For many parents, the prospect of sending a child off to camp for the first-time can be daunting. If you are the parent of a first-time camper to the Big Cove YMCA Camp Program and your child is feeling a little nervous about leaving home and spending time with a group of kids they don’t know then both of you might find some reassurance in the words of 10-year-old camper Sarah Finkle.

“I was really scared the first time and I didn’t know if I would like it or if I would make friends,” says the veteran camper of three Big Cove Camp summers “But I did like it and I did make friends and I had fun.”

In 2013, when Sarah was 8-years-old her parents, Neil and Tiia Finkle, enrolled her (and also their youngest daughter, Hannah) in the Little Big Cove Program. Little Big Cove was created to provide the younger set, 6-11, with a mini-camp experience over three days and nights. The Big Cove Programs offer longer camps for older children and youth.
“I have definitely noticed that Sarah has matured after each of the camps,” says Tiia. “But what I also saw was that as sisters and I am not quite sure how to put it….but Sarah and Hannah seemed to become kinder to each other……I think it was from being at the camp together.”

As with many of the YMCA initiatives, Big Cove YMCA camps are designed to assist children and youth with personal growth, confidence and the development of spirit, mind and body. The Big Cove experience also allows campers to learn how to be good stewards of the land and what it means to lead an active and healthy lifestyle. For many of the campers, it is also a chance to “disconnect” from cell phones, video games and social media and “re-connect” with nature and the outdoors. The Big Cove YMCA Camp, a designated Nova Scotia Historical Site, allows campers to have a go at some fun at challenging age appropriate activities including swimming, hiking and canoeing. Campers can also try their hand at archery or “grab some air” on the zip-line.

Established in 1889, Big Cove YMCA Camp is the oldest boys and girls’ residential camp in Canada, so there is no shortage of camp traditions like songs and music by the campfire and friendly competitions between campers. In addition to spending time in the beautiful outdoors and being physically active all Big Cove campers return home with an award (in addition to one or two unfamiliar items of clothing).

“I got an award for being the best cleaner of the bathrooms,” says Sarah, who states that she did a very thorough job when it was her turn for cleaning duty.

The “Rip and Dip” tradition may be unique to Big Cove. This “popular” practice pits campers against the waters of the Northumberland Strait long before the breakfast hour. Sarah proudly proclaims that she was a regular participant of the Rip and Dip which saw her and other hardy campers, along with their counselors, wake up early, don swim wear and race out of their cabins to be the first dippers of the day. Sarah is an avid swimmer so she didn’t need too much motivation or encouragement to partake but says the tasty incentive post-swim for those who ripped and dipped was a bonus.

“I love to swim so that made me want to do it,” she says, recounting the experience. “Plus, everyone who did it was rewarded with a hot chocolate….the counselors who did it also got marshmallows.”

In the past, it could be said that most camp food would not qualify as “Master Chef” quality but these days it’s a different story. With soup days, ethnic specialities and delectable desserts chances are that Big Cover Campers don’t write letters home complaining about the cuisine.

“There is a menu that is put up near the showers so that we can see what is being served every day,” says Sarah, who cites the Sweet and Sour Chicken as a favourite. “We don’t choose our meals and we all eat the same thing except for people who may have allergies and need a special diet.”

As part of the Big Cove experience, campers have an opportunity to choose an “Out Trip” from an array of activities including overnight and extended canoe trips or hiking excursions. Sarah chose to do the overnight hiking trip and, in addition to being a blast, it also marked her first experience camping outdoors and sleeping with four girls to a tent. It was also a good lesson in how to work together to accomplish a goal or task. In this case, it was getting the tent raised before sun down.

“We had to put up the tents and it was kind of hard but we all did it together and the counselors helped us with it, too,” notes Sarah.

The overnight adventure was also a chance for Sarah and her fellow campers to do something that their counselors probably would not have permitted had they been consulted first. According to Sarah, she had brought some markers and suggested that she and her fellow campers draw some homemade tattoos. Apparently, it wasn’t long before each of the girls, with markers in hand, allowed their creativity and furtive imaginations to take over.

“We all started to draw on each other but when the counselors saw us they told us right away to wash it off,” Sarah recalls. “It didn’t come off easily and we had a really hard time getting it all off.”

It is not unusual, and actually strongly encouraged, for campers to return year after year and complete each of the Programs to eventually become skilled, experienced and trained Big Cover Camp Counselors. So, it comes as no surprise that Sarah has her hopes and sights set on attending the Leadership Program. There is a long list of activities and experiences offered to these older campers but for Sarah there is one in particular that she can’t wait to do.

“They have to go on a 12-day canoe trip which is what I really want to do….it would be so cool,” says Sarah, who has another 5 years before she will be old enough to be a Leader.

And for those campers who are still a little hesitant about leaving home to attend the Little Big Cove YMCA Camp Program (or any of the others) then Sarah offers the following suggestions from her own camping experience.

“If you think you may be homesick then you could take something that has a good memory for you ….I didn’t but some of the girls in my cabin had pictures and photos from home and I think it really helped them.”

Click here to watch the full version of Sarah Finkle’s Big Cove Camp experience.