Photos by Garret Remy, footage by Tom Mull
Why should kids have all the fun?
Squinting through the haze I began to see the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, beige and washed out across the lingering San Joaquin Valley. The road tilted, curving upwards as my car strained, already worn out from the three hours of full-blast air conditioning in the 106-degree temperature of the valley floor. I climbed the switchback road, occasionally snaking back far enough for a view of the shrinking valley and scorched towns below. The trees got taller. I noticed many of them, sequoias, were bare, their bark grey and dead. Soon I passed the 5,000 foot elevation sign. Up here, at a more manageable 87 degree temperature, I made the left that would drop me into the Sequoia Lake bowl—a lush, gentle mountain lake created in 1890 by damming a nearby river for a log flume. After a missed turn and a friendly chat for directions with someone I heard referred to later as “Logger Mike,” I arrived at the Element YMCA Skate Camp.
Previously, when I thought of a skate camp, I thought of massive foam pits and strict schedules telling you when and where to skate; something more like a training facility than summer camp. Element’s YMCA Skate Camp is different. While the identity of its founders are debated, we do know some [semi] firm facts about its origins. Always under the YMCA banner, the camp was started in 1986 with some ramps in a San Luis Obispo parking lot. In 1989 it moved to Sequoia Lake, sharing the space with four other camps. Some 10-15 years ago, people at Element caught the bug and decided to become a permanent part of it.
Shedding the heat of the valley in the lake bowl, I felt my nerve endings perk up. The sounds of wheels, wood, and whoops echoed around me. It was hard to discern who was a camper and who was a counsellor—there were no identifiable “adults” anywhere. I explored the six skateparks, starting with street courses and gently sloping down to the ramps of the lake front. Was that a ramp on the dock, leading directly into the water? Surely this must be heaven. Even given its proximity to other, non-skate camps, and the idyllic mountain location, there’s something unexplainably special and magical about the place.
“Skateboarding being the common denominator [in all the people here], we’re able to branch out into other things and know we can all come back to skating if we have to,” Conar Hendry, the visitor liaison and “doer of random assorted other things,” told me. With skateboarding as a comfortable foundation, campers are encouraged to sign up for focus groups, activities like zine making, drawing, writing, music, and DIY concrete. They can also sign up for survival and wilderness skills classes with Elemental Awareness, Element’s non-profit organization that was founded at the camp. Art and creative expression are deeply embedded in the culture of the camp, where campers are given a space comfortable enough to branch out to other things that, while often tangential to skateboarding, they may not have found on their own. There is seemingly no schedule other than breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a campfire at night. Here, campers sit reverently in silence until a fire is made by hand and then share creative skits and songs with each other. Then they retire and start over. Skate all day. Or try something new. “If a counsellor notices a kid likes to draw they’ll definitely encourage them to join the zine program. That stuff’s really encouraged because there’s thousands of skate parks out there,” explained Tom Mull, the camp’s media director, “you don’t have to just skate.” Eric Sanchez, the assistant director, adds, “Something that I always come back to is whatever kids want to do, I try to encourage it.”
This whole attitude seems to be born of the camp itself. When I asked how the camp has achieved such a blend of classic, canonical American summer camp vibes and the stoke that comes from skateboarding, I couldn’t get a straight answer. “Our ideals and focus have been passed down through past directors. When I got here it was already like that. I believe it’s always been this thing. Whoever started it was just some kind of epic person. Maybe that positivity has flown down through the years,” explains, Jordan Wilk, the camp director. “I think the simple fact that it’s here on this lake surrounded by other camps helps to influence our vibe. It takes skateboarding out of the city and brings it to this place where it’s a little more pure, surrounded by nature with no outside influences.”
For this, the camp was just as loved by the employees—a young, creative, and driven crowd—as it was by the campers. The staff lead the campers with warmth and encouragement, feeding off their energy and joining in on the fun. They delight in childhood pleasures of dirt, bugs, summer, and bruises and have no proprietary claim to how skateboarding should be. Childlike as they may seem, they expertly switch into responsible adult mode, making sure campers are safe and healthy. The hiring process goes directly through the director and then prospects go through the rigmarole of YMCA background checks and a few weeks of staff training. It’s easy to tell who’s going to be a good fit. “People come here and camp just fully flows through them,” says staff photographer Garrett Remy of how they’re picked. Turning to me, Tom adds, “The coolest thing about the staff is, as gnarly as some of them are and as crazy as they are at skating and as intimidating as some of them might seem off the mountain, they’re all really fun people. Up here does kind of bring out the wild child inside. Being around kids is a nice reminder to not take yourself too seriously. It reminds me why I skate and film in the first place.”
The employees have a passion for the camp, for skateboarding, and for using both as a mode to gain self-awareness and better oneself. The celebratory whoops you hear constantly hear are just as likely to come from them as the campers. Their enthusiasm and their nurturing are ever present and it is clear that this kinetic ardour forms the base from which dream summers are made. The visiting Element pros such as Evan Smith, who walked around entirely barefoot (except when he was skating) singing at whim, playing pranks, and joining in on sessions with 10-year-olds as if they were his teammates, helped enforce an atmosphere of familial openness.
No one may love the camp more than Conar, who was in his sixth year working there. This season, he arrived five weeks early to assist Logger Mike in the cleanup of 80 trees that needed to be felled, killed by the bark beetle. The beetle thrived in the area when the recent drought left the great sequoia bark dry and sapless, unable to defend themselves from the bug nesting inside. This was the cause of the dead trees I saw on the way up and a reminder that nothing, especially not skate camp, lasts forever. Summers end and campers must descend the mountain. For kids, staff, and visitors like myself, returning to the world below brings with it a touch of sadness. Just as, when we are young, a week of summer can feel like an eternity. And even though it was not yet August, leaving the camp I felt a sense of longing, as if the season was over and I was heading back to school. But I also left with a sense of fulfillment, a deep hip bruise, and pride for a culture that has spawned such a gem of a place. A place that, Conar explains, “Has this pure form and format. We come up here to be better people with this toy, on and off of it. Whatever you do here always finds a way of giving back to your soul.”