My wife, Carrie, has never quite understood my passionate fondness for Kennebec, the sleep-away camp in North Belgrade, Maine, that I attended for five summers between 1978 and '82. That's because of our wildly different camp experiences: hers a mellow coed camp in Pennsylvania where she focused on riding horses and dating male counselors; mine a rugged, hypercompetitive, all-male, character-forming trial.
Kennebec wasn't Parris Island, but it was close. There were no dances with girls's camps. One summer, campers lived in canvas tents instead of bunks. Some mornings, every camper had to swim naked for 50 yards in a cold lake. When camping in the woods as 8-year-olds, we had to build fires and cook our own food. The defining element of camp was color war – a summer-long competition in which the camp divided into two teams (maroon and grey) that competed in everything, including arts and crafts and drama.
So it wasn't surprising that Carrie thought I was nuts recently when I went to Kennebec's 100th anniversary reunion, held in Philadelphia. "What's to celebrate?" she asked, noting that it went out of business in 1991. "Who cares about a camp that doesn't even exist?"
Here's who cares: firemen, movie producers, doctors, preschool music teachers, NFL team owners and high-school football coaches, 91-year-olds and 31 year-olds, rich men and poor men. That describes some of the 215 former campers and 30 former counselors who traveled from as far as Germany to rekindle the fervent Kennebec spirit and reunite with camping brethren. Those are the types who love Kennebec dearly and wish it were still around so they could send their kids.
"It's depressing that I can't send my kids there," Steve Lowe, an '82 alumnus, now an emergency room doctor in Brooklyn, told me during the reunion. "I can't fathom my boys growing up without Kennebec in their blood."
Maury Garten, a lawyer from Baltimore added, "Kennebec provided an experience that boys rarely get today. Kids need discipline, competition, and work ethics, not all the pampering and rah-rah, 'You're great' cheer leading."
There was certainly no cheer leading at Kennebec. Everything we did, we did for a reason: to win or to do it better than everybody else. I clearly remember toiling for hours in woodworking class to build desk boxes that would impress counselors and earn color war points. I remember being one of a dozen 9-year-olds in a 30-foot war canoe, paddling and chanting "Stroke... stroke... stroke" while practicing for a big race.
Because competition was the core of the experience, everybody learned a lot about losing. Indeed, heartbreaking losses were seared into our memories. Before the reunion, two dozen class of '82 members blogged passionately for days recounting wins and losses as if they'd happened yesterday: "25 years later and you are still placing blame on others. As our leader you need to stand up and take ownership of your decisions," a principal in a private equity firm chastised his former color-war captain for the team's loss.
"It still haunts me," the losing color-war captain, now a money manager, lamented of that summer's loss.
I, too, am still haunted by my own gut-wrenching defeat in the semifinals of a doubles tournament that lost me the overall tennis gold medal – even though I won the singles crown.
As competitive as Kennebec was, I always knew we were just a bunch of normal boys, mostly from the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard, who were of average to above average athletic ability. What set us apart, though, was how we embraced Kennebec's competitive caldron that pushed us to the limit mentally and physically.
During our first night at the reunion, several former campers spent hours in a hotel lounge telling old camp stories. At one point, I asked Steve Peppercorn, a fellow 1982 alumnus – now a computer consultant, if he recalled crying and crawling his way across Knife's Edge, a trail on Mt. Katahdin, which at 5,267 feet is the highest peak in Maine. Knife's Edge is just a few feet wide and has sheer cliffs on both sides. I vividly recalled walking near Peppercorn during his fearful ascent and being shocked because back in camp he'd been a wise-cracking loudmouth who bullied younger campers.
"I often think about that day on Katahdin," he recalled, smiling. "It was a defining moment in my life. Yeah, I was bawling, but I made it to the top and learned that you can never give up. I've shared that lesson with tons of kids over the years."
If Kennebec, which was founded in 1907, was so beloved, why did the it go out of business?
Coming out of a time in the 1980s when summer camps were generally not doing well, there were disputes between the owners and directors over how to manage the camp. But most Kennebec alumni believe the camp died because its core values and methods of teaching were no longer in vogue. One example is Bear, the method used to teach campers to overcome their fear of the woods. While camping, counselors would make campers walk through the woods alone at night to nearby campsites, maybe 100 yards away, where other groups of Kennebecers were camping. Meanwhile, counselors hiding in the woods would rattle cans filled with rocks to mimic bear sounds and scare the campers.
"I was frightened to death the first time we did Bear, but it taught me to feel at home in the woods," said Jon Wynn, a computer systems engineer. "Today, though, a parent would probably claim mental torture and sue a camp that let counselors play Bear with kids."
That the intensely competitive nature of camp became harder for Kennebec's owners to sell was part of a nationwide trend that has only intensified over the past 15 years. Now, most camps and youth programs try to make every kid feel like a winner while toning down competition. "Today fewer and fewer camps express the extreme competition," says Ann Sheets, president of the American Camp Association. "There's so much competition in school that when summer rolls around parents are perhaps looking for less stressful environments in a camp."
And that apparently works: Summer camp attendance in the US is thriving, having grown 3 percent over the past decade to this summer's expected 10 million.
Reunion organizers tried what I figured would be an impossible task – recreating the unique Kennebec experience. But they succeeded. No, we didn't sleep in canvas tents, drink bug juice, or skinny dip, but the atmosphere of competition, discipline, and striving to excel at all costs was apparent everywhere.
The first event on Saturday was dragon boat racing on the Schuykill River. About 40 guys split into two groups, piled into two long canoe-like vessels and battled each other in a series of races. We didn't look or move like Olympic rowers, but everybody paddled their brains out. After 90 minutes on the river, our group drove to a park to play softball. Not for fun. "For blood and bragging rights," said Mr. Lowe.
One player, a gray-haired man in his 70s, ripped a line drive that the shortstop barely caught. On another play, the first baseman grunted something unprintable after dropping a throw from second that let a runner reach base. I was the runner and I was stunned when I noticed that the first baseman, around 60 years old, had a prosthetic arm on his throwing side. "That arm is no excuse for my error. I hate dropping balls," he said.
A small group of Kennebec alumni wants to resurrect the camp. The group, led by Andrew Kirwin, is trying to recruit investors to buy a summer camp in Maine, rename it Kennebec, and instill the old core values and programming.
"It's not right that there are thousands of sleep-away camps and Kennebec isn't one of them," says Mr. Kirwin, an attorney in New York. "The Kennebec experience isn't for everyone, but it changed a lot of lives in amazing ways. Hopefully, we can get the fire going again. And soon ... I've got a baby boy, so the clock is ticking."