Growing up at Gwynn Valley
It’s lunch time at Gwynn Valley Camp. About 220 campers are situated around large, round tables in the newly constructed dining hall. Each table has a counselor that acts as the head of the table, serving generous portions of macaroni and cheese, fruit salad and broccoli picked from the camp’s extensive garden.
After empty plates and full bellies, each person wipes the area in front of them clean. Without missing a beat, the whole table concludes the meal with a unison hand jive and heads outside to perform the post-lunch ritual of shucking ears of corn, also picked from the camp’s garden. That corn is then sent to the back of the kitchen where it will be served for dinner that evening.
Also grown at camp is the corn that ends up at the camp’s grist mill, built in 1890. Campers help grind the kernels into grits or corn meal that will soon be devoured as Johnnycakes and cornbread in the dining hall. Campers are an integral part of this process, from harvesting the produce at the garden to eating the fruits of their labor.
“Gwynn Valley really provides children the chance to see where food comes from in our farm program and also its relationship to raising farm animals,” says Grant Bullard, who owns and directs the camp with his wife, Anne. “It’s a unique part of our program on a true farm-to-table scale. We produce about 65 percent of our food on the Gwynn Valley farm.”
That farm features everything from a huge variety of fresh vegetables to goats, pigs, chickens and cows. The farm cat, Sam, happily keeps away any mice who visit.
When campers aren’t feeding the sow that recently gave birth to 10 piglets (fondly named Beyoncé), or putting one of the chicken eggs in the incubator, they are exposed to an incredible plethora of other activities. Swimming, horseback riding, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, mountain biking, pioneer crafts, rock climbing, outdoor skills…there is truly something for everyone.
“I’ve been looking forward to coming back to camp since the day I left last year,” says Bebe, 12, from Boston. It is Bebe’s sixth year attending Gwynn Valley. Her wrist is decorated with colorful friendship bracelets that she makes at the camp.
“Every single year at the first day of camp when you come into your cabin, the counselors are so kind and give you giant hugs,” Bebe says. “Even when you’re just walking into camp, Anne and Grant are greeting you. You just feel like you’re at home and you don’t have to worry. You can just be yourself.”
Founded in 1935 and nestled between Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Forest in Transylvania County, Gwynn Valley values simplicity, acceptance, a non-competitive environment and a close connection to the natural world. You won’t hear the chime of a text message or see eyes glued to Facebook. Phones and computers are devices left at home.
“If you’re just walking around and playing on your phone all day, it’s not good for you,” says Crandall, a nine-year-old from Charlotte who has been attending camp for four years. “Sometimes you’ll get a phone and you’ll think that it’s the coolest thing, but really once you get outside a little, you might like that better. That’s what we do here. It’s really fun meeting new people and doing all these activities outside.”
Providing a deeper connection to nature and preserving the outdoor experience for future generations were also priorities of the previous camp owners, Howie and Betty Boyd. Howie and Betty had a strong connection to the land and wanted to keep Gwynn Valley a place that children could enjoy in perpetuity.
In 1995, they partnered with Pacolet Area Conservancy — which recently consolidated with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and now operates as Conserving Carolina — to permanently conserve 300 acres of the camp. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy was just getting started and Pacolet Area Conservancy was the go-to land conservancy serving the area.
“Western NC was just beginning to save these lands,” says Grant. “Howie and Betty believed this would really provide the camp with a way to preserve the land to just be used for the education of children.”
“Our lives are not connected to an uncle, aunt or grandparent’s farm or land as it used to be,” adds Grant. “Fewer children are growing up in rural settings and fewer children understand their own relationship with the natural world. Saving lands that keep us connected is so important. Nature is irreplaceable in the short term and preserving the natural environment and land helps to sustain our understanding and relationship with those lands.”
Bebe shares her gratitude that Gwynn Valley is forever conserved, “I would feel bad if future generations didn’t get to attend camp, because camp has been such a big part of my life and I’ve learned so much about nature and friendship,” she says. “I would feel bad because they would be missing out on a lot.”
Gwynn Valley fosters a love of the natural world in its campers, starting at age five. The woods become a place of discovery as campers are introduced to diverse and enriching outdoor experiences in a warm, inclusive setting with fellow campers and staff from all over the world.
Playfulness and creativity enter the scene. No camp is complete without its legends, and Gwynn Valley is no exception. Campers delight in stories of a mystical creature called the Tajar. “He lives up in the tallest tree at Gwynn Valley and he swings around on the branches and sometimes he does mischievous stuff,” says Crandall, with a laugh. “He’s part badger, part tiger … part raccoon? Part something else.”
“I think he’s part jaguar or something,” says Bebe. “It’s crazy.”
While the makeup of the Tajar may be disputed, Gwynn Valley properly honors the legend with the “Tajar Ball” at the end of each camp session. In a carnival-like setting where everyone is in masquerade, campers socialize, enjoy ice cream and play games, all the while looking around for the Tajar himself to perhaps appear.
“You get off school, get to go to camp and you get a break from your house and get to make new friends,” says nine-year-old Sylvie, with a smile. Sylvie is from Atlanta and is experiencing her first summer at overnight camp. “It’s amazing. It’s our freedom and it’s a lot of fun!”
Camp activity is temporarily interrupted by Thor, a loud horn. Thor — fittingly named after the hammer-wielding mythological Norse god associated with thunder, lightning and storms—warns campers that an afternoon thunderstorm is approaching.
“I just love Gwynn Valley,” says Bebe as she starts to head to her next activity after Thor signals again, indicating the coast is now clear. Sudden shifts in the weather are a common part of summer life in western North Carolina. “I love everything about camp, even the rain.”