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I went back to old Camp Keewaydin, where I spent three summers as a boy, and it's still a great place for a kid to come into his own

You may remember summer camp as a place for hiking, canoeing, softball, swimming, arts and crafts, eating horrid food in good company and generally responding to the call of nature. I remember it for all that, too, but particularly for the call of nature. Specifically, I remember a fine July day in 1972, somewhere in southern Ontario. Nature called like an auctioneer.

If we had been back at camp, back at Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore in west-central Vermont, it would have been simple. We would have gone to the fort. (At Keewaydin, in a spirit of happy euphemism, we called the latrines "forts.") But Richie Harter and I weren't back at camp. We were out on a trip, 15-year-olds sharing a canoe in a lock on the Rideau Canal.

Looking back, I suppose the rushing water had something to do with nature's call. There's a lot of rushing water when the lockkeeper opens huge faucets to drain or draw enough water to get your canoe to a new level. Whatever the cause, there was no questioning the urgency of the result. Richie lashed the canoe to the side of the lock and we scrambled out in search of a fort.

In this case we happened to have been locking down, meaning that water was being drained from beneath us as we abandoned ship. The sage reader can probably picture the fate of a canoe tied to the side of an emptying lock: It eventually hangs so that gravity dispatches all of its contents to a place amid the dead fish and rusting Molson cans below.

Alas, this thought hadn't occurred to Richie or me. We were nanoseconds from a scene that could have launched Canada's Funniest Home Videos when the lock-keeper, an Ontarian for whose alertness we shall forever be grateful, noticed what we had done and did the lockkeeper's equivalent of slamming on the brakes.

The Keewaydin motto, "Help the other fellow," is being incanted to campers for the 82nd summer. I can say from experience that nothing makes kids more willing to follow that creed than finding themselves, literally, in the same boat.

Never tie up your vessel when you're in an active lock. I learned that at summer camp, in a few perilous seconds on the Rideau Canal.

I learned a lot of other things at summer camp.

I learned that while paddling a canoe solo, it's possible to make the thing go straight even if you take all your strokes on one side. I learned that skinny-dipping must be against the law, because the sensation of water seeping into every region of the body feels so illegally exhilarating. I learned that with a box of Bisquick and a reflector oven, it's possible to bake a cake on a deserted island. (My parents had sent me to camp because I didn't have an older brother, and they figured I could benefit from exposure to male role models close to my age. When I came back from that first summer and told my mother not to sweat breakfast for the rest of the week, she was thrown for a loop.)

I should say that I learned all these things at a traditional, well-rounded, outdoors-oriented, four- or eight-week resident summer camp—which stands in stark contradistinction to a day camp, a specialty camp or any of the diluted variations on summer camping that have cropped up to serve a society that wants more, sooner, "better." Today a kid can go to space camp, weight-loss camp, acting camp, football camp, money-management camp, tennis camp, sailing camp, oceanography camp, cheerleading camp, even prelaw camp, including one that shamelessly promises "an invaluable chance to gain a competitive edge on the law school admission process."

"I refuse to call them camps," Alfred Hare, Keewaydin's codirector, told me when I went back to visit last summer for the first time in nearly 20 years. "I call them clinics. They do a good job of making a hockey player or a computer operator. But they don't do what camps do, which is build an all-around kid with self-confidence in an era of specialization."

The 76-year-old Hare is known to everyone at Keewaydin as Waboos, which is Algonquin for "white rabbit," an approximation of his surname. He has led the camp since 1946 while maintaining a genial aversion to modernity. To be sure, on a few items he has bent. When I was a camper we built wood fires to cook over; now, trips go out with a Coleman stove. We used wooden canoes exclusively; today, the white-water trippers paddle canoes made of something called acrylonitrile butadiene-styrene.

But Waboos has compromised on very little else. I remember the basketball court, a sorry earthen slab that lay half underwater for much of each summer. Hoopheads like Richie and me couldn't understand why the court should be breeding mosquitoes instead of future all-stars (i.e., us), and we sometimes caught ourselves cursing Keewaydin's flinty traditionalism. But Waboos's attitude was at least grounded in principle. The basketball court is still dirt.

Even the modern means of marketing a camp—renting space at regional "camp fairs" and screening slick videos—dismays Waboos. "It just doesn't seem right to huckster, to sit out in front of a booth and wave people in with a baseball bat," he says.

Thus Waboos struggles to find the last few of the 190 or so youngsters he needs to fill the camp. He gets by with word of mouth and an occasional appearance with his slide projector in a suburban living room, often staking his values against those of pushy or overprotective parents. Before launching into his spiel, he'll gauge his audience, trying to decide whether he should click quickly through the slide depicting the boxing ring. (Keewaydin, he says, may be the only liberal-arts camp that still offers boxing.)

To hear Waboos tell it, the Pygmalion stories alone make his job worthwhile. At least one unfolds each summer. A few years ago he paid a wintertime recruiting visit to the home of a prospective Keewaydinite and found "a big galoomph with thick glasses." Waboos couldn't help but think he had wasted a Saturday afternoon. "Yet even though he looked like he couldn't make a fist, this boy's eyes lit up when I mentioned wrestling," Waboos says. "He turned out to be more sociable than he appeared, and wanted to go the full eight weeks. I had great misgivings. He wet the bed and all, and a canoe trip is such an alien world. But he got through it and came back for another summer."

Last summer Waboos witnessed a typical metamorphosis, that of a 14-year-old who was in tears the first few days of a hiking trip through New Hampshire's White Mountains. "The older you are, the worse it is," Waboos says. "A young one will adapt like a little puppy dog. But it was a small group of kids. They encouraged him. When he returned to camp, you could see in his gait, how he held himself, that he's going to end up all right."

I wonder if that kid learned as many things at camp as I did.

Individual dust particles have an irresistible drive to bond together and form dust balls. In 1970 I stood on the line outside a tent in the Wiantinaug "wigwam" (a team of tents and cabins organized by age group) for inspection by staffman Tom Kokos, then a student at Slippery Rock State College (now University) in Slippery Rock, Pa. Last summer I watched another generation of kids toe the same line while Kokos, now a 41-year-old elementary-school principal in Beverly, Mass., assessed how well the floor had been swept and the cots made.

It's a testament to Keewaydin's pull that Kokos and other people from my three summers in the early '70s still come back. "Folks back in Beverly think I'm psycho," he says. And it's a testament to Keewaydin's values that the prize for turning in the best inspection score of the week is still a double-decker ice cream cone. Any kid can buy a single-scoop cone at the camp store, Kokos reminded me. "The double-decker can only be awarded. Here, it has its sacred place."

Preparing for inspection is camp's quotidian exercise in teamwork. Everyone takes a chore, and all suffer if any task is ill-performed. Sweep too hard and you'll leave broom straws under your bunk, for which you can get docked a point as easily as for leaving a dust ball. Thus you sweep vigorously but not wantonly. You find a balance between raw effort and finesse.

You also learn to wing it sometimes. As Kokos prepared to scrutinize the tents and cabins assigned to him, one youngster realized that the towels and swimsuits on the clothesline were dry. He panicked for an instant, knowing he would be docked a point for leaving dry clothes on the line, and also knowing that there wasn't enough time to collect, fold and properly stow the suits and towels. So he used a squirt gun to wet them anew.

The boys of Tent 7 held their canoe paddles at a sort of parade rest as they stood for inspection. "Compared to recent adventures in this tent, this is pretty good," said Kokos, surveying the scene. "I'm going to give you a perfect score."

The tent's resident wiseacre, Andy Halloway, bowed theatrically. "Thank you, Koki, O kind one!" he said. "Bosox rule!"

Kokos nodded, then padded off as Andy stage-whispered, "Although the Mets did beat them in the Series!"

The term has wormed its way into colloquial usage and gets thrown about indiscriminately now, but little is more evocative of a carefree childhood than the phrase "happy camper." There's no telling how many of the five million boys and girls who attend some 8,500 camps in the U.S. each summer turn out to be happy ones. But we do know that only about 15% of all youngsters between the ages of five and 17, the "camping years," actually get a chance to find out. And to listen to advocates of summer camping, the other 85% are missing the single most valuable form of experiential education available in an age when technology is alienating us more and more from experience.

One of camping's most articulate spokesmen is Bob Ditter, a clinical social worker in Newton, Mass., who is a former camp counselor and founded a camp for emotionally disturbed children. A genial man who looks a little like actor Ed Begley Jr., Ditter plies the road during the summer, training camp staffs and mediating the myriad problems in human relations that crop up. "By taking kids into the outdoors, camps make them aware of something larger than themselves," he says. "And camps foster friendship and cooperation. In school, kids sit down and follow instructions. At camp they sit down and decide who gets the last piece.

"Kids don't really have to grapple with community anymore. Friendship and cooperation are values that are at odds with parents who are looking for an edge, who see their kids in a performance-oriented way. Unless parents have been to camp themselves, it's almost like speaking a foreign language, trying to get them to appreciate the value of the experience."

Does the following require subtitles?

A good liberal-arts summer camp teaches kids without their knowing it. Campers return home at the end of August padded and crated in experiences they couldn't have gotten anywhere else. Aboriginal children (at least in the movies) go walkabout. American kids (at least the lucky ones whose parents can afford the $2,000 to $4,000 fees) go to camp.

Camp isn't school. Kids can't short-sheet their principal's bed or stretch Saran Wrap across the toilet seat in the faculty bathroom. Waboos understands this, for he taught seventh- and eighth-grade English and history for years. "By reason of what school is, there's failure all over the place," he says. "If a youngster has a reading problem, every day can be a defeat. Content is paramount at school, but at camp, content is only a means to an end. You can't fail summer camp."

As municipal budgets shrink and taxpayers' resentment rises, some school districts have gone to a year-round calendar to increase operating efficiency and limit the cost of maintaining their buildings. Many more schools are considering the change. The implications for summer camps are enormous. In response, the industry's trade group, the American Camping Association (ACA), likes to trot out Peter Scales, deputy director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina's medical school, who has identified seven factors essential to the healthy development of youngsters: positive social interaction with adults and peers, physical activity, creative expression, self-definition, structure and clear limits, competence and achievement, and meaningful participation within a family, school and community. Scales maintains that most school systems consider only two of those factors—structure and clear limits, and competence and achievement—as attainable goals, while camps seek to provide all seven. (Schools' traditional sources of experiential education—athletics and electives like art, music and drama—are the first to go when budgets are cut. And even if sports and the arts escape the ax, they tend to become more and more exclusive from junior high onward, as all but the most talented youngsters are winnowed out of the programs.)

This may come as a surprise, but at the ACA's offices in Martinsville, Ind., the movie Meatballs, that bawdy caricature of camp life, is considered politically correct, because its essential message—even if you make only one good friend, or participate in one activity, it has been a good summer—is true to the goals of the enterprise. Imagine the National Education Association taking a similar stand on, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"This is a boy's place," says Pete Hare, Waboos's 32-year-old son and the director of the Wiantinaug wigwam. "Our job is just to make sure it doesn't turn into Lord of the Flies."

When you portage a canoe, you should walk like Groucho Marx. If Ditter gets a distress call from a camp director—for instance, the counselors have had to establish a DMZ in the cabins because campers are calculating the throw weights of their pillows—he usually recommends an overnight trip. "Kids can get a lot out of day camp, but it's not the same experience," he says. "Go out on an overnight and suddenly they're saying to themselves, 'Oh my god, we've got to cooperate. We're gonna die out here if we don't cooperate.' When kids go through something together, they bond. How many of our experiences in the suburbs are based on having actually been through something? Not many. It's like the joke, 'Where does milk come from?' 'It comes from the corner store.' I mean, who knows what a cow is anymore?"

Longer trips strengthen the bond. Consider the portage, the practice of carrying a canoe overland when you run out of water or you find the water moving too quickly to be navigable. A wooden wangan filled with supplies and canned goods is lashed to your back. A packed duffel bag sits atop the wangan. The gunnels of that canoe are driving deep into your hands as you carry it over a path of a mile, maybe more. And the mosquitoes aren't playing fair. Knowing you're defenseless, they feast on you with impunity.

There's no satisfaction whatsoever in this. Until you're done.

Richie Harter and I figured there was one great thing about paddling the Rideau Canal: We wouldn't have to portage, because the locks would do all the work. We should have known better. We should have known that fate would somehow even the score.

Our bladders finally empty, Richie and I traveled a few days farther up the Rideau. Then, one morning just after we started to paddle, a bone-chilling rain began to fall. It was Richie, in the stern, who lifted my spirits in the bow.

"You're in your living room," he intoned. "You're drinking hot chocolate. You're watching TV."

Reality had proved to be trying; fantasy would help pull us through. Every few miles we repeated it, our mantra now: "Living room. Hot chocolate. TV."

Camp needn't turn everyone into a granola-packing mountain man. If all it does is make you better appreciate your wretched suburban existence, it has done its job.

Credit for inventing camping as we know it is due to neither Allan Sherman nor Bill Murray, but to Frederick Gunn, the founder of The Gunnery, a private boys' school in Washington, Conn. In August 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, Gunn marched his students 40 miles to Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, hoping to give them a sense of the soldier's life. Those two weeks of communal living, campfire cooking, boating, hiking and swimming proved to be so beneficial that Gunnery Camp reconvened every summer for the next 18 years.

According to Daniel Cohen, who is writing a book about the social history of camping, most of the summer camps that cropped up in the wake of Gunn's experiment were laboratories for folks with some sort of agenda. In 1881 Ernest Balch, a student at Dartmouth College, founded a camp for the sons of the elite, seeking to ameliorate "the miserable existence of wealthy adolescent boys in the summer when they must accompany their parents to fashionable resorts and fall prey to the evils of life in high society." More commonly, camp directors subscribed to the Wilderness Cure, a late-19th-century movement that believed fresh air and natural surroundings were panaceas for social ailments ranging from delinquency to drinking.

A number of organizations, such as churches and labor unions, soon established camps of their own, making the experience available to a broad cross section of the population. Around the turn of this century the first camps for girls were established. Harvard president Charles Eliot called summer camp "the most significant contribution to education that America has given to the world." By the 1930s the ideas of philosopher John Dewey, with their emphasis on practical education, had gained popularity; they dovetailed neatly with camping, and the phenomenon boomed.

Most camps adopted the trappings of Native American culture. The Indian way of life—survival while living simply in the outdoors—fit camping's overarching mission. Plus, Native American society featured something that appealed directly to young people. "Kids between nine and 12 like to belong," says Ditter. "They love clubs. Indians were in tribes, and tribes are like clubs."

Twice daily, each of Keewaydin's four wigwams gathers for Indian Circle, and campers choose from a menu of activities. Keewaydin is keeping score in its own low-key way. And every wigwam maintains huge boards on which it pastes a "coup," a sort of merit badge, alongside the name of each camper who has distinguished himself in a particular activity.

The coup system is Keewaydin's gentle incentive to experiment, a counterweight to free choice. In every other respect, despite the rigorous trip program that sends every eight-week camper out twice each summer, the days are marked by an atmosphere so relaxed that visitors, especially those familiar with specialty camps, invariably remark about it. Rest hour is sacred, and a Thought for the Day is posted on the dining-hall door before breakfast each morning. "When they're in individual activities I like to think the quality of instruction is at the same level as a specialty camp's, only not so intense," says Russ MacDonald, who has been director of the Waramaug wigwam since the early 1970s. "I remember reading once about a football camp and how it scheduled 'mental-toughness sessions' each night. That phrase really stuck with me, "mental-toughness sessions.' We're going to stop far short of that."

Keewaydin stops short of that for a reason. It wants to protect its flanks, to ward off the encroachments of the modern world, of which intensity is one. "If I got up at Indian Circle and offered a choice between a hike to Rattlesnake Point and a trip down to the store to play video games, most of the hands would go up for video games," Pete Hare says. "But if I can get them to Rattlesnake Point, they'd never make any other choice again.

"I guess what I'm saying is, it takes. You have to sell it to kids, but it takes."

If a pitch is close, don't take it at 3 and 2. Last August I slipped into the Hare House, the cabin full of musty scrapbooks and moldering photographs that serves as Keewaydin's archive, to bone up on my three summers there. Leafing through the Kicker, the camp newspaper that Waboos read aloud each week at the Sunday night campfire, confirmed my worst fears. An account of the 1971 Dartmouth College Invitational Summer Camp Softball Tournament had survived the years.

Bottom of the 12th against Camp Kokosing. Keewaydin at bat, down one, with two outs and Sammy Kerr on third. The dispatch picks up: "The situation became classic! Alex Wolff, with a full count, thought the next pitch looked high and he let it pass. The umpire thought otherwise and called it a strike, and that was the ballgame."

It wasn't just the ball game. It was the end of life as I knew it. And if Keewaydin had been a baseball camp, or even a sports camp, there would have been a posse of cabinmates and counselors ready to confirm that I was indeed the miserable excuse for a human that I, through a haze of tears, saw myself to be that afternoon.

But you can't fail summer camp. And Keewaydin was a vast trampoline, ready to send my spirits up again as soon as they hit bottom. If I left Sammy Kerr stranded on third today, tomorrow I might team up with Roemer McPhee to design the most popular booth at the camp carnival. And the next day I might execute a full-bore dock landing, all by myself, in a majestic green canoe.

The report by the Kicker's correspondent seemed to recognize this. It went on: "Never have I seen nine men play so well for so long! The loss was heart-breaking, but the drive, determination, the all-out will to win exhibited by every member of our team was truly inspirational."

I had a sense of gratitude when I finished reading and walked out of the Hare House onto the greensward that sweeps from the flagpole to the dining hall at the center of camp. Presently a softball rolled to a stop at my feet.

"Hey, mister! Get that ball? Please?"

I picked the ball up and enjoyed the twinge in my shoulder as I chucked it back.


"You're welcome," I said to myself, a happy camper again.

Keewaydin is lucky. When 118 acres of adjacent land came up for sale a couple of years ago and threatened to fall into the hands of developers, the Keewaydin Foundation, which has owned the camp for about a decade, needed only a couple of months to raise the money to buy it. Indeed, any camp that counts among its alumni West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller and Disney CEO Michael Eisner isn't likely to go under.

But many of Keewaydin's liberal-arts kin face runaway insurance rates and skyrocketing real-estate-tax assessments. Each summer it becomes harder to find counselors, particularly certified waterfront staff. Meanwhile, not all the campers choose to stay the full eight weeks, which costs just under $3,000.

Camping has no control over perhaps its biggest problem: muddah and faddah. Two-career couples and divorced parents, feeling guilty about how little time they spend with their kids during the school year, may try to make amends over the summer by taking a child along on an essentially adult vacation. Waboos believes homesickness is often a sign of a clingy parent; a boy or girl will begin to adjust and, as soon as Keewaydin's two-week moratorium on visiting is over, the parents show up. They stay too long. They want to take their child out to eat and to spend the night at their motel. "It's a scary world out there these days, and parents want to hold them close." Waboos says. "Parents don't want to leave if their child's crying. What they don't see is that by the time they're a half mile down the road, he's stopped crying."

Camps sit in a time warp, and that's both their strength and the biggest threat to their survival. "The pressure to change comes from a feeling that kids are no longer what they used to be, and if we don't reflect that, we're out of business," says MacDonald. "It all depends on the values of the parents—do they worry about the video world, would they prefer their kid were up at Rattlesnake Point, do they believe that every night he isn't watching TV is worth the fee?"

Perhaps these parents are responding to the same social and economic forces that are muscling out health clubs, BMWs and sushi and replacing them with solitary runs, Hondas and macaroni and cheese. Whatever, summer camp may be rediscovered by a society downshifting its pace. "The pendulum's swinging back," says Dave VanDerWege, the ACA's director of member and field services. "Parents are starting to realize you can't have it all, and they're looking again at traditional camping experiences. It's a backlash against specialization."

Whether or not this trend toward simplicity proves enduring, Keewaydin will be there, a throwback oblivious to the prevailing fashion. Or largely oblivious. This summer Waboos is staying on as co-director at the request of James Wacker, 47, an outsider brought in by the foundation to give the entire operation a steely-eyed once-over—to weigh the essence of Keewaydin's past against the exigencies of its present.

Waboos has one vow. "I won't," he says, "let the grass get cut the wrong way."

Adults aren't right all of the time. Just most of the time. I prevailed upon my parents to sign me up for only four weeks that final summer, so I could spend a fortnight in August at basketball camp. This profoundly displeased Charlie Horner, the crusty staff man in the Moosalamoo wigwam who led the valedictory of Keewaydin trips, an 18-day trek for the most experienced campers through Canada's Algonquin Provincial Park.

It hardly surprised me that Horner was there when I went back last summer. Where else would he be? He still wore his drab-green coveralls and still played the stentorian backbencher in the dining hall each morning, bellowing out "What a day!" even if cold rain and blackflies had laid siege to Lake Dunmore overnight.

He had neither forgotten nor entirely forgiven me. As I gave him a brief accounting of my life since age 15, I sensed his vague disappointment that I hadn't turned out to be a serial killer as a result of wimping out on the Algonquin.

Now, as then, it was difficult to explain to him why I had chosen as I did. It was difficult to tell him that up in Canada I wasn't going to learn how to go hard to my left, and that to be able to go hard to my left was all, as I prepared to enter the 10th grade, I really wanted to do.

But I could tell him this: that I don't remember a thing about basketball camp. And that, conversely, the years have flattered Keewaydin's hoary ways—its spirit of happy euphemism, its knack for regarding acrylonitrile butadiene-styrene as a four-letter word, even its misbegotten excuse for a basketball court.

I can't say I'll mourn the day they pave the court over. But I do hope they paint it green.