Boys in the Woods

The 10 things I learned at summer camp

I spent 9 summers of my youth under the great white pines of New Hampshire on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. It was a place called Belknap, and it made good boys better, and taught us “boys in the woods” everything we needed to know to become a man. I learned almost every life lesson I have ever needed at camp. Here are the 10 most valuable things I learned in those 9 summers under the pines.


10) How to built a shelter and a fire.

    There are few skills I am prouder of than the ability to built a series of survival shelters and build a fire without a match. I honestly hope to never have to use these skills in my life. I hope when I am out in the woods I am prepared enough to not have to sleep in a lean-to and make my warmth with a bow drill. But, if I had to, I could. There is a sense of pride that comes from that self reliance. To know you can survive (at least for a while) with nothing but your wits.


9) How to shoot a gun.

    At age 9, I learned to use a .22 caliber rifle. I learned gun safety, the mechanics of the weapon and I learned to have a respect for the responsibility of holding a firearm. Shooting a gun is never, ever to be taken lightly. I learned that a gun is not a tool to assert power. I learned in those summers that shooting a gun was about honing a skill, patience, silence and focus.

8) How to write a letter.

    The most amazing part of summer camp was its simplicity. We did not have phones. We did not have AIM (the coolest form of communication). If we wanted to communicate with our family and friends in the world outside of our paradise, we took pen to paper. I would write letters to Mom and Dad telling them about hiking Mount Washington. I would write Grammy and Pa telling them about the bass I hooked by Conlon Lodge. When I got older I would write to girls from home.

    Writing letters is a skill that I use every day of my life in my big boy job. Before she passed away last October, I would always write letters to my grandmother, exchanging articles we read in the paper, or talking about how to make it through the hard parts of life. Every boy should have to put down their phone or their iPad every so often and pick up a pen and paper. Take the time, think about what you want say, and write a letter to someone you love. Those letters will last a lifetime and will mean the world to whoever receives them.

7) Play Fair.

    Like most boys, we were always playing games in the summer. We played traditional games like baseball, lacrosse, soccer, basketball. We played card games in the cabin. We played table games after meal time. But the games we loved the best were the games we made up ourselves. We played Bizzouiball, towerball, rock-hockey, donutball,  ruben and stump. Making up your own games requires you to make up rules. Rules like, “No shooting in the crease,”  or “The player on the first board must jump off before making a pass.” And the one rule that always exists in every Belknap game “Play fair. Foul Play is treachery.” Some games were about playing to win, and others were just about playing to play. Either way, we always played fair.

    No matter what game you are playing in life, whether it has official rules or just a code of conduct – play fair! It will make the game better for everyone.

6) Always sing loud.

    Campfire songs are always a big part of the camping experience. One guitar, and a small few leading the tunes. We would sing stupid kid songs like “The Grand Old Duke of York” and “Father Abraham”. We would sing songs that were 100 years old and written by our boys and unique to our campfire. We would sing our favorite folk tunes like “Country Roads” from John Denver, “Circle Game” from Joni Mitchell and “One Tin Soldier” by the Original Caste. We would sing the best songs of the 90’s that we all loved, like Dave Matthews Band, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” or a round of “Bouncin’ ‘round the room” from Phish. No matter what we sang, we sang it loud!

In our lives, we often listen to music alone with headphones. The only time we sing out loud is in the car (alone), or the shower when our roommates are not around. Last week, I sat with a few friends on a late night. It started with a little quiet drumming on the counter, but before we knew it, we were singing, and singing loudly. Music is meant to be shared. Dont be afraid to share it.

5) Appreciate the beauty of quiet

    Camp was always alive with boys swimming in the lake, running around or playing games. There was always music playing from someones cabin at all times and we lived by sound of a bugle call. Our days were full. Always on the move. Always go, go, go! But every day was full of moments for silence, and reflection. Reflect on the blessings of our lives. Reflect on the day we had and how much we valued every breath in our lungs, because every second under those pines we were alive. Every night, we would lay in our bunks, and at 9:00 PM we would listen as we heard the sound of “Taps” carrying across the fields and the grove chapel. I learned to appreciate the beautiful sound of quiet, a chance for absolute peace with nothing but the sound of 24 of the most beautiful notes ever played on a bugle.

    Some evenings would take a short hike with the 9 other boys in our cabin and our Leader to a section of camp known as Outpost Beach. It was a short walk through the woods, but far enough to feel like you were really out in the serene wilderness. We would gather on that beach and light a fire. We would sing and tell stories and talk about what we loved and who we wanted to be. We would watch the sun set. The sky and the lake would light up in the same deep reds and oranges. Once the sun was gone and the stars took over the sky, we fell silent to listen to the sound of the world around us. We would watch the fire and listen to it pop and breathe the smell of the smoke deep into our lungs. We would look up at the stars as we listened to the loon calls echo across the lake. We sat in total silence until we heard those familiar sounds of “Taps.”


To this day, when the world gets out of hand and the craziness of life seems too much, I close my eyes and picture those nights on Outpost beach. We are all so over stimulated. Take a minute, close your eyes, take a hike or sit at the beach. Be at peace with quiet.

4) Don’t hold back your emotions.

Most of the feelings I shared at camp were feelings of pure joy. But, there were times that hurt. When I was 12 or so, a thunderstorm rolled in at night. It was the first summer my brother decided to not come to camp that year and stayed home to get his first job. I got homesick one night and started to cry. The kid in the bunk next to me heard my sniffling between the loud thunderclaps. Rather than ignore it, he sat upright in his bunk, put his feet on the floor and asked me what was wrong. He talked me through all the reasons I loved my family, but also the reasons I loved camp. “There is no reason to be homesick,” he said. “I know you miss your brother, but we are your brothers too.”

In a place full of all boys and young men, you would assume there would be a hyper masculine culture that would shame you for being emotional, scared, or afraid. Not here. For whatever reason, we learned from one another to love and support each other and share our feelings. That lesson alone has made me a better man.

3) Be Kind. Do at least one act of unbargaining service each day

Each day, we were encouraged to do something for the betterment of the camp. It was not a requirement, no one checked in on us to see what we did. But the culture of the place encouraged you to “do at least on act of unbargaining service each day.” Do something good for someone, your community, your world. Don’t do it in hopes for an exchange of favors. Do something important and positive for the sake of knowing that for that one brief moment, you made the world a better, safer, more friendly or cleaner place.

2) Be Helpful. Do your share of the work.

After breakfast, we would have “Camp Duties.” We would be charged with cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the lodges, cleaning the dining hall or stacking wood by the fire pits. We did our camp duties every morning, in part because we had to, but also because if we didn’t, what would happen to the place we love? Who would care for it?

    We all live in community and in an overall society. If we do not do our part to clean it or preserve it, who will? We can’t place blame on a failing society if we don’t do our own share of the work to make it better.

1) Be Joyful. Seek the Joy of being alive.

Fill your lungs with air. You are alive. No matter where you are or what you do, seek the joy of being alive.


-CF O’Rourke


7 thoughts on “Boys in the Woods

  1. I love thinking about the number of Belknappers who have now read this post, shared it with old brothers and family members, and taken even just a few minutes out of our hectic days to rekindle the flames of the brotherhood, forever burning deep within our hearts. For as Conor points out (#10, to be precise), we always know how to build a fire, whether on a rainy evening in the woods with friends or deep within the soul. I know that those fires are burning all across the country, and perhaps the world, as I type.

    Conor’s list is excellent. The only other oft repeated slogan that popped into mind was the YMCA motto, “God first, the other fellow second, myself last.” For years, I always ignored the god part. But ignore it, focus on it, or adapt it to stand for some kind of spirituality, as I do these days, regardless, I always end up focusing on “myself last.” It aligns with Conor’s lesson #3 of unbargaining service, but “myself last” goes beyond those crucial acts of service and betterment. I see “myself last” as a deeper way to change one’s basic approach to life, particularly personal interactions. To contextualize this to the development of men and to put it in blunt terms, I believe a lot of men’s egos could use a good check every day (or many times a day). I can’t speak for all men (or women), but I speak from my own experience. Selflessness, true and deep, is an attribute that more people should strive for and which would have an immense and thorough impact on this world. Some of the most selfless people I’ve ever known are Belknappers, though, and I have no doubt that our summers under the pines have led us down the right path.


    • RD,

      The Beard here. I too went to a YMCA camp, Camp Tecumseh, just outside of West Lafayette, Indiana. We had a similar saying also. When I was younger, around eight years old, it was J.O.Y. – Jesus. Others. Yourself. It then morphed into what it is now: “I’m Third,” meaning put God first your lives, other people second only to him, and then yourself third. Though I am no longer as close with the church as I was then, that motto still shapes my life and relationships with other people every day. And I agree with you in saying we all could use a little more selflessness in our lives.

      As always, thanks for reading and sharing your story!


      • Ohhhh man, I thought we were about to have to settle an old and bitter rivalry- Belknap has a rival camp on the other side of the lake also named Tecumseh. I’m really glad it’s not the same one!

        I like “I’m Third.” A close friend once had a scrap piece of paper fall out of his wallet at a restaurant and I grabbed it from the floor for him- it read simply “It’s not about me.” He said it was a simple reminder, a good basic thing to keep in mind and have on him at all times. I adopted the habit, but I might have to rewrite it to “I’m Third.” I dig. Thanks, Bearded Adam, keep it up.


  2. Belknap has permanently changed me for the better. Summer is rolling into full swing and I know I will not be returning, but anytime I need to I can recall many moments from camp to make me fell uplifted. There is something magical about that place that you can only understand by going there.

  3. Pingback: 10 Things I Learned At Summer Camp -

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