Memories of loss drive camp's new safety efforts

Boy, 13, drowned last year on Puh'tok hiking trip

July 04, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

It has been more than 10 months. The safety policies have been rewritten, and staff members have been drilled on the new procedures, over and over.

Yet when it came time to send campers on the inaugural hike of the season recently, Camp Puh'tok program director Kim Wight was still leery. So she sent along one of her most experienced counselors just to be safe.

The last time a group of campers set out on a hike from Puh'tok's rustic campgrounds in the woods of northern Baltimore County, one of them didn't return. On Aug. 8, during the last of five summer sessions last year, a 13-year-old Baltimore boy drowned while swimming in Prettyboy Reservoir.

Puh'tok, a Salvation Army camp, reopened two weeks ago, kicking off its 63rd season with new safety measures, increased vigilance and a heightened awareness of what can go wrong when 140 children, ages 7 to 17, spend two weeks in the woods riding horses, hiking, swimming and taking aim on archery and rifle ranges.

Camp leaders eliminated swimming almost everywhere but the camp pool and appointed their most senior counselors as "village directors" to add an additional layer of camper supervision. They also created a risk-management committee to monitor camp procedures, developed detailed qualifications and training programs for specialty instructors, and canceled, for now, annual trips to whitewater rapids and the Maine wilderness.

`Safety, safety, safety'

"At orientation, we used to be told that we were here to make sure the kids have fun," said counselor Brooke Shaw, 20, of Hereford. "This year, we were told just safety, safety, safety. It was just drilled into our heads."

Last summer's drowning was the first death at a Maryland summer youth camp in at least five years, a state official said.

"It's a little hard for me this summer," said camp director Bob Eldredge, 74, whose father founded Puh'tok in 1942. "Even now, nothing will be the same. Some of the joy has gone. ... We made a terrible mistake."

The mistake was allowing campers to swim in an area where swimming is prohibited. Counselors on the hiking trip - including three lifeguards certified to work at pools, rivers and lakes - did not know swimming was forbidden at the reservoir because signs posting the rules had faded, Eldredge said.

The camp suspended all water activities for the remaining week of the last session. The state Department Of Health and Mental Hygiene revoked Puh'tok's certification, requiring the camp to develop new safety procedures before it could reopen, said Pamela Engle, acting chief of the department's community services division. Similar state-imposed safety regulations will take effect at all youth camps in September.

Located on more than 300 acres of hardwood and white pine forests in Monkton, Camp Puh'tok takes its name from a Blackfoot Indian word meaning "in the pines." It's a place where children discover and relive what camp leaders call "our American heritage." They learn about Native Americans who hunted and quarried soapstone from the land and practice such long-lost tasks as cooking over an open fire, tanning animal hides and shooting targets with black-powder rifles.

Children from as near as Baltimore and its surrounding counties and as far as Europe are mixed together in cabins in one of six "villages" that replicate various aspects of mining towns, pioneer settlements, fortresses and Indian camps. Because the emphasis lies on experiencing nature at its most pure, there are no paved paths - or even paved roads - and cabins that have air-conditioning rarely use it.

"If you gave me $4 million, we would spend it - but not on things to modernize the camp," Eldredge said. "A lot of camps have become campuses. But we never want to do things at camp that you'd do in the city. The sidewalk stops at the city."

Each summer, 200 children from Baltimore attend free.

Campers have developed such affection for Puh'tok over the years that several have been married on its grounds and three or four others have had their ashes scattered there.

Given that closeness, camp staff said, it is no wonder that last summer's tragedy hit so hard.

Puh'tok's counselors compare the devastation of the drowning to the feeling they have heard older generations describe upon learning that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

"It's a moment we'll never forget. We remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard," said Veronica Gentry, 18, of Annapolis, who has spent the past eight summers at Puh'tok, first as a camper and then a counselor.

They remember the difficulty of sitting down to dinner that first night as water rescue teams searched the reservoir for 13-year-old Albert Richardson, who by then was feared drowned. They describe the futility of trying to make conversation with their campers that night, unable to reveal what had happened. They recall the anguish that swept through the camp when Eldredge summoned campers and staff to the council ring for a meeting.

Shaw, now a village director, was at the program office, across camp from the meeting spot.

"I could hear kids crying and screaming all the way from the program office," she said. "There's a sense of family here. There was a feeling that you lost someone."

Returning to camp

Despite a lingering sense of loss, counselors who came back this summer said they didn't hesitate to return.

"It's Puh'tok," Shaw said in explaining her decision.

"I've never had a summer without Puh'tok," chimed in village director Kristen Kulik, 19, of Bel Air, who has attended or worked at the camp every year since she was 7.

Eldredge, who has served as camp director for about 15 years and spent 20 more summers at Puh'tok as a youngster and employee, said he knew he would return. But coming back this year was different.

"A terrible tragedy happened, and that shouldn't ruin all the good we've done," he said. "But it's not a spotless record now, and we wear that record on our chest. It's very sobering."

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