Boy Scouts celebrating 50 years at Camp Hiawatha

Boy Scouts at Camp Hiawatha paddle canoes on Bunting Lake as part of a camp-wide relay race.

Story and photos by Michael Murray

t’s Friday afternoon at Camp Hiawatha, the unofficial summer headquarters of the Upper Peninsula’s Boy Scouts. After five days of rain and cool temperatures, the sky is clear and blue—and the boys’ attitudes reflect the return of summer weather. They gather along the edge of Bunting Lake to cheer on the canoeists and swimmers completing the final two legs of a camp-wide relay race, politely applauding all competitors but, no surprise, saving their loudest encouragements for their own troops.

A leader sitting on a wooden bench spots his two-scout canoe team as it clears the point and heads from left to right for the back side of the island. He rises to his feet, takes a single step toward the water and begins narrating his scouts’ pursuit of another canoe 25 yards ahead: “Okay, good, stay in rhythm. See how they’re paddling on opposite sides? They’re gonna catch ’em. Strong, steady strokes. … Heading into the wind like this, you want to get to the island as fast as you can and stick close to the shore. Let the island block the wind. Stay out of open water. … They’re gonna catch ’em.”

They catch ’em—and pass ’em—before reaching the island and paddling out of sight. The leader folds his arms across his chest and nods, a teacher satisfied in his students’ progress.

“They’ve worked hard for this,” he says. Then, before even he expects, the silver canoe is visible again, tight to the right edge of the island and heading on a straight line toward the beach. The canoeists pull their craft out of the water, tag their team’s swimmer for the final leg and, exhausted, collapse to the sand.

Boy Scouts gather around a flag representing their troop at Camp Hiawatha.

Before the race ends, news trickles down to the waterfront that a mountain biker on the second leg of the relay had suffered a minor accident. The camp director approaches a troop leader with a slip of paper containing three names. “These are the boys who stopped to help him,” he says. The leader picks out the name of one of his scouts. He nods. “Glad to see that,” he says.

After 50 years, the spirit of good scouting is still alive and well at Camp Hiawatha.

. . .

Even before the Boy Scouts of America were established in 1910, a bank clerk in Marquette named Perry Hatch organized a scouting group at First Methodist Church. Hatch gathered about 40 boys between the ages of 6 and 18, according to an article by Henry Bothwell III published in 1986 in Lake Superior Port Cities Magazine. Bothwell writes, “They hiked, explored, read compasses and maps, cut trails and camped for days at a time decades before scouting was fashionable.” When the BSA formed, Hatch organized Troop 1 in Marquette, one of the first Boy Scout troops in the country.

Scouting spread steadily into the middle of the 20th century, and troops in the central Upper Peninsula used a variety of sites for summer camps, including land within the Hiawatha National Forest. Mark Rice, the current director of Camp Hiawatha, said the local Hiawathaland Council of the BSA wanted to buy land for a permanent camp, and the opportunity came in 1966.

A privately owned fishing resort within the national forest boundaries 45 miles southeast of Marquette was up for sale, 175 acres and a couple of buildings available for $250,000. Adjusted for inflation, that price tag is worth more than $1.8 million in today’s dollars, but the Boy Scouts raised the money in one year.

So in the summer of 1967, 50 years ago, local Boy Scouts pitched their tents for the first time at Camp Hiawatha. One of the campers that year was an 11-year-old tenderfoot scout from Marquette named Al Feldhauser. His father, Art, was the scoutmaster of Troop 304, and his older brother, Mark, had attended summer camp in previous years.

A building located at Camp Hiawatha. The camp has grown in the past 50 years to encompass 800 acres, including the 60-acre Bunting Lake.

“I could not wait until I turned 11 so I could be in Boy Scouts,” he said. “So that was my first summer camp, and it was the first camp here. … Back in those days, scout camping was a lot more rustic. We cooked all of our meals over an open campfire. Today, we use propane stoves. … There was one building out here that first year, and if I remember correctly, someone had to go into Munising every day for groceries. Then we’d descend on the building to get our rations. … It’s pretty amazing to me to have been part of that.”

Feldhauser has participated in Camp Hiawatha’s summer program for more than 30 years as a scout or leader, the last 19 as scoutmaster of Troop 309, based at Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette. Eighteen boys from the troop went to Camp Hiawatha for a week in July.

“The program is still good today,” he said. “I like to see these guys get outdoors and get away from their phones. We don’t allow them to take their electronic devices, but they all learn they can survive a week without them.”

Both Feldhauser and Rice, the camp director, commend the virtues of the patrol method that is used at Hiawatha. Troops are divided into groups of six to eight boys, and each patrol elects its leader. The patrols are then responsible to work together to complete certain tasks, such as preparing meals.

“Everyone has a duty,” Feldhauser said. “Some are cooks, some get water, some do the dishes, and they rotate the jobs each day. They learn how to be part of a team. In other camps that have a cafeteria, they lose out on that.”

Rice added: “We provide the structure, but the boys make a lot of decisions as patrols. They may not recognize it right away, but these are the first leadership opportunities for many of them. Troops see a lot of growth from the beginning of the week to the end.”

The camp has expanded through the years to create even more opportunities for boys to develop in their leadership and outdoors skills. Camp Hiawatha now encompasses 800 acres; the 60-acre Bunting Lake; a developed waterfront for swimming, canoeing, boating and fishing; a shooting range; hiking and mountain-biking trails; a health lodge; a shower house; and eight campsites that can accommodate up to 80 campers each. This year, Rice anticipates hosting about 400 Boy Scouts over four weeks and another 350 to 400 Cub Scouts.

Camp Hiawatha is now owned by the Bay-Lakes Council of BSA after a 2013 restructuring combined the former Hiawathaland Council, which made up most of the Upper Peninsula, with several districts in northeast Wisconsin. The council owns and operates four other camps within its boundaries, and troops can attend any of them. In a typical summer, Hiawatha hosts troops from the U.P., lower Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. Rice says the council is currently in a strategic-planning mode to determine how best to use its camps and to increase membership across the region. He sees Camp Hiawatha continuing to play an important role in the mission of the organization.

“This is where my boys grew up and became men,” Rice said. “It’s a special place. We don’t like to compare it to other camps, but Camp Hiawatha and the experience we offer has really made a difference in people’s lives.”

. . .

Boy Scout officials have scheduled several events this summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Camp Hiawatha:

Camp tours will take place on July 28 and August 4, 8 and 11, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Tours are free, but visitors must sign in upon arriving at camp. Call the camp at 387-2714 for more information.

A Camp Hiawatha reunion dinner is set for 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 26, at the Island Resort and Casino in Harris. All past staff, campers, leaders and spouses are invited to attend and share their memories. The cost is $30 per person. Call Michael Metivier at 920-323-4625 or Kevin Corkin at 920-471-9027 for details.


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