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Remembrance of Things Past: Scout camp in Salem proved a boy’s paradise in summer

It is amazing how many summer activities kids enjoy today. The Day has run ads for all sorts of camps, from 4-H to soccer to art. I don’t recall all these choices being available 60 years ago. Of course, there were swimming lessons at various beaches, but camps were either private, run by churches or by the scouts.

The highlight of summers was my time at Camp Wakenah on Gardner Lake in Salem. Wakenah was then one of the oldest Boy Scout camps in America, having been established around the time of World War I, not many years after Boy Scouting began in this country.

The dirt road off Old Colchester Road, leading into the camp, was not designed for speed or a comfortable ride. The road ended at a large field that had been graded compliments of Electric Boat. Surrounding the field were the nature lodge, the health lodge, and the trading post, which sold gimp, Coke, candy bars, and Scout materials.

Between the field and the lake was the dining hall, which had two levels. On top was the actual dining room and kitchen. The room was furnished with finished picnic tables and benches and contained a large stone fireplace. Metal pitchers were used for bug juice, which was consumed by the gallon. Wakenah had four campsites named after local Native Americans: Cassasinamon, Uncas, Samson Occum, and Tamaquashad. Campers didn’t use tents, but lived in Adirondack lean-tos, each of which had two sets of bunk beds.

There were a variety of opportunities available to campers each week. Younger boys, who had not yet achieved first class rank, were urged to concentrate on the camp craft and other skills necessary to reach that level. One staff member who taught the use of knife and axe was Dave Geer, who later became a world champion lumberjack. Legend had it that Dave’s axe was sharp enough to shave with!

Another activity was swimming. The waterfront was set up with finger docks in the shape of the letter F. Every boy took a swimming test on Sunday afternoon and was judged either a beginner, intermediate, or swimmer.

The better swimmers were allowed to swim out to the raft. One grueling activity, open to volunteers who trained for a week, was the mile swim. During general swim, staff members were on the docks with reach poles and the area between the far dock and the raft was patrolled by rowboat. The lifesaving mantra was; “reach, throw, row, go.”

Beyond swimming lessons, the waterfront offered merit badges in swimming and lifesaving, as well as for rowing and canoeing. The camp also had sailboards. I was on one of them one afternoon with a friend when the tiller broke. We tried to steer by dragging a leg in the water. Needless to say, we were berated, though good naturedly, for sailing into the swimming area.

On Friday evenings each campsite participated in a waterfront carnival to which parents were invited. The highlight of the evening was the parade of floats using rowboats. Near the Fourth of July, one troop’s patriotic float portrayed Washington crossing the Delaware. As the float was front and center under the spotlight, the voice of the waterfront director could be heard bellowing loudly from the porch, “I don’t care what your name is. Sit down in that rowboat!”

A more serious incident involved an evening trip to the Casino, a pinball parlor and soda fountain at the end of the lake. The adventure began on our return when the weather changed from calm to nasty.

We were paddling back to camp against the wind and the lake was getting pretty choppy. In fact, at least half the time when my 11-year-old partner dipped his paddle, it didn’t touch the water. I told him to move to the middle of the canoe and lay down. I moved a little bit forward and kept the craft into the wind.

Turning towards the shore was not an option as it was all swamp. We finally got back and as I think about it, whoever made that kid wear a life jacket was very wise.

Canoes played a part in another unsanctioned activity that gave everyone a good laugh. Next door to Wakenah was a private camp, whose loudspeaker could be heard at various times. Every day about mid-morning campers were directed to line up at the milk tree for snack time.

But the term “milk tree” was too much to resist. Wakenah purchased its milk in waxed containers. Rather than throw them out when empty, some devious staff members collected them and washed them out. Someone cut down a small dead tree, and the milk cartons were hung from the branches, with a sign that said, “Milk Tree.” Late one night the tree was loaded across two canoes and paddled down the lake to the neighboring camp where it was fastened to their raft. I hope our neighbors took it with good spirit.

An activity that many of us enjoyed was shooting. The instructor was Steve Rocketto, who went on to coach rifle teams at Grasso and Montville High. Wakenah had a rifle team and we shot a match against another private camp. Those kids all had expensive target rifles. Ours were neither expensive nor fancy. I remember lying in the prone position, in a light rain, and my glasses getting all wet. I pulled the hood of my poncho down lower on my face, and kept shooting.

We won the meet! Later I used to tell my middle school students that I did more shooting at Boy Scout camp than I did during Navy boot camp.

I remember the names of some of the staff. Jack Kirkness, a professional scouter, was the director, and a very talented horseshoe player. Other staff members were Richard Force, from Groton and Ron Sudol and Kent Sistaire, from New London. One staff member, who was older, had earned his Eagle award while living in the Philippines, and when we wore our full uniforms for evening retreat, his Eagle badge fascinated me, because unlike the American award, it showed the bird in flight.

I had a great time at Wakenah, both as a camper and, for one season, on staff, and I’m sure many men in this area today share my feelings and are disappointed that it is no longer a Scout camp, having been sold in 2004.

Robert F. Welt of Mystic is a retired Groton Public Schools teacher.

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