90's camp transportation...a brief history

I recently caught a glimpse on the road of the 2015 Ford Transit 350, the replacement to the ubiquitous E350 vans that have been clocking millions of miles moving students, groups, and campers for decades.  While most people would not get excited about a new van, I was pretty pumped for a number a reasons...which I will get to in the next post.  First, though, a brief history of camp transportation. I was one of the lucky millions of kids who got to go to summer camp in the mid to late 90's.  One experience that I am sure many of my fellow campers enjoyed was a camp trip - to the beach, waterpark, another camp, or (please please can we go?) McDonald's or Wal-Mart.  Chances are those trips involved a variety of modes of (sketchy) transport.

Vehicle 1: The conversion van.


The 10, 12, or 15 passenger van is the workhorse of the summer camp.  How else can an 18 year old counselor fit his/her entire cabin in one car to go get ice cream (besides sitting six in the back seat and four in the trunk, but I'll get to that below)?  The vans were always rust buckets, ready to fall apart if a door slammed too hard or the wind blew the wrong way.  The smell on the inside could typically be classified as locker room mixed with trash with a sprinkle of stale beer.  That last addition (and usually a few empty cans rolling around the floor) was because, 'back in the day', counselors would hijack vans at night to go party.  With tires chronically under-inflated, washer fluid empty, gas tanks dry, lights out or flickering, and, of course, leaking oil, these vans were barely functional yet camp would have been impossible without them.  I still remember taking a five hour ride in my camp's 'mugger van', a maroon red Dodge with a four-speed stick shift and no A/C, to go whitewater rafting in Maine with two counselors and six other campers when I was 12 or so.  We got to Maine, slept in the van because it was raining too hard to set up camp, rafted the next day, then drove back to camp soaking wet but happy and with enough inside jokes to last the summer.

Vehicle 2: Counselor personal car

It is every camp's policy that counselor vehicles should never transport campers.  Sure, but then the director decides to bring the entire camp on a trip and is short about 50 seats.  Knowing that the busses would fill up first, my cabin would always make a fashionably late entrance and get 'stuck' riding with a staff member in their personal car; usually a beat up, late 80's/early 90's Volvo or Saab (they were everywhere in New England back then).  As the convoy of busses, vans, and a half-dozen cars filed out of camp we felt so special crammed four or five abreast in the back seat listening to whatever CD was stuck in the stereo deck.  The counselor would give us all the details on behind the scenes goings-on at camp while he/she followed the busses, belching out diesel fumes for us all to breathe.  As a 19 year old counselor in 2004 I was asked by the director to drive my car on a camp trip.  My 2002 Nissan Xterra normally sat five people but we managed to get 11 in there that day: two in the passenger seat, four in the back seat, four in the trunk, and me, driving.  As we pulled out the boss yelled "Good luck, if you get a ticket I'm not paying!".  Reassuring words for a broke college kid.

Vehicle 3: The bus


Every camp had one.  Every camper has crammed, three to a seat, into it for a trip.  A driver and one or two counselors to supervise 72 campers.  If those vinyl seats could talk.  My greatest camp bus memory was when our camp's busted old retired school bus could not make it over a hill coming back to camp with the weight of all of the campers.  The driver - also the camp owner - made two valiant attempts, each time making it about three quarters of the way up before rolling back down, sending the campers into an uproar of laughter.  Finally he had us all unload and walk up the hill.  He backed way up and then floored it, barely making it to the top where we all waited, cheering and applauding.  Years later he admitted to us how scared he had been but we never would have known that day on the hill.

Times have definitely changed since then and the craziest thing is that I have heard from others in the camp industry that in the 70's and 80's it was even more wild.  At Water Monkey Camp we have always used brand new vans to transport our campers off-property, only the best for our students!  Here's to camp!