Back to Basics

Into the Woods retreats give moms and career women a chance to explore or rediscover the childhood camp experience -- with a few grown-up perks thrown in.

More Camps for Grown-ups

There's nothing else quite like Into the Woods available in Ohio.But there are other kinds of camps for adults in the state and beyond. You can learn something new or improve a skill, have an adventure or live out a fantasy. Pick your pleasure. We've found camps for everything from guitar picking to golfing and bowling to ballroom dancing.

In Ohio

Women in the Outdoors

sponsored by the Grand River chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation Harts Grove, Trumbull Township; April 17 - A day for women to try trapshooting, turkey calling, hunting, birdwatching and outdoor cooking. Call Lila Koston, (440) 293-5615, or e-mail

Dick Ritger's Bowling Camps

Cleveland (April 30-May 3) and Cincinnati (June 28-July 2) Turn spares into strikes with four or five days of intensive instruction. 1-800-535-0678,

In.let Summer Dance Intensive

Cleveland Heights; June 14-July 28 - Experience life as a professional dancer lives it, with six weeks of training and rehearsals that culminate in two performances on the Cain Park stage. (216) 382-0201,

Camp Burton Family Camp

Burton; July 18-23 - A week of activities suited to every age group, with a Christian orientation; 440-834-8984,


Miami University, Oxford; June 14-July 16 - Weeklong, hands-on workshops in a variety of media taught by professional artists and craftspeople; (513) 529-7395,

Fur Peace Ranch

Pomeroy; various dates, various levels, various styles - Guitar camp run by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen, of Jefferson Airplane, and his wife, Vanessa; (740) 992-2575,

Northeast Ohio School of Golf

various dates - A unique mobile golf school offering clinics at 30 locations around the state for players of all skill levels; 1-877-620-8591,

Deb Neilly believes in the restorative power of the outdoors.

But Mother Nature's not doing her any favors. It's pouring outside on a soaked-through, cold October day, so our group of 15 women have gathered in a barnlike building, flames crackling in the fireplace, to find other ways of communing with nature.

Margaret, our "Earth energy" instructor, wants us to become still and quiet inside, but the voice in my head just won't quit. I'm worrying that my car will get stuck in the muddy parking area — and wondering when we eat. But, like the rest of the group, I stand, eyes closed, trying to become more aware of my body.

We wiggle and stamp, tense and release our feet. Then, with eyes open, we walk around the room, staying mentally connected to feet and floor. This is supposed to help us get "grounded" and increase our energy by synchronizing our heartbeats with the electromagnetic pulse that emanates from the Earth.

Many of the women report that they feel more relaxed. I can't say I feel the same, or that I'm completely sold on the benefits of planetary vibrations.

Maybe I should have joined the other women, tented in bright yellow ponchos, who chose instead to brave the weather and go for a walk. Or the two waiting for massages at Russell Lodge.

Certainly, there's restorative power in a massage.

By the time we all gather at the dining hall for lunch — a meal that includes milk, mystery meat and a lot of getting-acquainted chitchat — the sun's shining. And Mother Nature's got her shot.

Deb Neilly, founder of Into the Woods camp retreat for women, rents camp space during the off-season and organizes a weekend's worth of activities designed to test both her theory on the value of outdoors experience and our skill (or lack of it) as campers. There are physical challenges, arts and crafts, healing and stress-relieving techniques, a little pampering and a lot of schoolgirl goofing off.

We sleep in bunks, 30 beds to a room, and share dorm-style bathrooms. We don't have to sew nametags onto our underwear, but we are instructed in advance to bring comfortable clothing, extra snacks and pillows. There are few rules and no curfew. Every camper sets her own pace and fashions her own program.

"This is our hairy-woman weekend," jokes Meg. "It's our chance to get out and go wild. We can scratch and spit just like the guys."

But we don't. This bunch of women, equipped with curling irons and eyeliner, has no intention of roughing it. One camper even brings a week's worth of shoes and her own air mattress to add an extra level of comfort to her bunk.

I don't witness any inappropriate scratching or spitting among my fellow campers, and the wildest thing I do is take a walk alone.

Personally, I'm not big on group activities. Never have been. I never wanted to go to camp as a kid and still prefer solitude to organized socializing. So camp is a bit of shock. But I'm enjoying myself, due in large part to Into the Woods' unstructured approach.

Neilly's story is similar to that of many of the women who attend these retreats. Her third child had left for college in 1998 and she was at a crossroads. After reading an article about traditional, rustic Adirondack summer camps — the kind people remember attending as children — she became inspired.

"I wanted that experience," she says. "Suddenly, I knew exactly what I would do: I'd create a camp like that for women like me. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps all over again."

It took Neilly, who lives in Munson, a few years to get things up and running. She looked into buying property, but decided it'd be cheaper and easier to use others' well-equipped, well-staffed facilities. Many sessions are held at Camp Fitch, 450 picture-perfect acres operated by the Youngstown YMCA in North Springfield, Pa., about an hour and a half from Cleveland. The site includes open fields, stretches of woodland and stunning views of Lake Erie.

Trails wind among huge old trees that are just beginning to show their autumn colors when I'm there in October.

"For me, this place, with its woods and water, offers a total retreat, a way to slow down and focus on the basics," says Meg, whose son left for the Navy last spring. With only two of her five kids remaining at home, she's still a busy workingwoman, married to a pastor and constantly on the go. She rarely has an opportunity to soak up sunshine and beautiful scenery, as we're doing now.

"It touches something soul-deep," she says.

Throughout the day, on the archery range and at the table, I talk with other women about why they chose to come.

"When men have a •guy weekend,' they go out to the woods to hunt or fish," says Mary, who never attended camp as a kid. This weekend, the mother of two grown boys is here with Pam, her sister-in-law, and Julie, a friend since high school. "When girls get together, they usually shop or visit a spa. I thought this would be something really different."

Other women are seasoned campers. They relish the time to themselves and an outdoor experience that includes a roof and indoor plumbing. "And I don't miss the spiders in my bed either," says Cheryl, who is here with a friend, leaving her two preteen daughters at home to bond with their father.

Many women leave children behind and use the RandR to recharge their batteries. "If I spend a little time taking care of myself," admits Cynde, whose son is 11, "I can do a better job of taking care of my family when I go home."

But they also use this time to let their own inner kids cut loose.

"Anybody gets me wet, they're getting thrown in," one pedal-boater announces as I'm standing on the dock. Shouts, shrieks and cheers echo across the little inland lake as a spontaneous race erupts. Steering seems to be a problem for some; a canoe and pedal boat collide. No damage is done and the competition continues. It's hard to tell who actually wins, but there's much backslapping and high-fiving at the end.

Friday evening's highlight is a giggling game of Taboo. Saturday night, most of us reconvene after dinner for pastry, tea served in porcelain cups and a session of handicraft projects. Some prove more talented at painting on wine goblets and glass bowls than others. One woman, who left her bifocals back at the lodge, glues everything onto a birthday card crookedly and upside down. But no effort goes without praise.

Later, there's a push to build a bonfire. Unfortunately, the wood's damp and nobody can get a blaze going. Instead, the night turns into a big slumber party for those who manage to stay awake, complete with gossip and pizza. Not everyone joins in. These are, after all, adults, and there are special advantages to being a camper with a driver's license.

The food has become a standing joke. The menu is designed to appeal to the peanut butter-and-jelly crowd. Those of us who voice complaints are told by kid-camp veterans that camp food is supposed to be bad. It's part of the experience. If you want gourmet, go to a restaurant. Four hungry women do just that, leaving the grounds in search of a good burger. They end up AWOL till the wee hours, and in the morning confess to tossing back beers in a nearby bar.

Each woman has her own reasons for coming. Julie, a single mother from North Olmsted, had just sent her youngest daughter off to college. She shows off her BB gun target's three bull's-eyes and says, only half joking, that she's thinking of framing it and hanging it on her living-room wall.

Meg has just switched from a high-stress corporate job to a position as a principal's assistant in an elementary school. She has more time now for her good friend Sue. Both are in their early 40s.

"I lost my brother three weeks ago," says Meg. "It's a reminder to live now. We can't postpone the important things until tomorrow, because we may not have tomorrow." She begins to cry and Sue wraps a comforting arm around her shoulders.

The mood changes quickly as the two tell a hilarious story about getting lost in the dark after a late arrival the night before. Armed with a flashlight to protect them, they hitched a ride from a "scary" guy in a truck — who turned out to be a member of the camp staff. Soon, both are wiping away tears, but these are tears of laughter.

Rosa brought her mom, Mildred, as a Mother's Day gift. "I'm a city girl," says Rosa, 23, who lives on Cleveland's West Side, "but my mom grew up in the country, in Puerto Rico. I thought she'd enjoy getting out and sharing this with me." Rosa admits that much about the countryside scares her, especially the horses. Even so, the two are trying everything at camp. I find them lying on their stomachs at the rifle range, surrounded by shell casings, blasting away. At the archery range, Rosa's arrow goes right into the center of the target, though she's never handled a bow before. Everybody applauds; she beams.

At the stable, home to 10 docile, patient horses and a pair of playful kittens, an instructor gives the ladies a few tips and hands out helmets. He's a cross between a stand-up comedian and a drill sergeant, explaining how to climb aboard and telling jokes about each mount's particular and peculiar personality. I'm especially concerned about the one named Kicking Bird. The "ride" turns out to be more of a slow walk and even the most inexperienced and nervous equestrians, Rosa among them, do fine.

All these women are strangers to me when I first arrive, and I feel a little shy and self-conscious. But the hours and activities we share encourage camaraderie. Huffing and puffing as we walk up the steep hill from the dining hall to the lodge, we exchange stories about our lives. We share shampoo and confidences in the shower. People I've just met spontaneously reveal intimate secrets as we slog through mud, brush our teeth side-by-side, watch the sunset or drift off to sleep. I learn that one among us takes antidepressants, another has had breast cancer and a third suffers from migraines. Interspersed with talk of families, jobs, diets and Dr. Phil, I'm told about a history of childhood sexual abuse.

The easygoing, supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere helps put everyone at ease. Like me, some appear embarrassed about their limitations and fears, hesitating to do things they don't know how to do. But under these conditions, even the most non-athletic is willing to tackle the four-story climbing tower or pick up a canoe paddle. The reward is a sense of exhilaration and a lot of belly laughs.

"Getting out of your comfort zone," says Neilly, "and experiencing something new makes people feel more alive. I've seen it happen over and over again here at camp."

Since her first Into the Woods session in 2001, more than 200 women have participated. It's still a part-time venture for Neilly, and her fledgling business has yet to turn much of a profit. But, she notes, "I meet great people, hang out with them in beautiful and happy circumstances, and I feel like I'm doing a little good in the world."

The coffee's weak at breakfast Sunday morning, but the cinnamon rolls, fresh from the oven, are scrumptious. Only a few campers seem in a hurry to leave. The day ends with a group picture, hugs all around and promises to get in touch. As I'm rolling up my sleeping bag, I overhear one woman say, "I wish we could do this every weekend."

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