In many ways, Camp Voyageur prides itself on continuing in much the same manner that it has for decades. Although there have been necessary changes in order to adhere to new standards set by organizations such as the American Camping Association, the rhythms of any day in camp or on the trail are very similar to what they were in the 1950s.
There is a reason for that. While technology and trends change, the principles of building good character do not, and enjoyment of the outdoors is timeless. Still, there are some summer camp traditions that have fallen by the wayside over the years, and it’s fun to think of them as time capsules of bygone eras.
Here are five retired summer camp traditions that we’ve come up with. If you can recall these vividly, or if you can think of other old camp practices, post them in the comments section below.
Free Swim is a regular part of every day in camp (usually once in the late morning, once following the afternoon activity, and once in the early evening). But Free Swim used to be part of every night as well. Before sleeping, in the thick Northwoods darkness, campers used to congregate on the dock and swim beneath the glow of a spotlight—yes, there used to be an overhead light perched atop the swimming area. It’s a fun idea, but it was ultimately retired—we’re pinpointing sometime in the 1980s—as night swimming became a thing that most camps abandoned for lifeguarding purposes.
Every now and then, while paddling on the trail, you’ll come across a humongous pine log, a timber relic from when the Northwoods used to be Ground Zero for the logging industry. What are now the lakes of the Boundary Waters used to be the transportation means for millions of sawed logs; the floating logs would be pushed across the water, ultimately to a number of different sawmills on the banks of the lakes. At some point in the history, one such log was chained to the lake bottom not far from the space we know as the camp bay. It came to be known as a camp landmark—nicknamed affectionately “Nature Boy.” Campers of the 1950s and 1960s frequently used Nature Boy as a marker during canoe races; leaving the boat dock, paddling around the tip of the log, and then returning to the dock was a common sailing route too. The log was also a favorite resting spot for gulls. At some point, the submerged tip of timber started to disappear as Nature Boy sank to the depths. “Every summer, we’d notice the log getting smaller,” says Vicki Burgman. “It eroded and sank little by little. One summer we went up to camp and it was gone.” Whatever remains of the big log is presumably still resting on the lake floor. Maybe someday it will once again bob to the water’s surface.
Modern-day campers might occasionally hear jokes about the presence of “root beer at the Narrows.” And root beer has long been a favorite beverage of campers dating back to the days of the Root Beer Lady, Dorothy Molter, living up on Knife Lake. But there is another reason that root beer seems to be referenced more often at camp than practically anywhere else in the world. The town of Ely used to be home to a popular A&W fast-food restaurant…the same A&W company that still makes the famous root beer cola. So, root beer from the A&W used to be a popular refreshment that counselors would bring to their cabins in gallon jugs—often as a reward for winning the most inspections in a given camp session. The tradition ended when Ely’s A&W restaurant went out of business in the early 1990s, but campers’ frequent cravings for root beer lives on.
The camp peninsula is now equipped with high speed Internet, and there are some really cool camping-related smartphone apps. But there was a time when Camp Voyageur did not have any phone at all. Phone calls to camp were retrieved instead by a nearby resort called the Pine Point Lodge. If there was a phone message for camp, the owners of Pine Point would place a red bandana on Pine Point’s mailbox. Charlie Erdmann would then stroll by the lodge at some point, get the message(s), and return to camp. In terms of modern communication, that’s about as old-school as it gets.
If campers think that food packs are heavy now, imagine the food packs from the 1950s. Back then, there were no Leave No Trace regulations prohibiting the use of tin cans on the trail, so most of the meals in the food packs resided as separate ingredients in large cans…a can of beans, a can of spaghetti sauce, etc. As a given trip progressed and food got eaten, the empty tin cans were then filled with rocks and discarded in the middle of the lakes. That’s not an exaggeration—such littering seems laughably irresponsible now and certainly citation-worthy from any passing rangers, but it was a far different era of eco-awareness. Some of the traditions listed above (such as the root beer from the A&W) sound great, but the dumping of tin cans in the middle of lakes is a practice that we are happy to see retired.