The Power Of Camp Erdman

As it celebrates 90 years of camping on the North Shore, Camp Erdman remains a place for rest and rejuvenation, while reinventing itself and the fun available to campers. Here, counselor Hannah Leeper works with students from Kalihi Uka Elementary School | PHOTO BY NATHALIE WALKER

As it celebrates 90 years of camping on the North Shore, Camp Erdman remains a place for rest and rejuvenation, while reinventing itself and the fun available to campers. Here, counselor Hannah Leeper works with students from Kalihi Uka Elementary School | PHOTO BY NATHALIE WALKER

As it celebrates 90 years of camping on the North Shore, Camp Erdman remains a place for rest and rejuvenation, while reinventing itself and the fun available to campers. Here, counselor Hannah Leeper works with students from Kalihi Uka Elementary School

An hour’s drive from downtown Honolulu is a recreational resort that is the best-kept secret on the North Shore. Families, students and various groups check into the pristine oceanfront setting to refresh and decompress from their normal routines.

Here they find lodging, meals, engaging outdoor activities, and social interaction that build bonds. After a few days or weeks stay, they discover the most meaningful aspect: themselves.

This wondrous spa for the human spirit is called Camp Erdman. Although its amenities are rustic, the hospitality experienced here makes it a rural Ritz-Carlton, but at a much more affordable rate.

All right, jaded city slickers, don’t snub the idea of camping. Your outdated notion of sleeping under the stars and rallying ’round a campfire probably needs rebooting.

This is the era of new-age camping.

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

Marking its 90th anniversary, Camp Erdman is an island treasure worth visiting and rediscovering, as we did recently.

Admittedly, we were hesitant and wary of leaving the comforts of home and all our electronic gizmos. I mean, the only time we consider sleeping outdoors is if we’re locked out of the apartment.

There are many others caught in this modern morass of complacency and isolation. We don’t know how to get off life’s merry-go-round to commune with nature. If there’s no Wi-Fi, we don’t commune at all.

But it’s rejuvenating to occasionally change the pace of our lives, get out of the daily grind, and seek an environment unfettered by noise, technology, and the latest rail cost projections.

An aerial view of the camp

An aerial view of the camp | PHOTOS FROM YMCA

Camp Erdman is Oahu’s Walden Pond, where one can simplify, simplify and have a lot of fun doing it. The thousands of campers it has hosted since opening in 1926 can attest to the transformation that takes place.

Historical Tracks

Camp Erdman, at 69-385 Farrington Hwy., is on land once owned by the Dilling-hams, one of Hawaii’s most prominent families. In 1926, the family leased the 20-acre property to the YMCA. Six years later, it was donated to the YMCA in memory of Harold Randolph Erdman, nephew of the Dillinghams who died from a polo accident.

The first use of Camp Mokuleia (later renamed Erdman) was by eight members of the Employed Brotherhood over a weekend in April 1926. Camping grew in popularity, and by 1929, according to YMCA accounts, there were three camp sessions at Mokuleia plus off-site programs at Kauai, California and Japan.

Merle Scott, then-YMCA general secretary, reported, “In 20 years of camping experience, I have never run upon a more ideal camp site and, I might add, a more natural interest in camping than that of our Honolulu boys and young men.”

As the Dillingham land grant and other gifts to the YMCA grew over the years, camp facilities were expanded and improved. Cabins, a dining facility, meeting rooms and activities infrastructure were added.

Camp Erdman had its biggest summer in 1941, when 3,423 people used the camp, 368 for a week or more. The Army and Navy also used the camp for military purposes in the post-Pearl Harbor era.

Antidote to Civilization

But thanks to the enduring mission of the YMCA, Camp Erdman fervently focuses on human development and character building. Its programs empower adults and children to nurture physical and spiritual potential.

It is a welcome antidote to today’s preoccupation, especially by youths, with digital diversions such as video games and texting.

Camping frees people from the tyranny of technology and allows them to rediscover their peers and the natural environment around them.

A photo of campers from another time | PHOTOS FROM YMCA

A photo of campers from another time | PHOTOS FROM YMCA

As Charles Lindbergh once extolled, “Real freedom lies in wilderness, not in civilization.”

Organized activities at Camp Erdman leave little time for cable TV, online chats and other digital diversions. Try an ascent on the camp’s climbing wall and, frankly, you’re too exhausted to remember where the device is.

“Things have changed,” says a staffer. “Folks assume that when they go to bed at night they’ll be covered in centipedes and mosquitoes. That’s a myth.”

Why the Y?

“This is more than a place to camp,” says Ron Okimoto, executive director. “Our mission is to create life-changing experiences that teach values, build character and bring people closer.

“That’s the power of Camp Erdman,” declares the YMCA official and Mililani resident. “I’ve met many community leaders who have fond memories of being at Camp Erdman as a youth. Their camp experience set a course of self-discovery and achievement.”

That introspection takes place at summer camps, church conferences, corporate retreats and school field trips throughout the year.

“Camp Erdman is also a place of healing,” says Lisa Ontai, YMCA vice president of marketing and mission advancement. “We have done programs for HUGS, Operation Purple (children with deployed military parents), Camp Agape (children with incarcerated parents) and Special Olympics.”

Then there are individual accounts of family bonding and healing, such as the story of Erica Neves.

Erica, husband Max and two children Makayla and Logan spent a weekend at Camp Erdman at a distressing time. Their 3-year-old son Joshua died in 2009 from complications from a flu virus. Makayla was a year old when she lost her older brother.

“I think of how, even in the midst of hardship and adversity, there are so many things we can still be thankful for in our lives,” Erica says as she recalls the family camp experience.

“Making new memories together as a family is what keeps Joshua’s memory alive in our hearts,” she adds.

Nature’s Classroom

New-age camping embraces cherished traditions — like roasting marshmallows on the campfire — but combines exciting 20th-century mechanics.

Among the more than 20 organized activities are challenge courses such as the Alpine Tower, Odyssey, Giant Swing and Geodomes. These specially designed tower and rope structures test one’s physical and mental abilities while teaching perseverance.

All activities are supervised, so safety and proper use of equipment are paramount, according to Lisa Galusha, 23, Camp Erdman schools program director.

The YMCA-Department of Education partnership dates back to 1967, when camping

and outdoor education were offered for fourth-, fifthand sixth-graders. Activities are designed to complement classroom instruction in a non-threatening environment.

This aspect of camping is close to the heart of Galusha, an Ohio native who comes from an “outdoor family that went hunting, fishing, kayaking and rock climbing every weekend.”

“I majored in college in what I love to do: outdoor recreation and education,” she says. “Following my internship at Camp Erdman, I applied for a full-time position. I flew home to graduate from Ohio University and flew right back to work at camp. I’ve been here ever since.”

The picturesque oceanside setting at Mokuleia is home to 15 camp staffers who live onsite. By all appearances, they are typical camp counselors with youthful energy and wholesomeness to match. They can build a fire, hike the trails and sing Kumbaya like traditional campers.

But the new-age camp leaders come with serious credentials. Most are college graduates with diverse backgrounds in areas such as psychology and kinesiology (study of body movement).

Jonathan (Jonny) Linck, 23, is an example. He is Erdman’s summer camp program director with extensive background as a camp counselor. The Oklahoma native studied at the University of Arkansas and served his internship at

Camp Erdman. Linck trains and supervises 35 counselors who devote 14to 16-hour shifts to kids.

“The cool thing about working with our counselors is that they are role models to younger peers,” he says.

He contends that camp counselors are able to know kids in different ways than teachers and coaches. After all, they spend 24 hours a day with them.

Counselors must model the behavior and expectations of being fun, kind, inclusive and caring persons.

To be a meaningful mentor in a matter of days is impressive in anyone’s character-building manual. At YMCA’s Camp Erdman, it’s de rigueur.

Camping Ala Carte

Modern-day camps cater to one’s interests and personal goals.

There are traditional overnight camps, specialty camps (equestrian, surf, swim, farm, English as a second language), teen camps (adventure, leadership training, counselor training) and family camps (Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Halloween).

Campers choose skills they want to learn, such as archery, outdoor survival, art and more. Evening activities include campfires, dances, and a camp-out cooking one’s own meals and sleeping in tents under the stars.

Yes, you learn to assemble your own tent — suitable for backyard camping and other applications shy of homelessness. (We’re not going there, Mayor Caldwell.)

The wrap on this 90th anniversary tribute to Camp Erdman is to suggest that, with summer almost here, it’s time to reconnect with the basic, simple things in life that make us thrive and survive. It’s time to come out of our complacent cocoons and enjoy the marvelous outdoors for which Hawaii is world famous.

Why Let Tourists Have All The Fun?

We know the Y as an old friend in our childhood that taught us how to swim or dance

hula. Now it’s time to use it as a master planner for a camping family reunion or special group retreat. The Y does all the organizing and facilities preparations.

All you do is bring your sporty outdoor wear, sun-screen and venturesome spirit. They’ll even provide the marshmallows.

Without a doubt, campers have s’more fun.

For Camp Erdman rates, military pricing, discounts and financial assistance info, go to, email or call 637-4615.