Sweyolakan Still Rockin’ Former Campers Gather To Celebrate 75 Years Of Summer Fun
The sky smiled just for her.
It had been wet and dark most of Tuesday. But when it came time for Dorothy Brown to cross Mica Bay to Camp Sweyolakan earlier this week, the sun came out, shining on the boat’s corrugated metal floor and onto her face.
“I was in the first group of campers who came over,” she said, white hair blowing as the boat accelerated. “I still have my diary from the first time.”
That was 75 years ago - when the Camp Fire lake getaway was just 16 acres and Brown was a teenager. Now, the camp has grown to 300 acres, and Dorothy Brown is 91.
She was one of hundreds of former Camp Fire kids visiting Sweyolakan this week - adult alumni arriving to celebrate the place’s longevity. Through Sunday, they’ll sing, float, clap and remember.
The remembering is where Brown comes in.
“I’m on the archives committee because I’m the oldest thing they have around,” she joked.
In the 1920s, the Kiwanis of Downtown Spokane donated $1,000 to purchase the camp, and they’ve helped it grow ever since. Back then, equipment was brought over by barge to clear out bushes and rocks, making way for a sandy beach. Even today, the camp is accessible only by boat.
“It is lovely here,” Brown wrote in her diary July 1, 1922, “and we bunk at Rosemary Inn. The other house is known as Squirrel Inn. Then too, there is a counselor’s cottage. We ate there. Had a bonfire tonight.”
There were 45 Camp Fire girls that day; now there are as many as 200 girls and boys at a time. Each summer, about 1,600 stay there total, said Kay Laughlin, a former camp director.
Most come from Spokane. But the Inland Empire Council of Camp Fire serves both boys and girls from Ritzville to the Montana border, from Canada to Riggins, Idaho.
The original buildings are gone now, Brown said - they were there when Camp Fire bought Sweyolakan. The warm, woodsy McCornack dining hall was built in 1923, the lumber donated by Weyerhaeuser.
That same year, there was a contest to name the place. A girl named Germaine Gimble won with “Sweyolakan” (sway-oh-lock’-un) - a word a Coeur d’Alene tribal member told her meant “sighing of the pines.” Perfect.
And some of the coolest, open-walled cabins have sprung up since: Some look like tiny Swiss chateaus. Others look like treehouses, high on stilts. None has electricity.
On Tuesday, campers could explore their cabins. As the camp boat neared shore some young-faced, white-shirted counselors waited on the dock. They were singing.
“We welcome you to Sweyolakan
Mighty glad you’re here…”
Then the old-timers on board joined in.
“Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here
Welcome to Sweyolakan.”
About 180 people were at camp - past campers, counselors, directors. Brown had been all of the above.
They milled about the sandy beach, gawking at the vintage wooden canoes upside-down on the shore. All the campers remembered those war canoes, too - they’re famous across the lake, counselor Aimee Bernardo said. Folks always recognize them and wave.
A bugle blasted, signaling dinner time. Everyone got in lines, watched the flag lower, and were called inside the dining hall row by row.
They said grace - sang it, actually - then sat down to eat. There was apple sauce, ham and potatoes, and water served from a tin pitcher glazed with frost.
Brown sat down with some of those young counselors and told them how camping is done. She’s an edible plant expert, she said. And did they know that there’s wild ginger growing here? She’ll show them later.
And everyone should wear swim caps to protect their hearing, Brown said. Otherwise, they’ll have a tough time hearing “when you’re my age.”
Later, there were awards, cake and games. Peggy Clark, 49, clapped and pounded the table like a tot in a highchair along with other campers.
“I went here 12 years, and my daughter 12 years, and we both spent a year on staff,” she said.
She remembers taking a canoe out with six other girls and two counselors, heading up the St. Joe River to St. Maries and back.
The trip took lasted five days, “and there was not hot or cold running anything.” They mooed at a cow on the bank and it followed them along the shore.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s a great camp.”
But it was dark all too soon, and the lake turned black-green. A dozen or so campers loaded back onto the freezer lid of a boat, arms spilling with cartons of Camp Fire mints. Brown stayed behind for the week.
The dock choir gathered again. “Say goodbye ‘till September …” That’s when Camp Fire usually starts again for kids. But it wouldn’t start again for these campers.
So they just waved goodbye.
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