Dirt trails, rustic cabins, ropes courses and 20 acres of possibility were home to 254 campers this summer as guests of Camp Jack Hazard, celebrating its 90th anniversary year.
Nestled among the trees and land of Dardanelles, the camp was founded in the early 1920s by Jack Hazard. It is reported that the founder would travel up Highway 108 with a handful of Modesto-area youth and some camping supplies and explore the outdoors. By the end of the decade, due to rising demand, the YMCA of Stanislaus County (then based in Modesto) sponsored the camp. The partnership proved to be ideal for Hazard’s vision and many of the Central Valley youth, opening them to opportunity and experience they would not get otherwise.
In 2011 operations for Camp Jack Hazard were taken over by The Jack and Buena Foundation, a 501(c)3 no profit. The sole purpose of the foundation is preserving and maintaining the experience which many have come to know as Camp Jack Hazard, or CJH.
“Our mission is to make camp as much fun as possible,” stated Jason Poisson, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Jack and Buena Foundation. “There is not much for our kids to do in the Modesto area. No safe places for kids to hang out. At camp we’re stretching the kids and getting them outside of their box.”
This year marks Poisson’s 22nd summer with Camp Jack Hazard.
The Executive Director shared that as a father and a camp alum, he sees first-hand the necessity for kids to get outside, get dirty and have independent experiences.
“Kids who don’t access risk as kids have a harder time adjusting as adults,” Poisson stated, adding that CJH fosters the idea of risk, offering it in an environment where the children are supported by staff and fellow campers.
In a day and age of the ‘helicopter’ mom, the thought of sending one’s children up into the mountains with a bus full of strangers and no (personal) technology, to reach mom or dad may seem unnerving. The campers, however, echo the founders’ point. They love it.
A handful of Oakdale youth were among this year’s campers. When asked what their favorite part of camp was, the hands down top two were the ropes course and the quantum leap.
“I had a really fun time doing the quantum leap,” Jack Mendes, 12, a second-year camper said. Jack described the ‘leap’ as a 30-foot telephone pole which the campers stand at the top of and then jump from, as they attempt to hit a bell six feet away from them.
“We’re harnessed, of course,” Jack added, with a huge grin on his face. “It’s fun to overcome your fear.”
First time camper Tessa Cunningham, 6, echoed the veteran camper’s thoughts, “We did the ropes course and that was really fun. I just liked swinging on the ropes.”
When pressed for more information on the ‘rope swinging,’ Tessa shared that her group worked together to “get across the water without getting eaten by the sharks.” An exercise clearly tapping into imagination as much as team building.
CJH offers campers a back to basics camping experience. Technology of any type is not permitted. Care packages are encouraged and books or notebooks (the paper type) for down time. The campers sleep in one of 14 cabins, have access to showers and eat in a dining hall. The week long camp also sees campers treated to a three-day backpacking trip, a camp tradition.
Each cabin full of campers, accompanied by their camp counselors and support staff, hike out away from central camp and spend three days and two nights sleeping among the stars and wilderness.
Oakdale brothers Tyler and Gavin Hood were among the CJH staffers this year. As first year staff Tyler was assigned Kitchen Crew. That was an assignment which included: food prep, cleaning dishes, mopping floors and all the like to keep things moving and the campers happy. He also accompanied campers on the backpack trips.
“The biggest challenge was breaking out of my initial comfort zone,” Tyler said of the crew assignment. “It was not easy adjusting to the kitchen job.
“I do plan to go back next year,” he added.
This was Gavin’s second year as staff and first year as a Head Counselor.
“My biggest challenge with the kids in general was gauging how the campers were actually feeling,” Gavin said, recognizing that some are homesick, others insecure or uncertain and some just simply shy.
“Camp Jack Hazard has something that is different,” Gavin said, in comparison to camps he attended when young. “I can’t quite put my finger on it… just different.”
“It’s really a lot like family,” older brother Tyler chimed in. “You don’t choose your family, but ultimately you work through things. You support one another and you all get along.”
Poisson stated that The Jack and Buena Foundation is dedicated to preserving the CJH motto, “We want to preserve past, present and future of Camp Jack Hazard.”
This year the camp saw an increase of 54 percent in attendance versus last year. That’s a number which is encouraging to the director as well as an all-volunteer board who are dedicated to the idea of fostering a character-building camp experience.
“As I go around the community and talk to people about camp, it’s hard to not throw a rock and not hit someone that went to camp.
“We’re starting to see multi-generational staff now,” he added. “It’s exciting. It’s exciting to see the pride that their parents have. These kids are changing as a result of camp. It can’t get much better than that.”
In an effort to both raise awareness and as a fundraiser for the CJH 90th Anniversary, Poisson has planned two 90-mile hikes. Hikers are required to fundraise for participation with all proceeds going toward The Jack and Buena Foundation for use toward camp improvements and additional camper scholarship opportunities.
CJH alum and Oakdale’s own, singer/songwriter Brett Dennen will join Poisson for the second hike, which will begin at Sonora Pass and end at CJH.
“I grew up with Brett at camp,” Poisson said. “He’s like family.”
It is Poisson’s hope and mission to bring CJH back to an attendance which it once saw in its heyday.
“We’re looking to get back to the 500-600 mark and judging from this year, I think we’ll get there,” he said.
As for the campers, when asked to describe CJH in one word the adjectives chosen were not: far, boring, dirty, gross or lame. To the contrary, through much excitement and uncontainable energy, the words offered were: awesome, fun, thrilling, exciting, adventurous and amazing.
For additional information on Camp Jack Hazard visit campjackhazard.org. For scholarship information or to make donations visit www.jackand buenafoundation.org.