Scoutmaster Burkhardt Reviews Summer Camp at the Summit
This is a review of summer camp as experienced by Scouts and leaders at the Summit's “James Justice National Scout Camp” in early August, 2020. The Summit is known for its role in hosting jamborees and is used for high adventure and training activities. However, this review will focus solely on the summer camp operation. I am wearing my hat as Scoutmaster to inner-city youth from the District of Columbia in writing this. Late in the review, I will make limited comparisons to council summer camps as I have experienced them as a Scoutmaster and (in my earlier days) camp staffer. Finally, I will share a thought about a potential future role for the Summit.
Basics. The cost to attend was about $400 per youth and adult, with two complimentary fee waivers for adults. The summer camp normally runs from Mid-June through early August. During jamboree years, the summer camp has a shorter season. Sign-ups and merit badge scheduling use the same on-line system and program that council camps use. Camp starts Sunday and ends Saturday morning, although there is an option to arrive early on Sunday for a small additional fee.
Arrival. Troops arrive at the Summit Visitors Center, which is a large and modern structure similar to national park service visitors centers. You can arrive by vehicle, commercial air (30 min. away) or Amtrak (20 min. away). Buses are available to transport you to the visitors center. It is complete with a trading post, museum exhibits, small climbing wall and plenty of space and activities for Scouts to explore while unit leaders submit all of their medical, waiver and other forms. This includes a swim test report, because the Summit requires units to conduct their own swim tests prior to arriving. This summer, the interior of the visitors center was not open because of the COVID virus, but I was able to get inside later in the week for a look. The center is located off-site, assuring that persons do not access the Summit until they are fully cleared. I have never experienced a more meticulous clearance process. I can assure you, not a single Scout or leader is going to access the Summit without a complete set of medical and other forms, including a current YPT form for each leader. They make no exceptions, which is good in this day – but would be a real problem if you do not have your forms accessible. We were missing a couple of things and were able to have them e-mailed from home. Once cleared, the troop heads to an entrance location. Off base, there are no direction signs to alert an uninformed driver that a BSA installation is nearby. Security at the gate is very tight, with three personnel carefully re-checking authorization to enter and taking final temperature checks before opening a heavy security gate.
Campsite. Campsites for those attending Summer Camp are located in Sub camp C, which is one of the many sub camps used during the jamborees. We followed the map and well-marked road system to our site and were met there by a “rover”, which is the Summit title used for commissioner-like staffers. The sites are in open fields and include pre-set Coleman tents specially manufactured for jamborees. They are similar in shape to the 3-person Coleman Sun Dome tents sold at scout shops, but slightly taller and made of a tougher gauge material. Each participant gets an army-style cot. Each site has a sturdy dining fly structure mounted on a steel frame and two picnic tables. We brought along an extra dining fly and the Summit provided two additional picnic tables. The sites are directly adjacent to solidly built shower/flush toilet facilities. The showers are cold, but leaders can walk to a leader-only facility that has hot showers. I was told there are a limited number of sites back in the woods, but did not view them. One of our leaders was there earlier in the summer with a contingent group and prefers the open field sites.
Food. There is a very attractive dining hall close to the campsites, which serves all meals. The food quality was similar to a high school cafeteria, which disappointed some. However, the food was filling and satisfying in a basic way. Snacks were laid-out and accessible at all times for Scouts to take with them. Because of COVID, most preferred to take their food and eat outside on the many picnic tables set on a broad lawn. I hope that COVID is not a major factor in the summer of 2021, so I will not provide a detailed explanation of the anti-COVID procedures other than to say they were extensive, effective and firmly encouraged by the friendliest staffers I have seen do such things.
Scouting Program. An overall initial comment is that in comparison to what most councils can field, the Summit summer camp staffers were slightly older and significantly more educated, experienced and talented at what they do. I suppose this is to be expected at a national base, but as an experienced Scouter, I immediately understood this difference would favorably affect the entire week. I was right. As an example, the technical/academic merit badges (like astronomy and archeology) are taught by graduate students in those fields or similarly experienced people. Traditional merit badges are taught by college-age students or experienced adults on vacation. Everyone I spoke to seems to have worked there for at least a few years. Not once did I hear a comment that a counselor was not up to their job. The record keeping of badge completion was kept current on-line on an everyday basis.
Merit badges are completed in one or two three-hour sessions. For instance, lifesaving and swimming are taught on Mon-Tues and again on Wed-Thurs, with choice for either morning or afternoon. Kayaking is a single three-hour session offered at multiple time through the week. Some badges are in the evening hours.
Summit does not precisely replicate a traditional summer camp merit badge program. For instance, it does not offer canoeing or rowing – traditional staples at camps I have worked at and taken my Scouts to. However, it does offer wonderful merit badges that most summer camps would not normally offer, such as white water. Climbing and shooting sports are offered at a world-class level of quality in terms of facilities and staffing. The best practice is to simply go online and see if their merit badge offerings might well-serve your Scouts.
Our Scouts earned an average of five merit badges each, and nobody seemed unreasonably stretched to finish them. Most merit badges are finished by Thursday evening, leaving Friday for completion tasks.
The Summit’s new-Scout program takes place on a replica of Brownsea Island. An actual island. Our Scouts did not participate in it, but I heard from other Scoutmasters that it was well run.
Use of Jamboree Program Facilities. Scouts and leaders can use many of the facilities built for the jamborees. This includes the zip lines, climbing, skateboarding, mountain bike, laser pistol, sustainability treehouse and many other facilities. Some of these work with merit badge offerings, but all facilities are open to everyone. These are the same facilities open to “day visitors” during jamborees.
Camp-wide Programming. We visited during the COVID pandemic when all camp-wide assemblies were cancelled. Instead, high-quality welcoming and closing videos featuring attending Scouts were professionally produced and broadcast in place of opening and closing campfires. The videos make a nice camp souvenir.
Differences about the Summit. The Summit is a different place to go to summer camp and is not entirely comparable to a council-owned facility. After all, it cost hundreds of millions to build and has facilities no council could rationally think about building. You might say that being at the Summit for summer camp is like being part of something very big and bold, as compared to the intimate feeling you can get at a smaller council camp. It has staffing capability (both paid and volunteer) that cannot be approached by a council. For instance, a full-time and on-site fire/rescue/medical team, pristinely built and maintained infrastructure and counselor/staff network of personnel who teach at the national class level. After a few remaining facilities are completed and nature heals-over some construction evidence, the effect will feel like being in a top-class national park.
Scouts and leaders understand and react very favorably to the quality of instruction and the maturity of the staff. Troop leaders in particular are very entertained by using the program facilities built for the jamborees. The beauty of the site, including being surrounded by medium-sized, wooded mountains, favorably affects all. The sheer quality and size of the built infrastructure is striking -- everything there appears to have been built to last at least 100 years. Thick, massive and uniquely constructed bridges, shelters, dams, arenas, buildings and sports facilities. The Summit has already established and is further strengthening a unique staff “culture” like those at the other national high adventure bases and iconic council scout camps. My sense is that it is personality of Scouting in our nation east of the Mississippi, but welcoming to all.
Burkhardt’s Bottom Line. I strongly recommend Summit for a Troop summer camp experience. To oversimplify things for the sake of brevity, let me state that everything seems to work well, everybody seems to know exactly what they are doing and everything about the operation is simple to understand. The staff – ranging from dining hall, program, medical, maintenance and administrative personnel – live up to the finest we offer at the other national bases and our most-iconic council Scout reservations. The fact that the staff rose to the occasion of effectively dealing with COVID during the just-completed summer camp season is itself reason to have confidence you can have a solid week of summer camp here. Our Troop will probably return to our own council camp next year (the renouned Goshen Scout Reservation), but I can easily see a return trip to the Summit in our future. Another option might be for our Troop to attend our council camp and offer an “extra” week of summer camp for a smaller group of our most-motivated Scouts.
Our 37 Scouts, 19 adult leaders, 70 Scout parents and All Souls Episcopal Church offer a heartfelt thanks to the entire Summit staff and those National Council professionals who support them for making summer camp happen for our Scouts during this very difficult year. This was the only opportunity this summer for several of our Scouts BSA girls to experience nature beyond their urban homes. Your operation of summer camp appeared almost effortless, but I know it took much to execute.
Final Comment. I am taking off my campaign hat (yes, I wear one as Scoutmaster) and putting on my past council president and past national volunteer hat. The personalities and physical attributes of the Summit will continue to embed themselves into the heart of Scouting. While particularly true among the Scouting family living east of the Mississippi, an attachment is growing among US and international Scouts and Scouters who have attended Jamborees at the Summit.
As the financial fury of the reorganization bankruptcy and COVID challenge our ability to provide Scouting to American youth, the Summit might play a central role in continuing and growing Scouting. An unfortunate but unavoidable fact is that operation of many council camps – as well as many councils themselves – will no longer be viable. Councils will be combined and some camps will cease operation and be sold. The Summit can provide a national-class and affordable summer camp experience for the Scouting families who are within reasonable distance – a massive percentage of our membership. This was not a central purpose for developing the Summit, but it might become an unexpected life ring for Scouting.