Big Kid Camping
A grown-up twist to an old summer standby gives new meaning to the term "happy camper."
›› It’s spring in Wisconsin, which means the first caravans of arrivals will soon be pulling through the iron-gated entry to Camp Wandawega in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. They’re coming from Chicago, about 85 miles southeast; from Madison, about 60 miles west; and from Milwaukee, just next-door. Camp Wandawega is for families of all ages and backgrounds. But mostly, it’s for adults.
“People come here to unplug and be inspired,” says Tereasa Surratt, who along with husband David Hernandez, owns the 93-year-old camp. “They canoe, swim, hurl hatchets, grill bratwurst, write novels, have beers by the fire, sing at the top of their lungs—whatever strikes them.”
Adult fun was in fact Camp Wandawega’s original purpose when it was built in 1925. Bootleggers and cavorting business men needed an escape from Chicago’s strict prohibition climate. They found one—and so much more—in this charming smattering of lodges and cabins tucked into 25 acres of lakeside woods. The tales of debauchery from those first 15 to 20 years live on today as the stuff of legend.
By the time David Hernandez stayed there in the early 1970s, Wandawega had undergone a wholesome makeover and was thriving as a family-friendly Latvian-Catholic church camp. David loved his summers there, but as a grown adult he now longed to reinvent Camp Wandawega with a more sophisticated twist. “Less ladies-of-the-night, more late-night music and dancing,” he says.
After several years spent convincing Tereasa to join his cause, the husband and wife finally bought the property in 2003 and immediately began cleaning it up. A bit of painting, patching and repair was the extent of it; Tereasa and David wanted the spirit of the original cedar-lap siding cabins, with their stone hearths and knotty pine wainscoting, to remain intact. A creative director and professional stylist, Tereasa’s layering of vintage wool army blankets, 1940s barware and campy oddities was the final breath that revived the camp.
Not everyone will get the chance to visit the real Wandawega. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to infuse the Wandawega-way into any campsite.
March along as camp counselor Tereasa shares a few of her favorites.
Do Wandawega Yourself
Set up a mini “Me” retreat. Combine folding Adirondack-style chairs (we like the all-weather variety), a cozy blanket, a Thermos of anything warm and your favorite book, and you’ve got yourself a mini vacation.
Create your own backyard haven by salvaging a tiny old structure. We’ve converted everything from an old Airstream to an ice-fishing shack to boy scout tents. At Wandawega people bunk in them, but in your backyard, they can be an artist studio, reading nook or nature-watching perch.
Travel in vintage style. All of our transportation at Wandawega—both water and road—are salvaged finds from barn sales, yard sales, thrift stores and Craigslist. Yes, they require more upkeep (and some ride like cinder blocks), but what fun it is to go fishing in a vintage V-hull, or to pick up guests from the airport in our antique International Vintage Harvester.
Get campy with handlettered wayfinding. All old-school summer camps are rife with hand-lettered signage. We go to local artisans to paint, route and apply decal lettering to all Wandawega’s signs.
"When folks come to camp and try (really try) to make an experience special for themselves and each other, they sometimes come to a little revelation: Making other people happy is what makes us all happy." —Tereasa Surratt
Maple Bourbon Roast & Toast
Like caramelly maple s’mores, this simple cocktail is perfect for warming you from head to toe. Especially because it’s served with a toasty marshmallow up top. Makes 1
2 oz bourbon 1 oz cold brew coffee ½ oz pure maple syrup 2-3 dashes chocolate bitters 1 marshmallow crushed ice orange peel, optional
1. In a cocktail shaker, over crushed ice, combine bourbon, coffee, maple syrup and chocolate bitters. Shake well. Pour into a glass.
2. Skewer marshmallow, dip into drink. Light on fire, allowing to burn just until toasted. Serve marshmallow skewer perched atop glass. Garnish with orange peel, if desired.
Wandawega scoutmaster Tereasa Surratt drills us on her list of ultimate camping essentials.