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.