Camp Norden opens to kids with cancer at Camp Knutson in Crosslake

Camp Norden gets its name from the German word meaning “north”.

“North really stands for adventure for us,” said Camp Norden director Sam Bingea. “It represents a journey and a community. We want this camp to be that kind of light or that north star in the lives of these campers. We want them to look forward to camp, and we want it to be the best week of their year.”

Camp Norden was first held at Camp Knutson in Crosslake. The camp houses children affected by cancer. (August 2021) Contributed photo

The camp opened its doors to 22 campers, ages 8 to 17, on Wednesday, August 4. It was made possible through one of Camp Knutson’s 11 partnerships with nonprofits, allowing these organizations to host several camps for young people with different conditions on the Camp Knutson site with their staff on hand.

“We’re combining (with the nonprofits) to be this force of goodness for these kids to create this worry-free camp experience where these kids can finally do everything every other kid who goes to camp can do,” Camp Knutson Senior Director Jared Griffin said. “They can make those lifelong friendships and memories with other kids who have gone through similar challenges.”

While these campers have faced many challenges, Camp Norden aims to provide them with a sense of normalcy, allowing them to participate in some classic summer camp activities such as kayaking, tubing, horseback riding, archery, and simply enjoying the company of others around a campfire.

– Director of Camp Norden, Sam Bingea

“I think for a lot of our campers, something that’s really missing in their lives is a community outside of the clinic that really meets their needs and allows them to get to know other kids who have been through similar things to them,” said Binga. “A camp experience is a truly unique way for them to get to know their children. It is a place where campers can share their stories with their peers. Many of these children may have never met another child who has cancer or has a similar scar to them… We even saw some campers comparing their gate scars, which is really cool.”

The camp not only provides fun and normality for these children, it also celebrates them and allows them to be remembered as they make memories of their own.

“The kids who come to camp are often on the fringes of society — they’re kind of on the outside of the circle,” Griffin said. “When they come to camp, they become the center of the circle. We can fully celebrate their lives while they are here. They get an experience that maybe for them couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

With a camp filled with immunocompromised children — no less during a health crisis — Camp Norden officials have had to take extra precautions to maintain the health and well-being of campers.

“The real priority is the safety of our campers – making sure they can have all the fun at a great campground like this, but make sure they do it in a safe way that’s specific to their health history and current health status,” said dr. Karim Thomas Sadak, medical director of Camp Norden. “We have the ability to tailor safety to each child’s needs and concerns. For each camper, we were able to find out what their medical needs were before they got here.

The benefits of the camp appear to be twofold for Mindy Dykes, community outreach coordinator for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. Not only is she one of the individuals in charge of Camp Norden, but she is also a parent of one of the campers.

– Medical Director of Camp Norden, Dr. Karim Thomas Sadak

“To have an environment where (the kids) can be completely among themselves and see parents unexpectedly connect with the nurse assigned to their group – that was a really cool moment to see that peace of mind,” said Dijks .

Camp has also given Dykes and the other campers’ parents a little time to be a little more hands-off, which is hard to find with a child with compromised health.

“The responsibility with a medically vulnerable child as a parent is great,” Dykes said. “You have those things that just have to be the right way, and everything can be tracked down to the last detail, just like they’re at home, but they belong with their peers.”

Perhaps the biggest draw of the camp for the campers – aside from the fun and sun – is the opportunity to talk openly about their challenges with new friends, friends who can understand each other’s struggles because they’ve been through it too.

“For the campers who come here, maybe they haven’t been around other kids who have been hit by cancer like them,” Griffin said. “We saw on the first day that the children interact with each other and talk about themselves and their cancer journey.”

“They know they’ve all had similar experiences, so it’s like they feel comfortable sharing with them or becoming friends with them,” Bingea said. “They know they will understand what they are going through or have gone through, and they can ask questions that they may not be able to ask anyone else.”

Those who help out at camp seem to get almost as much out of the experience as the campers.

“We see cancer taking so much away from our patients and their families,” Sadak said. “This is an opportunity to bring joy back into their lives. We see it all day long at Camp Norden, in all these different activities. To see in person how our patients, who have suffered so much, are so happy, is really amazing.”

Campers at Camp Norden at Camp Knutson play an offside Uno. (August 2021) Contributed photo

Those involved all expect Camp Norden to return next year, and with greater numbers.

“The vision is there,” Griffin said. “The parents are excited. Many of these children are the best age to attend camp and make friends. On the first day we had children who said, ‘We can’t wait until next year.’ We see the potential of what this can be and how meaningful an experience it has already been.”

For now, however, the camp officials console themselves with the fact that the weather was good and memories were being made.

“They’re going to remember some of these things for a lifetime,” Dykes said. “Our son said something interesting about how he feels that everyone in this camp are people he can trust. He naturally knows that these are all people with the right intentions. Not that they don’t have the right intentions in other camps, but he felt that was very important.”

Much of the work being done at Camp Knutson is made possible through fundraising and donations. The next fundraiser is the annual quilt auction on Saturday, August 14.

Dan Determan can be reached at 218-855-5879 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

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