Beyond the Campfire
Summer camp sports head mainstream
By Margaret Ahrweiler
Ask intrepid campers lucky enough to attend sleep-away recreation camps—the good ol' summer cabins in the woods variety—what makes their experiences special, and invariably they rattle off activities they don't get to do anywhere else. That first bull's-eye in archery (or maybe the first time they finally hit the target). The realization that even if they flounder at dodgeball, they rule at disc golf. That exhilarating orienteering romp through the woods with compass and map.
But now, park and rec facilities across the country are bringing those camp experiences home to stay as part of their mission to broaden recreational offerings and make sure that there's something for everyone to get active and get outdoors.
While these activities remain firmly outside the mainstream compared to, say, recreational soccer leagues, all three have enjoyed tremendous growth, due, in part, to big boosts from pop culture, increased exposure, and the determination of Generations X and Y to experience a little of everything.
Archery, in particular, has shot up in stature and popularity. Call it the Legolas Effect. Ever since the pop-culture reign of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, followed by a spurt of medieval/fantasy/ancient-history flicks featuring a lot of bow-and-arrow action, rec consumers and planners are targeting this very old and esteemed Olympic sport.
The numbers bear this out, notes Doug Engh, director of the National Alliance for the Development of Archery (NADA), the group responsible for teaching and certifying archery instructors. When NADA formed in May 2000, it trained 1,500 instructors a year. Now, it trains close to 7,000 a year.
Along with pop culture, Engh attributes the rise in archery participation to his group's heavy marketing to recreation agencies and better communication with archery coaches, encouraging them to create their own classes.
"More instructors mean more participants," he observes, though the camp connection remains huge for archery. "Camps are our base."
NADA's surveys show that about 4,000 summer camps nationwide run some type of archery program, exposing about 3 million kids to the sport over the last few years.
Archery can fill in gaps in recreation programming in several ways, Engh says. On a practical facilities note, it can squeeze extra use from a multipurpose facility. Outdoors, archery requires about two acres for the targets; indoors, targets can be set up in a basketball court space.
"We're big into portability," he says, noting that while dedicated archery ranges are nice, they're not necessary for a program.
In a hyper-competitive world, archery provides kids who aren't necessarily athletically inclined with a chance to succeed.
"It's not competitive like a team sport," Engh says. "It's an individual sport. It's a good fit for those who don't take to a team environment."
Ironically, he notes that children who excel at team sports sometimes don't follow the archery instruction well, since they've grown accustomed to mastering skills through sheer athleticism. What's more, archery can provide instant success to those who have struggled in other sports.
"If a kid shoots the bow and misses, the game can be adjusted—you move the target closer and you give them an idea of what it feels like to be successful," he says. "In other sports, like basketball, you have to learn to be successful. You keep missing until you finally sink the shot. You start with failure. We can start with success and improve from there."
Archery also is appealing for its equalizing abilities, since both boys and girls—or men and women—can compete equally. This makes it especially alluring to middle-school programs, Engh notes, with its ability to bridge the gap in the emerging battle between the sexes.
What's more, disabled patrons often can compete on equal footing as well. It doesn't take much to add archery to rec programs for disabled patrons, particularly wheelchair-bound users. Anyone with the upper-body strength and mobility do draw back a bow can perform archery—and excel—while seated.
"Archery enables physically challenged people to participate side by side with able-bodied people," Engh explains, adding that this is another reason why schools have jumped onto the archery bandwagon, along with the fact that it's a lifelong sport.
For those concerned about the hazards of putting bows and arrows into the hands of wayward children (or adults for that matter), Engh reassures them that archery regularly gets ranked among the safest sports by organizations that track such numbers. Safety essentials, ranging from how to handle a bow to admonitions against shooting an arrow straight into the air, are built into classes to make sure it remains at the front of users' minds.
Archery also gained more visibility from the recent movie, The Weather Man, starring Nicholas Cage, who's melancholy character promotes archery as a way to bring his daughter out of her shell but ends up embracing it himself. (For those whose only exposure to the movie was a trailer showing Cage with a bow slung over his shoulder along the frigid lakefront, the Chicago Park District does, in fact, maintain an archery range at Belmont Harbor in its vast Lincoln Park hugging the Lake Michigan shore.)
Archery programs are going strong at places like the Naperville, Ill., Park District, a western suburb of Chicago. Director of Recreation Brad Wilson reports that close to 1,200 people have participated in archery classes in the last three years. The district would have hosted more had they not been forced to reduce the number of classes due to limited instructor availability.
Making more instructors more available for programming is one of the NADA's primary goals, Engh notes. The group's recently introduced Go! Archery program, which targets park and rec pros, aims to do just that. Created by NADA's Lloyd Brown—an Olympic coach who taught Cage archery for his Weather role—Go! Archery teaches potential instructors how to teach a beginning-level archery class.
Start-up costs include bows, arrows, targets and arrow curtains, which keep strays from going beyond the range. Engh says rec programs can purchase inexpensive, beginner bows for as little as $50. For other options, some instructors may bring their own equipment, or a program can rent an archery range in a box, with a dozen bows and accompanying arrows, targets and arm guards, from the archery association for $125 a week or $250 a month.
As a lifelong, "all ages" sport, archery classes can attract a variety of patrons. Naperville, for one, has found parent and child archery classes to be popular. And while Naperville has yet to establish a permanent archery range, other park districts are finding it helps grow the sport if the land is available. The Fort Collins, Colo., Department of Parks and Recreation has provided archers with a dedicated range since 1984, says Bob Loeven, Fort Collins' manager of parks and cemeteries. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, the Fort Collins Archery Association provides all the labor for the range's upkeep, although the parks department keeps up the landscaping, including regular rough mowing. The range is popular with a wide range of users, Loeven says, including Special Olympics and Senior Olympics groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, recreation camps, and, of course, the archery association, which holds weekend tournaments there.
And while it hasn't received the high-profile media boost that archery has experienced, another camp staple, disc golf, has been growing—or shall we say soaring—as well.
What's more, park and rec pros have discovered that few other sports in their constellation of programming inspire more passion and devotion. Without exception, every park director contacted reported that the popular response to disc golf has been overwhelming, the courses profitable, and voice a desire to grow.
Unlike golf, disc golf requires no endless vistas of manicured fairways, specialized skills or expensive equipment. Generally, an 18-hole course requires about 30 to 40 acres of land and a nine-hole course, half that. Depending on the site, a nine-hole course can be installed on as little as five acres, says Scott Keasey, director of sales and marketing for the Disc Golf Association, the sport's trade group, as long as safety considerations are met.
Park and rec departments can eke out land for a disc-golf course from areas that wouldn't get public use otherwise, Keasey notes.
"A lot of times, we convert land that isn't suitable for normal park activities," he says. "In fact, obstacles are key for a good course. We don't need an open area and we don't necessarily want an open area."
In a happy skew to that Law of Unintended Consequences, parks pros report that vandalism and loitering drop with the arrival of disc golf, proving the rec adage that a positive use will displace a negative use.
Many districts are pleasantly startled by the success of their disc-golf facilities, as was the Kalamazoo County Parks and Recreation Department in Michigan, when it installed an 18-hole disc-golf course on a wooded site at its 200-acre Cold Brook Park in 1992. The course now features 24 holes to provide more flexibility.
"It's been used year-round, which is a pleasant surprise," says Parks Director Dave Rachowicz. "Plus, it's been a real income-generator. It's a great return on what's really a minimal investment."
Kalamazoo charges $5 per car, or $20 for an annual pass.
According to the Disc Golf Association, a no-frills, entry-level course can be installed for as little as $2,300 for a nine-hole course or $4,580 for an 18-hole course, with options like signage, anchors for the baskets or concrete tee pads additional. A championship-level course would run up to $9,500—some signage included. According to the association's marketing material, pay-for-play courses have generated up to $56,000 a year in revenue.
Attendance numbers seem to bear out its popularity: In a county of about 250,000 people, the Kalamazoo disc-golf course attracts thousands of users each year, Rachowicz says. While young people make up the bulk of players in this college town (Kalamazoo is home to Western Michigan University), families and kids come out in droves as well. A core group of about 100 players hosts tournaments throughout the year.
In fact, the county parks department currently is planning another disc-golf facility in its River Oaks Park.
Like many others, Cold Brook's course lies in a wooded part of the park that would not have been converted to any active use otherwise.
"If you didn't know it was there, you'd walk right past it without seeing it," Rachowicz says. A small "pro shop," which will offer disc rentals and sales, will boost visibility when it's added soon.
Among other benefits of disc golf, Rachowicz says, are the minimal maintenance required and the help the district receives from disc-golf groups. This year, he notes, Kalamazoo's disc golfers raised the money themselves to install new tee markers.
Disc golf's popularity also took the Fort Collins, Colo., parks system by surprise when it installed a course in its Edora Park, to the extent that park officials now wish they'd put the course in a less-crowded area. Fort Collins promptly learned that disc golf and tennis courts don't necessarily mix, with stray discs zooming onto the courts, reports Bob Loeven. (Netting, signage and minor reconfiguration have helped.)
Courses also have sprung up on the mountainsides of area ski resorts, Loeven says, as operators try and draw visitors during summer months. Keasey concurs this is one of the sport's biggest growth areas, along with regular golf courses trying to boost usage.
Unlike traditional golf, disc golf gets played all year long in northern climates. Despite its California origins, the sport has built a dedicated following in the upper Midwest, where disc golfers relish snowy conditions.
The sport draws a wide range of participants as well. Falling under the "if you build it, they will come," maxim, disc-golf courses attract families, newly independent teens, college students and aging athletes otherwise known as adults, along with devoted bands of disc-golf aficionados.
"About 98 percent of the sport is people just out there having a good time," says Keasey, adding that the sport's core demographics are changing.
Once the province of players who "weren't typical jocks," disc golf is becoming more athletic. Nevertheless, like archery, the sport does well at attracting kids who don't always blossom in traditional team-oriented sports.
"We've all seen a natural athlete get on a course and try and muscle through it and then get totally taken to school by someone who might be more of an outsider," he recalls. For these reasons, disc golf has long been a staple at camps that promote success and inclusion and is increasing in schools as well.
And while its growth and income potential haven't approached that of disc golf—yet—the Next Big Thing may be orienteering. Building on that slightly nerve-wracking, slightly exhilarating denouement to camp of finding your way through the woods with only a compass to guide you, orienteering programs are pointing the way in park and rec programs that have the land to support them. Billed as The Thinking Sport, because participants must use map-reading and decision-making skills as they race through what can be an intense outdoor workout.
Orienteering (simply O to its fans) is getting ready to break into popular consciousness with the help of exposure from adventure racing on alternative sports shows, along with the latest crop of reality programming. High-rated shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race have included challenges based on orienteering, causing an uptick in awareness for this European import, begun in Scandinavia as military training.
The sports sounds deceptively simple: navigate through a series of points using a compass and a map, with the fastest time the winner. For the uninitiated, of course, O-maps make Cyrillic figures look comprehensive, and the fastest way through a course isn't always in a straight line.
Like disc golf and archery, orienteering appeals to a wide variety of people ranging from kids to retirees and embraces those for whom team sports or other traditional rec and fitness programming may not make a good fit.
"Really, the only requirement is a love of the outdoors," says Jerry Siscel, a course coordinator for the Cascade Orienteering Club in the Seattle suburbs. Like their counterparts in archery and disc golf, proponents of orienteering bill the sport as a lifelong activity, something for anyone aged 6 to 75 and up.
"It's a personal-best kind of sport," Siscel says.
To get an orienteering program going, the first thing needed is an orienteer—someone to teach the ins and outs of the sport and skill, says Jerry Rhodes, co-vice president of marketing for the United States Orienteering Federation and active member of the Columbia River Orienteering Club in Washington state. He has taught beginning orienteering classes for the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation department in Vancouver, Wash.
Typically, his program starts with a session in the classroom, getting participants oriented to orienteering—learning about reading maps and compasses, making maps, and running through the lingo and the rules. Next, Rhodes takes students to a local orienteering meet well before it starts, with a special "show and tell" course marked off, so the students can see what the courses are like. With the aid of a tour guide, they can understand how land looks compared to its appearance on a map; navigate a beginning and intermediate area; count steps to learn what 100 paces looks and feels like on flat areas, up and down hills (pace counting is an advanced skill); and grasp the challenge of an advanced course.
Beyond classes, Rhodes suggests several other outlets to grow orienteering programming. Parks programs can partner with scouting groups or junior ROTC groups, both traditional practitioners of orienteering, or even outdoors stores like REI, which regularly promotes outdoor activities. Rhodes' club has partnered with the retailer for a "Play in the Woods Expo," where participants can try orienteering, with other outdoor groups like adventure racers possibly joining in as well.
Orienteering even lends itself well to themed special-event tie-ins: Siscel's club hosts an annual nighttime "Vampire O" the Saturday before Halloween, complete with red lights that signify "bites."
Of course, unlike archery, which can function in a gym, orienteering needs open space. About 40 acres, with varied terrain, probably marks the minimum for a beginner course, Siscel says, with more advanced levels requiring more space.
In the Seattle area, the sport definitely has been attracting more attention: While Cascade Orienteering's membership has been holding steady at around 200 people, Siscel reports more people attending meets and more play in local newspapers.
O provides a wide range of comfort levels as well, Siscel says, from people who work a course at a leisurely pace to competitive orienteers who charge through at a run, trying to keep their mental skills sharp as their physical exertion increases—the big trick of the sport.
Although orienteering is no walk in the woods, park and rec professionals may find it easy to get a program up and running given the passion that proponents share for their sport.
And that passion, matched by a desire to spread the word, runs through many programs that first ignite thrills in intrepid campers across the country, be it orienteering, archery or disc golf. Recreation managers looking to add some diversity to their offerings and add a spark of off-the-beaten-track programming with plenty of potential for growth need look no further than these three sports. In fact, it's a sure bulls-eye—or hole-in-one.
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