2022 was probably the harshest build and strike weeks Camp Contact has experienced at BRC. I write to document elements of that experience, to analyze what I saw as the key difficulties that lead to this being the hardest build, and to go a little deeper into the camp responsibility that I am calling Reception (Arrival, off-load, parking, tent placement, RV placement and orientation). Before the burn, I was trying to line up being the orientation lead. Thus a bunch of my experience is shaped by this. I will also talk to the four major phases of a large theme camp being out at BRC; Build, Finishing, Burn and Strike.

Report style:

I will attempt to echo the report writing style from my intel report writing days; observations and ‘factual’ (as far as we can be) details, separated from my comments/opinions/analysis (either in italics in-line or in a separate paragraph), sandwiched on both ends by key findings/summaries. Comment from later in the writing: this writing style peetered out somewhat, because, spoiler alert, I left halfway through the writing of it to briefly return to the playa to help with strike.

Key Difficulties

  • Strongest winds in BRC living memory during build
  • Consistent and long white-outs for most of build, some of the burn and a lot of strike
  • First BRC after three years for the camp; we were rusty
  • Corporate knowledge degraded or missing
  • Anahasa Village in center plot, not corner plot; knocked out of our regular setup and defacto rhythm
  • Expectations across the camp about what we are being ‘asked to do’ from a regular build week did not reflect reality. This build and strike asked much more of us than normal.

Summary

  • This year was hard for large camps
  • We still made it happen
  • Despite the challenging external circumstances of this burn, there are plenty of ways we can do things better
  • Camp Contact is facing an inflection point: restructure/change or collapse
  • I am naming the orientation/parking/placement nexus as Reception, and will define roles within that area
  • I will tell you about how some tents make me sad
  • Inshallah future build weeks don’t have winds like this for a while

A Rough Timeline

Buckle up…

15-20 August:

  • Various peeps start road trips to Reno in prep for build

Sunday, 21 August:

  • Team gathers in Reno
  • Bangkok cuisine is no longer open on Sunday evening. Comment: Maybe the first bad omen. Sunday dinner at Bangkok Thai is a long time build team tradition
  • Initial team camps at Pyramid Lake Sunday night

Monday, 22 August:

  • Initial build team rolls into BRC. Build commences after placement. Comment: I was not there for this part of the trip, so I am unaware of any notable events during this time

Tuesday, 23 August:

  • Build continues at BRC Camp Contact. Word goes out that the camp needs more fresh water. Comment: not sure if this means we are just rusty and didn’t individually bring enough to be radically self-reliant or if our fresh water infrastructure or delivery was delayed.
  • Back in Grass Valley, after weeks of trying to get prior camp contact orientation material in my possession, I finally got through to the person who had that material (Their slack notifications were off :) ). They are already on playa, in our village but with another camp. I edit the orientation walk-through script and print off some copies as part of our final prep and pack. Comment: Camp knowledge relies on either the same people coming back year after year or someone remembering who did a job in prior years and connecting that person to the new person in the role. Emergent (aka lower initial complexity) but risky (incurs risk of greater complexity downstream).
  • After lunch, Heart House crew sets out from Grass Valley and arrives at BRC around sun-down.
  • As of that Tuesday evening, there is a push to get the Himalayas sorted to the extent that the build crew can setup tents. Comment: I heard that some key structures were a little behind by Tuesday afternoon/evening; namely the Himalayas, our main dormitory shade shelter
  • Tents are popped up fairly ad-hoc under the shelter and folks tuck in after a long night

Wednesday, 24 August:

  • Wednesday morning, approximately 3am: The build team are woken by howling winds, large bangs and crashes. For about 15-20 minutes, incredibly fierce gusts continued to batter our area of BRC. Comment: later I heard these gusts were estimated at up to 70 miles per hour. After the wind subsided a little, the build crew spent about an hour assessing immediate damage and otherwise securing the structures as best we could. It was apparent that several of the shade structure support poles had punctured several of the four fabric shelter panels that made up the roof of the Himalayas, and one of the wind-side walls of the structure had completely ripped away from the shark-bites that were securing the wall to the ground. Comment: This sharkbite wall was probably one of our weakest walls, and in hindsight, should not have been placed on the prevailing wind side of the structure. The Himalayas were partially collapsed and several roof panels were sagging on to the build crew’s tents. At around 430am, most of the build crew returned to sleep.
  • After day-break, I walk around and send out this Himalayas damage report. Comment: large hole is over a foot by a foot

“Roof panel one; two large holes, one small. Roof panel two; three large holes, one small. Roof panel three; one medium hole. Roof panel four; undamaged. One wall panel out of action; all sharkbites torn-off”

  • Comment: later the designer of our shade structure Eric, noted that the sharkbites that had been used were below the initial spec of what was designed for. The roof panels maintain the overall structural integrity of the Himalayas by being held taunt against the tops of the shade structure support poles. These poles spread the force of the taunt fabric against them over a four petal ‘flower’. If the petals of the flower collapse, the force of the fabric against the top of the pole will punch a hole in the fabric. Comment: We speculate that with the break of the weak-wall, the gusts could get under the shade structure. Each gust would then pop the fabric off the roof support poles, freeing the petals of each flower briefly. Since the tension of the roof fabric was no longer holding the petals in place, they started to collapse, there-after leading to the support poles puncturing through the roof in several places
  • Separately, the other significant structural damage in camp is to the kitchen. It is built using EMT conduit. Comment: primarily EMT is used to route electrical cables around built-environments but is commonly used as a structural kit for more ad-hoc structures. Maybe 30% of the EMT poles used for the kitchen have been bent beyond use/repair. Poles and parts were scavenged from other structures while we arranged for replacements to come in via Reno.
  • Over the progress of the day, while we scramble to understand how we might even go about repairing the Himalayas, further holes are created by the roof panels rubbing against tent tops. Comment: we were arguably 36-48 hours behind schedule at this point, with an already overworked team, and still constant concerns about more winds forecasted.
  • We got in touch with Eric (Epic), the designer of the Himalayas. Learnt about how to strengthen the flowers on the support poles and a team set about getting the parts for that and making the changes, while others begun stitching the many holes back together with fishing line. Comment: even later I would hear from Eric that the reinforced flower design was actually the original design but that in the first year (2017? 2018?) the right parts weren’t ordered. Between that, and using the weak-wall on the wind-side, we probably wouldn’t have suffered such damage, even with the rare strong winds.
  • The shade structure being down meant we also couldn’t progress in laying down the tarps that are used as flooring for the Himalayas.
  • Meanwhile, more and more camp members were arriving on playa, and the temporary placement of a bunch of tents (including my own) was getting decidedly dodgy.

Thursday, 25 August:

  • The Himalayas are finally fully operational and the long over-due placement reckoning (when we actually start to finally place tents in their ‘permanent’ spot) can begin. Matters quickly come to ahead, as several of the build-team are already exhausted, haven’t been able to fully settle into their space and unpack, and now have the spectre of having to move their tents hanging over their heads. Comment: perhaps needless to say, but the longer it takes for this initial placement reckoning to happen, the more reshuffling risk we take on as a camp. Given the damage to the Himalayas, this happened much later in the build week than desireable.

Friday, 26 August:

  • Build continues at a frantic pace; There is certainly some tension in camp about how to distribute our work and rest cycles; whether to get cracking early in the morning, in the lower temperatures and siesta in the afternoons before another work sesh in the cooler evening temps. This is complicated by several late-night unexpected work sessions (yes, the initial winds on Tuesday night but also food deliveries coming in at difficult hours), the general angst of being behind (and thus pushing pushing pushing constantly), uncertainly about how to integrate proper rest into our work cycles.

Into the ‘Finishing’ phase

  • Maybe there is a better name for this phase but there is normally a distinct phase shift between the heavy-lifting ‘build’ part of the week and the ‘finishing up’ part of build week.

Saturday, 27 August:

  • I don’t have much of a distinct recall of this day. More and more folks were arriving and generally doing their best to get amongst it. One organizational challenge is that despite having plenty of fresh camp mates arriving, they didn’t have the knowledge to just pick up tasks or complete structures. Thus, we still relied heavily on folks who were already pushed to the limit, for direction and guidance about how to achieve various goals.
  • In a prior year, I had joined build week on Thursday, when the camp was already in the ‘finishing’ phase. In the ‘finishing’ phase, all structures are more or less up, and we are focusing on flooring, decor, sparkle, build-clean-up and otherwise prepping to receive all of our camp mates and guests. This year, build bled heavily into this ‘finishing’ phase, particularly as various structures had been reassigned to other priority uses. The ‘reception’ part of camp responsibilities crescendos during this ‘finishing’ phase because that is when the most people arrive. We had over 100 campers already here by Saturday.
  • From the overall Reception perspective pre-burn, we had a orientation lead, and an RV placement lead. We didn’t have anyone dedicated on tent placement Comment: In a year where we are taking on the most campers ever (215 peeps vs 170), and not necessarily more shade space. And we did not have anyone dedicated to parking. I absorbed placement and parking, focused as the solo person on placement (it was hard to delegate due to the constraints of the task), then delegated as much orientation stuff as I could (from Thursday through Tuesday) and delegated parking on Sunday when that was depth-charged by changes to the village parking scheme. Praise be to Wolf, Salix and Makenna for stepping up here! My mental, physical and spiritual saviors <3
  • Commentary: Reception is all about optimizing the flow of camp folks arriving at BRC, and know what to do when they arrive at camp. Camp Contact, for maybe at least a decade, but probably more, has been on an intersection, on a corner lot. Not only does that make it easier to find but provides more obvious places for folks to park. I do believe our change in placement caused some confusion for folks arriving. We directed folks to aim for the chill dome at 638 & E, but didn’t have a sign up for most of the week, denoting that the corner there was camp contact. The aussie contingent parked next to the chill dome became defacto greeters, and in general that area had too little space to act even as a temp staging spot before people got their full parking placement. Multiple times folks were parked in and we had to chase folks around camp to figure out who was stuck there. Given the loss of the natural advantages here with a corner lot, our whole village probably needs to address this need with some fore-thought, layout tweaks, planning, better comms and new signage.

Sunday, 28 August:

  • On a personal note, my Sunday started at about 1am when a kindly individual from a neighboring village rolled up about 20 meters from my tent, opened all their doors, jacked up their car sound system and promptly blasted tunes until about 3am when the unattended car’s keys miraculously fell out of the vehicles ignition. Sunday was also the birthday of a member of my family-in-love, who was no longer with us. Thus begun what was nominally the busiest day of responsibilities for someone involved in Reception (aka myself).
  • The most significant shenanigans of that day was finding out about the reorganization of the ‘village’ parking at about 11am in the morning. I was shown a new hardcopy map, with the prior large singular ‘village parking’ zone now cut up into about half a dozen smaller zones, some demarked by flags in the ground, others not so much. These change were also impacted by (sensible) renegotiations of how we would structure our fire-lanes with neighboring villages. The changes made sense at the tactical level, but they had the effect of complexifying the ‘village parking’ situation to make that parking area defacto inaccessible to Camp Contact. We ended up parking-in one of our event spaces instead, making it less accessible to city-folk.
  • Sunday afternoon is now the ‘start’ of burn week. We were sorting out a lot of stuff at camp on Sunday, and probably continued the ‘finishing’ phase through till Tuesday morning.

Monday, Burn week and beyond

  • Monday and beyond: All in all, Burn week ran pretty smoothly. The weather was generally ‘better’. The build crew was largely spent, and collectively we fought to avoid them taking on more work. The camp integration session got interrupted by a storm warning. There were still some frustrations about whether everyone was contributing, and also whether we could generate a common sense of camp identity after such discordant arrival experiences of the burn. It never feels good to see someone stand up at announcements, ask for a few volunteers to pick up stuff around camp and for the hands to come up only after a second plea for help.
  • The changes to kitchen-shifts (an extra shift per main meal, and an extra person per shift) really seemed to help with kitchen efficiency; in the orientation we told folks that meals were at 1pm and sundown (7pm) but almost all burn week meals was an hour earlier than those times, at midday and 6pm.
  • It seemed like water-use was really bad however; a tap was left running for possibly hours overnight, folks were using 90+ seconds of shower water instead of sub 30 seconds, folks from outside our camp were using the showers…

Strike

  • I was not there for much of strike but it was so rough that I did head back out to the playa with Kris to bring supplies and help for a day on Wednesday/Thursday. I do not know all the ins and outs of how strike went down but I did hear that there further long-duration of duststorms/white-outs that dramatically slowed down strike. There has been a discussion on slack on what changes we can make to strike to shorten it. I might return to that later in the post.
  • Strike ended on Saturday morning (!). That is DAYS later than a regular strike for Camp Contact. Naked Heart (village buddies) sent fiveish folks to help moop and do the final push. Collectively ‘we did it’ but this year will have lasting consequences for Camp Contact, even if BMOrg is not likely to slap us for being tardy to get off playa this year. A brutal year has left literal damage on some of our infrastructure but it has also fried a lot of the folks that were involved in leadership. I will return to what I think are the consequences of that later.

So, that is my very rough timeline of Camp Contact 2022 from an organizational perspective. There is so much other stuff that happened that I either did not hear about, or only have half-a-clue about it. For my own sanity, I have not tried to be comprehensive here.

Reflections

Reception recommendations

The reception team should be a closely collaborating group of leads; orientation, parking, RV placement and tent placement. These leads should be identified prior to build week and during build week it is likely that they will want to recruit deputies or otherwise share coverage for these roles, as many of them ought to be high availability. As a team, looking at the village layout and whatever placement we end up getting, there should be a review of all the steps that happen after a camp contacter gets through the gates, finds camp (arrival), and is settled into camp (off-loading, parking, placement, orientation).

Lead role descriptions

Orientation:

  • Bring arriving camp mates into a cultural and physical sync with the camp
  • Physical: camp goers know where to find key places in camp, and what their functions are
  • Cultural: camp goers know how things are done at camp
  • Be highly available during key orientation times or delegate (Thursday of build to Tuesday of burn week, before main meals)
  • Comfortable speaking in front of large groups
  • Note: this role did not include pre-playa orientations. However, that could be integrated into this role or otherwise coordinated with.

Parking:

  • Ensure all camp vehicles are efficiently parked in designated areas (bumper to bumper)
  • Get new arrivals through their off-loading period as quickly as possible
  • Ensure all camp vehicles have village parking notes in them
  • Liaise with other camps in village about parking plans (!)
  • Strive to park folks where they can leave playa at their desired time
  • Be highly available or have deputies working, during peak arrival times (Sat-Monday)
  • Know where fire-lanes (20 feet lanes) are ahead of time and keep them clear of obstructions

RV Placement:

  • Define clear RV areas (Ideally creating wind-breaks and privacy for the village)
  • Know and communicate expectations about RVs (no shore power, no generators at night)
  • Be available for RV placement during peak arrival times (typically Sat-Monday)

Tent Placement:

  • Ensure dormitory structures are built as soon as possible (including flooring)
  • Lay-out primary ‘ring’ walking lane (18 inches wide) around the dormitory structure
  • Get to ‘placement reckoning’ as soon as possible during build (might need to show up early in build to achieve this)
  • Apply placement principles (And bend those principles for the build crew)
  • Facilitate early conversation about tent expectations; do we want to avoid some types of tents under the shade structure
  • Determine placement timings (continuous? Or clustering intervals)
  • Highly available or deputized peeps from Thursday to Tuesday
Tents that go under the shade structure

After placing about 120 of the 135 tents that camp contacters slept in this burn, I have become very familiar with a tents of Northern America (with some curious cameos from European tent styles).

As a tent placer for a ‘10 x 10’-per-person-space-allocation camp, I have a list of tents that make me sad. I will order them from saddest to least sad

  • There is a pointy hexagon tent, ‘teepee’ style, that is about 12x12 PLUS has guide lines going everywhere. My saddest of sad tents
  • Bell tents. Very aesthetic. Very guideliney. Very pointy. :(
  • Weird huge tents. They are big. They are strange shapes. They have weird extensions. Sadness
  • Large hexa/octagon tents. Some of these were 15x15 feet wide…
  • Shiftpods; 12x12 and weird shape. I have one. It still made me sad enough to set it up outside of the shade structure to make space for others.
  • Tents that are ten feet in one dimension but very long. These tended to fit in better and are totally fine if housing several peeps. And sometimes they were just massive.
  • Basically everything else didn’t really make me sad. Lots of 10x10 coleman pop-ups and kodiaks; very simple to place. Small tents were forever a blessing! Mini-shiftpods were a little weird but very cute.

Perhaps this list of things that make tent placement sad could be codified into something we as a community agree on.

Anahasa village moved from corner plot to center plot in a block

A quick run-down of how this caused problems

  • Not having the natural advantages of a corner plot for Arrival and initial drop-off ==> We need to put extra planning into improving arrival and drop-off
  • Water distribution was really hard this year; is it worth changing the placing of structures to reduce the amount of hose and the amount of traffic going over them?
  • We parked in the Alps (event space) because of weird village parking. And space at the front of camp wasn’t very utilitized while we were crowded elsewhere.
  • The dorm to dining hall trail was impinged by the showers; can we tweak placement there?
  • With the cram of everything else, we didn’t really have good spaces for internal camp bike ramps and bikes where everywhere

And there are probably a host of other learnings from this year about how to adapt to a new placement.

Complex systems cascade: will Camp Contact recover?

If you think of Camp Contact as an entity over time, it is a complex emergent system that has slowly grown, and grown and added things and rumbled through the years and years of BRC and east coast shenanigans. The organizational instigation has come from Spacious, and the organizational power has come from a whole host of people sticking around for long enough to keep adding new infrastructure and new things. Do-ocarcy woo!

This emergent system has kept the camp running for a long long time; and its organizational momentum has hit a big obstacle with Covid and the two missed BRC years. Do you really need to have documentation or to write things up if enough people will be back next year? Well, you can get away with that. But we didn’t come back next year. Or the year after that! What order do we usually build things? What order do we usually strike? What is the order of operations to build the dormitory? How do we lay out the walking lanes in the dormitories? This information exists but if there aren’t enough of the people that know this information on the playa, things get weird fast. This is part of my experience with ‘Reception’; I had signed up for one thing (orientation) but soon found I did not know everything I needed to know coming into build, and that several adjacent priorities were not really being covered either. Lots of folks stepped up to fill the various gaps but when the folks that are already putting in a lot of work have to do even more, on top of one of the harshest burns in memory, we are now risking our complex system cascading into a failure state.

We risk getting trapped in a vicious cycle. Where we are spread too thin due to gaps in our team, get burnt-out, as individuals don’t return and have even more gaps in our team for next year, risking even greater problems and leading to eventual collapse.

What is the way out? We certainly need to stage a series of interventions. Some possible ideas:

  • Hard-cap camp numbers
  • Maybe even reduce numbers down from our previous highs of 170
  • Offer and do LESS; are there things we can do without? Do we need to trim down our offerings to mitigate being overwhelmed by complexity
  • Document more; FYI Slack is the graveyard of corporate knowledge; all messages now disappear after three months unless we pay the big dollars. Is there some other central hub
  • Do a whole retrospective on Strike; having a strike play-book and better comms to the whole camp about strike would be a great start. Lots of camps start strike earlier than us, perhaps we need to follow suit.

As it stands now, there is a very good chance that I will not attend the next burn. On playa I was like “I want a do-over; to come back and do my job right”. And returning to my partner and sharing the stories… well, she’s not as keen. But I hope the above gives Camp Contact some documentation for the years ahead. So, I will end with a literal reiteration of my key points, and wish y’all good luck.

Key Difficulties

  • Strongest winds in BRC living memory during build
  • Consistent and long white-outs for most of build, some of the burn and a lot of strike
  • First BRC after three years for the camp; we were rusty
  • Corporate knowledge degraded or missing
  • Anahasa Village in center plot, not corner plot; knocked out of our regular setup and defacto rhythm
  • Expectations across the camp about what we are being ‘asked to do’ from a regular build week did not reflect reality. This build and strike asked much more of us than normal.

Summary

  • This year was hard for large camps
  • We still made it happen
  • Despite the challenging external circumstances of this burn, there are plenty of ways we can do things better
  • Camp Contact is facing an inflection point: restructure/change or collapse
  • I am naming the orientation/parking/placement nexus as Reception, and will define roles within that area
  • I will tell you about how some tents make me sad
  • Inshallah future build weeks don’t have winds like this for a while