The latest victim of COVID-19 is Camp Nebagamon.

The summer boys camp in the heart of Lake Nebagamon will not open this year for the first time since it was established in 1929. Directors Adam Kaplan and Stephanie Hanson shared the news with the community May 19.

It was, Kaplan said, an excruciating decision to make. The boys need camp more than ever after being isolated for months due to the global pandemic, but too much uncertainty around the virus remains, he said.

Some of the camp’s biggest strengths have become concerns. Camp Nebagamon attracts campers from around the world. Last year, campers and staff came from 50 different communities in the United States and at least seven different countries.

"We were very aware of the risks posed by bringing in all of these folks from all of these different geographies,” Kaplan said. “Part of our decision was to make sure that we did what we could to keep our neighbors safe.”

Many of the camp leaders are mature and at greater risk from the virus, as well.

Boys compete in a synchronized swimming event at Camp Nebagamon in 2019. The camp, which drew campers and staff from 50 communities in the United States and seven countries last year, will not open this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Camp Nebagamon)
Boys compete in a synchronized swimming event at Camp Nebagamon in 2019. The camp, which drew campers and staff from 50 communities in the United States and seven countries last year, will not open this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Camp Nebagamon)

Another factor was how the protocol needed to keep the campers safe would fundamentally change the camp experience. Older campers wouldn’t be able to mentor younger campers; wilderness trips, council fires, Sunday services and talent shows would not take place. Dining as a community in the rec hall would be a thing of the past.

"If there was ever something that Nebagamon is not, it is a place of social distance. At camp we hug, we high-five, we throw our arms around each other and sing," Kaplan said. "One of the main tenets of Nebagamon is social convergence, not social distance."

The decision drew praise and sadness from Village Board President Darrell Kyle.

“They are a very, very important part of our community out here, and we will miss the activity, the boys, just the life that they bring to this community over the summer, but at the same time it’s a laudable decision they have made to protect the community they’re part of,” he said.

Camp Nebagamon brings in 220 campers at a time for two four-week summer sessions, with about half staying for the whole summer. It also employs 120 staff members and hires local workers from the community. But it is more than an economic driver.

“They’re a big part of who we are,” Kyle said, and culture in the village is richer because of them.

Local residents won’t encounter campers taking Wednesday trips to Dairy Queen; staff and campers won’t participate in the Dragin’ Tail 5K fundraiser. Kyle, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, won't open his window and hear the camp bell from across the road.

“If I never set foot on the property this summer, there are things I personally will just miss hearing,” he said.

Camp Nebagamon may be taking a bye for the summer, but it’s not “Goodbye.”

“While this is a devastating emotional and financial blow to us, we are already planning for the summer of 2021 and are excited to make it our best summer ever,” Kaplan said. “So be ready for those long lines at the Dairy Queen every Wednesday afternoon and that patented quirky Camp Nebagamon float in the 4th of July parade. We cannot wait!”

YMCA day camp

The YMCA Camp on Lake Nebagamon is already open. The Superior Douglas County Family YMCA has been providing child care at camp since May 11 for families willing to drive their children to and from the site. Child Care Director Kim Martin said between 10 and 27 children attend daily.

The summer day camp season begins June 8 and is already full with waiting lists. Only half as many children can attend this year due to social distancing protocol and the fact that the School District of Superior is not holding summer school. Martin said they will be busing children out in groups of 25 and keeping them in rotating groups of 10 at camp, disinfecting activity sites between each rotation.

YMCA camp director Rachel Eisenmann, center, shows Chase Moss, 7, and Cameron Moss, 5,  bugs jars in the Sleepy Hollow building at the YMCA Camp in Lake Nebagamon Thursday, May 28. The tables in the building have been spread out and only a few campers will be allowed in at one time. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
YMCA camp director Rachel Eisenmann, center, shows Chase Moss, 7, and Cameron Moss, 5, bugs jars in the Sleepy Hollow building at the YMCA Camp in Lake Nebagamon Thursday, May 28. The tables in the building have been spread out and only a few campers will be allowed in at one time. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Staff will take each child’s temperature and have them wash their hands when they arrive. They will also ask them about any possible exposure, such as travel or having a sick family member.

The plan for the summer season has changed again and again, Martin said, based on best practices.

“We just felt that no matter what, camp needed to be open this year. Kids need an outlet, and they’ve been cooped up for 10 weeks trying to do virtual learning, trying to stay at home and not seeing their friends, not being able to go outside,” she said. “We just felt that we needed to continue the tradition of day camp, and we were going to make it work.”

Caiden Izzard, 10, left, and his brother, Cullen, 7, stay spaced out from each other as they eat a morning snack while YMCA camp director, Rachel Eisenmann talks with Louie Johnson,8, Jed Downs, 9, and Johnny Downs, 7, at the YMCA Camp in Lake Nebagamon Thursday, May 28. Campers sit on X’s to maintain social distancing at the picnic table pods at camp. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Caiden Izzard, 10, left, and his brother, Cullen, 7, stay spaced out from each other as they eat a morning snack while YMCA camp director, Rachel Eisenmann talks with Louie Johnson,8, Jed Downs, 9, and Johnny Downs, 7, at the YMCA Camp in Lake Nebagamon Thursday, May 28. Campers sit on X’s to maintain social distancing at the picnic table pods at camp. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Many YMCA camps chose to remain closed this year, Martin said. The fact that the Douglas County site is a day camp with local participants — mainly from Superior and Douglas County with some from Duluth — allowed it to open.

“It was very important for the Y to continue offering programming for the youth,” Martin said. “I think that our responsibility is to maintain some normalcy for our children, and this was a great way for us to continue to do that.”