I looked my son in the eyes. I had to look up at him because he is 8 inches taller than I am. We stood on a 40-foot platform that overlooked a cow pasture in the Ozarks. “OK, is this going to jerk my neck back when I do this?” I asked.
“No, Mom,” he said coolly, “Just step off the platform and put your arms out. It’ll be all right.”
Talk about a role reversal. For a split second, a scene from his childhood flashed back in my mind; he stood beside a swimming pool – all three feet of him, shivering a little bit in his Hawaiian swim trunks – and I said, “It’s OK, Alec. I’ll catch you. Just jump out to me.”
He had to trust me then and I had to trust him before I stepped off the course. You see, he had fastened me to the zipline, and had been responsible for guiding me through a ropes course earlier in the day – at, did I already mention, 40 feet in the air. Associate Editor Paige Eissinger, along with about 12 teenage girls, a few counselors from Boys and Girls Town Missouri and I spent a few hours together on the ropes — up high and sometimes terrified.
My son is a guide at this camp for kids at a 1200-acre outdoor campus called Meramec Wilderness Learning Ranch, near Steelville, Mo. Says Camp Director Brett Bailey – former infantry officer in the US Army, “Everything we do is challenge by choice. We don’t force anybody.”
The fitness and wilderness survival expert says, “So many of our kids have come from backgrounds where it’s been survival all the time, that they never got to be a kid.” Bailey and staff strive to make sure children from all four campuses – St. James, Columbia, St. Louis and Springfield – get the most from their weeklong camp in the wilderness.
Set on what is one of Missouri’s largest former cattle ranches, complete with cliffs, meadows and river access, the ranch caters to students who attend in groups of up to 40. Bailey describes the syllabus as a “mix of adventure therapy – high ropes, team initiatives, team challenges, equine therapy and canoeing.”
He adds, “We throw in some of the traditional summer camp activities where kids can be kids, like crazy mud games. We get messy and wet.”
Bailey says, “Competition, if it’s handled the right way, can be a big motivational factor, but we really stress teamwork.” He continues, “So many of our kids have never been in a safe environment where they had fun. That’s a key part we try to bring in out here. They’re in a safe environment where they feel supported.”
The high ropes course is American Mountain Guides Association certified, one of only a few such courses in the state. Certified instructors work alongside the campers, who first undergo a training session on the ground. Not all the campers, and on the day we did the course, not all staff members, will cross the ropes course, but most of them will. As they work in teams to conquer the challenges – with names like heebie jeebie, floating islands and Tarzan crossing – campers cheer and support each other while harnessed.
One camper told me, “When I was up there, I cried like a big baby, but I had to trust myself and had to have courage. When I finished, I felt awesome.”
For the grand finale of the course, and as a reward for staying the course, campers fly down an 800-foot zipline – which was an easy task compared to what lay behind us.
Bailey says the surveys returned my campers show that 90 percent have increased their self-confidence and teamwork approaches. Also, says Brett, with a grin, campers remember, “cooking by the fire and picking ticks off and generally having a great time.”
Paige and I would do it again – but probably not tomorrow, because our mucles are aching today. ~ Barbara Baird