Posted in Columns

Hello Mudder, hello Fadder: Remembering summer camp

Summer camp. My mind filled with memories of my own experiences as I sorted photos of a local Boy Scout troop’s most recent outdoor adventures.

I remember packing my stuff – the most important items included pens, paper, sketchbook and a contraband AM transistor radio (it was long before the Walkman or iPod appeared on the cultural radar)—for a week before my sister and I actually left for camp.

Fortunately, my mom had a bona fide checklist of the stuff we really needed. She inspected our suitcases and added superfluous items, like socks, underwear and a few extra T-shirts.

“You know, you’re not supposed to bring radios,” she said, rolling the socks together and lining them up along the inside edge of the suitcase.

“Um, yeah,” I said, setting the forbidden object on my bed and making a mental note to pack it when she wasn’t looking. Mom was more into rules than I was back then. You just couldn’t mess with my precious pop music.

Early Saturday morning, my parents woke us up, loaded our bags into the car and headed to the circus that was part of the leaving-for-camp ritual.

The parking lot swarmed with frantic parents trying to cover all the details and excited girls who just wanted to get to camp. A few official looking people carried clipboards, answered questions and pointed people in different directions.

My sister and I got on the enormous bus, complete with microscopic bathroom in the back. The motor rumbled and occasionally sighed, its diesel-scented breath filling the air.

Finally, it was time to leave. The doors snapped shut, the bus jerked forward, and we waved at the parents lined up like soldiers along the curb. I now suspect that as soon as the buses were out of sight, the parents high-fived each other and went out for a celebratory champagne breakfast.

That didn’t matter—we were finally headed to a parent-free zone with friends, campfires, swimming, canoeing, hiking and tons of other stuff to fill the long summer days for the next two weeks.

Hours later—OK, for a kid who tended to get carsick 99.99 percent of the time, it seemed like days later—we arrived at Camp Windego, somewhere in the forest that was Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Relief! Campers were quickly sorted as they leapt from the bus. This was usually the last time I saw my sister—other than meal-times–until the ride home, because we were always assigned to different units. We grabbed our bags, gathered into our groups and hiked into the woods in search of the tiny tent villages that would be our homes.

Granted, my camp experience wasn’t entirely primitive. Our tents sat on wood platforms off the ground. We had the choice of an outhouse or, if we wanted to walk a long, long way, there were actual flushing toilets out there in the woods.

It was primitive enough for me, a girl from the ‘burbs of Chicago. The outhouse was a no-go unless desperate measures were in order, like in the middle of the night. The same woods we skipped through during the day took on a Blair Witch Project look at night as our imaginations ran far ahead of the dim beam from our flashlights.

We hiked everywhere, singing silly camp songs along the way. I often wonder what my parents thought of the musical selections my sister and I would belt out in the back seat of the car when the mood struck. Sure, there were the traditional “If I had a hammer” and “Kumbaya,” but we liked the more interesting songs, like one about a billboard:

As I was walking down the street one dark and dreary day,
I came upon a billboard, and much to my dismay,
The sign was torn and tattered from a storm the night before.
The wind and rain had done its work and this is what I saw:
Smoke Coca Cola cigarettes;
Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint beer;
Ken-L-Ration dogfood keeps your complexion clear;
Simonize your baby with a Hershey’s candy bar;
And Texaco’s the beauty cream that’s used by all the stars.

That’s only the beginning. But after almost 30 years I remember every word!

Camp wasn’t always perfect. I usually attended with one friend or another from home—and inevitably, we’d end up in a big fight over who-knows-what, and not speak to each other until we were home for a good week. Then we’d cry, apologize, and forget what the fight was about in the first place. Stupid girl stuff.

I was introduced to horses at camp. My friend, Nancy, was a horse freak. I was not. Nancy convinced me we needed to be in the horse unit one year. I figured it would be an adventure, and maybe I would love horses as much as she did.

I was wrong.

The horse unit had to get up early to muck out the stalls (for you uninitiated, that means we had to shovel the horses’ poop) and feed and brush the horse that was ours for the two weeks.

Strike one: getting up at 5 a.m. was not my idea of fun at the time, especially because I tended to stay up until nearly midnight yacking with friends or reading a book by flashlight.

The bonus was supposed to be that we got to ride our horses before breakfast as well. However, we quickly learned that we were the lepers of Camp Windego, since the horsy smells tended to follow us wherever we went. We had our own table at the mess hall, and generally ignored the other girls’ wrinkled noses.

Strike two: the horses.My horse was named Nikki. I think horse people would describe her as an old nag. She uncooperatively poofed out her belly when I pulled the saddle straps around. If I didn’t pay attention, as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup and swung the other leg over, the saddle would slide sideways.

I swear she snickered when that happened.

Once I learned to check the straps more than once, I figured I had her conquered. Ha. She was always at the back of the line on trail rides, munching grass and leaves and taking her sweet time.

“No, Nikki!” I yelled, pulling the reins up and hoping her head would follow.

“Don’t let her eat. She’ll have a bad attitude,” our unit leader said.

It was too late for that. Nikki’s attitude was years in the making, probably from dealing with kids like me who had no clue about horses.

One day we were riding in the ring. Nikki must have had an itch to scratch, because she got down on her knees.

“What is she doing?” I asked, yanking the reins upward.

Nikki looked over her left shoulder, her eye gleaming. Then she started rolling over.

I jumped off.

“Don’t let her roll over,” the leader said.

Sure. No problem. By then I realized Nikki could do whatever she darn well pleased. She was much bigger than me and, I suspected, much smarter as well.

It was with relief that I would head back to the stalls, put Nikki inside and toss her a bunch of hay. That was the only time she was truly happy.

Nancy, of course, had a great time. She loved her horse, which was the biggest one. He was in the stall next to Nikki’s. One day when I was brushing Nikki, he leaned over the wall and bit me in the back. Maybe that’s what started our fight. Nancy thought it was kind of funny, and I’d had enough of horses. Never mind that at this point I realize she was right—it was funny.

Even the year of my horse adventures, when I looked forward to going home, the final night of camp was filled with tears around the campfire (more stupid girl stuff, I guess.) We’d sing our repertoire of pretty and obnoxious camp songs, talk about all the stuff we did, made amends with the people we didn’t get along with and exchanged addresses with the promise of writing at least once a week.

I remember the scent of smoke mixed with burning sugar—an invisible testament to the marshmallows that had dropped off our carefully carved sticks into the fire below, and canopy of stars far above our heads. I remember feeling like I was really part of the natural world.

Sometimes I wish I could go back, so I could appreciate every moment as it happened. My two weeks at summer camp gave me a chance to operate as an individual, without being defined by my parents or siblings. I saw and ex-perienced things I never would have otherwise. I probably have a better time visiting camp in my memories—and when I do camp that way, I don’t have to deal with mosquito bites.

 

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Author:

I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

19 thoughts on “Hello Mudder, hello Fadder: Remembering summer camp

  1. I also went to Camp Windego in the 1970s, and it was with delight that I read this post (found via a random google search). I too remember the words to that exact song you quoted, as do all Windego alumnae from the era I imagine. I can even recall the names of all the units (Pine Hollow, Flicker Ridge, Raspberry Hill, etc..). I too was in the “Mounted” unit one Summer, and laughed out loud about the “horsey smell” comments. I do recall, though, that we had the luxury of showering every day, compared to the other campers who only got to shower a couple times a week. Some things are just indelibly marked into our brains, I guess.

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  2. I was a counselor at Camp Windego in the 90’s and a camper there in the late 80’s. Even to this day, camp has a special place in my heart. It was the only place that was a constant in my late teens, early 20’s. I met some of the most amazing people and made some of my most cherished memories. I also discovered I was far more capable of things I never thought possible. I was really sad when I heard it had closed down. I really think in this day and age, with trechnology everywhere that having a place for kids to go, even if its only for a couple weeks, is important and needed more than ever. The Billboard song was great, though we had to stop singing it because parents complained about their daughters coming home singing it. We also couldn’t sing Rainbow Made of Children anymore either.I often find myself daydreaming about coming up with enough money to buy Camp Windego and reopen it, because as that song says, “For you belong to Camp Windego and Camp Windego belongs to you.”Tipper

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  3. I can’t believe you had to stop singing the billboard song because parents complained! Childhood is about being free to be silly – and that includes singing ridiculous camp songs. I’m sad to hear that Camp Windego closed. Camp is such a great way for kids to learn independence and, as Tipper said, try things they never thought they could do. Long live Camp Windego!-Chris

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  4. Wow, it has been nearly 20 years since I thought of the “mounted” and “advanced mounted” groups at Windego. I am also sad to hear it closed. I remember 2 horses in particular, Christopher and Chuckles. I had a counselor named Ros, who was one of the coolest counselors. She used to let me and my friends into her tent later at night where she was burning incense and eating some kind of trail mix with M&M’s in it. I just thought I would share some of my memories too. Anyone remember the camp songs, “Canadian Wilderness” or “Way Down Yonder not Far Away”?Ah, the good ol’ days.Thanks Fellow Windegoers!

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  5. What a joy reading these posts! I too was a camper at Windego, a CIT in high school, and then a counselor in 1992. Camp Windego is probably one of the fondest parts of my childhood. I loved the all girl environment where you could truly be yourself for a couple of weeks. I sing some of the songs to my young sons now (like “Rainbow Made of Children”0.Yes, I remember the songs “Canadian Wildneress” and “Way down yonder”. How about “Johnny Appleseed” when it rained?Who could forget the buddy board when you went swimming? Or the eventual raid on another unit that always ended with s’mores or banana boats.I hope my kids can grow up with a place as special. Long live Camp Windego!

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  6. Check out Camp Windego page on Facebook if you all are interested – it was started by one of the cousellors I went on Summer Camp with in 1997 – I was Dingo.

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  7. I was a counselor at Camp Windego in the mid-1970’s as waterfront staff. My camp name was Whisper. I think our director’s was “Sunny” (Jody Walls) or maybe it was Kathy Platco. (I worked at Camp Timberloft too and I get the two directors mixed up. Anyway, I loved working there. Would love to connect with some counselors I used to work with. Unfortunately, I was young and immature and may be remembered as a bit obnoxious. I do remember eating too much cake at the staff house and putting on the lbs over the summer!

    -Anne “Whisper” Ducey

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  8. Anne, you must have been a counselor at Windego when I was there as a camper. I remember Sunny! My counselors the last year I was there were Sioux and Cougar – theirs are the only other names I remember after all these years. We were in the horse unit. I have a vague memory of “Whisper,” but not a face to go with the name. I remember Sunny was blonde and gorgeous and I wanted to be her someday (never happened.) Sioux was tall and had long, really wavy hair and the best pair of worn-out and patched faded jeans I had ever seen in my life. (I was 12 – these things were very important back then!) Cougar had long, straight brown hair and she and the friend I came to camp with corresponded for some time after camp.

    Wow, the memories just keep coming back. Must be the warm weather – my soul just knows it’s camp time!

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  9. Do you remember Camp Timberloft? That was sold also.. I went to Timberloft for 3 or 4 summers and Windigo for my last summer camp so much fun… I wiish we could buy them back.

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  10. I went to Camp Timberloft and have such GREAT memories of it! I am bummed they sold the properties because these were some of my favorite memories of my childhood.

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  11. My sisters & I also went to Windego & Timberloft in the 70s. When my own daughter was old enough to go, I started looking for them; ten years too late, I'm afraid.

    I had forgotten the billboard song (though now that you mention it…here's the second verse…)
    So, take your next vacation in a brand new frididaire;
    Learn to play the piano… in your winter underwear;
    Doctors say that babies should smoke until they're three;
    and People over 65 should bathe in Lipton tea!

    My kids love those songs!

    If facebook & google had been so pervasive back then I'll bet we could have saved those wonderful camps. As it is, the scouting “horse” camp that she did attend was limited to just a couple two hour field trips for the week – hardly the immersive experience we had. (I'm sorry you didn't love those horses as much as I did.)

    Quiet, Byrd, Jethro, and Krebber and (Gawd – really?) Kegger! You wonderful ladies made an indellible impression on my life at a time when I really needed someone to look up to. Bless you all!

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  12. These messages are PRICELESS! Have the best memories of this camp. One summer I did two Advanced Horseback session in a row. Just enough time to wash clothes, board the bus and head back out!

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  13. Random google search while at work! I love this! I am Chip, went as a camper from 1980 and then staff from 1989-I can't even remember…I went back every year after I “retired” and spent the weekend anyway. When they sold it I thought my life was over, I even had nightmares. When they started building the houses and selling it off as lots I went back and collected what I could. They had actually burned down the structures. The lodge was a pile of ashes. It really was the best place I have ever been.

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  14. Amy colucio I was a camper at windego in the 90s I enjoy all the memories I too remember the horse chuckles she was usually my favorite to ride I was in mounted and advanced mounted

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