Every Kid has the Right to Camp

From a kid who never camped, I believe every kid has a right to go to summer camp...even big ones.

By: Francis Mendoza + Save to a List

I never camped when I was a kid...no summer camp, no family camp, no tent camping, no camping period. My immigrant parents always told me, “why do you want to sleep outside when you have a perfectly warm, comfy bed inside?” A first generation immigrant myself, I don’t know why sleeping outside always appealed to me as a kid. Maybe it was the westerns I grew up watching and the romanticism of cowboys sleeping out under the stars that got to me. To this day, I prefer to sleep outside with just a sleeping bag, as I fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and the crisp night air enveloping me like a blanket. Sleeping without a tent has come to be known as “cowboy camping” even though I’m sure there are plenty of cowgirls and cowpokes who do the same, not to mention Indigenous folks, who are oftentimes the antagonists in those same westerns.

(Photo of my bunso or youngest daughter Keira and me at Burney Falls in Pit River Tribe territory in present-day Northern California.) 

Maybe my parents’ aversion to camping comes from their impoverished upbringing in the province (or rural areas) of the Philippines or the tough memories it stirs up. My Lolo (or grandfather) died while hiding out from Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during World War II; no doubt much of that time was spent sleeping outdoors. My mom’s family grew up poor in the province of Pangasinan and moved to Project 6 in the huge metropolis of Manila. I remember spending time with my little cousins, and despite not having much, they were perfectly happy running them streets in tsinelas or sandals, while selling chiclets or bubble gum to the stopped motorists between timed traffic lights.

(Photo of me leading a hike with a group of kids in Tuibun on Chocheño land in present-day Fremont, CA.) 

When my family and I immigrated to the United States, we kept playing outside, scraping our knees, fighting the neighborhood bullies and biking until we couldn’t bike no more. Although there were baseball camps, summer camps and even family camps available to us, my parents could neither afford nor saw the benefit of such camps for my two older brothers and me. Instead, we focused on our studies, got straight As in high school and ultimately all got into UC Berkeley. I remember one summer when we were all still in our single digits, we would wrestle in the mud in our backyard, and enjoyed hosing ourselves down afterwards - a welcome relief from the summer heat. Filipinx culture has a big focus on family, especially extended and chosen family, as I remember biking, picnicking and taking long road trips with my cousins, “play cousins” and “Aunties” and “Uncles” who weren’t even related to us. This WAS our summer camp.

(Photo of me pointing, as park rangers do, at the World Expo in Vancouver, Canada in 1986 with my extended and immediate family making the long road trip from the Oakland Bay Area to visit our Canadian cousins #rangerspointingatthings)

So as I began my career as an environmental educator, naturalist and park ranger, I fell in love with camping. I first went camping as a high school exchange student in, of all places, Russia. Back in 1991, the Soviet Union just fell, and Russia was transitioning into what seemed like a democratic state, but was more like an oligarchy of rich families and government officials. Anyone with any real wealth at that time was either in the mafia or the government. We went with a group of Oakland Bay Area students and teachers, and I remember one white, male teacher from Castlemont High School in Oakland playing the part of the ugly American well, as he tried to teach an obvious Russian mobster not to litter in Red Square. It took one of his savvy students to defuse the situation, which kept the naive teacher from getting stabbed or worst yet, killed.

(From L to R, Dawana, me, Mistee, Alvin, Denise and Eunice in St. Petersburg, Russia, right after its name reverted back from Leningrad in 1991.)

We toured the Kremlin, visited the Hermitage Museum and did everything else Russians did, including drink vodka, chain smoke cigarettes and trade for Soviet-era military gear, but the one activity that was missing from my Filipinx immigrant story was camping - something Russian youth did regularly. The white, Black and non-Asian Americans among us were also seasoned campers. They taught me how to pitch a tent, read a topographical map and do things many of us take for granted now, like apply sunscreen evenly and deal with bugs and insects, many of which were not just a nuisance but would bite and even draw blood. 

(Photo of Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center naturalists in the Russian River on Kashia Pomo land; from L to R: Patrick, Adrienne, Patti, Linden and me.)

One of the ways to keep from getting bit was to jump into the river and submerge yourself deep enough to keep most of your body parts covered up. I thought I did just that until a horsefly (apparently from Chernobyl) landed on my forehead, much like that fly famously landed on Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate last year. I took a quick breath, dunked my entire head underneath the water and resurfaced with the nuclear fly still munching away at the epidermal layer of my skin. I only noticed it was still there when I felt a trickle of blood drip down my face. Now granted, I’ve been cursed with what some would call a “fivehead”, an homage to the sheer size of my forehead (or “fourhead”) and the huge surface area that the fly could land on, but this aquatic holdover from the Jurassic era was still latching on after I tried to drown it. Not even radioactive flies could deter me from the desire to camp as a young adult when I returned to my adopted homeland of Northern California.

(From L to R, me getting rarified air, Orlando, Lawrence, Alvin and Leo jumping for joy while camping in Central Sierra Miwok territory circa 1995.)

My first camping trip post-Russia was with a bunch of self-proclaimed Cool Forest Gangsters (CFGs) straight from the suburbs of the East Bay near Oakland. We were a group of college-aged Asian Americans with little to no camping experience, navigating the foothills of the Sierra Nevada with Thomas Guide maps (before the days of cell phones and navigation apps) in our Toyotas, and wearing all-cotton jeans and shirts as we explored the trails and creeks of the Stanislaus National Forest. Part of the camping experience is sharing food with one another, so the CFGs and I bonded over what we thought was prototypical camp food - deli meat, beef jerky and granola bars. Before the days of selfies, we used the timers on our digital cameras to take a series of pictures in front of our Toyota Corolla and Tercel (as I mentioned in What’s for Lunch? Chicken Adobo with All of the Garlic, the unofficial car of every Asian American family, along with the ubiquitous Camry), evoking memories of car commercials with new owners jumping for joy at the thought of acquiring a high-interest loan they’ll have to pay off for the next five years.

(Photos of my daughters, Mya and Keira, growing up camping and hiking, courtesy of their creeper dad in the mirror of Ole’s Waffle Shop in Alameda, CA.)

My Tatay, or dad, graduated us from our tiny little yellow 1981 Toyota Tercel to a blue 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, now the envy of every Instagram wannabe van-lifer with a wide-rim hat and a coffee pour-over lifestyle. Despite never taking it camping, we “camped” plenty of times at rest stops and casino parking lots as our extended families took long road trips together during our summer vacations. My daughters and I have continued this tradition as we’ve driven all over the western side of Turtle Island, cooking ramen and spam at rest stops along the way. We’ve upped our camp game by disperse camping, overlanding and enjoying waterfalls, mountaintops and beaches as we visit friends and family in beautiful places like British Columbia, Canada and Portland, Oregon. Despite not having grown up camping myself, I made certain that my life’s work would be to ensure every kid and their family had an opportunity to fulfill their Creator-given right to go camping and that my own kids benefitted from that work, too.

(Photo of me, Mya and Keira featured in a GirlVentures email newsletter during their fundraiser hike on Chocheño land in present-day Berkeley…obviously, Mya missed the cue to jump.)

Mya and Keira grew up knowing that their father was some kind of park ranger, as I brought them on hikes, campfire programs and special events in and around the parks I worked at. As more and more people recognized me as @roving_ranger on Instagram, my girls began to see me as an advocate for racial equity in the outdoors. Frankly, it was a bit embarrassing for them when folks approached me, but they got used to it. Currently, I am the Manager for Community Development, Engagement and Leadership for the Children & Nature Network, which helps me continue my work advocating for equitable access to nature for youth and their families. It’s become something my daughters have become proud of, as they’ve also reaped the benefits of my advocacy work from an early age. While their dad never went to any kind of camp as a kid, they themselves have been to every camp imaginable, from art to science camp, to GirlVentures Climb On camps, to dance and golf camps, to even one camp where Mya assisted Pinniped Scientists conduct seal and sea lion surveys at Point Reyes National Seashore.

(Photo courtesy of my panganay or oldest daughter, Mya Mendoza, as she went to Science Summer Camp in Pt. Reyes National Seashore on Coast Miwok Land.)

To make up for my lack of camping experience early on in my life, I volunteered in, worked, and directed summer camps for the past twenty years in marginalized communities around the bay. In Hayward, the Bayview/Hunter’s Point district of San Francisco, West Berkeley, Richmond and East Oakland, I conducted camps with a focus on fishing, birding, stewardship, restoration and advocacy. We studied invertebrates, mud samples, conducted bird surveys, wrote in journals, created poetry and raps, made nature artwork, sang camp songs, roasted marshmallows but most of all, just played...played outdoors like every kid should do. We included their families so they can foster their own relationship with nature, and not just connect, but reconnect themselves to nature…through nurture. Most of these camps were low-cost, subsidized, on a sliding scale or completely free, underscoring the fact that every kid (and their family) has the right to go to camp.

(Photo of me with the chitlins last month at Coyote Hills Regional Park on Chocheño land in present-day Fremont, CA; from L to R: Keira, Reese, Caleb, Alix, Cassius and Jaxon; for siblings Jaxon and Alix, this was their first time camping ever.)

In all my years as a camp counselor, director and participant, easily my most favorite camp experience was as a naturalist with the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center on a day we called “Mud Day”. After a week of studying the invertebrates that inhabited the bay mud, smelling the stinky sulfur by-product from the anaerobic respiration indicating a healthy marsh and looking for tracks of foxes, bird and squirrels on top of the mud, we allowed the kids to become little mud monsters, make “mud angels” and get as muddy as they wanted to. Much like my brothers and I did in our backyard mud-wrestling days, we hosed the kids down as a final act of the week, relieving them from the hot summer sun but also becoming a part of the mud… and become one with nature, which they have always been.

(Photo of me with Bay Camp youth at the Hayward Regional Shoreline in Jalqin/Yrgin on Chocheño land in present-day Hayward, CA during Mud Day.)

Our disconnect from nature is no more apparent than my aversion to vampiric flies, my parents’ poor upbringing, the discomfort of taking a sh*t in a hole or even getting a little mud on you on a hike. To reconnect to nature means to heal outdoors, to breathe once again with intention and reciprocity, to sleep outside rather than “cowboy camp”, and to call on your ancestors to sleep under the same stars, breathe the same night air and be warmed by the same sacred fire that has been burning within us ALL since our time here on earth. The long-standing debate between nature and nurture shouldn’t be a debate at all; we nurture our whole selves in nature, and conversely, we should nurture nature in everything that we do, much like our ancestors have done and many Indigenous folx do to protect the environment today.

 (Photo of California Indian Conference hike in Saclan on Bay Miwok land from 2017 courtesy of Dr. Beverly Ortiz.)

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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