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At adult camp for nerds, there's wizarding, mermaiding and cosplaying

Matt Berry, of New Hampshire, spent an entire day at Epic Nerd Camp in Pennsylvania in his Owl Spirit costume.

August 27, 2018 05:23 pm Updated: August 27, 2018 05:25 pm

STARRUCCA, Pa. - OK, campers, everyone into the pool for fourth-period mermaiding. Or, merfolking, if you prefer.

"We are sirens of the sea! Lie on your back and make love to the sky," instructed Amber Kofman, waving her high-waisted aqua tail above the water. She fluttered her hands to urge on the campers: "Everyone give a bloop, bloop, bloop wave."

Epic Nerd Camp is designed for grown-ups who have no intention of growing up, who want to feast on the fantastic - the less grounded in reality the better.

ENC offers all the splendors of overnight camp (bugs, bug juice, cafeteria mystery meat) for men in kilts and women with hair stained all the colors of Disney. Costumes are worn with Cher-like vigor. Medieval times reign, as do unicorn onesie pajamas. Jon Luke, who goes by Ouch! - fire performer by passion, pension administrator by day - and his wife, Jen Lavado, brought seven costumes each.

"Nerds have taken over. Tech culture has made it so much easier," said Kofman, 30, of Chicago, a graduate student in public health who, when on dry land, favored pirate regalia. "Whatever your passion is, you can nerd out here."

There are nerds - you may consider yourself one - and then there are nerds. They are precisely who assembled for five days and four nights at this camp in the Poconos where shame was shunned and freak flags were happily flown.

Celebrating its third summer, ENC featured live action role playing (LARP), role-playing games (RPG) and cosplay. Confuse them at your peril. Also, wandmaking, sword fighting, boffer games, Quidditch, wizarding, chainmaille, escape rooms and FX makeup.

If you need to Google half these things, this camp is not for you. For 200 campers and volunteers from 31 states, plus Canada and Sweden, it was nirvana, their nerd Brigadoon.

 

During the off-season, Bunny Smith, 34, spends up to five hours a day on the camp Facebook page. "This is my cruise," said the corporate attorney from Chicago, while balancing atop a large rubber ball in the circus barn. "This is my happy place. There is no level of nerd you need to hit to be here."

ENC was the brainchild of Kim Kjessler, 37, a former dolphin trainer, and her 26-year-old chef husband, Bentley. "I designed a camp that I wanted to go to," she said in the Arts and Crafts shed, where campers created wizard staffs, leather apothecary cuffs and Edvard Munch-like portraits of a "Last Jedi" porg.

She was inspired by gaming gatherings such as BlizzCon, where she met Bentley five years ago. "I love conventions but they're not tailored to making friends. It's hard to make friends as adults." She wanted camp activities and camaraderie. A sort of Burning Nerd.

That first summer a group of Russian models appeared - drawn to the circus activities yet confused as to what a nerd might actually be. Said Bentley, "they didn't jibe much with the other campers."

Specifically, the Dungeons & Dragons nerds, the Magic: The Gathering nerds, the Jane Austen nerds, the "Star Wars" nerds and "Star Trek" nerds and, yes, there is a difference. (" 'Star Trek' is a meritocracy about who we want to be," explained Alex Meng, 38, of Boston, "while 'Star Wars' is about the conflict in humanity." Plus, it says "wars" right there in the title.)

There were campers, such as Smith, who hold four degrees, while others barely completed high school. There were outdoor nerds who reveled in full-costume fantasy fights and indoor nerds devoted to board games.

Actually, everyone seemed delighted to play board games, more than 300 of them stocked in the cafeteria which, rain or glorious sun, was always home to campers mastering the labyrinthine rules of some game or another.

Nerd campers love rules, as long as they're of their own choosing.

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Technically speaking, and to be completely honest, almost everyone at ENC was more of a geek than a nerd. It's just that Kjessler believed, correctly, that Epic Geek Camp is a terrible name.

Frequently used interchangeably, as they were at ENC, the terms were once distinct. Nerds are specialists, big brains like their hero Bill Gates. Geeks are enthusiasts, hardcore fans of the stuff often created by nerds. (Dorks are another beast entirely. Few people admit to being a dork.)

Nerds have been with us forever, but the term seems to have been coined by Dr. Seuss, circa 1950. (From "If I Ran the Zoo": And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too.)

The word gained further popularity on TV's "Happy Days," where the Fonz applied it to almost any young person who was not the Fonz. Around the same time, geek - once the name for carnival performers who bit the heads off live chickens - came into its modern interpretation, referring to intense enthusiasts.

But usage of the terms got sloppy, which will happen with language born of nonsense and burnished by pop culture. Nerd culture came to include almost everything and everyone. A lot of cool people, blessed with mainstream social graces - starlets, titans, TV hosts, politicians - claimed to be nerds. The kind of people you wouldn't find anywhere near Epic Nerd Camp.

Still, geeks are fortunate to live in a time of extreme fandom for almost everything. Geek passions have been catered to and monetized (so many Cons), stoked by social media, especially their profound love of story and fantasy - the rich, unfurling places where they can escape the real world.

Many campers carried Dungeons & Dragons player handbooks plastered with sticky notes, but these days, the favorite sport of nerd campers is Quidditch. Harry Potter is their NFL.

The surprise is not why there's a camp that caters to these folks, but why it took so long for someone to create one.

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"Growing up, we were the weird ones," said Edward Cohen, 30, of Montreal, who trained in musical theater and works in a doctor's office. "A lot of us are neuroatypical." It's a term frequently uttered at ENC. Like other campers, Cohen readily volunteered his physical and emotional issues: arthritis, depression, ADHD. "I might also be autistic."

ENC promotes two overarching tenets: You're free to be who you are, and this is a no-judgment zone. "If you're looking for some nerds to troll/bully, ENC is not for you," the camp website states. "We'll boot you out and keep your money."

Participants described middle and high school as an interminable hell. They had to become adults, and wait for the world to change, to gain acceptance, and find their tribe. Yet it can still be hard to fully unleash their inner geeky selves.

"You realize how guarded you are in your daily life," said Luke Richard, 41, who had returned for his third summer. He's a former truck driver who works as a software developer in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Returning to the real world after camp last summer proved a challenge. "I felt naked because all my guards were down. Depression became an issue."

Many couples enrolled here, including Richard and his wife, Angie. Lidia Coe and Evan San Giacomo fell in love here last summer; she moved from Las Vegas to New Jersey to be with him. And when Caitlin O'Brien, of Des Moines, first met now-boyfriend Matt Slocum, she suggested a romantic trip to ENC, the nerd equivalent of a weekend in Vegas.

"I want to bring people together through activities and cabins," said Kjessler, sitting at the horror makeup table with a giant jug of red-dyed Karo syrup. Some campers arrived alone and petrified, including a young woman who, before arriving in the Poconos, had never traveled alone before or flown anywhere.

"No problem," Kjessler told new campers, "I will put you in the 'social anxiety' cabin."

The truth is, she said, "all the cabins are 'social-anxiety' cabins. I know my people."

Camp cost $599, but a quarter of attendees paid far less by signing on as volunteers and staff. It's clear the Kjesslers aren't getting rich from this endeavor; to cover bills, Bentley works part-time as a maintenance technician. "We're good at fun," Kjessler admitted. "We're not so good at funding."

Kjessler created ENC "ultimately so I can make friends," she said. "I really wanted to build a community. I think I have."

Her dream is to extend that community beyond five days in August. Kjessler wants to purchase a sylvan parcel of land and create a year-round destination with activities to attract more nerds.

She can always use more nerds.