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Capturing the imagination

By Ian McInroy, Barrie Examiner

ESSA TWP. - This isn't the summer camp your parents sent you to.

During the summer hiatus, kids are clambering up Heartbreak Ridge or Hamburger Hill, toughing it out in Little Saigon, conquering castles in the Black Forest or capturing flags atop a fort.

And while they're climbing hills underneath 100-foot maples, they're packing paintball markers that can shoot a ball of vegetable dye at 300 feet per second.

Bush Ball Camp, now in its seventh season at Barrie Paintball, located west of the city in Essa Township, is a Monday to Friday, daylong immersion in paint-balling.

Those unfamiliar with the activity tend to dismiss it. But those who know the ropes and enjoy the spirit of the hunt - and the occasional welt the size of a quarter - are hooked.

The 26 youngsters between the ages of 10 and 16 in the Bush Ball Camp (all boys, paintball seems to be a male-dominated adventure) all love it.

But it's not a picnic in the bush.

Basic training includes stretching to avoid injury and some cardio to help with those short sprints. There is classroom instruction, paintball drills, strategy training, sportsmanship and, of course, plenty of paintball games.

But the biggest thing for these campers to learn is paintball safety.

They may be called paintball markers, but anything that shoots something at such speeds is pretty much a gun. That something is a ball with an all-natural dye inside. The ball's exterior, also an all-natural vegetable product, is almost like crayon wax.

The potential to lose an eye is ever present, so safety is paramount both on and off the playing fields.

Masks must be on at all times on the field (absolutely no exceptions) and the markers' safeties must be engaged and barrel bags in place in all the safe zones.

These rules are strictly enforced, said Barrie Paintball owner Mike Clark.

"We guard our safety record by taking as many safety precautions as possible such as trained referees, safety netting, safety/field briefings and regular field maintenance," he said. "We have been in business for 12 years now and have never had an accident, injury or a fist fight."

While youngsters with masks and guns running around shooting each other with vegetable dye may sound worse than a video game to some, the camaraderie and friendships made, along with the exercise (of which there is much), makes it a blast, says Clark.

"It's the adrenaline rush. It's action, adventure and excitement and it's something you can do with your kids. It makes older people feel younger," he said. "And it's a very athletic program. You never run as fast as you do when you're getting shot at."

Matteo Caira, 14, of Bradford, was in the camp last year, too.

"It's fun. I met some new friends and got to learn some new strategies about paintball," he says, while the other campers were getting ready to 'lock and load'. "When the balls are flying all around, it motivates me to do stuff. It brings out the strategic side of people.

"You can't just run while you're out there."

The 17 'fields' on Barrie Paintball's 50 acres that the campers play on aren't anything like actual fields.

The Heartbreak Ridge and Hamburger Hill fields are on 300-foot high, vertically- challenged hills with 30- to 80-degree angle slopes that would test anybody's endurance.

With heavy ground cover and treed with mature maples and birch, there are also sand bag bunkers on the hill from top to bottom.

Other fields include castles, a two-storey alien spacecraft, a 15,000-pound F5 twin-engine jet, cars, trucks, buses, bunkers, boats, a two-level prison and more hills and trees.

"The property is the star. As cool as all the stuff is we do, without the hills and trees, it wouldn't have that appeal," Clark said.

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