A Day in the Life at Rhode Island’s Nudist Camp
We sent one brave reporter to spend a late-summer day at Dyer Woods Nudist Campgrounds in Foster.
The most intimidating part of social nudity is the parking lot. You see more, from the panorama of your windshield, than you could ever absorb in polite company. Eye contact, after all, is an important social skill.
You park alongside a smattering of sedans, pick-ups and a shiny black Caddy and you’re presented with two options: Get out of the car or leave in a hurry, spraying the naturalists in pebbles and dust.
Me: I wonder for a moment if I should wear my prescription sunglasses. I pop them off, then put them back on, open the door and walk over to a cloister of bodies by a cabin with a retro RC cola machine in front. There are thin bodies and robust bodies; hairy bodies and artfully shaved ones. Nearly everyone is over the age of forty, and most are closer to sixty. I’m greeted by a bearded, jolly-looking man. (Huffiness, I think, would be tough to pull off in the nude.) I extend my hand, trip on a tree root and dive forward, careening toward his nether region.
This is off to a swimming start.
I rebound and meet his gaze. He introduces himself as Jim Johnson — an apt nudist name, if I’ve ever heard one — president of Dyer Woods Nudist Campgrounds in Foster. My first impulsive thought: Here, standing before me, is Santa’s cool younger brother, the black sheep of the Claus family who traded the red suit for his birthday suit, wears steel hoop earrings and prefers warmer climes for obvious reasons.
And instead of a sleigh, Jim’s chariot is a noisy golf cart. He invites me for a tour of the grounds, 200 acres of wilderness that, before its transition to a nudist colony in the 1960s, served as farmland. Two historic cemeteries, a stone chamber used by natives and settlers for food storage, an orchard and a cranberry bog are testaments to the land’s long and carefully preserved legacy.
“We try to keep things here as natural as possible,” Jim tells me, his thigh pressed against my leather tote. They’re about the same shade of tan.
First, we cruise through the twenty-five-acre campground, which boasts RVs, tent sites and cabins. Some of the sixty-five total members own their own cabins, including Jim and his wife, Heather. Their place needs a roof, Jim tells me, but it’s comfortable. Each summer, he tacks up a sign on a post outside; a recent one was the Dyer Woods logo — a svelte swimmer diving in the nude — carved in cherrywood by Jim’s neighbor.
Other members, Jim says, just come to enjoy the property for the day. Some like to hike the trails, check out the cemeteries or use the sauna. Members can visit the property year-round.
“We had one guy who came in and, in this blizzard we had, he went out hiking,” Jim tells me. “I think he was just wearing shoes and a hat, and out he went. He was beet red!”
Members and guests — the latter can visit Memorial Day through Columbus Day for a $40-per-day admission fee — also flock to the property’s two man-made water features: a lake with waterslide at the entrance and, deeper in the woods, a peaceful quarry with smooth ledges for sunbathing. It was one of the last projects completed by Dyer Woods’ founder, Ken Walker, before his death. Jim says nobody knows why Walker named the place Dyer Woods; he took his reasons with him to the grave. But Walker’s family still owns the land, which Dyer Woods members lease on an annual basis.
The quarry, Jim tells me, is a great spot for newbies. It has regular aviary visitors, including a voracious blue heron. It’s also relatively secluded.
“A lot of people come in for the first time and they aren’t quite sure about it, so they come down here and put their blankets up on the rocks and get naked at their own comfort level,” Jim says. “This is the jewel of the place.”
In common areas, nudity is required. There’s some flexibility for new nudists — they don’t ask you to strip down at the entrance; you can take time to acclimate — and nudity isn’t enforced on the trails or individual camp sites.
“Everyone’s had a first time or a first experience. Everyone deals with it differently. We try to be no drama — easygoing,” he says. “But we’re a nudist campground. We’ve discovered over the years that if you do clothing-optional, you get more gawkers.”
This is important to Jim; he’s brought his children here since they were little. His fifteen-year-old son, who spends the afternoon hanging around the pond with a blue beach towel wrapped around his waist, first visited when he was five days old.
“Any event we book, we try to make sure it’s family friendly,” he says, adding that kid members have lagged in recent years. “When my daughter was growing up here, we had a dozen kids her age. We have a couple this year. It comes and goes in waves.”
What the campground really needs, Jim says, is more young adult members. Earlier this year, Dyer Woods hosted a young naturalists day with a bounce house and yoga. It also participated in World Skinny Dip Day and began offering a student discount.
“The retirees are nice because they have time and they can help maintain things. But once retirees get too old, you need to replenish that market,” he says. “For the longest time, I was the youngest one here. But this year we had a good number of young families and college-age kids come in.”
Jim credits this, in part, to a story in the Providence Journal, which detailed Dyer Woods’ search for a lifeguard — no nudity required. The Journal story was picked up by the Associated Press and quickly went viral. Dyer Woods ended up hiring a member who worked to cover his dues, but Jim says the publicity helped.
“It was nuts, the attention we got from it. I’ve seen a lot of people who saw the article and just wanted to check it out,” he says.
Two decades ago, Heather Johnson, Jim’s wife, responded to a similar ad for a lifeguard position at Dyer Woods. The description was more cryptic than the 2018 version, she tells me as we walk over to a picnic table by the pond.
I’m still in my clothes and Heather, of course, is in the nude, so she abides by a major campground rule: always sit on a towel. About a dozen people mull about the pond area, some swimming and others chatting on lounge chairs, letting it all hang out in the warm sun.
“The ad in the paper just said ‘Family campground in Foster,’ ” Heather says. “I came down and instantly fell in love with the place. I was willing to give it a shot.”
Just as new hires today aren’t required to keep watch in the buff, Heather was given the option to wear her swimsuit, as well.
“I stayed dressed that whole summer,” she says. “It actually became a joke or challenge type of thing. I guess most of the lifeguards before me would at least jump in the pond one time while nude. It was more of a joke, even though it was so hard to stay dressed that whole summer. It was determination and to get everybody’s goat.”
When Heather returned to work the next summer, she came naked. She’s been camping out at Dyer Woods on and off ever since.
“It’s such a nice place. I don’t know what you think of it, but I think this place is gorgeous. And the people — we’re like family. I’ve raised two children here,” she says.
She recalls the first time she brought her husband, Jim, to Dyer Woods. It was the summer of 1999, and he refused to get out of the car. (Jim corroborates the story: “I froze,” he says with a belly laugh.)
“I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll leave but if you don’t mind, there are a few people I want to talk to,’ ” she says. “So he sat in the car and I went over.”
Jim agreed to give it another try. Heather says she set him up to chat with an older male member, who invited Jim for a beer on his porch.
“He told him that, to understand it, you really have to try it for yourself,” Heather says. “People think it’s more of a sexual thing and, yes, there are places out there like that. But we’re not. We’re like any other campground. We just don’t wear clothes.”
After our talk, Heather heads to the cabin to prep for lunch and I walk to the pond to mingle. Several people give me their best nudist anecdote — a man named Kevin, who has a massive tattoo of a tail down his back and wears a fuzzy cap with antlers, says he feels naked without his hat — while others sing Dyer Woods’ praises.
Bob, a member who was recently promoted to manager, showed up at the campground three years ago. As he tells me his story, he slowly emerges from the pond. Despite all precedence, I’m still surprised to discover he’s not wearing a swimsuit. I trip over my words, but Bob — a reporter’s dream: chatty, affable — fills the void.
Bob grew up in nearby Lincoln, he tells me. “We were close enough that I’d always known about Dyer Woods because kids in school would joke about it,” he says.
He’d participated in social nudity before and would drive the three hours to Herring Cove Beach on Cape Cod for naked sunbathing. Eventually, he decided to give Dyer Woods a try.
“What first got me hooked was the trails, being able to hike the trails completely nude without having to listen to every sound — like, is someone going to see me and that I shouldn’t be here?” he says. “Just being relaxed and free and connected to the earth, the serenity, time to think and reflect. I don’t have a super stressful job — I work in an office and do payroll — but I come up here for even one or two days and it totally destresses me. By Monday, I don’t mind going back to work. It helps me get through the week so much better.”
Bob even turned one of his co-workers on to social nudity.
“Everyone I work with knows I come here,” he says. “I have five people in my office and one of my co-workers started coming here last year. People back at the office wonder, ‘How do you two even work together now that you’ve seen each other naked?’ It’s not like the other one had something we didn’t know about when they had their clothes on!”
Bob loves the place so much that he married his husband on a campsite — Jim officiated the ceremony — and, shortly thereafter, they invested in Dyer Woods by purchasing a cabin of their own.
“When we got married, we said we’re just marrying each other as we are. My eighty-five-year-old mom came. My twenty-eight-year-old daughter came with her new boyfriend. I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is the first time I’m meeting the new boyfriend and I’m buck naked marrying another guy.’ My daughter’s response was: ‘Might as well get used to the family now.’ Most of my family, who aren’t nudists, kept their clothes on. It was an almost exact half-half mix of clothed and nude.”
Bob’s given a lot to the campground in the last couple of years, organizing activities during summer and events in the off-season. In 2017, he helped plan a Halloween party over Columbus Day weekend. He dressed as a French maid; Jim went as a flasher; Heather was the Grinch in head-to-toe green body paint.
“Being a bigger guy — and my partner’s got 100 pounds on me — that was one of our concerns,” he says. “Are they going to be judgmental? Are they going to stare? But no one is judgmental. Every body, shape and type, ethnicity, sexual orientation: Nothing matters.”
In addition to event planning, Bob mans the office and mows the lawn — all while paying annual membership dues, which range from $600 for day members to $2,400 for site lease holders.
“Where else can you work naked and lie in the sun while you’re talking on the phone?” he says. “It’s not really work.”
L. Marie, a woman in her early thirties with dark hair and glasses, joins our conversation. (She asks to remain anonymous; she’s not sure her coworkers, at a school in Massachusetts, would understand her hobby.) Her first Dyer Woods experience was at the young naturalists event in July, and it didn’t take her long to join as a member.
“I could go to other places, but they don’t have these people,” she says. “The people really care about each other.”
With a booming voice, Jim calls for lunch and I think: Now’s my chance.
Full disclosure, I thought I’d be naked by now. I even lathered up in sunscreen that morning, per Jim’s advice: “There are parts of you that have never seen sun before. They tend to burn easy,” he’d advised via text.
I find solace in the fact that Jim, Dyer Woods’ nudist-in-chief, was also overcome by trepidation on his first visit. I’m not the only wimp conditioned by indecent exposure laws. So I do as the new nudists do: I take a hike.
I stroll through the campground, not quite sure of my end point. I pass Jim and Heather’s cabin and the creatively tended site of a gentleman who, despite the neutralizing effects of nudity, looks dapper while lounging atop a checkerboard patio, two King Charles spaniels at his feet. A pink moped leans on a kickstand in front of his gleaming retro red camper.
I keep walking and remember the historic cemetery Jim pointed out during our morning tour. Commune with the dead and live a little: I can get onboard with that.
I scramble up a dusty path and a sun-dappled knoll reveals itself. A plaque at the entrance reads: “Dear lord, and when shall that dear day that joy appear, when I shall will this hour of day, and dwell amongst them there.” About three-dozen graves are here, some dating to the early nineteenth century.
I stand still and listen. It’s as quiet as, well, a graveyard. Birds chirp and a cool breeze rustles tall grass in a field below me. I get naked.
It’s a little chilly in the shade, so I sit on a small bench that’s flooded with sun. (Sorry for breaking the towel rule, Heather.) I tilt up my head and steep my body in as much warmth as possible. The breeze nips at my skin and I gulp in the cool air. I didn’t notice until now; autumn is just around the corner.
I rest and think. I inspect the graves. I look over some notes. And it hits me: I’m bored, just sitting here all alone while the others eat saugy dogs or swim in the lake or speed down a slip-and-slide. And I finally absorb what the Dyer Woods diehards have been telling me all along: This place is about the camaraderie, the activities, the relationships that last long after the sun sets on Columbus Day. Sure, anybody can go nude in their backyard or alone on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But where’s the fun in that?