Camp Jack Hazard Celebrates 90 Years of Wilderness Adventure
by Dana Koster
If you grew up in Stanislaus County and you’re between the ages of 6 and 96, chances are you went to Camp Jack Hazard, or know someone who did. Surrounded by a dense forest of conifer pines and soaring granite cliff faces, deep in the heart of the high Sierra Nevada, the camp has been transporting valley-bound Stanislaus County youth to the magic of the mountains for 90 years.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any group as enthusiastic and dedicated to its roots as Camp Jack Hazard alumni. For many area adults, those summers spent in the mountains just outside Dardanelles, California, were transformative. They were days spent hiking in the backcountry with the smell of pine needles thick in the air. They were nights spent sleeping in bunk beds inside small green cabins, where outside—away from the light pollution of the Central Valley—the stars shone so bright and numerous that they crowded the sky.
Jason Poisson, Executive Director of Camp Jack Hazard and of the Jack and Buena Foundation, which took over control of the camp when the YMCA of Stanislaus County closed in 2009, counts himself among those forever changed by his early camp experience. “I started in 1992, and as I walked into the lower area of the camp, I had the sensation of coming home,” Poisson says. “I never left after that. I met my wife there. Everything I’ve done has been because of that place.”
Poisson is not alone in his experience. In fact, it seems like everyone you talk to about Camp Jack Hazard has a similar story. Desiree Sylvia, a former camper and assistant counselor who now has three children of her own, echoes this idea of coming home and life-changing experiences. “It infects your heart,” Sylvia says.
“It is a place of pure magic, endless beauty and time stopping grace. I wish I could share this place with the world.”
Part of this formula for building confidence involves a three-day backpacking experience in the high Sierra. “Quite literally, the closest you are to camp when you’re out in backcountry is about 6 miles. You can’t just turn around and go back,” Poisson says. “I think that helps people later in life when they interact with things like college and pressure from the business world.”Poisson isn’t sure exactly why Camp Jack Hazard has such a huge effect on people’s lives, but he has some theories. “For many of the youth, it’s the first time away from their parents,” he explains. “It teaches them that they can be self-sufficient. It pushes their limits.”
It has more immediate effects, as well. As Executive Director, Poisson often has parents calling and writing to tell him how different their teens are after their summer at camp, how much more responsible and grown-up. “Parents come to me and say all of a sudden their kid is doing dishes at the end of the night, and I’m like, yeah—because she only has to do dishes for four people,” says Poisson, laughing. “It’s not like at camp, where she’s doing dishes for 180 people! When parents realize that, it really changes their perspective.”
The camp’s astonishing longevity—it was founded in 1924 by Jack Hazard, a local Stanislaus County musician who used to transport area youth to camping trips in the mountains on the back of a flatbed truck—is due in large part to this spirit of self-sufficiency and community-building. Following in the footsteps of the YMCA, which ran Camp Jack Hazard for 60 years, the Jack and Buena Foundation focuses heavily on character education, teaching its campers the tenets of honesty, respect, caring and responsibility in addition to the obligatory campfires, acoustic guitar music and camp songs.
“This is the time in kids’ lives where they’re creating their moral center,” says Poisson. “They’re identifying what their character is going to become, so we have to have organizations that help guide that experience. Otherwise, they’re going to find that center somewhere they shouldn’t.”
If you attended Camp Jack Hazard and are interested in joining its alumni association or would like more information on how to sign your children up for a traditional summer camp experience, visit www.campjackhazard.org or call (209) 965-7254.