If you’ve been to one of our infamous campfires over the past 35 years or so, you’ve likely had the pleasure of seeing Matt Manning or Bruce Threlkeld perform your favorite camp songs. If you’ve been really lucky, you’ve seen them play together! Matt and Bruce share several decades on the mountain, and a profound love and respect for the mountain and for those who have had a significant impact on their lives. We caught up with them to see how Camp Highlander has affected their lives and where they are today.
What has Camp Highlander meant to you? Why have you attended for so long?
I got to go to Highlander as a camper for Session A in 1981. All I could think about was finding a way to go back again. I fell in love with the wilderness and climbing, kayaking, hiking, etc. I was fascinated watching campfire. Watching [Greg] Galloway perform showed me what I wanted to do. Camp is 100% responsible for my career and interests. I now teach music at a local school.
The importance of camp to me is difficult to express because it has changed throughout my life. Early on, camp was an introduction to a new physical environment. I made a deep connection with the mountains my first summer in 1980, although it took a couple years to unfold. I returned to Highlander in 1982 for an extended three-week visit, in 1983 as a music Specialist (now called Activity Counselor), and then full-time for the next fifteen summers. During that period I gravitated towards the wilderness side of Camp as a Specialist (which, at that time, consisted of overnights, mountain biking, climbing and rafting). I began teaching survival skills in the mid-nineties, and continue to do that today. What finally broke my 15-year run of summers working at camp (1998) was our family’s move to Montana in order for me to pursue an M.S. in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana! Ironically, my passion for learning about the environment, nurtured for so many years at camp, eventually led me far and away to the Rockies deepen my knowledge of the plants I had studied in North Carolina. After a few visits back to camp, and a decade hiatus, I was invited back in 2010 to resume my music and wilderness duties.
However, as beautiful as camp was and is, and as much as our mountain has taught me about nature, it is my fellow employees that have made coming back most enjoyable. Those who’ve spent multiple summers at CH understand what I mean. I’ve met some of the most amazing, interesting, and spirited people at Camp Highlander. It’s always been a welcoming place to which I can return, regardless of where my journey has led me.
Your children also attend camp at Highlander. How have you seen them grow from the camp experience?
My son, Matthew " Bug" Manning, has attended Highlander for several years. He is interested in Wilderness, like I was, and wants to work in Wilderness at camp. He has gained independence from camp and has made many friends who he keeps in touch with year-round.
All of my four daughters have attended camp. An obvious benefit has been the long-term friendships they’ve made. Also, the challenges of daily new activities have afforded my girls an opportunity for growth through experience. Winning and losing are coached in a loving and safe environment, which is healthy for promoting the emotional and physical maturity of children.
What are your favorite songs to play at campfire?
It’s way too hard to pick specific songs. It changes every week!
Oooooh, that’s a tough one. I’ve actually enjoyed playing Junior Camp songs a lot more since having my own children. Even though my kids are no longer in Junior Camp, I still love entertaining and goofing around with the little ones. I like to bring in new songs occasionally but also keep the old repertoire alive and well. It’s worked for 35 years, so why not stick with it? When campers get tired of hearing The Outlaw and Vineyard, I’ll have to find new songs to replace them.
What are your favorite memories of camp as a camper or staff member?
As a camper: overnights, square dances, and climbing Moore’s Rock. As a staff member: multi-day survival hikes, talent shows and playing campfire.
I have so many! Here are just a few:
The excitement of pulling together an EP, under the direction of the King of Wing (Gaynell Tinsley), after teaching a full load of classes (not sure where that energy came from), would often lead to crazy ideas but always seemed to end up with a successful program. The skill of winging it (thinking quickly on your feet) was developed during those years and has served me well as an entertainer/musician!
Also, playing campfires has always been a great privilege. To have the freedom, over the years, to direct the styles of music and song choices to present to the campers has been awesome. I’ve always maintained that, of the thousands of gigs I’ve played, none are more enjoyable than Sundays at CH.
Taking campers out on 3, 4 and 5-day overnights, into some very beautiful areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Finally, way back in the day, I used to enjoy honing my Native American hunting and stalking skills by roaming around the woods, barefoot, at night, surprising staff members after hours. Once there were some staff members down at the lake, sitting at the Blob dock who were terrified when a lake monster suddenly emerged from the water below them. I (and they, probably) still laugh at that one.
How have you seen camp evolve through the years?
I remember before the roads were paved! The pool was added, and a few activities have come and gone, such as Mountain Skate Boards. (That one lasted a week!)
Since Karl and Shelley assumed ownership, the Wilderness programs and facilities of camp have improved markedly. Evening Programs have evolved and become more technically advanced and detailed, although the "classics” remain viable.
You play gigs together nearly every week now. How did that come about?
Bruce moved back to Vero Beach four or five years ago and my seven-piece band went down to us being a duo again. We play all kinds of genres; Bluegrass to punk. We have over 500 songs we can draw from including originals. Bruce will play drums with his feet while playing guitar, banjo or ukulele. I will switch between guitar, mandolin, ukulele and harmonicas. We’ve played about a thousand or so gigs together in the past 5 years. Everyone is welcome to come see us at one of our gigs!
Reminisce With Your Camp Family!
Do you miss your Camp Highlander family? Matt & Bruce are playing a special gig in south Florida and you’re invited!
When: January 28, 2017, 6:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Rattlesnake Jake’s, Deerfield Beach, Florida