Leader in Training
vignettes from Deer Crossing Camp
What shape our beliefs about “adventure?” For me, everything started at Deer Crossing Camp (DCC). As I explained in an earlier post, I attended DCC for 4 summers as a camper and worked there for 5 summers as a staff member. No other place molded me more than Deer Crossing, and no other role model was as influential as Jim Wiltens, the camp’s founder and director.
In 2012 I returned to Deer Crossing to interview Jim and write an article about the camp that I intended to submit to Outside Magazine. I never finished the article—but having recently rediscovered its manuscript, I did discover a few golden nuggets that felt appropriate to share here. What follows isn’t a linear story, but rather a series of vignettes: a peek into a rare environment that promotes “adventure” unlike any other.
The teens are belly down in the dirt, stalking grasshoppers. They haven’t eaten for thirty hours. With luck, they’ll catch a grasshopper, and with that grasshopper (and more luck), they’ll catch a trout, and if they can start a fire with their one match, perhaps they’ll eat a trout dinner—brains and eyes included.
That night, on the side of an 8000’ mountain, the teens will sleep on a bed of pine needles, spooning each other for warmth. The next morning they’ll wake at dawn to wield map and compass for a ten-mile stumble between backcountry waypoints that leads to a barbeque dinner and the end of their ordeal.
Not many people can convince Silicon Valley parents—some of the wealthiest in the United States—to let their kids crawl around in the dirt searching for grasshoppers in exchange for a meal of fish eyes and a frigid night’s sleep. Jim Wiltens can. The summer camp that he built instills grit, confidence, and a love for the outdoors in suburban youngsters by coaching them through real wilderness challenges with psychology tools garnered from a small army of self-help books. It’s a rare place fueled by an even rarer personality. And as those Silicon Valley parents suspect, once it’s gone, they’ll never find another camp (or director) quite like it.
Hidden in the California High Sierra, perched atop an azure reservoir, and ringed by granite peaks with names like Devil’s and Dragon’s Lair, lies Deer Crossing Camp: the hermit kingdom of Jim Wiltens, who acts as the camp’s sole owner, director, maintenance person, and janitor.
Like the peaks surrounding his camp, Wiltens towers over those around him: standing tall at 6’3” with a tan, muscular build and a boyish mop of hair. His booming voice, charming smile, and enchanting storytelling abilities gives Wiltens a charisma and gravity that make him an instant hero to 9- to 13-year-olds and an imposing figure to the camp instructors he hires each summer.
Wiltens and his family founded Deer Crossing in 1983 after two unsuccessful attempts to launch a similar program in Hawaii (due to zoning issues) and Northern California (due to angry local cannabis farmers). Deer Crossing’s main lodge—a wooden behemoth resembling an upside-down ark—was built in the 1960s by the Boy Scouts with the assistance of twin-bladed helicopters from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Scouts operated the camp for a decade but ultimately abandoned it. When the Wiltens family discovered the camp’s gutted remains, they immediately fell in love with the property, bought it, and spent the next two years commuting from the Bay Area on weekends to reconstruct the facility into a private, family-owned operation.
Jim Wiltens rebuilt a ruined summer camp with his own two hands while also working full-time as a water chemist. But what seems impossible for most people is not impossible for Jim Wiltens. The typical Silicon Valley professional goes to Tahoe or Yosemite to relax; Jim Wiltens rides camels across India for three months. The typical vacationer goes to Italy, and so does Jim Wiltens… dressed up as Leonardo da Vinci (complete with fake mustache). When it’s time for just husband and wife to get away, Wiltens and his wife Ellen don’t head to Napa—they raft into headhunter territory in Ecuador.
Less than a year after they married, Wiltens chartered a fishing boat to drop him on a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of Vancouver Island and told the captain not to return for a month. Between spearfishing, catching glow worms, and sleeping in a tree trunk, Jim was putting the theories of his favorite self-help authors to practice to maintain his positive attitude and continue to be, as his camp teaches, a leader who “first learns to lead yourself.”
At first glance, Deer Crossing looks like any other outdoor summer camp. Following an initial 2-mile hike into camp, a regular rhythm emerges. The 50 campers and 12 staff gather daily in the main lodge to eat pancakes, grilled cheese, and burritos. Campers take 2-hour classes in canoeing, kayaking, and rock climbing. At the campfire talent show, kids tell jokes about fish swimming into walls (what does the fish say? dam!), sing songs about counselors farting, play acoustic guitar covers, and recite pi to extreme lengths.
But stick around a little longer, and Deer Crossing’s peculiarities (or more accurately, Jim’s peculiarities) start to surface. That gentle 2-mile hike into camp? It begins with the 20-minute tale of the T’naci monster who teaches kids to avoid saying “I can’t.” (T’naci is “I can’t” spelled backwards). That camper who doesn’t finish his breakfast pancakes? He gets served those same pancakes at lunch, which he must finish before he’s allowed to take grilled cheese. That camper in the kayak? She’s not just messing around on an open-top boat: she’s inside a real whitewater vessel, learning how to roll back up when flipped over as any true river-runner would. That otherwise normal talent show? Directly following it, every camper—9-year-olds included—will walk the uneven, quarter-mile trail back to camp, through the dark forest, without a flashlight—alone.
Deer Crossing is what Wiltens calls a “deanchored” environment: an unknown place where kids bring no prior expectations, and are therefore capable of achieving more than they ever dreamed possible. The framed quotes hanging on the lodge walls reflect Wiltens’ belief that rapid, radical, personal transformation is possible at Deer Crossing:
“We must be the change we wish to see in the world” (Gandhi)
“We are what we are and where we are because we have first imagined it” (David Curtis)
“Extraordinary people are ordinary people with extraordinary amounts of determination” (Jim Wiltens)
“Success is 90% attitude, 10% experience” (Jim Wiltens)
“If just once the mouse could see through the eyes of the owl, he would spend less time with his nose to the ground” (you guessed it… Jim Wiltens).
While it’s hard to know just how many campers do go home changed by their Deer Crossing experience, it’s irrefutable that incredible transformations do take place. In the four summers I attended as a child and five summers that I worked as an instructor, assistant director, and deputy director for Jim Wiltens, I witnessed many anxious and insecure young people reinvent themselves at Deer Crossing, emboldened by the camp’s philosophy. Many returned for 3 or more summers, ratcheting up their skill levels in climbing, kayaking, windsurfing, or sailing. And parents wrote glowing letters to the camp staff about the positive attitudes that their kids now had, standing triumphant atop a heap of slain T’naci monsters. Deer Crossing does, indeed, work miracles.
Jim Wiltens designed his summer camp to “bring out the best in young people”—and to learn what he means by “the best,” one need only observe the teenagers known as the LITs: the Leaders in Training.
If Deer Crossing enrolls 50 kids in a solid 2-week session, roughly 3-6 of them will be LITs. The LITs are 15- to 17-year-olds, a mix of genders, and typically “long-timers,” i.e., campers who have attended Deer Crossing for many years. The Leader in Training program culminates with the secretive “LIT Quest”: three days of stumbling through the woods, huddling on beds of pine needles to stay warm at night, chasing grasshoppers, slurping trout eyes, and memorizing leadership lessons from the big man himself.
A typical LIT day starts at 7:30am, when the teens join the instructors to set up the activity board and do tent checks. After breakfast, it’s two hours of distance-swimming and lifeguarding in chilly Loon Lake. “Lifeguarding” doesn’t just mean the basic Red Cross red-tube stuff: as a former swim coach, water polo player, and open-water lifeguard, Jim teaches LITs how to do rescues without any any equipment on a panicked victim (“bread and butters”), long-distance towing (for deep water rescues), and water wrestling (to get comfortable being held under the surface). Then it’s 4 hours of immersion in the outdoor skill of their choice, such as windsurfing, kayaking, or rock climbing. LITs also assist instructors with teaching classes, organizing chore groups, and occasionally boat garbage bags to the dumpster across the lake. Then, after dinner, when any other worked-to-the-bone teenager would normally hit the sack, the LIT classes begin: three hours of nightly leadership lessons, delivered by Wiltens in a tiny room in the back of the lodge, until midnight or later, every night, for four weeks straight.
The LIT curriculum includes using a mnemonic “pegging” system to memorize an entire book (Influence by Robert Cialdini) and an entire National Geographic magazine (so they can describe the basic features of every page, given only the page number). LITs walk blindfolded through a mile of dense forest guided only by tree scents and sunlight. LITs clicker-training a chicken or duck to learn the basics of reinforcing feedback. LITs profile each other with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. LITs rescue multiple victims from the water in a “drowning beach” scenario. LITs learn how to teach in visual, auditory, kinesthetic modalities, they tell stories in front of the entire camp, they practice wilderness first aid, they do reflective listening, and they get drilled on the fundamentals of body language (PEGSS: posture, eye contact, gestures, smile, and sound). LITs also learn the theories of optimism and pessimism (Martin Seligman), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Abraham Maslow), neurolinguistic programming (Anthony Robbins), proactive and reactive language (Steven Covey), action-belief-consequences (cognitive behavioral therapy), and creativity (Roger Van Oech). Every LIT creates 100 goals for the future, electing a few BHAGS (big huge awesome goals) to break into smaller PIGS (puny insignificant goals).
Finally, LITs get to teach their sport of choice to younger Deer Crossing campers, employing what Wiltens calls Positactics: a method of coaching that employs a high ratio of of positive, “reinforcing” feedback for single piece of critical, “changing” feedback. In contrast to the typical “feedback sandwich” (positive-critical-positive), Wiltens instructs the LITs (and his instructors) to follow a 5:1 ratio of reinforcing to changing feedback. A running joke (and actual concern) among Deer Crossing staff is that, while Positactics works wonders with the campers, Jim Wiltens often doesn’t follow the rule himself when managing his own staff. This stuff is hard work for everyone—directors included.
[The end. More stories from DCC to come!]