By Clark Judge
(May 19, 2022) — The future of the Deer Lake Scout Reservation is uncertain. The future of its annual summer day camp is not.
It will open next month, as it has the past four decades, from late June to mid-August. And it will open, as it has the past 35 years, under the director of Mark and Patty Clifton. It will also open, as it did last summer, with seven of its eight sessions so full of campers that waiting lists run 30-40 deep.
Little, then, seems different from previous years, and a visit there confirms it. The waterfront has been readied, with volunteers last weekend upgrading docks and putting them in the water. Extensive mowing is underway. Camp sites have been cleared of debris, wood chips spread and latrines cleansed … just as they have in the past.
So it’s business as usual, right? Not exactly.
A Deer Lake Staff Recruitment Open House will be held on the property this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. — noon, and that’s a first. The camp has had plenty of open houses before but never for hiring. Now it will, with a notice sent to colleges and high schools this week, alerting students to opportunities as camp counselors, lifeguards, swim instructors and Wilderness School directors
Typically, staff help is in place by this time. But there’s nothing typical about what’s happened with Deer Lake the past nine months.
When its owner, the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts, announced last September that it would sell the 255-acre property, there was no guarantee that another camp … or the Cliftons … would return. That changed in January when Pathfinders, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and protection of Deer Lake as green space, intervened.
It signed a three-month lease for the summer camp as it worked toward a possible purchase of the entire Deer Lake property, putting the camp back on the map … and the squeeze on Patty Clifton.
“Normally,” she said, “I start working on the next year in September. But the rental agreement was signed on Jan. 21, so we just crammed — not only for planning staff, policies and protocols but also for upgrading the on-line registration system, reviewing that and making sure everything is perfect.”
Everything is not perfect. Not yet. But it’s getting there. Clifton last year promised not to return unless, as she said earlier this year, “we can pay the staff better – as close to minimum wage as possible.” That has happened, with Clifton saying only that wages are “more competitive.”
Now it’s on to the next step. The camp must complete its staff, and that’s expected after this weekend’s Open House.
“We’re looking for a dynamic camp staff, people that love to be in the outdoors, love to work with kids and are highly motivated,” said Clifton. “Our retention rate is about 90 percent, but we’re always looking for new people who are full of energy, compassion and a love of the outdoors.”
They are not, however, looking for more campers. Registration lists are overflowing.
Summer day camps are divided into five sessions – three of two weeks each and two (one at the front end; the other at the back) of one – and all but the first are at capacity with 190 campers. Given the shortage of time with which the camp was assembled, that is more than unusual.
It’s also a testament to the popularity of the camp. Unsure of Deer Lake’s future, an assortment of parents registered children at other camps for this summer. Once they heard that Deer Lake would return with the Cliftons, they changed their minds.
“You know what that tells me?” said Patty Clifton. “That the counselors and the directors — the skill-area directors — do a great job. They work hard to give these kids a good experience to make sure that they’re not just safe and smiling and having fun; but that they’re learning things, too. We have high expectations of the staff, and they know it.”
Photos by Clark Judge