Naturists from Florida to Canada flock to CNY's Empire Haven to escape the misconceptions and stigma behind nudism
By Ben Tepfer
Welcome to Empire Haven Nudist Park. Rule No. 1: always sit on a towel. But it’s a rule that Manager Michelle Keagle doesn’t need to follow since she wears clothes. “I love clothes and hate my body, so that would not make for a very good nudist,” Keagle said with a smirk.
As I sat with Keagle, a middle-aged woman wearing a black-and-white dress, I struggled not to let my gaze drift from her eyes to the bare bodies around us. I found myself drawn to them — not sexually, but out of curiosity.
Forty miles south of Syracuse, down several long, winding roads, past farms with red barns and silver silos, sits the 98-acre campground. A security gate lifted as I braced myself for the unexpected. My eyes darted across the green landscape, from trailers to cabins to a triangular purple house. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder why bare asses and genitalia didn’t surround me.
Keagle escorted me to a golf cart — the primary form of transportation around Empire Haven. I lowered my sunglasses to hide my wandering eyes as our bumpy ride around the camp began. Keagle’s appreciation for the culture of nudism grew during her six years at Empire Haven. “I am all for nudism and I love what it does,” she said. “[Nudists] aren’t held up on body image the way I am, because I was raised that way. Just to watch and see [nudists], especially women, who are often more body conscious than men, is inspiring — the barriers just aren’t there.”
As we spoke, receptionist Jessica Skeldon, a recent graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego, signed in visitors for the day. Although she’s not a nudist herself, Skeldon participated in a skinny dipping event that took place in July and shattered the world record with 111 people simultaneously diving into Empire Haven’s pool. For Skeldon, the skinny dipping was her first step toward becoming a nudist.
“We try to have events that bring everyone together,” Skeldon said. “It was something fun to do with the other people here, but I’m not ready to walk around naked all the time.”
For the last decade, Michael Okrent has traveled each summer to the camp with his family. Now a junior in high school, Okrent embraces the nudist lifestyle and said time spent at the park helped him mature. Kids are typically shy on their first visit, but the nudity no longer phases him.
When Okrent returns home, he doesn’t have trouble explaining the nudist lifestyle to his friends because he only tells a select few. “I’ve never been able to tell a bad story about camp,” he said. He explains to them how he doesn’t go to Empire Haven every weekend to have sex. Instead, he tells them about how he deejayed at the dance last weekend.
But Okrent said some people can’t grasp certain aspects of camp: “They ask, ‘How do you talk to people?’ I tell them, ‘You just have to maintain eye contact. You don’t have to look around, just look at their face.’”
A flock of nudists joined us to share stories of encounters with people who misunderstand nudism. Many of them expressed frustration with the situation — especially the older ones, who’ve dealt with the false impressions and the naiveté of non-nudists for years.
“You have a few people who have an old way of looking at nudism and sexuality as one in the same,” Keagle said. “If you look at National Geographic, you don’t look at it the same way you look at Playboy Magazine. Most people can separate the two if they are willing to look outside of a certain mindset.”
Keagle turned her head toward an older man, Fred Van Nest, pulling up a chair at our table. Naturally, he laid down a towel before sitting. He sat bare-bottomed beside me, wearing nothing but thick spectacles.
“Our world puts a huge amount of emphasis on our appearances,” Van Nest said. “We respond to appearance, [not to] integrity and intelligence. But when you’re nude, an awful lot of the artificialness of your life disappears.”
Van Nest said nudists see the body as a whole that’s disrupted by clothing. “We believe no [body] parts are dirty or shameful, and there is no reason they can’t be seen,” he explained. “You’ll begin to look at people and notice the whole person and not what specific parts are like.”
Sometimes Van Nest, his wife, and their friends throw “formal” dinner parties with lace tablecloths, china, and crystal. Van Nest hosted the latest one sporting a cummerbund and tie — nothing else. His wife joined him, wearing just the straps of an evening gown.
Things started to feel oddly comfortable at Empire Haven until Jay Steadman* stopped by. On his way back from pickleball, a game like tennis, Steadman forgot to pick up a towel so, by park rules, he couldn’t sit down. Instead, he placed his left foot onto a chair and unintentionally brought certain body parts a tad too close for comfort. I maintained eye contact.
Steadman and his wife started going to Empire Haven in 1981. Though the couple has visited the park for the last 28 years, some of their relatives remain in the dark about their nudism. “We don’t tell people,” Steadman said. “It’s a great place to go, we have a great time here, but who do you tell? My wife’s family doesn’t know, so we just keep it to ourselves.”
Keagle handed Steadman a towel and he sat down just as his topless wife came over. It took almost all my effort not to look at her pierced nipples. “If more people knew about it and tried it, there would be more people here,” Steadman said. “We are the same as any other campground; we’re just clothing optional.”
*Name changed to maintain anonymity.
Illustration by David Saracino