I was one of those city kids whose mom packed her off to a few weeks at camp every summer. We moved a lot, and the camps varied from year to year. At the best ones, I enjoyed a life entirely unlike my normal one. I could reinvent myself, if only briefly, and do things that were wholly unlike my day-to-day urban youth.
However, some families make a next-level investment in the summer camp experience. Starting as young as six or seven, these kids make an annual pilgrimage to the same spot in the woods and spent a month or more, year after year (sometimes generation after generation). Fellow campers and staff become a second family and the campgrounds grow as familiar as their own city streets or suburban backyards. I never understood this alien world, the profound allegiance to one's sleepaway camp, the aching goodbyes that quickly evolved into annual anticipation and excitement, this rustic coming of age story.
I never understood until Fireside.
Two boys, Steven Pulver and Daniel Levine, grew up in this world, both having attended Camp Walden. Steven went so far as to climb the ranks as camper, counselor in training, then full-fledged counselor. Then the two went off to college, eventually becoming lawyers and - like many former Camp Walden alums - stayed friends. Sharing an interest in technology, the two traded stories of the many tech conferences they attended, where (unless they were pitching) everyone spent much of the time staring down at their phones. And together, Steven and Daniel wondered: Could there be a better way? Just maybe.
The pair, who stayed in touch with a vast number of their Camp Walden community as well as camp owner Sol Birenbaum, decided to try to port the immersive, transported experience they had growing up to the tech conference circuit. This meant gathering hundreds of people in the woods hours outside of Toronto, Canada. Oh, and they had to convince entrepreneurs and investors that they needed to make this epic trek only to end up somewhere without cell coverage or WiFi. Only three years ago, they launched their first Fireside with a crowd of about 100 bold souls. In year two, the audience more than doubled.
This year, in his keynote addressing the nearly 500 attendees of Fireside, Sol explained that a subtle but significant thing that takes place for the kids who attend Camp Walden is the transformative power of discomfort. Likening it to the micro-tears that allow us to build muscle, Sol pointed out that being away from the safe and familiar surroundings of home helps campers build new strengths that empower them in whatever they do.
At Fireside, attendees not only have to live without the reassuring buzz of their phones, they also have to forgo conference hotels to share cabins with strangers, sleep on bunks made for kids, without heat in weather that dips into the teens at night. Despite excellent food and well-stocked campfires it is, without doubt, both physically and technologically, uncomfortable.
Yet what occurs is nothing short of magic, warmed by campfire light and reflected in the kind of star-filled sky you only see far from the pervasive light of so-called civilization. People make eye contact. They introduce themselves. They watch speakers without the distraction of tweets or email. They walk and talk in twos and groups, reflecting on what they've seen and heard.
In this lovely, odd, uncomfortable, disconnected place, people take risks: professional (pitching for formidable Accelerators, VCs and Angel Investors like TechStars, Jeffrey Hayzlett, and Jason Calacanis); personal (heart-rending group discussions about the mental health of founders); and even physical (axe throwing and blindfolded nature walks).
In a performance the last night of Fireside, Canadian musician Peter Katz debuted his new song, "Paper Thin," which is due out next year. He sang: I feel my eyes adjusting to the dark/ I can see the light of far off stars/ If I let myself get far enough away/ From the city of our lives.
Fireside demands that attendees disconnect, with the promise of connecting. Without a doubt, there's something to that. All of us in search of our next big thing, big break, or big investment need to take big risks. While a few days in the woods without a phone hardly qualifies, getting far away from the glare of the screen might be just what's needed to really see the stars.