A Summer at Camp Kweebec

Our writer grabs a bunk at one of Philly’s most iconic camps to see the epic, high-emotion moments that defined life at summer camp for generations.

Campers at the summer camp Camp Kweebec, outside of Philadelphia.

Here are some things kids are still doing at sleep-away summer camp: learning woodworking, taking swimming lessons, making bracelets out of colored strings and letter beads that spell EMILY or ALLIE, trudging back to a hunter green cabin after an endless sunstroke kickball game, running to the canteen for water ice on moonlit, cricket-serenade nights, writing letters home begging for gum, getting the nickname “Chunks,” zip-lining, co-opting Indian words, obsessing over the girls/boys in the other bunks, dodging bees, collecting splinters, fighting homesickness, and trying to look cool despite everything.

I witnessed many of these activities last August, when I—a full-grown man—spent most of a week embedded at Camp Kweebec, a camp for boys and girls ages six to 16 in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.

One thing I was determined to investigate upon my arrival was whether camp still smelled the same. I have vague sense-memories from my camp days decades ago, and probably the strongest is the musty aroma of the black steamer trunk, with its sturdy cardboard shelf, that I set up next to my cot. I inherited it from an older cousin who, my forensic sniff test indicated, had died in it, tragically perspiring to death after overdosing on mothballs.

I have to admit, the camp memories I’ve extracted from the mildewed footlocker of my mind are mixed and a little warped. As a kid, I attended overnight camps in New England for parts of three summers, but my experience was more Holden Caulfield than Huckleberry Finn. I was introverted, scared to swim, tiny for my age. I would have been happy to stay home playing wiffle ball and drawing comics with friends I already had. I recently dug through some old papers and found a progress report that my first camp counselor, straining to be upbeat, wrote to my parents when I was eight: “Donny has gotten over the ‘smallest kid in the cabin’ syndrome and has been getting along with the other boys fairly well. He has adjusted to the camp program and seems to enjoy it.”

One famous letter I wrote home begins: “Dear Everybody, Camp is ok but getting worse.”

The camp memory that always comes to my mind first is from a rainy day when water activities were canceled due to bad weather, a turn of events that secretly made me happy. I was watching a storm whip up the lake, along with a few kids and the swim instructor, and I got up the nerve to speak out loud for a change: “I wouldn’t want to swim in that!” The swim instructor cruelly cracked, “You can’t swim.” I guess he showed me, because I didn’t talk a lot after that. After all these years, I’ll only grudgingly forgive him now. Maybe he’s dead.

My experience isn’t typical. Thousands of delighted families across the Philadelphia region have sent offspring to overnight camps to play sports and make friends and become young adults, and those kids loved every minute of it. I know many of them as old adults. They’re pillars of society: lawyers, doctors, executives. Some couldn’t get enough; they became counselors after they couldn’t be campers anymore, then had children so they could send them.

Kweebec, founded in the 1930s, is the kind of traditional camp that generations of Philadelphians have lodged in their memories as pure and unadulterated, the sort of institution that remains the way it was when things were still great, like scorekeeping a baseball game or blowing out birthday candles. My official assignment there was to investigate how summer camp has or hasn’t changed, to contemplate why the tradition has stood the test of time. My unofficial mission was to see if I could discover what I’d missed as a kid. And maybe smell around a little.

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  • Mole

    Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole! Mole!

  • Marlyn Abramson

    I was a camper at Kweebec for ten years during the Witman years,I met my husband their and we are celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary on July 2nd. There is no way for me to describe my feeling about this camp. This time of year when my grandchildren are getting ready for camp I have a very special feeling for the process. With Love for Kweebec, Marlyn Abramson

  • Josh Baron

    I’m not a Kweebec alum, I made my memories and friends at rival Nock-A-Mixon, but the article resonates all the same! You made the ‘smells’ come back for me and it’s been years since I’ve been there. I sit here at the pool with my daughters and can’t wait till a few years from now when the pool will be empty because they’ll be at Camp making the memories and friends of their own! Thanks for taking me back in time!

  • Shana Schwartz

    I went to Camp Kweebec as a child and worked there as adult for 10 years. My three kids are there now for their 12th summer! I enjoyed this article on so many levels. Not just because Tyler the boy who ate the pie is my son. Thanks for the laughs and the tears.

  • http://www.summercampculture.com Matt Ralph

    Great article, Don. It really took me back to my own summer camp experiences.

  • http://www.seattletimes.com Nancy Leson

    What? No mention of Golden Slipper? Steinberg: You’re forgiven. Why? Because you’ve brought it all back.

    From reveille to hospital corners, “To the dining hall — March!” Our “aunts” and “uncles” (Jewish, mostly, and Philadelphians, but others too, imported from Sweden).

    Swimming in the freezing lake in the Poconos. The talent night when I did my Babs Streisand imitation (“Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and puttah!” — yes, I was 12, or was it 13?) Bug juice. Mystery meat. “What are we waiting for?” Treats!”

    The rainy-day activities: break into groups, test each other on skills like coming up with a song with the word `blue’ in it, pass it on. Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movies!

    Camp crushes. (Hello, Gary Discount!); “Stop! At the Nature Lodge! (sung to a Supremes beat); teaching the little AME black kids in our bunk how to bless their food “Baruch atah, adenoi”; Olympics (me, in a canoe, with my younger brother); those coveted Feather Awards (my sister Sherry, now 52 years old, still has hers — in a trunk that looks a lot like your mothball-scented version, Steinberg).

    And always, before we went to back to our bunks to tell stories while sleeping in the cold mountain air under itchy wool blankets, holding hands and singing “Friends, friends, friends, we will always be, whether in fair or in dark, stormy weather dear Slipper Camp will hold us together . . .”

    Which, by the way, my siblings, cousins and I sung 15 years ago at my wedding here near Seattle, while our spouses and children looked on and tried, but failed, not to roll their eyes.

    Thanks for this. Yeah. It brings me back. Way back.

  • Rich Jacobson

    I went to Camp Kweebec from 1970-1975 and ended my camping career in Bunk Villanova. These are perhaps the most beloved years of my life and certainly the most influential. To me, my brother Mitch and sister Amy, Kweebec was life and we could not get enough. Your description of eating the pie is right on, I should know I eat the pie and won… the most impactful event of my life then and maybe up until now. For me eating the pie, winning and having the admiration of half the camp gave me the confidence to think bigger and to take chances. Those who know me and were there, know this. I once mentioned this to Les Wiser and he told me he had heard that before.

    My children often hear me sing camp songs adapted for Color War, or chant a fight song, Friendship or Entrance song I sung some 40 years ago. Just today my wife mentioned something about a ‘Space Man’ and I broke into a color war cheer…camp is just a part of me and I guess I never want to leave it. Color War at camp taught us about competition and sportsmanship, where else would I have experienced track and swim meets and so many other sporting events that when we now watch the Olympics I tell my kids the events I was in. I was in the sweatshirt relay and the underwater swim… what great times. Reading your description of Rope Burning brought back so many memories, this was a right of passage for the oldest guys in camp, I still have my piece of rope for the year I won.

    I wish I could sing to you my camp songs or funny skits we made up about Danny (Les’s dog) Les, Steve Axelrod, Bobby Neckretz, Mitch Kurtz and so many more camp characters of my day, of course there is always ‘You Tube’… maybe one day.

    My camp experience formed the person I am today without question, thank you Camp Kweebec.

  • Sherri

    Just read your Kweebec article. It was very realistic.. I am a mother of two campers. One was in Villanova in 2010. and my daughter is currently in Wellesley. I’m gonna miss these summers for them. The friends they have made are truly long lasting.