

Camp hours: M, Tu, Th, F from 9 a.m, to 3:30 p.m., Wednesdays from 1-7 p.m.

Camp fee:Camp fee: $93

Camp dates: June and July

Find out more about camp and be ready to sign up for 2019: fortwayneparks.org. Click on programs > camps > Franke Park Day Camp

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Dan Vance at dvance@news-sentinel.com

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