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.”