Anne Winter of Kearney has been going to Camp Wood in Elmdale, Kan., every year for the past 23 years.
Winter, born and raised in Olathe, first attended the YMCA camp when she was 12. When she aged out of being a camper, she became a camp counselor and, later, summer programs director. Now Winter is on the board of directors at Camp Wood and will be sending her daughter to mini-camp next summer when she is 5.
Camp Wood is the only YMCA camp in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in the United States, and one of the few that allows individuals and families to use the campground year-round. The camp, which turns 100 years old this year, draws most of its campers from the Kansas City area.
The camp is hosting a free, public centennial celebration Saturday, May 7, when families can tour the facilities, hike, canoe on the lake, ride horses and take part in other activities. For more details go to campwood.org and the Camp Wood Facebook page. This conversation took place at the camp.
Q: How did you end up at Camp Wood the first time, when you were 12?
A: A friend of mine went to horse camp and I went with her. But I did traditional camp, so I didn’t do the horses all day, but I got to ride them once.
It was the ’90s, so my parents just sent me; they didn’t have to come and visit first and do the whole investigative reporting thing (laughs). “Your friend’s going? Sure.”
So we came and it was awesome. I was hooked.
Q: What hooked you?
A: My mom recently found the first letter I wrote from Camp Wood. I talked about my counselor — her name was Jennifer — and she was a college student who had time to talk with me, so I thought she was the coolest person on the face of the Earth.
I wrote about how nice she was because she brought back pizza for us on her night off. She woke us up in the cabin and brought us outside and we ate pizza under the stars.
Q: For a kid from Olathe, the stars out here must have been a sight.
A: The first night I asked, “Is that smoke up there?” And my counselor said it was the Milky Way. And you’ve never seen that so you can’t even believe it. And on campout night, when you drag your sleeping bag outside, you lie there and look up and go, “Whoaaa!”
Q: Are there other indelible scenes in your mind when you think back on that first camp?
A: I also wrote about tipping my canoe over in the lake, which they make you do so you can learn how to tip it back over and get back in. I remember being in the water, not touching the bottom, under the canoe, staring at my friend, like, “How are we going to do this?”
I was so proud about learning how to do that. And the river canoeing, I loved that. We always go down the Cottonwood River.
Q: Did you ever have the impulse to go to a different camp?
A: Never. Even now, when I visit other camps, it feels like betrayal (laughs). The sense of place here is different than any other camp. It’s stunning, and I like these unobstructed vistas.
Q: What can families do who come here to camp?
A: They can sleep in a cabin and basically do the full range of activities we offer regular campers, but we keep them separated to preserve the experience for the camp kids.
It’s a great retreat for families that are too busy and don’t talk to each other enough to come out here where there’s no TV and your phones don’t work. That leads to great adventures.
Q: Tell us briefly about the history of Camp Wood.
A: When the leaders founded this place in 1915 (the first summer camp was held in 1916), it was very intentionally a place for everyone. Starting in 1921, Walter L. Hutcherson, who was the director of the colored YMCA in Wichita, started bringing kids here, and they were fully integrated into all activities.
So all these (white) farm kids coming here from every community in Kansas got to live and eat and play with these African-American city kids. We have letters from former campers saying this was the first place they met people of color, the first place they met people of a different religion, from a different church or from “the big city.”
That’s what we are about, and that is why I think it is important to send your kid to summer camp, in addition to camping as a family.