At Camp Wapsie, it's off the grid but in the moment

'You're actually out doing things,' not 'sitting on your iPad watching things'

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COGGON — Children took turns scaling a towering structure — climbing a ladder, then straddling hanging ropes and finally grabbing mounted grips to pull themselves to the top.

On the ground, Pete Bancks, 20, held the rope attached to one of his campers. This summer, he has lived in a cabin with rotating groups of 12 9-year-olds for weeklong stints. At Camp Wapsie near Coggon, they canoe, race turtles plucked from the nearby waters and sing around tall campfires.

Campers don’t spend virtually any time checking a smartphone.

“That’s the really nice part about it — you’re kind of unplugged a little bit,” said Bancks, who grew up in Marion and is a student at Iowa State University. “I’m going to college for computer engineering, so this is like the exact opposite.”

Summer camp, a cherished pastime for many Americans, remains one of the last places children and teens spend their days away from screens. Many children head to school with smartphones in their pockets, use tablets in their classrooms and return home to computers and televisions.

But at camp — 14,000 of which operate in the United States, according to the American Camp Association — kids are almost entirely disconnected from electronics.

“It’s just a break from everything else,” said Olivia Davenport, 13, as she waited her turn to scale the tower. Her friends, who all attend North Central Junior High in North Liberty, agreed: it’s a break from reality, from parents, from the digital world.

“You have a schedule, you’re actually out doing things,” said Lauren Maras, 13. “Instead of just sitting on your iPad watching things.”

That’s one of the goals, said Paul Denowski, the YMCA camp’s executive director.

“They learn self-confidence, independence,” Denowski said, noting camp attendance tends to follow the economy and saw a spike last year. “You can see kids have grown after a week here. It’s a fun vacation, but it’s learning, too. It’s not a trip to a water park.”

Down by what campers call the backwaters, a span of shallow water, four 11-year-olds navigated and paddled a canoe while younger children grabbed at frogs in the wet grass. Cicadas chirped in the background as songs played on a stereo — “Queen” and “The Monkees,” part of the week’s “Time Warp” theme.

“Girls!” Darby Lange, 9, bellowed as she pulled her head out of a large white bucket that was home to a small amphibian. “What should we name this frog?”

Darby and other campers gathered around as Camp Director Drew Demery told them the frog — which they named Leo — was a leopard frog. Nearby, the girls’ counselor, Isabel Hogg, 17, sat by the banks of the water. She first came to Wapsie as a 6-year-old camper, sleeping in one of the bunk beds tucked inside of one of the camp’s tall white teepees. Being a first-year counselor has been a nearly lifelong goal, she said.

During some campfires, campers and counselors are encouraged to send their wishes into the fire. Counselors collect the ashes and put them into the next campfire, “so your wishes are always here” at the nearly 100-year-old camp, Demery said.

“Some of those wishes include ‘I hope everyone returns home safely’ or ‘I hope that we stay in touch,’” Demery said. “Some of the older boys request hot babes and Ferraris, but a lot of them are so meaningful. We had a 6-year-old teepee villager, or day-camper, and their wish was, ‘I hope I can grow up and be a camp counselor myself.’ Some of our staff, that wish has come true.”

As her campers gently poked Leo the frog, feeling his soft stomach, Hogg said she returns to Wapsie because it’s an escape from modernity. Most counselors have smartphones at the camp but said they glance at them only before bed or over the weekend, when they have a 36-hour break from campers.

“I’ll come back, like, what’s happened in the world the last week?” Hogg said. “I’m less concerned about what other people are doing.”

Most of the 220 Wapsie campers who stay for a week at a time are returning to the camp for the second, or third, or eighth time. And while some campers arrive from out-of-state or even out-of-country, Demery said some 80 percent of campers are from Cedar Rapids or Iowa City.

While the camp adds some new touches from year to year, much of it remains familiar, campers said. Longtime campers plant kisses on Camp Wapsie’s moose mascot. Ashes, full of wishes by Wapsie legend, are used again and again. Like the generations of children before them who spent their summers at camp, this year’s campers are still unplugged.

For many, “Grandpa came 60 years ago and Mom came 30 years ago,” Demery said. “And now the kids can finally come.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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