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.

ON FRIDAY EVENING, the camp’s senior boys donned matching bandanas and their most hard-ass game faces and walked deliberately to the top of the crest, the camp’s highest ground, for Rope Burn. Hundreds of people were assembled to watch from the sidelines, including parents on folding chairs. Rope Burn works like this: For each team, there’s a rope tied between two metal poles at a height of exactly 12.5 feet. The object is to build a fire below the rope that will climb high enough to sear through it. First team to burn its rope wins. They were allowed to use no matches, just flints. Wood-arranging methods to create maximum flame height had been passed down for ages, the preferred technique currently being “teepee-box-teepee.”

The sun was dipping below the trees. Team members hustled to gather logs and sticks from the nearby woods. Others started to dig fire pits. In the crowd, younger Blue and White campers traded frantic chants. Soon the sun was gone, and a half moon glowed in the sky. By 8:30, two bonfires raged. Boys raced for wood and added it to their piles, bravely reaching into the flames to arrange logs, urgently waving blankets to direct the blazes. They were drenched in sweat and dirt. Blue’s flame surged higher, and at 8:45 its rope broke first. Team members collapsed in a victory pigpile. Most of these boys wouldn’t be back as campers after this summer. There’s probably something about the rite of fire, the burning, the breaking of the rope, that symbolizes a departure from childhood. Anyway, it was intense. The heat of the flames was warming the crowd. The fires crackled audibly and threw off orange embers that twinkled against the dark sky and disappeared. The smoke blew in my face. Now it smelled like camp.

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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.

  • 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!