Air quality alerts curtail summer camps, outdoor activities for kids

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, July 11, 2023

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By Elizabeth Shockman

It’s mid-morning at Camp Christmas Tree in Minnetrista, Minn., where the air smells like bug spray, sunscreen and lake water. There’s a slight haze to the sky — the air quality index is hovering around 130 meaning the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

And out near the lake, a group of more than a dozen campers is lined up in lifejackets for instructions from a camp counselor on how to paddle a canoe. 

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These are the sort of outdoor experiences YMCA day camps specialize in, according to Betsy Grams, Vice President of Adventure at YMCA of the North.

“We 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 okay for you to take that journey. We know that once a kid steps into that and then finishes that experience that that’s how competence grows,” Grams said.

But this year, it’s been harder than usual to get kids out into nature due to air pollution and drifting smoke from wildfires in Canada. Grams says the organization is used to planning around severe weather, but dealing with the smoke is something it hasn’t had to do before.

“The concern around air quality from smoke and ozone pollutants is a newer concern to the Twin Cities and upper Midwest. The good news for us at the Y is that we’ve built an adaptive muscle around how to adjust based on unfavorable conditions,” Grams said.

In June, there were several days when Camp Christmas Tree canceled more strenuous 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 made the call to move students from five day camps into YMCA branch centers. 

“That’s on the more extreme end of a mitigation strategy,” Grams said “The other air quality alert days we’ve been able to adjust on site programming successfully.”

Not every Minnesota camp has the option to bus kids to indoor facilities. In northern Minnesota, near Bemidji, Concordia Language Villages hosts campers and staff from around the country and the world for immersion language camps that last between two to four weeks.

Candace Kretchmar is the camp’s health coordinator. She says, because they’re in the north woods, most of their buildings don’t have air conditioning.

“2021 was probably the first year that we sort of got smacked in the face with wildfire smoke … and did a lot of planning and preparing. Of course, it’s hard to really mitigate that with our conditions,” Kretchmar said.

They’ve added filtration systems to their health centers and jerry-rigged filters out of box fans in sleeping cabins. But when the smoke is really bad, she said, they distribute N95 masks to kids and staff.

“That’s about the best you can do when you’re outside — is wear a mask and keep your exertion levels low,” Kretchmar said. “Which, you know, with a bunch of kids isn’t always easy, but we are also a language camp. And so I think that helps and hurts. Masks certainly aren’t great for language. But we’re also not like marathon running?”

In Richfield, Minn., Wood Lake Nature Center draws kids from Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs for day camps — mostly in the morning — since the 1980s. The smoke and dangerous air quality in June caught Paul Smithson, the center manager, off guard. 

“The one day where it got to be the record, and we were the worst air quality or something dramatic, we realized we needed a policy. So we didn’t have to make a decision each and every day,” Smithson said. 

They met with other local city leaders and came up with a plan to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance. Now, when the air is dangerous for kids, they send campers to do indoor activities in the center’s building. 

But for the Loppett Foundation, which runs outdoor day camps, there is no back up indoor space large enough to accommodate all their campers. That’s meant a June full of cancellations. Claire Wilson, the Foundation’s executive director, says this year is unlike anything she’s ever experienced. She wakes up every morning and checks the air quality index. 

“The fact that the first thing I do in the morning is pull up the air quality, is a complete shift from anything that has happened previously. I mean, we’re even talking about investing in our own monitor here. So that we can stay on top of it in that way.”

Several years ago, Wilson says she didn’t spend time thinking about wildfire smoke. The changes that started this year and are ongoing this year, have not been a slow transition.