Mar 08

One Week Until Polar Bear 2014!

Polar Bear is upon us . . . and it looks to be one for the record books.  The Lake is still frozen solid with a 14″ cover of ice and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.  We’ve sharpened our ice saw and are making preparations to build the sauna out on the ice to give the Polar Bears the opportunity for a quick recovery after their plunge.  Check out the video below, shot just this weekend.

Jul 21

Piers, Groins, Jetties, Oh My!

Bill Hettler was in Camp earlier this summer and we got talking about how he stayed late in to the Fall after the summer of 1961 to help build what we call our piers, but what the rest of the world calls groins (although they spell it “groynes”). Bill tells the story in his own words, and sent some pictures, too.

All the years I went to Camp Fitch between 1952 and 1961 the shoreline looked like the background of the attached picture of Halbe Brown. Each year, especially in winter, the storms would drive the waves into the clay walls of the bluff. The wave action would undermine the bluff and the upper sections of dirt would fall into the lake. Each year the camp would have less property due to this erosion. When I first started going to camp, there were tent platforms on the left side of the road when you got to the top of the hill.

Halbe Brown lifeguarding from the "underwater pier" which at that time had another layer of blocks.

Halbe Brown lifeguarding from the “underwater pier” in the mid-late fifties.  What we call the “underwater pier” had, at that time, another layer of blocks.

When I was 18 years old, I stayed after camp to work with Marshall Ellis. He was a diminutive man with a huge pay loader. He had a very successful method for building jetties out from the bank of the bluff into the lake. As soon as the jetties were built, the major erosion ended. The bluff section that was shown in the picture of Halbe is much different today. In the second picture, which was taken last week, you can see that Marshall Ellis has made a difference for Camp Fitch.The first task was to build a road along the base of the bluff. He then removed the sand, rock and gravel down to the slate bedrock. He had some kind of powerful water pump with a hose and nozzle to clear the work area for each jetty

On calm mornings we took careful measurements to make sure the concrete blocks he made at his farm would fit the bottom of the lake exactly. We measured about every two inches.  The first layer of the blocks were manufactured so that the base was level. He made little sketches for each 2 foot wide base level block. Once the base was made, he would drive his loader on the base or in the water to deliver the interlocking huge blocks to the upper layers. The base level took the most time. The upper layers went quickly. I would guide the blocks into place as he lowered them and he would nudge them tight with his skillful use of the loader bucket. We made frequent measurements to keep the line straight.

A picture Bill took of the bluff from The Big Rock.

A picture Bill took from The Big Rock earlier this summer of a much greener and not-as-steep bluff.

Once all the blocks were in place, my job was to drill 2 inch diameter holes through all the layers of block and down into the bedrock. Once these holes were drilled, we dropped steel rods into the holes and added cement to make them tight. The drilling was loud and messy.  I had to start with short drill bits and then use progressively longer bits to get into the bedrock.

Marshall made all the huge blocks at his place. He used steel frames that were held together with multiple vise grip wrenches at each corner to make the blocks.  Once the blocks were hardened, he would use his loader, a large set of tongs (like ice tongs) and a chain to lift the blocks onto the truck. Then I had to drive the huge trucks to the work site.

I was always impressed that this little guy would work all day at the job site making a structure that would last for years, but he never seemed to be using exertion. He would sit calmly in the seat of his loader and let the machine do all the heavy work. After we finished each day he would go back to his farm to make more of the huge blocks that were used in his projects. He had another work site east of Erie, PA that year. I remember driving huge loads of blocks to that that location also. I think it was Harborcreek.

I combed the archives and found a few pictures of the freshly built piers.  Now that Bill points it out, you can see how the block tops and parallel to the water surface: if they were all square edges they would slope down compared to the water line.  Click on the photo below to get to the gallery.

Pier construction — you can see Marshall’s loader in the distance putting blocks up on on the third pier.  If you click on this picture and select “Original size” at the top, you can see Marshall’s truck at the base of the pier that he’s working on and evidence of the temporary roadway he built to move the truck along the beach.

The engineer in me is curious about how much the piers changed the rate of bluff erosion — fifty years later it is clear that they work, but it would be cool to know a number, in feet/year, of how much bluff we’re losing.  To get a sense of how well constructed these are, you just have to look at all the examples to the west of Fitch for how poorly designed and constructed groins don’t last very long and don’t really do anything.  Look at the noticeable “notch” (here’s a link to a bigger version showing the 2nd and 3rd piers) in the sand distribution that occurs at each of our piers — that’s the magic at work.  It’s hard to see in the photo below, but there is sand piled up to the top of west side of our groin, and not much sand at all piled on the east side.

A comparison of our groin with the groins of our neighbors that don't extend as far and/or have fallen apart.

A comparison of our groin with the groins of our neighbors that don’t extend as far and/or have fallen apart.

The last nerdy thing I’ll offer here is this graph of the annual water levels of Lake Erie.  The rate of bluff erosion is tightly coupled to water level: high water levels are correlated to greater rates of bluff erosion.  The fifties, when Fitch was losing the upper flat at an alarming rate, was a time of somewhat high water levels (see graph, below), and they lowered a bit in the sixties.  But, look at the chart to see how bad it could have been if we didn’t have the groins in place by the mid-seventies!  Without the groins, that nearly three-decade period of high water would have likely caused a significant loss of upper flat real estate — like what Bill remembers from the fifties or worse.

The gifts that made constructing these groins possible; the leadership that envisioned them and demanded careful designs; and the people who did an excellent job constructing them made a big impact on Fitch that all of us still get to enjoy fifty years later and probably far into the future.  Thanks for sharing this story with us, Bill!

This graph shows the monthly water levels during the time that Fitch has been in North Springfield.

This graph shows the monthly water levels during the time that Fitch has been in North Springfield.

Jul 07

Fitch hears the Mountain Sound

Stephen and Josh are two of Ot-Yo-Kwa’s finest, and great musicians to boot. Check out their rendition of this Of Monsters and Men tune, now certain to become a Summer 2013 standard:

They were the highlight of last Friday’s closing campfire, and we’re all looking forward to hearing more. Who would have guessed that banjo and trumpet would make such a nice pairing?

Jun 30

Haven’t forgotten how

Although it’s somewhat of a prop for this week’s All-Camp program, we’re still setting up tents.  Steve and Greg didn’t miss a trick — you would think they still set up 40 of them every spring.

Greg driving the last tent stake -- a technique nearly 50 years in the making.

Greg driving the last tent stake — a technique nearly 50 years in the making.

The tent will get a lot of use this week during the “Legends of Camp Fitch” program that helps kids get closer to Camp’s past.  A nightly prize to the tent who earns the most points will be to sleep in this tent.  Since the tent is set up right next to the Dining Hall, if the kids are really lucky maybe they’ll be able to do Polar Bear in Lake Erie!

The tent crew -- with only one tent, it was the fastest Construction Weekend there ever was.

The tent crew — with only one tent, it was the fastest Construction Weekend there ever was.  I’m sure that Greg and Steve could have done the whole thing themselves, but it was fun to help.  Left to right is Jason Crist, Steve DelCalzo, Greg Donahue, Matt Poese, Barb Olin and Maggie Olin.  Norma Koehler, the Camp Fitch papparaza, took the pictures.



Jun 21

First Period Candlelight

From the top of the craft shop, here’s a view of the first period candlelight.

Edit Caption Here

First Period Candlelight

A great sky, the lull of the waves on Lake Erie with taps echoing in the still night air . . . a great end to a great week.

Jun 09

A pilgrimage through time

This weekend, the 2013 Camp Fitch staff will begin summer camp for the 100th time.  Of course, it wasn’t always called Camp Fitch, and it wasn’t always on the sunny shores of Lake Erie, but it has always been about helping kids grow in spirit, mind and body by nurturing positive relationships and providing engaging activities.

Before Camp Fitch was located in North Springfield, the Youngstown YMCA used two camp sites along the Little Beaver River in Columbia County, Ohio.  There are some iconic photographs of these sites on the Memory Boards in the Dining Hall — and I have often wondered what these sites were like and what they look like now.

Last weekend, I made a pilgrimage to find out.  In between the beautiful wedding ceremony and reception for two Youngstown YMCA alumni, Michelle Novotny (Camp Fitch) and Ben Elias (Davis Branch), I drove down Rt 7, following the route that our staff and campers would have taken 100 years ago to where the West Fork of the Little Beaver Creek cuts deeply through the rolling countryside to carve out some very pretty vistas.  On a map, I could see a road called “Y-Camp Road” very near to a cross-roads still labeled as West Point on the map.  I thought I’d drive along Y-Camp Road and see what I could see — fully expecting to find nothing that resembled the photographs on the Memory Boards.

I knew that I was looking for a site down on the creek, so I stopped a few times along Y-Camp Road near where it crosses the creek to get out of the car, study the map and various parts of the landscape.  While I was stopped, a woman stopped and asked if I was lost (and I was — with my church clothes on, sweating and wandering around on a very hot and sunny afternoon I definitely didn’t look like a local!)  I told her of my quest, and Fitch’s Centennial camping season, etc.  She told me that she grew up in the area and said that she would take me to the place that the locals call “The Y-Camp” — and she said she remembered when people camped there.  Well, that sounded promising!  I gladly followed.  But, on the way, I realized that there is no way that this woman could remember anyone from the Youngstown YMCA camping here — as far as I understood, we left this area in 1923 for the shores of Lake Erie in North Springfield, Pa.

My new acquaintance dropped me off here, in front of these gates.

The entrance to Camp Fitch’s old West Point Campsite, right off of Y-Camp road.

She said she knows the current owner and made a few calls to see if she could reach him.  I asked if she thought the owner would mind if I crossed the gate and looked around for an hour, and although she didn’t reach the owner, she thought it would be okay.  She reiterated that a YMCA camp was here when she was a young girl, which left me officially confused.  She was very helpful though, and unfortunately in my anticipation, I never got her name.

Once past the gate, I remained unconvinced that this is the site seen in our old photos since it didn’t seem very near the creek, and much too high compared to the creek bed which is where I thought our campsite was.  A small pond lays beyond the gate and I startled a heron into flight as I walked along the gravel path toward the buildings.  Beyond the pond, there are two fairly modern buildings off to the right past the gate, what looked like a dining hall and a maintenance storage building. It’s clear that this site continued to be a camp of some sort long past Camp Fitch’s time here. As the photos point out, the grass is mowed and the buildings are in good shape — the site is hardly abandoned — although I didn’t meet any people nor see any sign of them.

A pond just beyond the entrance.

A storage barn.

What looks like a dining hall.

As I got past the buildings I could see the tops of cabins along a path that led down off of the top level past the dining hall.  I could see that the path kept going beyond the cabins, down the hillside — this looked more encouraging!  As the path leveled out it turns nearly 180 degrees and opens up onto a field that looks like it could be from the photos I’ve seen.

At the bottom of the access path.

The same view, in 1919.

As I kept walking out into the field, I spotted two things that confirm this as Camp Fitch’s West Point site — a dam (both remnants and a modern one) across the Little Beaver Creek and the remnants of a lodge that still has enough features to identify it as the one in the photos.

The Lodge as it stands today — the underbrush has advanced much further than it was in the 1920s.  Click on the picture to go to the gallery of current views of the site and more pictures of the Lodge.

The Lodge in 1920’s after the front stairs were removed and the underneath converted to a Dining Hall.  Click on the picture to go to the gallery of the site as it was in the early 1900s.

A view looking downstream at a dam structure that looks in fairly good shape.

On the back of this photo is typed “May 19, 1919. Looking down stream from old dam.”

With my destination confirmed, I explored the site more carefully and listened quietly for the century-old voices of Earl Hale, Paul Davies, Curly Johnson, Fred Beede and others who began such a powerful institution that a century later has made a huge impact on my life. I tried to visualize the scenes of these old photographs — swimming in the creek, baseball in the field, stories by firelight. With my eyes closed and my noisy, conscious mind untethered, I think I heard them.

This, I think, is the first camping site that was actually owned by the Youngstown YMCA after a generous donation by John Fitch made such a purchase possible.  It was here where some of our traditions were born, but more importantly it was here where a decision was made to invest in a new strategy to help kids realize the potential and value of building strong minds, bodies and spirits; the benefits of looking out for the other guy; and celebrating clean living.  Over the next century, this strategy would prove not only to be successful, but continue to grow with the strong foundations laid here.  I feel privileged to be a small part of what started in this pretty glade on the banks of the Little Beaver Creek.  Although these men and boys did not anticipate me specifically, and I wonder if in their wildest dreams they imagined it would carry on for 100 years, I owe some of the most joyful aspects of my life directly to their creativity, perseverance and vision. Standing here with the promise of a new summer beginning, just as it must have looked and felt to Earl, Paul, and Curly nearly 100 years ago, I got to say “thanks” and shake their hands across the century.

Apr 08

Polar Bear Roundup

For the third year in a row, the Polar Bear Plunge kicked off springtime at Camp Fitch!  With blue skies and still air, the Lake looked inviting, but 38 brave members of the Camp Fitch Bunch found out what full-body immersion in water just a few degrees above freezing (35 F was the official National Weather Service temperature) felt like.  Follow this link for a manageable set of photos and this one for a whole slew of photos of the Plunge!

2013 Polar Bears!

Row 1 (kneeling, l to r): Abby Olin, Jenna Glasscock, Mandy Olin, Elisa Portillo, Susannah Poese, Peyton Helm, Beth Rush, Matt Poese, Dann Olin.

Row 2 (l to r): Scott DeAscentis, Jenny Lockard, Nicole Lockard, Jay Campbell, Tara Freeze, Megan Sturgeon, Stacey Henry, The Polar Bear, Libby Cole, Tim Cole, Ben Pratt, Alison Friend, Lindsay Kollar, Rob Thompson, Greg Donahue, Sue Barton, Barb Olin.

Row 3 (l to r): Kelly Poese, Jake Bratek, Pete Heinze, Cherie Graham, Louie Shannon, Tim Sheetz, Adam Bonner, Nathan Hazi, Brett Cole.

Not pictured: Noah Hoover, Taylor Hoover, Lindsey Jones, David Parker

Not only are this year’s Polar Bears a stalwart crew (here’s a picture of the same lake only a few weeks ago!), they are also dedicated fundraisers for the Y’s Strong Kids Campaign raising $12,000 with nearly 200 individual donations.  This represents significant growth in Fitch’s contribution to the association’s Strong Kids campaign and has secured a spot for almost as many kids this summer as there were Polar Bears last weekend.  We’re grateful to each of the Polar Bear fundraisers for reaching out into their social networks to find support for an idea that we all love and believe in: that an immersive (!) experience in a caring, thoughtful and action-packed environment can impact a child’s life forever.

The temporary sauna stands ready to warm the Polar Bears who just heard Papa Polar Bear kickoff the 2013 Plunge and are dashing into water as cold as it can get and still be liquid.

The 2013 Polar Bears enjoyed a ramshackle sauna on the beach that allowed more than a few wackos to replicate the ritual over and over again. After the plunge Nancy Frease, Cherie Graham and Nora (Beuck-Erb) Lamb prepared an impromptu warmer-upper meal of soup and chili — which was promptly decided to become a fixture of future plunges.

This year, we had a lively fundraising competition leveraging an online system that allowed each Polar Bear to have their own campaign web page. Adam Bonner led the race with a total of $1,300 in pledges as the wisdom of the crowd decided he should keep his impressive beard. With an overall total three times greater than last year, the rest of the pack was clearly not very far behind him. Between a colony of Easter rabbits and an appearance by Audrey Hepburn herself, the costume award was difficult to judge. In the end Peyton Helm and Lindsey Jones took the prize as the Power Ranger force. Finally, flying all the way from Oklahoma, Tim Sheetz was the Polar Bear with the longest migration — good thing he’s a fully qualified pilot.

A seven foot tall Polar Bear carving was unveiled to serve as the official mascot for The Plunge.  The bear will guard the names of all plungers past and future and stand as testament to the craziness that goes on the weekend closest to April Fools’ Day at Camp Fitch.  We’re grateful to Eddie and Janise Crow for working with the carver and funding the piece, and to Frank Turner for doing such a great job of carving it for us.

This year’s award winners surrounding the Polar Bear Carving. Pictured left to right are Peyton Helm (costume, with Lindsey Jones), Tim Sheetz (furthest migration), Susannah Poese (youngest) and Adam Bonner (fund raising leader).

Stay tuned for details of next year’s plunge — you won’t want to miss it!  Thanks to all who helped pull off the 2013 Plunge: especially the Polar Bear Poobahs (Adam Bonner, Tim Cole, Matt and Kelly Poese, Ben Pratt and Tim Sheetz), cooks and dishcrew, cleanup crews, bookkeepers, photographers and the Olins for hosting another great post-plunge party. Camp Fitch is deeply appreciative for the Plungers’ dedication and also to all of the donors who pledged to the Strong Kids Campaign through the Polar Bear Plunge.  We will earn your support in the months to come by providing great opportunities to strengthen kids and their families.  Camp Fitch Forever!

Mar 07


The Smithsonian hosts an annual photo contest and they just announced the finalists for 2012 — you can check them all out here and vote for your favorite.  However, I think that they missed an opportunity for some great photos of Camp Fitch that you can find in this gallery, beautifully remastered by Tim Sheetz with material that he found in the far corners of the whirled why’d web.  Here is one of my favorites that Norma Koehler took during possibly her first summer as the Fitch paparazza:

The morning sunlight blazes through the trees on Ables Road, the path that leads to invincible summers.

As winter starts to overstay its welcome, this photo warms me right up.  If I look deeply enough, I can smell the greenness and hear the Towhees’ welcome rounds of “Drink your teeeeea!

Mar 04

When life gives lemons . . .

The Camp Fitch bunch made some great lemonade in the form of an elegant rehabilitation of the Nature Center.  The work, which is 99% complete now, was an opportunity created by the destructive force of a tall tree blown onto the Nature Center during an especially strong thunderstorm.  The tree did enough damage to the western end of the building and roof that a simple repair wasn’t in the cards.  In the plans for a rebuild, the creative Fitch Operations team envisioned the addition of a fireplace, wainscot on the interior wall and skylights set into a new paneled ceiling to bring natural light into the building.  The program staff, in an effort led by Barb Olin, have installed a new pond inside and several study areas including loads of cool artifacts.

The interior of the new and improved Nature Center with fireplace, skylights and a panel ceiling.

The Young Alumni Work Weekend volunteers got to have a hand in the project by collecting the rocks, both big and small, that went into the hearth.  I can’t wait to see how this new facility gets integrated into Fitch’s outdoor education programs!

The new inviting fireplace and hearth is made with local stone from the beach and sports a great trophy fish donated by Dave Shaffer, one of Camp Fitch’s dedicated program staff members.

Mar 03

Four weeks until Polar Bear Plunge 2013!

National Wildlife Service has announced that a Polar Bear migration is again expected by the end of March!  So far 22 brave souls have committed to Take a Dunk to Fill a Bunk.  Here’s a picture of the Lake shore off of Camp Fitch’s beach last weekend — looks like Mother Nature is serving it up for Plungers this year!

If you haven’t registered yet, get on it!

Ice cover off the Camp Fitch Beach guarantees an invigorating Polar Bear Plunge on March 30th!

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