This One is Kinda Like a REAL Article

I have not always been the most serious writer. Nor am I now. There are brief windows where I write things that are not just pure fluff, with at best a nugget of substance buried in the middle, like a piece of broccoli stuck in the middle of a mound of cotton candy. This feature occurred in one of those brief non-fluff periods, and I'm a little proud of this one.

Summer at Camp

Everyone has a “camp story.” Here’s mine.  We were finishing up the week at Camp Phillips, the Boy Scout camp near Haugen, Wisconsin. I was fourteen.  It would be my last time attending Camp Phillips, because the next summer I would start working at Arby’s and discover girls (it was a big summer).  The group of friends I had attended camp with for several previous summers wanted to pull some sort of prank, and one of the guys (I think it was Dave Chatham) had a great idea.  We would deconstruct the footbridge leading out to Craft Island, the little hump of land where all the scouts went to learn whittling and beadwork, which was separated from shore by a dozen feet of swampy water.  We would then leave the pieces of the bridge on the island side, so whoever came the next morning would have to wade the four-feet-deep span and put the bridge back together.  It was probably the perfect prank.  No one got hurt, it was original, and, for whatever reason, making people become unnecessarily wet is always absolutely hilarious.

We stayed up until all of the counselors had gone to sleep, and then commenced with our mission.  Mike Corey was in the water, and he helped the rest of us pick up the sections of wood footbridge and stack them nicely on the island.  While we were hefting the surprisingly heavy pieces, a storm was rolling in, with that amazing type of lighting that seems to flash non-stop.  I remember the picture so well - four teenage guys, the teamwork, the mischief, with stars overhead and lightning on the horizon backlighting the whole scene.  I don’t think any of us were on hand the next day to witness the reaction of the unfortunate craft-minded Boy Scout who discovered our work, but we convinced ourselves that everyone heard about it and got really worked up, and that our prank would resound through the annals of Camp Phillips history for decades.

My story is hardly unique or special because summer camp is where the greatest pranks took place, the most heart-wrenching relationships began and ended, the most legendary injuries were suffered, and the most pivotal friendships were founded or discarded.  There are a ton of different types of summer camps, ranging from the hardcore outdoor weeks of Boy and Girl Scout camp to the dichotomous allure of co-ed religious summer camp to the sweat and exhaustion of sleepover sports camps.  But whether campers stay in tents or cabins or college dorm rooms, whether the days are filled with archery or leatherworking or lay-up drills, whether the kids are primary-school first-year campers or sullen hormonal teenagers or counselors returning from college, the basic substance of summer camp is almost universal.

There is one camp, however, that seems to be more universal for the Chippewa Valley than the aforementioned summer experiences.  You can tell by taking a small sample of area t-shirts.  If you exclude Packers apparel, the most popular T-shirt subject perhaps in all of western Wisconsin is Camp Manitou.  If you spend any significant amount of time with a group of Chippewa Valley kids, you will eventually hear talk of the “Mud Hike” and their hopes of getting on “kitchen staff.”  Those are only the surface indicators of the prevalence of this camp.  Every summer, three times more high school and college students apply to work at Camp Manitou than there are positions available.  Campers come from across the country – parents who spent their childhoods at Manitou send their kids to Manitou no matter where they are currently living.  Over the camp’s eighty-three year existence, many tens of thousands of current and former Chippewa Valley residents have built their “universal” camp memories in the same place.  Area kids are divided between all of our school buildings, the places where they like to hang out are constantly shifting, and there are too many parks, playgrounds, and sport options to provide any cohesion among local youth.  This leaves Camp Manitou as one of the few common experiences shared by generations of Chippewa Valley kids.

If you are one of Camp Manitou’s alumni, hopefully this article will be an update on how the ol’ place is doing, and an opportunity to have one of those fuzzy moments where you remember your own camp experiences.  For the rest of us, this should shed some light on what everyone else is talking about.  I visited Camp Manitou for an afternoon in early July, which was nowhere near long enough for me to feel I now had a “Manitou experience” to share with the throngs of Manitou faithful.  It was sufficient, though, to fill me in on what everyone else is talking about.  I even put on a little bug spray while I was there to mimic a real camping experience.  But first we have to start with the basics.

Camp Manitou is located just past New Auburn, Wisconsin, about 45 minutes from Eau Claire.  You may remember New Auburn as the subject of Mike Perry’s book, Population 485, although, according to the city limits sign, the population is no longer 485, which may cause a little dissonance.  Camp Manitou looks like what you would expect any northern Wisconsin camp to look like.  There is a giant field surrounded by cabins and trees.  There are also larger lodges for the requisite dining hall, camp store, and camp stage.  Behind all of the structures is a beautiful Wisconsin lake (Long Lake, in this case).  There are canoes leaning against each other by the water, towels and abandoned sweat shirts hanging on wood fences and handrails throughout the camp, and of course, lots of kids all going in different directions and talking excitedly.  Matt, the photographer, and I chose the lodge with the auditorium to enter and announce our arrival.  We did not find anyone in the building, but we did find an array of taxidermied animals.  How can this place be so magical and so outstanding among summer camps, I thought, if it is basically just another summer camp?

After a few minutes we were led to the camp store and Manitou’s Camp Administrator, Carol Fahrenkrog, a woman who has a remarkable amount of energy for someone who spends every minute of her summer with a rotating stock of 150 ten-year olds.  She took us on a tour of camp, and continued filling us in on the specifics of Manitou.  Camp Manitou is part of the Eau Claire YMCA, and while YMCA membership is not necessary for you or your child to attend Manitou, it will earn you a small discount on camp tuition.  The camp operates eight sessions a year.  Six of the weeks are reserved for up to 160 eight-to-twelve year old kids per week, and the remaining two sessions are Teen Weeks for up to 190 thirteen-to-fifteen year olds.  In addition to the regular sessions, Manitou also offers adventure trips for the older kids, including a Flambeau canoe trip, and Isle Royale backpacking trip, and an Apostle Island kayaking trip, as well as some on site sailing and water-skiing camps.  The camp is also available for private events – Kurt Lothe, the Camp Director, lives at Manitou year round and facilitates school groups, church groups, business retreats, and weddings during the fall and spring.

Although the camp’s layout may not separate it from the pack of other summer camps, its history certainly does.  The camp was started in 1923, and it was originally for boys only.  Carol told us that the morning of our visit, she had breakfast with Owen Ayres, a camper from the 30’s who has since donated to the camp and remains, seventy-some years later, a big camp supporter.  “He came into the cabin he built,” said Carol, “and said, ‘You need new bunks.’  So, we got all new bunks in that cabin.”  In fact, each of the cabins bears the last name of a camp supporter, names like Wahl and Ayres, which are also quite prevalent in the cities of Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.  This kind of continued support has produced some really impressive facilities at Manitou, including a brand new health lodge currently under construction.  While the camp looks pretty standard on the surface, campers will never face the dreaded bug-bites on the rear from hurried outhouse visits.  The boys and girls sides of the camp each have bathrooms with that super-fancy running water, and the cabins are miles ahead of the screened-in shacks that were the ritzy cabins of my camp experience.

Regardless of how nice the cabins are or how much land the camp sits on (Manitou has 120 acres), what makes or breaks a camp is how the days are filled.  The activities have to be fun and independent enough to keep the kids’ interest, but must also provide some sort of value to appease the parents and their checkbooks.  Manitou is fundamentally an outdoor camp, and everyday the kids have time to learn about orienteering, canoeing, fishing, sailing, arts and crafts, and all the other camp classics.  Once morning is over, though, the focus shifts away from all that boring learning to what the kids really want and what they are getting less and less of back home – running around and yelling and swimming and playing giant, camp-wide games, like Capture the Flag and Battle Ball.  They even still play pranks.  One of the cabins we visited had all of its bunks stacked under the deck outside, and full cups of water stacked everywhere inside.  Carol also told us about a prank that made our bridge deconstruction prank look far less creative.  One summer, a group of kids set up the salad bar cart in the field and put all of the taxidermied animals holding trays in “line” behind it.  Every evening offers a different program, from campfires to skit night to an all-camp dance.  When we stopped at one of the cabins, the group of boys and their counselor gave a reprise performance of their skit, complete with group choreography and a kid popping out of a Rubbermaid tub.  I was struck by their performance.  These ten to twelve year old kids, whose parents probably face epic battles in trying to get them to clean their rooms and go to bed, were not only willing but excited to dance for a complete stranger.

Of all the games, programs, and activities, though, two endeavors share the spotlight as the most popular and talked about activities among current and former campers.  The first is the Blob.  The Blob is a giant, inflated sack that sits off the right side of the swimming area.  One kid jumps on and crawls to the far end.  A second kid climbs the little tower, jumps on the near end, and sends the first kid rocketing up and into the lake.  While the Blob is fun, the other activity is legendary.  This activity comes close to defining the whole Manitou experience.  This activity is the Mud Hike.

Due to a little unique geography, Camp Manitou is home to a very noteworthy trail.  It’s covered in water, about chest-high on the kids.  At the beginning of the trail, the water is coffee-colored, but still qualifies as water.  As the trail progresses, the water slowly fades into pure, nasty, stinky mud.  By the end of the trail, the kids have to drag themselves on their stomachs, completely covered in brown goo.  Despite the best persuasive efforts of numerous campers and counselors, I did not participate in the mud hike.  I was wearing my nice shorts.  And, okay, I’m a big chicken.  But I did watch the antics with a little bit of envy.  Some of the older kids do flips off the edge, sending mud splattering everywhere, and one girl did a headstand, burying her head in the mud up to her shoulders.  Those that attempt to stand up in the few feet of mud become hopelessly stuck, and many lose their shoes trying to escape.  At the end of the trail, there is a giant pile of shoes, representing years, maybe decades’ worth of footwear that were abandoned in the trail.  If a better symbol for summer camp exists, I cannot imagine what it would be.  As children’s lives become increasingly structured, the culmination of their week of vacation is spending an afternoon playing in the mud.

In Camp Manitou’s lodge, the walls are covered with large wood plaques that contain the names of award winning campers from every summer of the camp’s existence.  Before we left for the mud hike, I had a few free minutes, and with nothing better to do, I started reading the names.  After skimming through a few of the more recent plaques, I was amused by finding the names of people I knew.  I found quite a few of my own students, as well as the sports stars and student council presidents of the area high schools.  Then, going back a few more years, I discovered my own classmates and friends’ siblings, then coworkers and area artists and musicians, then some of my own teachers when I was in school, then friends’ parents and big names of local business.  That is what separates Manitou.  This is where our entire community went to have fun.

While camp attendance is strong as ever, Carol explained that it is increasingly facing some tough competition.  “Parents these days have a really hard time choosing between sports camps and us.  If you are going to spend a couple hundred dollars, are you going to send your kid to soccer or basketball camp that will improve their skills for nine months or a fun camp.”  If it were left up to the kids, though, I suspect Manitou will have no problems.  Of all the summer camps, Manitou has the most mud.  As I watched the campers on the mud hike, their teamwork in pulling each other out of the mud, their mischief in ruining their nice t-shirts and getting as dirty as they ever will, with the whole scene lit by the shining afternoon sun, I realized that I was seeing the picture that they would remember.