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If you know that name, then you’re one of the 100,000-plus people who have roamed the meadows, forests and streams of Camp Namanu, Camp Fire Columbia’s majestic summer resident camp for youth. As parents know very well, each year new camp options spring up, catering to the specific interests of kids — be it arts, outdoor adventure or even superhero training. But few, if any, Northwest camps have stood the test of time like Namanu.
This summer, Namanu will celebrate its 90th year of immersing children from across the Northwest (and the globe) in the joys of a classic summer camp. Kids today are a far cry from the youngsters that attended Camp Namanu’s inaugural summer in 1924, five years before the Great Depression. How has the camp stayed so beloved, generation in and generation out?
“It’s always been a magical place,” said Molly Prehn. Molly is part of the four generations of her family who have attended Namanu throughout their childhood, starting with her mother and extending down to her kids and grandkids.
“There are so many things you learn as a camper. You learn that you have abilities and that you can accomplish things,” Molly said. “But I think the main thing is the friendships. They’re incomparable. It’s unlike school or any other community I have experienced.”
Namanu covers 552 lush acres near the confluence of the Bull Run and Sandy Rivers, about five miles outside of the town of Sandy. It began as a site for Camp Fire Girls 90 years ago. If you were a young lady in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s in Portland, Namanu was THE place to be. Before long, the name was emblazoned on the side of a 16,500-ton Navy tanker ship (the U.S.S. Camp Namanu), immortalized in the novels of Beverly Cleary, and on the minds of every area girl counting down the days until summer.
Namanu — just like Camp Fire as an organization — began welcoming boys in 1975, ushering in a whole new wave of Namanu believers. Since then, the camp has hosted outdoor school every spring, that rite of passage for local middle schoolers, and has been used by dozens of community groups, families and organizations such as OMSI and Outward Bound. Playing the ‘Who has been to Namanu?’ game is a little like playing Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon, only easier.
“It’s a local institution,” says René Léger, president and CEO of Camp Fire Columbia. “When I tell people where I work, every other person breaks into a giant grin and tells me how much they used to love going to Namanu when they were a kid. Alumni are everywhere in this town.”
While day camp options for kids are exploding in variety, overnight summer camps like Namanu are increasingly rare. Not because of a lack of demand — Namanu’s enrollment has increased by over 35 percent in the last five years, after all — but because the economics of running and maintaining a large camp can be challenging. However, Camp Namanu is not only surviving, it’s thriving. The camp has added new, plush cabins to complement its rustic offerings, and adds new features regularly. This summer, for instance, the camp’s challenge course will add new high ropes elements that lift kids 200 feet off the ground. Yikes!
Another reason for its success is quality: Namanu is accredited by the American Camp Association, the gold standard for any camp. Moreover, Camp Fire is a celebrated youth development organization with a strong track record of helping kids from all backgrounds develop confidence, independence, compassion for their peers, and other essential skills for life.
These are comforting words for parents. But to a camper, Namanu is simply a magical and enthralling place that many regard as a home away from home. Each day, campers can try their hand at a wide range of activities, including archery, horseback riding, swimming, arts and crafts, rock climbing, boating, nature exploration and weaving. At Camp Namanu, kids sing the same songs, sleep in the same cabins, and play some of the same games as campers did 90 years ago. Each day, birds act as a morning alarm clock, announcement bells ring through the trees, and kids shout songs through the dining hall at the top of their lungs. In a time-honored tradition, each week culminates in a giant camp fire attended by all campers. It’s no wonder so many people count their time at Namanu among their most cherished childhood memories.
On September 6, Camp Fire will welcome hundreds of former campers back to Namanu to formally celebrate the 90th anniversary. The extravaganza will feature live music, food, and traditional camp activities, like swimming, paddle boats, trail rides on horseback, ropes course adventures and family-friendly games.
“We welcome anyone who has attended Namanu to come relive the joys of camp. It’s going to be an amazing day,” said Kim Summers-Everett, director of Namanu programs at Camp Fire. “We hope to see everyone from active alumni, long-lost campers, and former camp staff at this celebration, as well as anyone who is interested in a day of fun, camp-style!” More information is available at www.campfirecolumbia.org.
Oh, and Mr. Skriggleboggle? He’s the wise, old elf that lives in Namanu’s deep expanse of trees and responds to the letters of campers each week. Ask your kid — they’ll tell you all about him. If they haven’t met him yet, perhaps a trip to Namanu is in order?
For more information about Camp Namanu or to register your child, visit www.campfirecolumbia.org
Mark Baylis is the Communications Manager at Camp Fire Columbia