Tristan Bouchard talks with lifeguard Maureen Brann while he and his mother, Amy, swim at Pine Tree Camp on June 26. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pine Tree Camp is offering an Adventure Day Pass in lieu of its traditional overnight camps for Mainers with disabilities. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

ROME — When Tristan and Amy Bouchard started their day at Pine Tree Camp two weeks ago, they got the royal treatment on the camp’s pontoon boat.

Typically, the boat would carry as many as six campers, but to assure social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, Amy Bouchard and her teenage son were the lone campers riding on the boat on North Pond in central Maine, looking for bald eagles and smallmouth bass with three staff members.

Tristan Bouchard, 18, was born with a brain disorder called hydrocephalus that makes some cognitive functions challenging, such as walking and reasoning. For the past four years he has stayed overnight at Pine Tree Camp, which for 75 years has provided outdoor adventures for Mainers with disabilities.

“I wish there were more things for us to do in the summer like this. I’ve never held him back. The more experiences he has, the better it is for him,” Amy Bouchard said.

In years past, Pine Tree Camp has welcomed 600 overnight campers annually – both adults and youth – to swim, fish, paddle, hike and view wildlife.

But the coronavirus pandemic has forced the camp to curtail its overnight programs. Instead, the unusual, fully accessible summer camp will offer day passes. It is a compromise, allowing the camp to open while not endangering camp visitors who in the past stayed together in small cabin rooms. As a result, Pine Tree Camp may reach more people this year.

“This has been an interesting time to pivot. It will help us extend the season longer, and possibly offer our facilities to more people,” said Camp Director Dawn Willard-Robinson. “We wanted to do this more creatively. In the end, a lot more people may learn about us. Already, we’re reaching a lot more people online.”

Tara Nau helps her brother, Aaron Nau, on to a boat with the assistance of Pine Tree Camp staff. Aaron, 46, has been coming to Pine Tree Camp since he was 5 years old, and Tara worked at the camp as a teenager. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The camp’s new Adventure Day Pass will cost $10 and allow more visitors to come during the course of a week, even though the camp now will be open every other day in order to allow for adequate time to clean equipment. Previously, 40 campers stayed at the camp each week; now 20 to 30 people will visit in day. Pine Tree Camp’s programs will run into October this year, rather than ending in August – and Willard-Robinson is considering opening it up this winter.

The Pine Tree staff started to reinvent their camp in mid-March – just after Willard-Robinson and two of her staff returned from a national conference in Atlantic City. The 12-hour drive back to Maine proved an opportunity for them to brainstorm, at a time when much of society was starting to close down because of the pandemic.

Right away, they rolled out “camp fire chats” on Zoom and even held the camp’s famous “Dance Parties” with musicians playing in live online performances. The Pine Tree staff, who all work remotely in the winter and regularly use Zoom, helped introduce it to campers. As many as 75 campers regularly tuned in to visit and dance during the virtual gatherings – and hundreds viewed the videos after the live programs. Alumni campers in other states participated, too.

“It was fun. It was nice to see my friends, and know they were all doing OK,” said Brian Harnish of Orono, a Pine Tree Camp regular who has spina bifida and regularly uses a wheelchair.

To be sure, Harnish and other Pine Tree campers were crushed to hear their annual summer sleep-away trip was canceled.

Jean Youde of Hallowell said the saddest moment for her was when she sat on the couch with her son, Evan, who has autism, and watched as he held up the calendar on his cell phone, showed her his week vacation at Pine Tree Camp, and asked if he should delete it.

Mary Schafhauser pushes Brian Harnish out in to the water from the accessible kayak dock at Pine Tree Camp. Harnish, of Orono, has been coming to the camp for about 10 years. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But on June 26 when the camp staff and several counselors offered a trial run of the Adventure Day Pass to several long-time campers, the camp echoed with laughter and chatter as the campers rotated through eight outdoor activities, including kayaking, swimming, fishing, and building birdhouses in the camp’s fully accessible tree house.

Harnish said it was the best-possible solution given the fact so many events across Maine have been canceled. He drove more than an hour down from Orono to help the camp staff work out the kinks – and get his annual infusion of inspiration.

It was at Pine Tree Camp that Harnish, 37, learned from another camper about an outdoor expo in Boston that offers adaptive equipment to people with disabilities. Harnish traveled to the expo and discovered an add-on, motorized wheel he can attach to his wheelchair that will enable him to go off road on rugged terrain. As a published wildlife photographer, Harnish wants to break down the boundaries that keep him from exploring more in nature.

“I posted on social media before I came here today that I was coming to my favorite place in Maine,” said Harnish as he paddling a kayak. “You have no idea how nice it is to not have to talk about your disability, or explain it to people when you’re here. But we also network. I’m not sure people who are unfamiliar with it realize how wonderful it is for those (with special needs) to get to socialize with like-minded folks. And we keep in touch when we’re not here. Today we do it through social media, but we used to do it through email, even snail mail.”


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