A recent Explorers group from Camp Gray pauses during a hike at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo to pray and write in journals. To view or purchase photos, go to www.madisoncatholicherald.smugmug.com
(Catholic Herald photo/Kevin Wondrash)
REEDSBURG -- Every summer, hundreds of kids get their fill of faith and fun in the Camp Gray experience at the Diocese of Madison camp near Reedsburg.
Just off the main camp, down some visible but unmarked trails, there lies a "mysterious" place.
The campers always hear about this place -- Explorer Village -- but few see it until they are old enough.
Many stories surround the village and its native Explorers.
Some legends say the campers have to hunt for their own food. That part isn't true, but they do have to cook their own food.
In the village
It’s not exactly "What happens in Explorer Village, stays in Explorer Village," but it's close.
From July 5 to 10, 13 teens and six leaders shared a week of inside jokes, secret traditions, deep faith experiences, and countless singings of a recent pop song in which the protagonist "can't feel my face when I'm with you" (I promised them I'd work it into this story).
"It's cool being able to see God in each person in a different way just shining through them," said Maggie Sampson, 15, from Oregon. "You can just see it in everything they do."
The fun starts with work -- setting up camp for the week.
The counselors showed the Explorers what they have to work with. Other than two cabins -- one for boys and one for girls (the counselors sleep in tents), the campers needed to "build" the village. Tables, tarps, and the cooking/dishes area await setting up.
The Explorers "learn to work as a group as soon as they get there," said Mary Kate Van Wagner, one of the leaders for the week -- a former Explorer herself.
"Explorer Village is a lot different from main camp, but it is a whole new adventure itself," said Emalyn Bauer, 16, from Stoughton, one of several Explorers who have been coming to Camp Gray for several summers.
Once the village was set up, it was up to the Explorers to make the most of their time there '' all the while adjusting to no electricity or running water (the campers filled up large water jugs near camp and lugged them back to the village).
"It is in taking away those comforts that we can really give God the opportunity to work through us and we learn who we are better," said counselor Taylor Eveland.
The Explorers stayed away from the main camp during the week, or at least without being seen.
There was the occasional sneak-in to camp for ice cream, pool time when the rest of camp was away doing another activity, or to decorate the dining hall floor with chalk drawings and messages -- leaving some of the other campers to wonder who left them there.
Growing in faith
Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s quote "The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness," the Explorers program is a chance for greatness, minus life's comforts.
"This entire experience, different than main camp, is an opportunity to grow in their faith," said Eveland.
"In the village," Eveland added, “you have to incorporate the faith in everything you do, or else you’re just going to get frustrated or bored."
The Explorers prayed before each meal as well as participated in morning praise and worship and nightly devotions. There were also plenty of opportunities for silent reflection time.
"Silence is something they don't get much of, and something they're not very comfortable with," said counselor Monica Olson.
The Explorers were given journals to write their thoughts and feelings during certain times as the week went on.
They also had a question and answer session with newly-ordained priest Fr. Chris Gernetzke, who serves as Camp Gray's chaplain.
Father Gernetzke, along with Fr. Greg Ihm, director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison, heard Confessions from the campers.
Following Confessions, the counselors talked with the teens in an impromptu group discussion over Church issues and matters of faith -- such things can come out of nowhere in Explorer Village.
One of many highlights of the week was a day trip to nearby Devil’s Lake State Park. There, the Explorers hiked up the cliffs with a chance to enjoy God's creation, spend time together, and have journaling and reflection time near the top of the bluff.
It’s a chance for them to "experience God in nature and in each other," said Olson.
"This hike is just beautiful," said Declan Grogan, 15, from Elmhurst, Ill.
Once on solid ground again, the Explorers were met by Father Gernetzke, who manned the grill complete with brats and hamburgers.
While waiting for lunch, the Explorers played football and Frisbee, or spent time joking with each other.
Following lunch, it was swim time!
The water was cold, so out of the few who went in, most got out right away.
Skipping stones and searching for colored pennies were popular lakeside activities among the Explorers.
Handling the 'unknown'
As Camp Gray campers spend summer after summer at camp, they hear more and more stories of the Explorers. It creates a sense of mystery, as they get closer to the age where they can be a part of the village.
"I was terrified before coming," admitted Christie Hill, 16, from Hales Corners. She knew she had to "figure out what it is I'm afraid of," and wanted to be an Explorer.
As the week went on, she discovered "it's nothing scary actually."
"You can really feel the Holy Spirit in the area," said Grogan. "You can feel a sense of community and everyone is really together."
There’s "a lot of joy in this group," said Van Wagner.
"It's really up to you to decide what you want to make of this experience," said Sampson.
This was truly a story that had more to it than could be printed, but that would spoil the mystery.
My advice: go for it! Be an Explorer!
For more information on Camp Gray and the Explorers program, go to www.campgray.com