For the past seven summers, Ann Adams of Newburyport knew where her daughter, Kaitlyn, would be spending part of her time: at SummerQuest, a day camp that uses the 2,000-acre Crane Estate as its beautiful, sprawling playground. Adams knows that Kaitlyn will be SummerQuesting this year, too, along with a close-knit group of her friends, nicknamed by Adams “the gaggle.”
“There’s something about that camp,” Adams says. SummerQuest is a camp that aims to instill in its campers a profound and deep appreciation of place, from caring for the environment to understanding ecosystems to learning the history of The Crane Estate, all while having fun and adventures with friends.
“They all come back every day happily tired,” Adams says. “They’re pink-cheeked, but not sunburned. They’re outside, they’re running, they’re hiking, climbing. Somehow they make all the learning fun.”
The Crane Estate is one of the most beautiful properties anywhere, and kids ages 4 to 15 who participate in any of the nine-week SummerQuest programs have access to all of it, including the Great Marsh, the wide, sweeping Grand Allée, Steep Hill Beach, the Great House, and the Italian Garden, not to mention trails, former farmland, and a pine grove. The kids do arts and crafts in the SummerQuest Barn, kayak in Essex Bay to uninhabited islands, swim in the ocean and explore tide pools, and solve mysteries inside the Great House. Need-based scholarships ensure wider participation, too, regardless of income.
Each week there’s a different themed session that uses play, imagination, and immersive hands-on activities to explore a big theme like conservation, stewardship, or history.
“We focus on the story of human impact, how it has changed the environment, but we don’t want it to seem like school,” says Dorothy Antczak, education manager for The Trustees of Reservations. “We come up with activities or adventures that point that out.”
For instance, the Crane Castaways session imagines its campers trying to fend for themselves when a shipwreck leaves them stranded after a storm. The kids often come up with interesting solutions, Antczak says. One year, the kids set up a village in the nearby pine grove, building shelters and breaking off into different “towns” that were each responsible for a different aspect of survival, like hunting, digging a well, or harvesting wild edibles. They used charcoal to “tattoo” themselves and mark their membership in the towns and even set up a commerce system, using pieces of tree bark as currency if they didn’t have enough goods to trade.
“It was just really amazing how they really broke these major survival skills down into this community…where everybody had a part in making the whole survive,” Antczak says. “It was amazing how quickly it evolved. I was just so proud of them.”
Another session, Seacoast Safari, encourages hands-on exploration of the diverse plants, animals, and landscapes on The Crane Estate, like tide pools at the mouth of the Ipswich River and wrack lines at the edge of the sand dunes. During The Amazing Race Through Time and Space, campers will “time travel” from the 1600s through the present day, exploring the site’s history through the centuries.
For the oldest campers, the immersion in history and nature will culminate in two special sessions that SummerQuest is running in collaboration with Lowell’s Boat Shop and the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. The back-to-back sessions, The World of Boats and The Great Rowing Adventure, will take the kids off-site to Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury and the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, where they’ll get to participate in woodworking demonstrations, campouts, and rowing a wooden surf dory or replica whaleboat down the Merrimack River to either Essex or Ipswich, exploring the route’s estuary, marsh, ecology, and history along the way. During The Great Rowing Adventure, for instance, campers will row from Lowell’s Boat Shop to The Crane Estate over the course of the week, without ever going out into open ocean.
“It teaches so much about maritime history and how the waterways used to be the transportation system,” Antczak says. It also requires teamwork and a sense of adventure and excitement about discovery.
Graham McKay, executive director of Lowell’s Boat Shop, says partnering with The Trustees of Reservations was a natural fit for the shop, which aims to pair education with its mission to preserve traditional boatbuilding through initiatives like its apprentice program for high school students.
“For us, most of our programs take place at the shop on the Merrimack,” McKay says. “This sort of opens up our area of navigation a little bit more and gets our experience out to kids who might not otherwise have it.”
It all adds up to the ultimate in summer adventure for kids, at the same time instilling in them the importance of stewardship and respect for their environment.
“I think the whole idea is to start kids young, appreciating the whole idea of conservation and how important open space is, and taking care of land and taking care of the planet,” Antczak says. “Once a kid has ownership over where they are, they want to take care of it.”
SummerQuest at The Crane Estate