“Lodgings that offer comfortable beds, air conditioning, modern plumbing, and protection from predators are a dime a dozen,” reads Camp Wandawega’s Manifesto of Low Expectations. Its owners used to go to summer camp here, bought it and set about returning it to its former dilapidation.
“Why on earth do folks want to come here? The complete absence of pretense,” continues the Manifesto.
Located on a lake in Wisconsin, about 90 minutes north of Chicago, Wandawega was first a prohibition-era speakeasy, then a brothel, illicit gambling den, a family resort, and a retreat for Latvian Catholics (who called it “Vandavega”) before it was purchased by its current owners, David and Tereasa in 2003.
They remembered fondly the summers they’d spent here as kids and wanted to preserve its rustic charm. Today, it’s sort of a resort, sort of a wedding venue and plays home to church services every Sunday, but is mostly a summer camp for adults who either went some place like this as kids, or wish they had. It’s complete with tipis, a treehouse, canoes, archery, trails in the woods, secret liquor-smuggling passages and even an old-timey travel trailer affectionally known as “canned ham.” You can sleep in it, if you want.
Unlike may other efforts at reviving bygone ages, Wandawega isn’t heavy-handed, doesn’t stick to any particular era and isn’t strict in any enforcement of no-phones or period dress. It’s just a relaxing place to hang out, drink beer, compare stories of how uncomfortable your bed is and, if you need to send an email, there’s WiFi. No waxed mustaches or fake accents, either, this is not a renaissance faire.
Decor is chosen both from Wandawega’s past and what was likely an eBay search for “Old Camp Stuff.” There’s an ample supply of taxidermy, piles of crappy sporting equipment, a few overly-twee retro touches like the Pendleton blankets strewn across any horizontal surface and masses of old flashlights, old coolers, old knives and old books. Basically, it’s Pinterest come to life.
I visited with a bunch of lifestyle journalists to ride Ural’s latest sidecar and, unlike the luxury hotels where most vehicle launches take place, it looked like the kind of place the girlfriend would enjoy too, so I brought her along. Writers like me all like to think we’re one of a kind, gems in the rough and really hate seeing that other people get free clothes too. Most such gatherings are filled with an awkward silence as everyone’s oversized ego is collectively bruised. Our weekend at the Camp was different though. The writers talked to one another, even occasionally having conversations that weren’t just bragging. The beer helped, obviously and so did trying to outdo each other at all the activities, but I’d like to think the location played a part too. Equal parts silly and charming, it just seems to have a way of making you relax and feel at home. I wasn’t even upset when one of the other guys proceeded to flip a sidecar, then hit on my girlfriend. But mostly because the guy was so hilariously bad at both.
The lake has fish, the woods have deer, there’s balls and bows and rackets in various storage sheds and the place even has its own sidecar, but unlike a lot of other destinations that compete for the best or the most or whatever, Wandawega’s activities and equipment are simply adequate. Don’t come here to shoot champion archery, come here to shoot a bow for the first time with a bunch of people doing the same, and make sure you take a sip of beer between shots. Don’t come here to learn advanced canoeing skills, come here to fall out, get wet and laugh at each other.
Accommodations are divided between a lodge, bunkhouse and a handful of outlying facilities like that trailer and the incredible treehouse. But we’d stay in one of the tipis or cabin tents. Those offer more privacy, better views and more of that outside camping feel that you want if you’ve ventured all the way out into the woods. They’re one step up from sleeping on the ground in that the interiors are level and dry and spacious, but the cots are so hard you’ll swear you slept on concrete.
Please don’t think that I’m ragging on the place for all these qualifications that basically translate to “crappy.” The idea here is put everyone on equal footing, get people to have fun doing stuff together and do that in a way that’s accessible and fun, not difficult and dangerous. Just like summer camp use to be, but now with booze.
Photos: Jenny Linquist
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