Perhaps it's the cheesy campfire songs that have been sung by thousands of people over four decades, all claiming their name is John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt, too. Or maybe it's the thrill of chasing panhandling squirrels, the addictive powers of boondoggling or the exhilarating explorations to distant lakes and pure nature.

Regardless, there's no disputing that there's always something in the high air at the Mill Hollow Outdoor Education Center. The same something that makes love blossom like so many mountain bluebells.

Count on it. Every summer there, kids fall in love with counselors. Sorry girls, but Fungi, the Stand-Up Comedian Counselor (get it, Fun Guy?), is way too old for you. And, no, boys, Hollywood, the bubbly blond counselor, will not be your girlfriend.

Likewise, counselors fall in love with kids — and, yes, other staffers. The latter is referred to as "M.H.R.," or Mill Hollow Romance. For that to happen, just add water. Or so the staff claims (hopes?). Several marriages have even come out of camp.

And almost as easily, those who spend time at Granite School District's get-away in the Uinta Mountains fall for Mill Hollow. It's usually love at first sight.

It started in 1964 when a small group of boys from the district first camped there, and loved it, of course. The next year, girls joined the fun. Thirty-nine years and 200,000-plus co-ed campers later, the twitterpation in the tall timber 63 miles southeast of Salt Lake City still flourishes.

"I just love it," said Gary Calvin, the camp director who's worked there for 27 years. "It kind of gets in your blood."

Bob Riches, a 67-year-old retired teacher from Bonneville Junior High and one of four managers, has been at Mill Hollow, fixing doohickeys, repairing cabins, restoring order and putting smiles on kids' faces since its opening.

"I love it so much," he said. Especially when the mercury soars and traffic snarls down in the city in midsummer and when he's luring in a trout from a nearby fishing hole at night. Riches plans on continuing to love it, he said, "for as long as they keep signing my paycheck."

The Mill Hollow Center is one of only three summer camps operated by school districts in the state. The Alpine and Weber districts have the others. Each summer, about 5,000 Granite students and other visitors — it's opened to public and private groups on weekends — make the trek to the pristine playground south of Woodland, Summit County.

As Upland Terrace Elementary School teacher Ulla Sponbeck pointed out to her students last week, it could be called "Mill Hollow City." The camp has its own power plant (a diesel-operated generator provides electricity), a sewage treatment plant (three naturally cleansing waste ponds), a water plant (a tank that's hooked up to natural springs — far away from the "Sewer Lagoons," by the way), a fire department (pumps connect to streams), a restaurant (well, a cafeteria), a shopping mall (OK, the trading post), recreation areas, classrooms, pop machines, flushing toilets and hot showers (for teachers and staff only).

"There's gotta be some perks," said Academy Park Elementary teacher Linda Schiffman.

At least one teacher must accompany every 20 students, usually fourth-to-sixth-graders. The kids go for three days and two nights and are assigned to one of seven student dorms and a cabin counselor. Along with Fungi (Aaron Barker) and Hollywood (Trish Stevens), nicknamed 2003 counselors include Sagze (Alycia Guptill), Bohemoth (Chad Warnick), Trigger (Amber Ann Brighton), Jester (Jamie Marie Hester) and Chugs (Kellan Stevens).

As great as the facilities and scenic surroundings are, it's these educating and entertaining staff members — as well as camp hostesses, kitchen crew and custodians — and top-notch teachers who make Mill Hollow memories.

The cabin counselors deal with everything from organizing games and skits to teaching about American Indians, mountain men, lumberjacks and prospectors to controlling or (sometimes) joining in on all-out pillow wars. These instant role models help youngsters deal with nightmares and varieties of sicknesses — home, real and imagined — and boogie and shake on the dance floor.

Fungi, a 24-year-old who's worked at Mill Hollow for five years, is the grandpa of the seasonal staff. The job gives him a rest from his pre-med studies. Plus, he's addicted to the love letters he gets from the girls.

"I just need a break. Coming up here, acting like an idiot is my idea of a break," he joked. "And a little hero worship never hurt no one."

Neither, apparently, does flying Jell-O. Along with playing card games, hiking, reading and romancing, getting into food fights is a pastime of staffers. "One of us," admitted Chugs, "seems to always have food somewhere on us."

The ex-wrestler always seems to have boys trying to tackle him, too.

"You get to act like a kid," Jester added. "You still have to be responsible, but you get to go goof off and no one's saying, 'Grow up.' "

That's not what she loves most about Mill Hollow, though.

"The best part is when kids come up and give you a hug and it's genuine," Jester said. "They fall in love with you. That's neat to know you have an impact — at least for three days."

Three days of Mill Hollow memories — the hikes, songs, laughing and learning — that some kids will always hold dear to their hearts.


E-MAIL: jody@desnews.com