hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2015


Saving a special place

Group rallies to buy former Girl Scouts camp


Contributing writer



A group of campers hike through the woods at Camp Little Notch, a former Girl Scouts camp in Fort Ann, N.Y. The Girl Scouts decided to close the camp in 2008, but a group of former campers and staff rallied to reopen it as an independent operation. They completed purchase of the property this year. Courtesy photo/Val Healy

A group of women passionate about the former Girl Scouts camp where they spent their childhood summers has raised more than $440,000 to buy the camp and keep it going.
At the end of a three-month fund-raising effort, an outpouring of large and small donations enabled the Friends of Camp Little Notch to meet their Jan. 9 deadline by one day.

“A lot of wonderful magic happened,” said Jo Lum, a former camper and counselor and president of Friends of Camp Little Notch.

Camp Little Notch, in rugged terrain near the eastern side of Lake George, will open this summer for its fourth year as a private camp for girls ages 7 to 17. The camp also offers weekend camping for families and friends of the camp, women’s weekends, and work weekends at the beginning and end of the season. It is available for special events such as reunions, college orientations and group retreats.

The camp was founded in 1939 by what was then the Albany Hudson Valley Girl Scout Council. The 2,353-acre property, nestled between mountains in the Adirondack Park, has forests, an 80-acre private lake, and rustic buildings for meals, programs and administration. Campers sleep on cots in platform tents, without electricity or flush toilets. (Power and toilets are available in the program buildings.)

The remote land is ideal for hiking, water sports, nature study, learning wilderness skills such as campfire cooking, and developing close friendships. Over the 69 years that the Girl Scouts operated it, “thousands and thousands of girls went there,” Lum said.

Lum went for her first time in 1995 at age 10 and continued until she reached the upper age limit.
“I loved it,” she said. “It changed my life. The encouragement, love, and community were unparalleled in my life outside of home. I learned I was important, valued and beautiful.”

Gabrielle Tayac, a Camp Little Notch board member who was raised in New York City, spent six summers at the camp in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

“It was a transformational experience,” Tayac recalled. “I learned to relate to the natural world and how to live in it. I found I was stronger than I thought I was. I learned to accept different kinds of people, from small towns and rural areas.”

Liz Caruso, now the camp’s director, was a camper there for 10 years and then spent another six years on its staff.

“The camp was a really empowering experience,” she recalled. “I felt I belonged. I could make friends from all walks of life and expand my horizons. Camp Little Notch challenged me to something beyond what I’d already done. I always grew from my experience.”

But in 2008, the Girl Scouts decided to cut costs by consolidating all of New York’s upstate councils into one. One of the disbanded councils owned a less rustic, less remote camp in Lake Luzerne, a few towns to the southwest. The consolidated council decided to keep that camp and sell Camp Little Notch.


Changing tastes?
The closing of Little Notch was part of what Lum called an “epidemic of camp closings” across the nation.

“The Girl Scouts say girls aren’t as interested in camping,” she said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
She pointed out that Camp Chingachgook, a YMCA camp farther south in Fort Ann along the shore of Lake George, “is always full.”

Lum and other former campers formed the Friends of Camp Little Notch in 2009 in hopes of partnering with the Girl Scouts to continue the camp. When the Girl Scouts rejected that idea, the Friends sought help from the Open Space Institute, a national land conservation organization.
The institute bought the property, then sold 1,910 acres to a sustainable logging company and gave the Friends a three-year lease with an option to buy the remaining 443 acres, including all of the former Girl Scouts facilities and the lake.

Camp Little Notch reopened as a private camp in 2012. By the time the lease was up, the Open Space Institute had another buyer interested in the camp property. The Friends secured a $500,000 loan from the Community Loan Foundation of the Capital Region and raised the rest themselves. The Open Space Institute retains a conservation easement on the land so that it will remain wild.

Little Notch Girl Scout Camp
Lum and other members of the Friends of Camp Little Notch say the camp is special because of the beauty of the land, its lack of modern conveniences, and the camp’s mission statement, which calls for providing opportunities for all people to practice living in harmony with nature, each other and themselves.

Beverly Burnett, the group’s treasurer, called it “unique in its environment and setting.” She said the experience offered by Camp Little Notch might be more important in an era of ubiquitous electronic gadgets.

“I believe our children spend way too much time plugged in,” Burnett said. “They have everything at their fingertips. They’re losing the skill to wait and be patient and self-sufficient. Kids have no idea what to do with themselves when the power goes out.”

Similarly, Caruso said many parents still want their children to experience the natural world without all the electronics.

“Camp now is more important than it used to be,” Caruso said. “There are questions whether our type of camp will become obsolete, but it gives kids a chance to unplug. Parents want their kids not to have cell phones, games, or computer access.”

And children, she added, tend to forget about all the gadgetry after the first hour or so at camp.


Sustainability and justice
The camp has a strong commitment to protecting its environment and teaching campers about the natural world, Lum said. The board and staff look for ways to reduce the camp’s environmental impact, including sustainable forestry, composting and recycling, and this effort could extend to alternative energy, growing food, and partnering with local farmers.

“Our mission-driven social justice aspect sets us apart,” Lum said. “We reach out to different communities -- low income, people of color. We do a lot of behavioral and physical disability outreach. There are parents who want their kids to participate and need accommodations.”
The camp’s commitment to social justice includes keeping rates low so children from communities that historically couldn’t afford camp can attend. The camp offers four tiers of fees, from the full cost for each camper to a full “campership.”

Even at full cost, “we’re way cheaper than similar camps,” Lum said.

Some YMCA, church and Scout camps might charge less, but those camps have “baggage,” as Lum put it, that may make some parents uncomfortable.

To cover expenses, the Friends of Camp Little Notch organizes fund-raising events, seeks grants and relies on volunteer labor, Tayac said. The physical plant is simple and inexpensive to maintain; there’s no heated pool, for example.

Lum added that outside organizations are welcome to underwrite girls from their communities.
Another priority in the camp’s commitment to social justice and diversity, she said, is reaching out to families where parents or children are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

“Our community already has a high representation of GLBT people, and our board reflects the queer community,” Lum said. “We’re open to all sorts of families.”

Although the camp’s focus is on programs for women and girls, Lum said the board eventually wants to have programs for all genders, “not just two,” she said.

“The issue has come up a lot,” she said. “Many people in the community have boys. They would love to see their sons have the opportunity too.”

Girls who don’t fit feminine stereotypes are welcome. The camp has not yet dealt with a camper who was identified as male at birth but lives as a girl, but “I almost think it would be a non-issue,” Lum said.

Younger members of the Camp Little Notch community seem more accepting of transgendered people, Lum said.

“It’s so refreshing seeing the youth leadership and how they get it,” she said.


Learning self-confidence
The camp encourages girls to make their own decisions.
“The most important concept to me was girls planning,” said Burnett, who served as a director of the camp under the Girl Scouts. “The girls decided collectively with their counselors when they’d camp, swim, hike, and do arts and crafts.”

That sense of self-determination continues to be an important part of camp. Girls who plan together learn about communication, respect, and conflict resolution.

Each day includes about one hour of “me time,” a custom carried over from the Girl Scouts, to help campers find and practice ways of being at peace with themselves. They can write in their journals, write letters home, spend time with their friends, or just go someplace quiet and enjoy being outdoors. Among the activities offered are yoga, journaling and meditation.

Tayac’s 13-year-old daughter, Jansi Medina-Tayac, is looking forward to her fourth summer at Camp Little Notch. Although it’s a 12-hour drive from their home near Washington, D.C., Jansi chose the camp last summer over a trip to Alaska, Tayac said.

“Camp Little Notch is different because you can get away,” Jansi said. “You can feel one with nature and other people. The camp is beautiful. The weather is just right, and you can see lots of stars. My favorite part is that you can make friends who will last a lifetime.”

What’s ahead for the camp? Burnett said she wants to see it grow.

“The camp once served 200 kids,” she said. “I want to see that again.”

Caruso, the director, said she wants to be able to offer more programs, especially for specific interests such as sailing or ropes courses. She’d also like to see more campers, but that will require the purchase of more tents.

A falling tree last autumn pulled down a power line and started a fire that destroyed a unit house and three tent platforms. So priorities now are rebuilding from that incident and paying off the loan that enabled the camp’s purchase.

“We really want people to come to the property,” Lum said. “Come back if you came to camp and loved it -- or hated it. It’s so special, so beautiful.”


Camp Little Notch is accredited by the American Camp Association. Registration for the 2015 season and staff positions are open. For more information, visit www.camplittlenotch.org, e-mail campdirector@camplittlenotch.org or call (518) 793-9700.


Donna Wyndbrandt art show at the Salem Courthouse Community Center