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A carefree summer camp — for adults

September 2, 2018

At Camp Halcyon, summer campers can canoe on a lake, play games and do arts and crafts.

They can also throw back a whiskey, toss knives and hatchets, learn about herbalism, take a yoga class, or just disappear for a nap whenever they want to.

The getaway is designed for grownups, mixing nostalgia for the blissful days of childhood summer camp with the over-21 pleasures of adulthood — such as taking a kombucha-making class, learning to throw a saw blade at a target, or painting in the woods with a trained art teacher while sipping a glass of wine.

Instead of grub served in the dining hall, Camp Halcyon holds gourmet cookouts in an open-air shelter. S’mores, a nightly ritual, are laid out with homemade marshmallows and four or five different kinds of chocolate. Breakfast comes with mimosas and a bacon bar; cocktails are welcome at the nightly campfire.

But campers still bunk in rustic cabins (some without electricity), do their arts and crafts sitting on wooden picnic benches, and hike from one activity to the next on dirt trails wending beneath the leafy forest canopy.

“I’m so thankful we can all do this together,” said Nathan Knuth, who teaches the painting class, “and be kids again.”

Four a year

Camp Halcyon was founded in 2016 by camp director Drew Griswold and his father Andy, who rent the 126-acre Camp Lakotah property in Wautoma, 90 minutes north of Madison. Camp Halcyon runs four weekends a year: in July, mid-August, early October and even in mid-January, for a winter camp that includes a ski and snowboard trip.

The father and son have deep roots in the area, and named their camp after a word that means “happy, joyful, carefree.” Campers have come from as far away as Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom. A dozen guys came up from Texas one year, Griswold said, braving Wisconsin weather to try winter camp.

In summer, Camp Halcyon campers pay $459 for an all-inclusive, four-day retreat. They have to abide by Camp Lakotah regulations, such as swimming off the beach in Little Hills Lake only when a lifeguard is present, and wearing a life vest when they head out on a boat. But mostly, there aren’t many rules.

“There are camps out there that (say), ‘Throw away your cell phone and meditate for a week,’” Griswold said. “And then there are camps out there where it’s just, ‘Drink as much cheap beer as you can.’

“That’s really not the vibe we’re going for. We shoot down the middle, because most people are down the middle.”

Reliving childhood

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism and the American Camp Association, a nonprofit that accredits more than 2,400 campgrounds, don’t keep statistics on adult camps. But nationally, according to the ACA, 43 percent of accredited camps offer family camp programming, and 25 percent offer some sort of adult-only programming.

In any case, adults returning to camp to relive their childhoods is a big enough trend that comedian Lewis Black spoofed it on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

One of the biggest players is Camp No Counselors, founded in 2013 by Adam Tichauer, who even pitched his concept on ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank.”

“It started with me just inviting friends to a camp near New York City, where I was living, and the friends invited friends who invited friends,” said Tichauer, now 35.

“It absolutely blew me away that so many people were interested in this silly, fun weekend at camp, and we had the time of our lives — so I decided a few months later to make this a job.”

Today Camp No Counselors operates across North America, with a weekend camp in southwest Michigan that attracts mostly 20- and 30-somethings from Chicago. That Midwest camp was held last year near Wisconsin Dells, but moved to the Michigan location because it’s a shorter drive from Chicago and offers less-rugged accommodations, Tichauer said.

“Last year we had about 4,500 campers in total across all of our camps,” said Tichauer, whose next Chicago-area camp runs Sept. 6-9 and costs $650-$725 per person.

“I think a lot of people who are in their early 30s have been working about 10 years, and need that disconnect, need to put away their phones for at least a weekend and reconnect with their youth and be silly, have fun, and get outdoors,” he said.

Proposal on the beach

While the average age at Camp No Counselors is 30, the campers at Camp Halycon this month ranged from 22 to 68.

Tim Koehler, 28, was back for a second year.

Koehler grew up in Fond du Lac and attended summer camp at the same campground starting in third grade. In 2017 he found out about Camp Halcyon, signed up and brought along his girlfriend — then proposed marriage to her on the beach.

“The appeal of an adult summer camp I could not resist. There is no more nostalgic place when you’re talking summer camp than this place,” said Koehler, who attended again this year with his now-fiancée.

Griswold, 29, and his father also have strong ties to the land: They spent dozens of summers on the property, both as youth campers and camp counselors. Their family loved the camp so much that they bought a 55-acre farm across the street as a weekend family retreat.

Griswold now lives in Milwaukee and runs the website and retail company Wander & Co., traveling the U.S. to music festivals and events to sell products that benefit nonprofits.

He caps enrollment at Camp Halcyon at about 100 people per session so all the campers get to know each other. And, with his full-time job, he has no intention of expanding beyond four camp weekends a year, or beyond the borders of Wisconsin, he said.

“We hope to keep doing this,” said Griswold, walking a rustic path from the archery range to a late-afternoon whiskey-tasting class.

“We don’t have eyes for expansion. The reason we do this is because we love this place. We love Wisconsin. We’re really happy with what we have right now,” he said. “If we didn’t care so much about this place, and if we didn’t want other people to fall in love with this place as much as we love it, then I don’t think we’d be doing it.”

Bonds and friendships

Sandy Bartel, co-owner of the Camp Lakotah property for the past decade, was happy to rent to Camp Halcyon, especially because of the Griswolds’ long history there, she said. Although Camp Lakotah is best known for its day and overnight camps for youth, it also rents to events such as conferences, retreats and weddings.

The good times that adults have at the site often lead them to enroll their kids at Camp Lakotah, or to reserve the camp for a future event, Bartel said.

“That’s a real common sentiment,” she said. “I think anybody who’s ever gone to camp or been part of a camp experience knows the bonds and the friendships and lifetime memories that get formed, and they want to bring those days back.”

Paddleboards and cookies

David Wheaton, 35, of Madison, was at Camp Lakotah in August for his second go-round.

“The wonderful attitude of everyone here brings me back,” he said. “It’s relaxing, it’s personable, and you feel you have the choice to do what you want.”

Toni Martinez, 53, of Gurnee, Illinois, was having her first Camp Halcyon experience.

“My sister and brother-in-law came here last month, and they had a great time. So I thought I would check it out,” she said.

“I’m not a camper, so being in a cabin is better for me, I think.”

Martinez spent her Saturday morning doing stand-up paddleboarding followed by a cookie-decorating class. The day before, she tried target hatchet-throwing for the first time — and hit a bull’s-eye.

“I’m coming back next year,” she said, “with more people.”

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