Mountain leadership in Olympic NP: Pemi West


The Pemi West group in 2006 in Olympic National Park. From left to right, back row: Christina Demetro, Daniel Pfeffer, Duncan Fisher, Jamie Andrews, Tim Billo, Emily Blackmer, and Hayley Daniell. Front row: Matt DeCaro, Corey Fauver, Anne Carman.

In 1997, when I was 18, I traveled out to Crested Butte, Colorado, to take part in Pemi West’s inaugural season. We had a base camp at 10,000 feet in the Maroon Bells, and spent almost a month living in the mountains. I still have vivid images in my mind from that summer—the tall conifers that surrounded the base camp, the fields of wildflowers we hiked through, the drama of the vast, snowy mountains that were our home. And the Pemi spirit, so distinctive in New Hampshire, was with us out in the Rockies.

The next summer, after my first year of college, I returned to Pemi in New Hampshire and worked as a trip counselor for the summer in the White Mountains. (We’ll have more about the trip program at Pemi in New Hampshire in a forthcoming item here.) Then, in the summer of 1999, I traveled back out to Colorado to work as a staff trip leader for Pemi West, co-leading a group with Scott Morgan.

Pemi West in 2006.

Pemi West in 2006.

My two summers out in Colorado built upon a love of hiking and the outdoors that I’d been nurturing for a long time, and vastly improved my technical skills and sense of confidence and independence in the wilderness, to boot. In college, I was a Mountain Club guide, and later, the president of the Mountain Club, and the fact that I arrived at Middlebury and felt ready to tackle anything in the outdoors has a lot to do with my training both at Pemi West and with Pemi in New Hampshire.

Since 2005, Pemi West has been located in Olympic National Park in Washington State. When I asked Pemi West Director Tim Billo to tell me some about the current program, he wrote:

“This setting offers all the challenge and beauty of Colorado, but also offers a superior wilderness experience. With one million contiguous acres of federally designated wilderness, Olympic National Park is one of the largest road-less areas in the Lower 48. It offers an unparalleled trail system, as well as extremely remote and challenging off-trail travel. Though the elevations are less lofty than Colorado, the Olympic Mountains have all the characteristics of some of the world’s highest peaks, including some of the largest ice fields in the Lower 48. Lower elevations have the added advantage of eliminating time spent for acclimatization. Pemi West is a great place to join your old Pemi friends on an adventure that will teach you how to become completely self-sufficient in any rugged mountain wilderness. The trip traverses some of the many distinct ecosystems that Olympic National Park encompasses, from temperate rainforest, to ocean beach, to alpine meadow, and glaciated peaks. Glacier travel is an awesome bonus experience in the Olympics that was not available in Colorado. Navigating the rivers of ice on Olympus, while roped to your teammates, is an unforgettable experience, and a skill needed for mountaineering in all of the world’s great ranges. To prevent the need for returning to civilization, and to lighten packs for a day or two, Pemi West in the Olympics also takes advantage of a backcountry re-supply by llama.”

(That last detail makes me jealous. We didn’t have llamas in Colorado.)

Find more information on the features and history of Pemi West, and information on how to apply. (Note that this year’s program is a two-week course, as opposed to the usual three weeks. The shorter course will cover all of the same skills in a more compact, but equally intense wilderness experience.)

The ranks of Pemi West alumni are constantly getting bigger, and there is usually a good number of people who participate in Pemi West as a camper or leader and then migrate back to Pemi in New Hampshire, their teeth cut on the bigger mountains out west. Some have moved on to work for other organizations, or have led gnarly personal trips of their own. If you’ve been a part of Pemi West, either in Colorado or Washington, what was the experience like? Did you come back to Pemi in New Hampshire and join the trip program, or was it “just” a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you?

Rob Verger

Pemi’s heartbeat: daily occupations and activities

Photo by Rob Verger

Photo by Rob Verger

One of my favorite parts of being a camper at Pemi was the mornings spent in occupations, hustling from one activity to the next. “Occupations” is the word Pemi uses to describe the organized activities that occur every Moday through Friday and some Saturdays; each activity is 55 minutes long. Campers sign up for new occupations each week, giving them the consistency of five or more days in a row of doing the same activity, but also a change each week, too. This allows the instructors to develop lesson plans that build day-to-day; occupations are where the most structured teaching happens at Pemi each day.

As a camper, I loved any occupation on the water: waterskiing or canoeing, for example. Lower Baker Pond is more than big enough to host lots of activity on it simultaneously and feel far from crowded. I’ve also always loved the chance to take a canoe or kayak under the bridge into camp and explore the quiet lily pad and reed-filled lower lake, or “swamp,” as it’s sometimes called, with a group of campers and staff. (All campers at Pemi are always very closely supervised by staff on the water, both on the lake and lower lake.)

But most of all, when I was a camper, I loved taking sailing occupations. I loved time on the water in a small Sunfish sailboat, and later, in a larger boat called a Puffin. (Now, the Puffins have been upgraded to more modern multi-person sailboats called Capris.) In my years on staff at Pemi, I taught sailing more than any other activity, and I liked the circularity of it: as a camper, I learned how to sail, and as a counselor, I taught it.

Pemi offers all the occupations you might expect: baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, wood shop, music, and nature occupations galore. If you were to drive into camp on a busy morning, you’d see the fields and the lakes alive with activity, and maybe pass a fifteen-passenger van driven by Larry Davis for a quick outing to the nearby butterfly field. But there are also occupations you might be surprised to hear Pemi offers—night photography, for example, and other arts occupations, like rock painting.

What were your favorite occupations to take or teach when you were at Pemi, and did any of them influence the direction your life took? I know that I can’t pass a sailboat now without thinking happily of Pemi.

Rob Verger

Celebrating international campers and staff at Pemi

flagsThere are more than 20 flags hanging from the ceiling of the Mess Hall at Pemi, and each represents the country of a camper or staff member who has come to Pemi from abroad. Among many others, the flags for China, South Africa, Japan and Cameroon are up there. Also hanging from the rafters is a black and red flag; on the black half are five white stars depicting the Southern Cross, and on the red half is the image of a Bird of Paradise: it’s the flag of Papua New Guinea.

Most people who have a relatively recent connection with Pemi know that Papua New Guinea’s flag was first hung in the Mess Hall for Nuwi Somp, a longtime counselor who’s from that country, and a man who carries with him joy enough to light up all those around him. If you’ve met him, you know that one of his most striking characteristics is his laugh: it’s one of the most spirited, bubbling laughs you’ll ever hear. While he wasn’t at camp in the summer of 2009, his son, Sompy was. And Nuwi’s daughter, Joann, attended Camp Wawenock in Maine. (Getting the Somp children to their camps, a massive undertaking in itself, was spearheaded by Pemi’s Head of Nature, Larry Davis.)

sompy somp

Photo by Fred Seebeck.

Their story is told in an article, “Home (9000 Miles) Away from Home,” by longtime Pemi counselor and Bean Soup editor Josh Fischel. Fischel is the Public Information Associate at the American Camp Association, New England, and the article was published on that organization’s website. The article tells the story both of how Nuwi Somp first made a connection with Pemi, and what the camp experience was like for his children, Sompy and Joann. I recommend giving it a read.

Getting to know international campers and staff is, in my opinion, one of the richest parts of a Pemi experience. My counselor when I was a camper in the Lake Tent in 1994 was Andy Kerr, from Scotland, and over the years I’ve loved having friendships with BUNAC counselors from the United Kingdom. (And I’m going to assume that the process is rewarding the opposite way, too: to spend a summer or more at Pemi from another country must be a fantastic experience.)

This summer, campers from England, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, and France will be at camp. If you came to Pemi from abroad, what was that like? Or, for American alumni, when you were at Pemi, were you friends with someone from another country? Perhaps you can shed some light on what it was like to share a cabin, a table, a soccer game or a hiking trip in the White Mountains with someone from another country—even if they didn’t travel as far as the Somps did to the shores of Lower Baker.

Rob Verger

Mess Hall singing, then and now

Pemi SingingAnyone who has ever attended a Pemi lunch or dinner has experienced how singing, a Pemi tradition, can fill the Mess Hall up to the brim, and sometimes beyond it. In recent years, favorite songs have included “The Happy Wanderer,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (with accompanying hand gestures), and the famously anticlimactic “Three Cheers for the Jones Junior High.” (It’s the best junior high in Toledo.)

But different songs have been popular at different times in Pemi’s history.

For example, Tom Reed, Sr., mentioned “And When the Battle’s Over” as being a song that is never sung anymore, but used to be sung “to honor any distinguished visitor.” The “Junior Camp Song,” Tom says, “has always been sung,” while the song about the Pemi Kid is rarely sung these days. “Bloomer Girl” is sung less frequently, too. (And bloomers have gone out of fashion.)

MesshallSingingThen there are other classics, like the “Clam Shell Song” or “We’re From Camp Pemigewassett” or the “Marching Song.” That last one comes in two versions—with embellishments like the words “sweet gasoline” when the song is sung during the regular season, and a more serious, non-embellished version when the song is sung at a banquet.

When I asked Tom if he had a favorite song, he chuckled. “I don’t think I have one, but I think the “Boating Song” and the “Campfire Song” are the most beautiful songs we have, and the kids love both of them, and then there are the rabble-rousers, like the “Junior Camp” song, and so on. I like them all, but like them not just for the music, but for the Pemi connections they have.”

What songs were popular when you were at camp, and which was your favorite?

Rob Verger