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home : community : features May 26, 2016

8/7/2014 4:58:00 PM
Camp Kawaga: 100 years of 'character building'
Traditions continue to turn boys into men
Karen “Dewey” and Matt Abrams, camp directors at Kawaga.Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Karen “Dewey” and Matt Abrams, camp directors at Kawaga.

Raymond T. Rivard photograph

The cabins at Kawaga.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph
The cabins at Kawaga.

Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Raymond T. Rivard
Features Editor

One hundred years is a long time – more than many of us will ever experience on this planet.

But for those who have attended or worked at Camp Kawaga, situated for the past century along the shores of Minocqua’s Lake Kawaguesaga, it’s not surprising that the camp has been thriving this long.

The dream of its founder, Dr. Bernard Ehrenreich, commonly known as Doc E, was clear and concise, living on to this day because of its simplicity. He only wanted to find the ideal place to help  ... boys meaningfully develop into manhood. 

When Doc E came to Wisconsin 100 years ago, he found the perfect setting for his dream. That’s when he purchased the 160 acres outside of Minocqua to carry out his mission.

Since that time, the camping life for boys at Camp Kawaga grew into its present form – an effort that brings campers and staffers literally from across the planet to Minocqua each summer.

Here is what Doc E envisioned 100 years ago and the reason why the camp thrives into the 21st century: “The underlying ideal of Camp Kawaga is character-building. Fun, yes, but always with the thought in mind of the final effect of the boy.”


Carrying the torch

And for Matt and Karen Abrams, they continue to live the dream, not only for themselves, but as the camp’s directors who now carry the mission toward the next 100 years.

Now in their seventh year as directors, the Buffalo Grove, Ill., couple, who are both in their 30s, have literally grown up through the camping experience and have decided to continue as adults because of the individual growth and social evolution they see within each camper with whom they work. 

“The tradition that was being taught 100 years ago is still relevant to what we are teaching now,” Karen, also known as “Dewey,” said about the value of being a camp director. 

“I think it’s amazing that the core traditions and foundation remain strong – that’s why campers come back, why counselors come back, year-after-year.”

Matt Abrams, who doubles as an attorney, loves both of his careers, but isn’t about to give up his experiences with camp life.

Matt reiterated his wife’s respect and admiration of camp and how it has shaped and formed not only his own belief system, but that of so many others.

During a recent gathering of camp alumni, Matt took the time to sit back and take it all in.

“During that alumni weekend where I knew a lot of the guys, it was very neat and heartwarming to hear how five to six different generations described how ... camp helped them succeed in life or how the friends they made here are their true friends.

“That’s the Kawaga ideal. Alumni tell us all the time that they live by it and show it to their kids.

“There are a lot of great truisms here that have helped over the past 100 years. We’re happy with what we have here.”

“Although the world has changed greatly in the past 100 years,” said Peter Zollo, the camp’s executive director,  “Kawaga’s traditions and daily life remain remarkably timeless.” 

Zollo’s first summer at Kawaga was as a 10-year-old in 1965. His two sons attended the camp for a combined 30 summers.

And that’s not an unusual statistic.


Family-oriented camp

Boys who come to camp tend to return year-after-year, according to Matt and Dewey. Many of the campers’ positive experiences eventually allow them to take the steps to become counselors-in-training and then move into becoming camp counselors themselves as they age into their college years.

“At this camp, a lot of campers become staff members ... they literally grow up at camp,” Dewey said.

A big reason for that fact is because of how campers are recruited and treated once they come to camp.

“We’re family-oriented here,” Matt said. “As a privately-owned camp, Kawaga is a bit different.”

First of all, there has been stability in both ownership and structure of the camp.

The camp has been owned by just three families in the past 100 years.

The current family owner, the Fishers, bought the camp in 1986.

Prior to that, Doc E and his son, Lou   Ehrenreich, owned and operated the camp. Lou “carried he torch” of his father’s vision and ideals through the years until turning the camp over to Ron and Liz Silverstein in 1968, who operated Kawaga until 1986 when the Fishers took ownership. 

According to Zollo, “the four Fisher brothers – Bobby, Michael, Marc, and David – were Kawaga campers and counselors; together they have eight sons who have attended Kawaga. David, better known as Duke, directed camp from 1987-92.”

And because of the structure in place, as well as their desire to carry on the tradition while improving the experience for future campers, Matt and Dewey pay a great amount of attention to detail when using the “offseason” to hire staff and recruit campers.

“I hire the staff and do all the recruiting,” Matt said.

“The main advertising we have is word-of-mouth through families who have been to the camp,” he added.

Those who are interested in attending, Matt said, usually make contact through the camp’s website, by calling or through email.

“When they reach out, I touch base with families, set up home visits and travel across the country to meet with families. 

“From September through March, I will meet with them. Even if they already have a friend in camp it’s important that they meet me face-to-face for that personal attention. That’s very important to us.”

As Matt meets the prospective campers, he sees many differences in individuals.

“Some are ready ... we know the camp parents want to meet [us] as the director and the personal touch is really important to us in our recruiting. 

“We want to know that the camper is right for the camp, too. We don’t want them here if they are not ready to be here.”


Heading to camp

After considering these and other factors in their recruiting, the travel arrangements are made for campers.

For the most part, the campers travel north to Minocqua on a bus that makes pickups starting in Illinois and at points along the way.

Part of the tradition and getting off to a good start is the bus trip to camp. It allows campers the opportunity to get acquainted before they arrive.

Once at camp, the counselors and directors make known the cabin assignments – an evolving process that is also part of the growing and maturation process for campers.

Sometimes it’s just difficult to get along.

The challenge is finding the right mix, especially when there are 10 to 15 kids living in each cabin.

But learning to live, work and play together is what camp is all about. 

What’s also unique about the camp is the effort to mix differing age levels of children together in the various games and activities that take place all day long.

“We have really good kids here,” Matt said. “We have a big and little brother program and all the kids are taught regularly to look out for each other.”

It’s that impetus that also brings boys into the camp culture and allows them to learn the importance of leadership and decision-making – it’s also what drives campers to become counselors and for some to move on to eventually take over as directors.

Dewey and Matt are perfect examples of growing up in camp. After spending their youth attending camp in the Lakeland area, they both moved up in the ranks and had the opportunity to eventually work together. Matt proposed to Dewey on Kawaga’s Sunset Dock and they took over as associate directors at Kawaga in 2008. They started full-time as directors in 2009.

Now they head up an organization that has an average of 250 campers. In addition, they supervise a staff that can range from around 70 or more. In all, there are about 40 to 45 buildings on the grounds that total 100 acres. About 40 of the acres are actively in use at the camp.


An ‘average’ day

So, what’s an average day at the camp like?

“We generally wake up at 8 a.m., and eat at 8:30 in the mess hall. The counselors sit at the tables with their campers. That’s a very important element. Then there’s cabin clean-up where the campers make their beds ... and clean up inside and around the grounds,” Matt said.

After “inspector Dewey” completes inspection, activities begin. The campers pick two activities for the morning, which can include a wide array of more than 100 activities, including basketball, softball, tennis, fishing, waterskiing, sailing, outdoors adventures, or even arts and crafts and ice hockey.

These activities continue through the late morning after which campers are allowed to go to open areas for structured free time. Counselors are assigned to oversee these activities when the campers can do what they want. 

The key is that they have to be outside and active.

Swimming instruction is also a part of the daily routine, though both Dewey and Matt agreed that it was probably the least popular activity for campers. 

“They love to swim,” Matt said, “But they don’t like it when we instruct them in how to swim.” 

Lunch follows at 1 p.m., after which they receive their mail.

Following a rest hour, the campers reconvene in what is known as “leagues,” where they compete on teams in a variety of sports. Following leagues, the campers then prepare for dinner at 6 p.m.

An evening program with a different theme is held every night. These programs could be centered around sports, special activities or their campfire and powwow traditions.

If it rains, there are facilities on the grounds that allow for indoor games and activities.


Disconnect and reconnecting

“I think it’s important to get the message out that we believe in camp as a good entity for the kids; we know how busy lives are; the disconnect that we see with technology and reconnecting with nature and their friends at camp is what makes it so worthwhile ...,” Matt said.

Dewey and Matt both agreed that it is communication that is most important. At camp the kids communicate; they write letters, they hand-write letters ... they talk and work out their differences, all of which helps them grow as individuals.

Both Matt and Dewey pointed to a recent show presented by the staff.

“The kids loved it, but they don’t know how to clap,” Dewey said. Because of growing up connected to technology, the camp directors have noticed that 21st century campers have a difficult time with the interactive part of the human connection.

“They don’t get it. We have to urge them to clap,” Dewey said.

And that’s just one of the challenges that counselors and directors face in working and teaching the younger campers that there is so much to live for and to learn. 


Camp culture and growth

To that end, that’s where the value of camp culture and the rules that support the structure help campers grow into contributing members of society.

“We’re here to help the kids work it out among themselves. They live by the rules that are in place,” Matt said.

“[Camp] is an amazing gift that parents can give their kids,” Dewey said. “The kids who come here many times are not used to making choices by themselves. This gives them the chance to do that. It’s a powerful thing to make those choices by themselves – to be independent and grow.

“One of my favorite things is when counselors ... make announcements about [the kids’] accomplishments. Seeing kids accomplish things is an amazing part of camp.”

“At Kawaga, we do it really well. Counselors watch out for kids,” Matt said. “What I love is the cycle – you see these young boys grow up to counselors-in-training and watch them give back what their counselors did for them.”

With that background and their love of the camp experience, Matt and Dewey are hoping to carry on the mission of Doc E. They would like nothing better than for their own legacies to reflect what’s been the overarching guidelines for the camp over the past century.

“Camp Kawaga offers a balanced, well-rounded program. Boys who are skilled athletes as well as those who are not all love Kawaga and find their own opportunities for both athletic and non-athletic activities here. We encourage campers to be active and participate in all areas of camp,” Matt said.

“Dewey and I consider it an incredible honor to be the stewards of Doc E’s legacy. While we strive to consistently innovate, in terms of programming and staffing, we proudly remain true to the rich heritage and ideals that have shaped Kawaga for 100 years,” Matt said.

One can see Doc E smiling down on that 100 acres of Minocqua property he envisioned would change the lives of thousands. 

In able hands, his mission continues and the “Great Out Doors,” as he called it, continues to be the Mecca that turns boys into men.

Raymond T. Rivard may be reached at ray@lakelandtimes.com.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, August 8, 2014
Article comment by: Ryan Erwin

Greatest place on earth! I spent 15 years as a camper and counselor on the shores of Camp Kawaga and it played a major role in my development in life!

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