LOS ANGELES — American adolescents and summer camp go together like bug juice and s’mores.
For many young adults, the occasion marks a golden opportunity for co-ed camaraderie in the mess hall or even a stolen kiss in the woods.
As the last of the sleepaway campers begrudgingly say their goodbyes to bunkmates this month, it’s worth remembering that some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning much longer with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
A first — and last — kiss
“I always went to camp kicking and screaming,” Alex Spitz said of her early teenage years at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, California.
That is, until a blond boy named Eric showed up to camp one summer.
“And then I never wanted to leave,” she laughs.
For two summers, Alex shared laughs and awkward slow dances with Eric, who “always had this smile on his face, and his eyes twinkled.”
But — if “Grease” taught anything about those summer nights — as camp ended, so did their teenage romance.
Fast-forward to 2006, when Alex signed up for the social networking site MySpace and one blast-from-the-past name popped into her mind: Eric Spitz.
They both were in relationships at the time, but exchanged a few friendly messages.
A year later, with both of them newly and conveniently single, Eric wrote Alex saying he would be in Los Angeles for his brother’s wedding and asked if she would like to meet for a drink.
Drinks turned into dinner, which five days later turned into plans to move cross-country — Eric packed up two months later.
In 2008, when the topic of marriage crept up, they knew the only venue that would suit: Camp JCA Shalom. Alex phoned the director, knowing it wasn’t a typical wedding venue. The only date the camp had free amid busy summer sessions was May 31, 2009.
“We’ll take it,” she said.
They had a date and a venue, but no formal engagement, which came shortly after.
“I look back and am like ‘We were crazy!’ but it never felt like that,” she says.
The two married, surrounded by 150 friends and family, and shared a slightly less awkward slow dance right where it all started.
Eric and Alex, now 34 and 33, live in Orange County with their two sons, who are already attending family weekend at the same camp where their parents met.
Eric jokes Alex was his first — and now last — kiss.
When a wrong room turns out right
As an avid skier during her adolescence, Justine Spence opted to attend a special off-season ski camp, World Mogul Camp, in Whistler, British Columbia.
Instead of cabins, campers were put up in hotel rooms at a ski resort for their two-week summer sessions.
As campers were getting settled in, Justine wanted to surprise a friend she had met on the competitive ski circuit and asked for her room number at the front desk.
“I ran in the room and yelled ‘MEGAN!’ — then quickly realized it was not Megan,” she says.
Instead, she found “a very cute boy with green eyes and a nice smile,” who introduced himself as Steele Spence.
It was a scene right out of a teen romance novel.
“The second that I met him, it was like a bolt of lightning,” she says.
The pair hung out all through the summer, and continued to rekindle their relationship each summer, even when Steele became a counselor.
“He would get his hand slapped for making out with me, because I was a camper!” Justine says.
Ski camp turned out to be a good investment for a few reasons — Steele went on to compete worldwide, in the X Games, and has since retired and been instrumental in creating judging criteria for slopestyle skiing, which made its Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia, in February.
The couple will have been married four years in September and their relationship shows no signs of going downhill.
A perfect rainy day activity
Beigette Gill arrived at Portland International Jetport in Maine from her native Australia in 2002 with nothing but a backpack full of clothes. When a fellow camp counselor named Jim picked her up at the airport, little did she know she had met her life mate.
During the off-season, the two began dating. As their second summer working together approached, Jim organized a marriage proposal during a camp assembly with plenty of whitewater-related puns about never knowing what’s around the bend. Beigette’s answer: “Yes!”
But, they decided, why wait? So they made plans to get married that summer as well.
When Beigette and Jim showed up at town hall to make arrangements, the town clerk asked if she could do the ceremony with people who knew them, to ensure it wasn’t just a ploy to get a green card for Beigette. The couple thought of Camp Fernwood’s director, not to mention the 300 campers who had witnessed their proposal earlier that summer.
Meanwhile, the camp director was trying to come up with a “rainy day activity” when the perfect backup plan walked in the door — Jim and Beigette.
The whole camp pitched in on the big day of July 18, 2003. One of the counselors let Beigette borrow a white dress, the senior campers straightened her hair and did her makeup, a camper played Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” on the piano, the camp’s chef made a multi-tiered wedding cake, and the silversmithing department even made rings for the couple. The clerk showed up and performed the ceremony in the camp’s main hall.
Getting married at camp ensured the ceremony was simple, with little pomp, circumstance and fretting beforehand.
“There was no fighting over the color of the place napkins,” Jim Gill says.
The couple has since purchased a camp nearby, Fernwood Cove, where they live year-round with their son, Perrin, 4, and daughter Sylvie, 6.
The Gills have experienced adversity as well, with Beigette suffering a traumatic spinal cord injury during a family bike trip after camp season in 2011. Support and encouragement from family members and Fernwood Cove campers have helped Beigette along her road to recovery.
And to think it all started when an American camp counselor gave his Aussie colleague a ride from the airport.
“You never know where camp will lead you,” Jim says.