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.

I ARRIVED FOR my week at Kweebec on a dry Sunday afternoon, as the annual Color War, that most resilient tradition, was about to begin. At the entry to the camp is a dusty central field, a hundred yards of matted yellow grass and dirt paths, the kind that can make you feel like you’re far away from everything. There was an unfortunate delay to the Color War opening ceremony, which at Kweebec they call the “break” because like all smart camps, they have a special word for everything. (The camp nurse would tell me: “For my first week, I thought I couldn’t do this job, because I didn’t know what anybody was talking about.”)

They pronounce Kweebec the way Americans say “Quebec,” though it’s located in less-exotic-sounding Schwenksville, which is off the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension before you get to the Poconos. One legend says the original owners had their honeymoon in the French-Canadian city and, when they found the name had already been taken by another camp, just camp-etized it with a K. Kweebec has had a reputation as a sports camp ever since Les Weiser, a former Lower Merion lacrosse coach and childhood Kweebec camper himself, bought the place in 1969 and started inviting athletes as guest instructors, studs like Wilt Chamberlain, Harold Carmichael, Stanley Cup-era Flyers. The camp still attracts jock-y kids. There’s a resident tennis pro. It also has art, music, theater and a horse-riding ring, and the staff takes older campers on road trips to go sight-seeing and even check out colleges.

Overnight camps cost a lot to run these days, and they’re not cheap. The fee at Kweebec is $8,795 for seven weeks ($8,995 for older kids), which depending on your income bracket seems like either what’s wrong with America or the going rate for this kind of thing. Pine Forest and Canadensis, up in the Poconos, cost a little more. Saginaw, Green Lane and Nock-a-Mixon are a little less. The specialized Krinsky camps can run $6,000 for four weeks. These fees, now the norm, reminded me of Meatballs, the 1979 movie where Bill Murray plays a counselor at bargain-basement Camp North Star. In one scene, he does a local TV interview posing as a programs director for Camp Mohawk, the ritzier across-the-lake rival.

“How do you justify $1,000 a week?” the reporter asks. “Well, our political roundtable,” Murray says. “Yasser Arafat is gonna come out, spend a weekend with the kids, just rap with them. … The kids wanted animals, so this summer each camper will stalk and kill his own bear in our private wildlife preserve. … ”

Anyway, by tradition, Color War at Kweebec “breaks” with a wacky surprise event. They’ve had fireworks displays. One year they brought in elephants. Campers don’t know when the break is coming, but when something bizarre starts, they know what it means. The mastermind behind the breaks is Rachel Weiser Weisman, the often-frantic eldest daughter of camp owners Les and Maddy Weiser. For this year’s break, she arranged for a small fire to be set on the grounds. The Limerick fire department would roar in, sirens sounding, and douse the blaze. The gathering campers would realize this was it: Color War was on! But the local FD had an actual emergency, and Rachel had to scramble for a new idea. The break would be delayed.

In the mess hall for dinner that night—turkey, string beans, chocolate cake, bug juice—the kids sensed something was up. A table of little girls chanted “One-two-three-four, we want a Color War!” while performing ritualistic clapping and fist-knocking gestures. On the wood walls all around the cafeteria were remnants of Color Wars past, hand-painted plaques from the “chariots” the senior-bunk girls have built for each year’s Chariot Race. Competing in the Chariot Race is a milestone to which every Kweebec girl aspires. For boys, it’s a rite-of-passage event called Rope Burn, which isn’t what it sounds like.

Waiting for the war to break, I continued my informal hunt for evocative smells. I toured a boys’ bunk, Oklahoma (all the bunks are named after colleges), and it was familiar: the metal-frame bunk beds, clothes hanging on rafters, toiletries fighting for space. But it did nothing for me smell-wise. Campers don’t even bring trunks anymore. Now it’s backpacks, soft duffels. A lot at camp is softer now. They still do bunk inspections at Kweebec, but they don’t require hospital corners on sheets. They don’t play “Reveille” in the morning. “It startles the kids too much,” Rachel Weiser Weisman told me. “We wake up the kids by flipping on the lights and sort of saying ‘Good morning!’”

Horseplay in general is down. Being responsible for children these days has become a high-wire act. You can’t endanger kids, you can’t discipline them, you can’t get too close. I asked Les, whom campers call Uncle Les, about navigating the modern territory. “The question comes up: How do you hug a kid?” he says. The answer at today’s camp is this: “You hug from the side.”

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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.

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

  • 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.

  • danbloom

    i went to camp beckett in western mass 1950s but same same and the black steamer trunk, yes! Don, great story! the letter u wrote “”dear everybody camp is okay but getting worse” – priceless! should be title of a book!