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Wildfire smoke is hampering precious remaining days for some kids at summer camps


Something unexpected has encroached on many of our outdoor summer plans - smoke from the record number of wildfires burning in Canada. And with just a few weeks left for many day camps and summer programs, the smoke has wreaked havoc for kids and camp leaders alike, as Minnesota Public Radio's Elizabeth Shockman reports.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: Camp Christmas Tree is about a six-hour drive from the Canadian border. As you might expect, it's dotted with evergreens. In this mid-morning, the air smells like bug spray, sunscreen and lake water. A group of more than a dozen campers lines up in life jackets. Camp counselor Ian Friske is telling them how to paddle their canoes.

IAN FRISKE: So let's remember, how do we go forwards? If I'm sitting in a canoe, how do we go forwards?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: We paddle back. We paddle back.

FRISKE: Yup. We're going this way. How do we go backwards?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Paddle forward.

FRISKE: We're going like this, OK?

SHOCKMAN: After getting their lifejackets checked, the campers climb into boats and launch into the water.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Guys, don't lean.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Paddle. Paddle.


SHOCKMAN: These are the sorts of outdoor experiences YMCA day camps specialize in, says Betsy Grams, Vice President of Adventure at YMCA of the North.

BETSY GRAMS: When you get out into nature and you have an experience that you're not quite sure that you're ready for, but it's planned in such a way that it's going to be OK for you to take that journey.

SHOCKMAN: This year, it's been harder than usual to get kids out into nature. Minnesota has had a record number of air quality alerts, close to 40 days by the end of July due to air pollution and drifting smoke from Canada's wildfires. Grams says the Y is used to planning around severe weather, but in the upper Midwest, dealing with smoke is something new.

GRAMS: The good news for us at the Y is that we've built an adaptive muscle around how to adjust based on unfavorable conditions.

SHOCKMAN: So several days this summer, Camp Christmas Tree canceled activities like capture the flag and encouraged students to spend their time doing quieter activities like crafts. When the Air Quality Index moved into the very unhealthy to hazardous zones, administrators moved students from five outdoor day camps into YMCA branch centers.

GRAMS: That's on the more extreme end of a mitigation strategy. The other air quality alert days, we've been able to adjust on-site programming.

SHOCKMAN: At Concordia Language Villages in northern Minnesota, there's another problem. They do have indoor facilities, just little-to-no air conditioning. Candace Kretchmar is the health coordinator.

CANDACE KRETCHMAR: 2021 was probably the first year that we sort of got smacked in the face with wildfire smoke.

SHOCKMAN: The camp added filtration systems to its health centers and jerry-rigged filters out of box fans in sleeping cabins. When the smoke is really bad, kids and staff wear N95 masks.

KRETCHMAR: That's about the best you can do when you're outside, is wear a mask and keep your exertion levels low, which, you know, with a bunch of kids isn't always easy. But we are also a language camp. Masks certainly aren't great for language.

SHOCKMAN: And for outdoor day programs, it's been especially difficult. Claire Wilson, the executive director of the Loppet Foundation in the Twin Cities, says it's been a summer full of cancellations, a year unlike anything else.

CLAIRE WILSON: The fact that the first thing I do in the morning is pull up what the air quality is is a complete shift from anything that has happened previously.

SHOCKMAN: It's a transition that's become commonplace as camps make sure kids are able to stay safe while having fun. And at Camp Christmas Tree, kids and counselors are making the best of it.

FRISKE: It's a little less windy today, so that's good. All right, who's wanting to...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Why is there so much wind...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: Don't stand up.

FRISKE: All right, ready?


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: Everybody paddle.


SHOCKMAN: Besides learning how to paddle, wildfire smoke is something they've added to the list of things to deal with, along with storms and hot temperatures.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Shockman in Minnetrista.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elizabeth Shockman