Wanderers Camp in the San Fransisco Bay Area offers 5-7 day sleep-away camps, day camps, and backpacking trips, for kids grades 2-8. While kids at other SF Bay area camps are stuck in one place, these campers spend their days touching tide pool starfish, finding huckleberries, spotting tule elk, playing among the redwoods, rock climbing on granite, and camping and backpacking in remote wilderness areas throughout Northern California. We interviewed founder Kurt Gantert about the camp’s beginnings and missions.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you started the camp.
I grew up backpacking, canoeing, skiing, etc. in upstate New York. My parents were very outdoorsy and loved to take me and my brother out on long trips into the wilderness of the Adirondacks in northern New York.
I remember having a natural affinity for the outdoors, but those first backpacking and canoe trips were pretty hard. A big, heavy pack on my back, long miles of hiking, the bugs, rain, etc. However, the positives of those experiences far outweighed the negatives.
I felt so proud of hiking far and pushing myself to get to the top of a peak, or paddle across a huge lake. The food tasted better out in the wilderness, the smells of the forest were amazing, learning how to survive outdoors and being self-sufficient, the feeling of freedom, seeing wildlife up-close, learning about the natural history of the areas we camped in, and the calm and serenity of nature were some of the things I became aware of being in the wilderness on those trips. I could go on, but these experiences early in my life were very formative.
During my late teens and early twenties, I worked at a summer camp called Pathfinder in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada. It is a boys canoe tripping camp that will be 100 years old this year.
I worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor at first and eventually graduated to become a canoe trip leader there. As a canoe trip leader, I led 3-15 day canoe trips for boys ages 7-15 into the wilderness of Canada.
These trips were very challenging, but fun and life-changing in many ways for both the staff and the campers. I saw the campers gain confidence, physical strength, learn teamwork and leadership skills, and much more. The experience working at Pathfinder made me want to pursue a career in the outdoors. After seeing how transformative these trips were for the boys, I was sold on doing this for a living.
After 10+ years experience working as a backpacking guide, ski instructor, natural history educator and program director for numerous outdoor education and adventure travel companies, I felt like I was ready to start my own camp. It was a dream I’d had since working at Pathfinder, and I felt like I was finally ready to go for it. I was settled down and married with 2 kids in San Francisco. I was enjoying living in SF, but was realizing that my family I weren’t spending a lot of time in the outdoors because our lives were so busy with work, school and social events.
I read the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv and it was the final inspiration for me to start the camp. Louv’s book was about how modern children weren’t spending as much time in nature as the previous generation and it was having some serious negative effects on their mental and physical well-being. The book had given me a focus for my camp: re-connecting children to nature!
Are there any special lessons or experiences you are trying to provide during the camp?
Wanderers is focused on connecting children to nature by:
- Hiking and exploring spectacular places. At Wanderers, we take the kids to all the places my staff and I love to go. We go to spectacular waterfalls, fun creeks, beaches, high alpine lakes, and mountain peaks in some of our favorite national and state parks in Northern California. I get inspired by these places, and I think kids do too.
- Having fun in the outdoors. At Wanderers, fun is a very important ingredient to connecting to nature. Fun = games we play, creek exploration, beach time, tidepooling, building forts, nature art, skits, night hikes, s’mores, campfires, rock climbing, etc.
- Challenge. I like to challenge the campers because nature is not something that is just pretty to look at, but also rugged and challenging. To understand and connect to nature, I think kids need to work hard and accomplish something. Examples of challenge are rock climbing, long hikes, peak ascents, group initiatives, etc.
- Natural History Education. I like to teach the kids at least some aspects of the natural history of all the areas we travel to. It gives them more of a “sense of place” or an understanding of the uniqueness of the area they are in. Some examples of the natural history lessons we cover are: redwood ecology in Armstrong Redwoods, geology of Yosemite Valley, what is a watershed? in the Marin Watershed district, natural history of Tule Elk in Pt. Reyes National Seashore.
There’s plenty more lessons and experiences Wanderers provides, but these are some of the most important.
What surprises/delights the kids (or parents) most about your camp? What sets your class/camp apart from the rest?
I think what surprises most kids about their Wanderers experience is that they generally come away from it with a love of spending time outdoors with a group.
Many children going into camp are a little hesitant about camping, long hikes, bugs, being away from mom, etc….however, by the end of the week, I’d say 99% of the kids come away from it being surprised at how much they enjoy being outdoors in nature.
I think what sets Wanderers apart from many other camps is that we are a completely mobile camp. This gives us the flexibility to go to almost anywhere we want and gives the kids a chance to experience some of the most spectacular places in northern California.
At most other camps, kids are tied to a building or a campus….which I think limits the experience, especially if it’s supposed to be about nature immersion.
We are also unique in that our groups rarely exceed 15 kids. This also allows us to have a great staff to camper ratio (usually about 1 to 3) which makes it a safer experience than most camps as well. This small group experience also allows the kids more of a chance to bond with each other and have a more memorable group experience.
We also hire very qualified outdoor leaders, which, I think sets us apart as well. Our leaders must be 21 yrs +, have a clean driving record and background, good experience leading groups in the outdoors, a Wilderness First Aid and CPR certification and love working with kids.
Wanderers Camp in SF Bay Area is now taking registrations for summer trips. For more info and their current schedule, check out Wanderers Camp on ActivityHero.
Written by Sarah Antrim