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All photos courtesy of Camp Wandawega

Remember what camping was like before glamping? We didn’t care about mud on our shoes, bug bites, or cell reception. The food wasn’t in the fridge, it was in the water, and after we cooked it, we’d eat it around the campfire – watching for hours as flames turn to coals and embers floated skyward was all the television we needed. 

These days, technology has overtaken us. Where we once asked a stranger for directions and perhaps wound up having a conversation with someone interesting who maybe sent us the long way that took as through a treasure of a small town, now we plug an address into our GPS and take the biggest, fastest highway to our destination. No muss, no fuss, no wasted time . . . no unforgettable characters, no unexpected experiences, no precious memories of the time we took all day to get there and discovered a piece of America on the way.   

All summer long, folks across the country pile into campers with their friends and families for a weekend camping trip that now means $200,000 trailers with full kitchens, living rooms adorned with electric fireplaces, and flat screens fitted for a next-level Netflix binge-a-thon where afterward they’ll slumber soundly on a queen sized bed to the hum of their AC unit. Nice for a hotel room, but camping? Not so much. 

So let’s ditch the luxury, pick up a bottle of bug spray, and head out for a real all-American camping trip. And we know just where to go:Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

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Since 1925, Camp Wandawega, a one-time speakeasy turned nostalgic campground, has been the destination for campers willing to manage with the bare necessities as they retreat and reconnect with nature. The camp rests on 25 acres of clearings, woods, overlooks, and the shores of Wandawega Lake, fresh waters teeming with smallmouth bass and a collection of car keys left behind by generations of eager campers who forgot to empty their pockets before cannonballing off the dock or catapulting off the rope swing.

Nothing fancy about Wandawega. You should know right now that your sleep might be interrupted by the tickle of ladybugs creeping across your pillow, spiders may join you in the well water shower, and it might take a few minutes to get used to the creak of an 80-year-old bed frame topped with less-than-luxe 10-thread-count-sheets. The showers, baths, and kitchens are all authentic to the camp’s Prohibition roots, they’re all 100% communal, and they haven’t been updated since the Hoover administration.

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But you should also know that many celebrities have retreated here and had the best time. If Cardinal Archbishop Meyer can do this, you can too.

Nervous about roughing it without your blow dryer? Don’t be. The moment you turn the corner to camp, you’ll be met with a sloppy kiss from Wandawega’s official welcome committee: furry, four-legged Frankie and owners/camp rangers David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt. They’re always close by to help you ease into the classic camping experience. They’ll help you find a pizza place in case you burn your hotdogs, take you on a beer run in case you need distraction from those itchy bug bites and direct you to the closest Piggly Wiggly in case you forget your toothbrush. David knows what you need because he’s seen it all . . . he and his family were regulars at Camp Wandawega from 1960 right up into the ‘80s.

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Though occupied with restoring the property since 2004, David and Tereasa haven’t done much to the lodge, cottages, or the three-story hotel on the property. They’ve pretty much left the old buildings alone except for enhancing the décor with historic memorabilia and adding amusements like books and puzzles. Yes, we said puzzles – they’re part of the secret plan to lure you in and get you to turn off your phone.

Walking about the grounds, you’ll discover places to hang your hat the old motorcycle garage, an A-frame overlooking the lake, a cabin, traditional teepees tucked away in clearings, and a decked-out treehouse that’s just the place for reconnecting with the robins and bluejays.  All equally perfect for optimal sunrise/sunset observations, no extra charge!  They operate on a “trust thy neighbor or go get a room at The Holiday Inn” policy. Embrace it or fear it, but we think that’s pretty cool.

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You’ll also find a plethora of activities. Try your hand at archery, shuffleboard, canoeing, fishing, hatchet throwing and much more! You’ll surely walk away with some stories to share around the campfire later that night. Which will be great because we still haven’t gotten over last night’s ghost story.

And speaking of things in the dark, we know nature can be a bit intimidating but the sooner you respect the coyotes, deer, and scurrying squirrels, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. If you don’t want to meet the camp’s live-in clean-up crew, be sure to clean up your area. Raccoons are little party crashers who always show up hungry and with friends. Don’t leave them an open invitation at your cabin.

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What a comfort to know that there are still places in the world that remind you that life can be easy and simple without all the commotion and clutter. That unplugging for a bit allows you to notice the goodness of life around you and to be present in the moment, and it gives you time to try baiting a hook or building a fire.

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It’s places like Camp Wandawega that engage our minds, feed our souls and remind us of the joy that comes from reconnecting with simpler joys. Make a reservation and you’ll have a great story for your friends. While they’re complaining about the service Saturday night at the restaurant of the moment, you can talk about your glorious weekend jumping off docks, hooking your own dinner and catching lightning bugs. Grizzly Adams would be proud to shake your hand.

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Pack one of our potbelly mugs for your trip! Hand-thrown in Wisconsin, just for us.

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5 Comments

5 thoughts on “Camp Wandawega – The Return of the All-American Camping Trip”

  1. Jon Lee

    Great story. Reminds me of camping in the woods of PA. In our teepee,or when I do a cross country camping trip on my motorcycle as well as in our 79 VW campervan.

  2. Craig Lindberg

    As a kid in the 1960’s my grandparents took me and my sister to fishing camps in Minnesota with glamorous names like Mosquito Heights and Char-Mac that looked like this. Cabins were spartan but clean with light from a bulb hanging from the ceiling. They’d rent one of the painted wood fishing boats and maybe spring for a trusty Johnson or Evinrude to power it out to try our luck at northern pike and walleye. Great times. Happy to see someone rekindling that spirit.

  3. Jim Rausenberger

    While on a Boy Scout trip to the boundry waters, back in the 50’s, we (the troop) had an accident, we burned
    down an island there. Bad,Bad Boys. Otherwise the fishing was excellent.

  4. Sharon Breedlove

    This camping piece reminds me of going camping (as newlyweds) to Deep Creek Lake, Maryland.

    This was the seventies, and every getaway was still an interesting adventure to us. We were using the pup tent that I had given my husband as a Christmas gift. I was so sure that my Girl Scout training, and his time on the Appalachian Trail wouldn’t fail us.

    We were fine until we got into the tent. We were almost asleep, when the sounds of very nasty critters made us sit bolt upright.

    Fearful, we listened to these animals fight for about ten minutes, but the sounds ceased for a minute, as suddenly as they had started.

    It wasn’t until an unmistakeable perfume wafted through our tent, that we realized a group of skunks were fighting over our bag of trash. My husband had forgotten to take the trash (as we were warned) to the secure garbage container at the ranger station.

    The fighting started up again and ceased for a few minutes. That odor again floated into our tent. We finally learned that their best weapon was to spray each other; only we were the lucky recipients! They “cycle” repeated itself – all night until dawn.

    That tent never did make it inside our house ever again.

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