Two men ice fish on North Pond earlier this month near Pine Tree Camp, which serves people with disabilities. For the first time in 75 years, the camp will provide winter programs , including ice fishing and snowshoeing. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

ROME — For the first time in 75 years, Pine Tree Camp will open its doors in the winter to help people with disabilities enjoy the Maine outdoors by offering snowshoeing, ice fishing, and socially-distanced gatherings by the campfire.

Since 1945, the 285-acre overnight summer camp just north of Augusta has helped people with disabilities kayak, fish, swim, and learn outdoor skills while staying overnight in cabins beside North Pond. But like many organizations the camp had to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic, and last year the staff switched to serving day visitors in order to keep campers socially distanced and safe.

Pine Tree Camp’s new “Adventure Day Pass” allowed more people with disabilities and their families to visit the camp in 2020. More than 1,000 adventure-pass visitors were served last year, compared to the 650 who typically came for overnight visits each summer. Moreover, family members or guardians who would typically drop off a camper with a disability were able to participate in outdoor adventures last summer with their child, grandchild or charge.

“It was multi-generational. It was so cool,” said Mary Schafhauser, the camp’s assistant director. “For many, it was the first time they were kayaking with their child or grandchild. That gave us pause.”

Reaching more people seemed a worthwhile goal – so the non-profit is continuing the “Adventure Day Pass” this winter, starting on Feb. 17. Pine Tree Camp will lead visitors with disabilities and their families on snowshoe treks and ice fishing outings – assuming there is snow and safe ice on the pond. Staff also will lead craft lessons in the dining hall – with social-distancing protocols in place.

The camp will open for four days in mid-February, and, if there is snow, more days in March. The cost for day visits is $10 per camper, although Pine Tree Camp always provides scholarships for campers who can not afford the fee.

This spring the camp will roll out the “Adventure Pass” with adaptive biking – thanks to a new fleet of about 10 bicycles made possible by a $25,000 donation last summer.

Camp Director Dawn Willard-Robinson expects cycling on the roughly half-mile road into Pine Tree Camp as well as the wide, accessible woodland trails will be a hit.

Jen Turner and Wayne Caspersen are Pine Tree Camp alumni who attended the camp together for 10 years. Both use wheelchairs because they have lost mobility in their legs, but stopped going to camp a decade ago in order to provide more space for others with disabilities who had never experienced the unique overnight camp. Last summer Turner and Caspersen returned for the new Adventure-Pass experience. Now they are signed up for two days of camp this winter.

“It was so great to be outdoors and to see all the people enjoying the outdoors,” said Caspersen, 73. “And Jen got to do her favorite thing there – the wheelchair swing. They had so few people there, people weren’t close together, so it was safe for her.”

They traveled familiar woods trails along North Pond, ate snacks around the campfire, and reunited with old cabinmates and friends. It reminded them how unique the camp was.

“We hadn’t been back in 10 years, not because we didn’t enjoy camp – but because we both had the attitude that maybe it’s time for more people who are worse off than us to go there,” said Turner, 50, who lost mobility in her legs after a car accident at age 13.

Turner and Caspersen can’t wait to see the trails they enjoy in summer covered in snow beside the frozen lake.

Pine Tree Camp Director Dawn Willard-Robinson, left, and assistant director Mary Schafhauser walk down a groomed trail near a building called The Treehouse at the Rome camp. They aim to open the camp for those with disabilities for winter camping next year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“This summer at camp was so quiet there, breezy by the lake. We basically sat around the camp fire and just jawed with friends we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Caspersen, who’s fond of storytelling. “At camp, your disability is not a big deal. If you go out in public, people say, ‘Oh you’re in a wheelchair.’ But at camp, everyone has a disability – so it’s just comfortable. And the setting is beyond beautiful.”

Maine has around 180 licensed summer camps, but Pine Tree Camp is one of only a few that serve people with disabilities, according to the Maine Summer Camps non-profit. There also are only a few camps that open in the winter.

The 285-acre camp on North Pond is more a forested retreat than an educational campus. Cut into the woodland is a massive ADA-accessible treehouse that campers access from a winding boardwalk. A popular mile-long trail in the woods leads to the tree house as well as an area beside North Pond where campers can stay in tents. And this fall, another three loops – totaling close to a mile – were cut for snowshoe adventures on trails that will be packed down with a groomer for the first time this winter.

The camp’s staff already is planning offering overnight camping sessions next winter.

“That was always the goal. We were heading in that direction already,” said Willard-Robinson, the camp director. “The pandemic gave us a push.”


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