The Primitive Units – The Forebearer of Camper vs Wild

The Primitive Units – The Forebearer of Camper vs Wild

by Pati Egan

Camper vs Wild is one of the adventure programs offered during summer camp.  The Camp brochure states: Participants will develop real-life leadership skills through participation in primitive camping activities. Skill development includes basic backpacking, outdoor cooking, map and compass navigation, fire building, and water purification.  I wonder how many campers and staff know that almost the same description could have been used in 1969 to describe the Primitive Units of Teondecorum and Couture?

“I’m thankful for the two years I was able to be in Teondecum Primitive – it changed my life, and as I look back, it was equal in many ways to Outward Bound and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), but for grade-school-aged children,” stated Norb Garvey, former Primitive camper, staff member, and volunteer at Camp Ondessonk.

The Primitive units of Teondecorum and Couture opened in 1969 and closed in 1972.  Though its lifespan was short, the impact it had on the campers and staff was long-lived and significant.  My knowledge of this program was rather limited, so in order to get a good feel for this program I called on many former Primitive campers and staff: Lucia Hodges, Steve Rheinecker, Jim Klein, Dan Hechenberger, Norb Garvey, and Janet Harper.  Their enthusiasm in reliving their memories of living in these units led me to think that this will make an awesome story. 

Let’s start with what Camper vs Wild has in common with The Primitives.  Pine Lake is/was the base camp for both Camper vs Wild and The Primitives.  Teondecorum was located on the opposite side of the lake if you are looking at the lake from the dock.  Camper vs Wild uses the more developed side of the lake.

Primitive Camp Ondessonk Pine Lake
Teondocurum was located on the other side of Pine Lake from the current dock
Primitive Ondessonk Pine Lake Camper vs Wild
Camper vs Wild is located on the dockside of Pine Lake
Primitive Pakentuck Ondessonk
Couture was located in Pakentuk

Shelter building and Camp Living

Both Camper vs Wild and Primitives stressed proper shelter building and responsible outdoor living – now called Leave No Trace.

Teondecorum had a base shelter that was an old covered wagon.  There was enough room for the staff to sleep and to keep supplies.

Teondecorum’s Covered Wagon

Jim Klein’s Amazing Treehouse

When Jim Klein was the Unit Leader of Teondecorum, the campers and staff built an elaborate treehouse complex for their shelter.  The tree houses were built out of tree branches and twine from hay bales, and could only be reached by a rope ladder.  The treehouses were well built, safe, and the campers loved them!    

The Camper vs Wild program offers a detailed packing list.  Some of these items might not have been available in 1969, but I’m sure the original Primitive campers would have loved to have some of these items.

The Primitive campers probably had a canteen, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight.  If they had a duffle bag it probably came from an Army Surplus store.  If you asked a 1969 camper what a day pack was – you’d probably get a blank stare.  The same stare for sporks, Ziploc or Gladware, mattress pads, and 1-liter water bottles.  A Camper vs Wild participant would be amazed that most campers had pocket knives and that Jim Klein carried a machete!

Camp Life

Both groups did not work off of a set schedule.  Primitive campers could arrange for a horseback ride or other camp activities during their week.  Both groups enjoyed exploration of both Camp sites and National Forest sites.  Both programs used Pine Lake for swimming, and today’s campers can try sailing at Pine Lake using a Sea Snark sailboat, plus they can travel off of camp property to places like the beautiful Garden Of The Gods.

Iconic photo of Primitive campers after going through Augustine’s Agony cir. 1970

Cooking, Sanitation, and Water Purification

The Primitive units had chickens that were roasted on a spit.  Food was delivered to the units on Sunday and Tuesday.  Steve Rheinecker recalls, “Besides the well-known chicken roasts, we had fondue, pancakes made with elderberries, paella, couscous, and a variety of meals that we could craft from camp stores.”  Jim Klein recalls that the staff bought octopus for the campers to try out one time. 

There was no outhouse anywhere close to Pine Lake or Pakentuk.  Steve recalls that “Toilets were slit toilets, lashed limbs, over an open pit, lined and moved regularly.”

The water purification system that Primitives used would definitely not be used by today’s campers.

Pine Lake is a spring-fed lake.  Staff would take a large Jerry can, swim out to the middle of Pine Lake, dive down at least 10 feet, fill the can, and surface.  A small amount of bleach would be added to the water.  It would sit for a while and then used for drinking or cooking. 

Jerry Can – side note, campers would also carry this full of Camp water on their all-day exploration.  Two campers would put a stick between the handle and carry it.

Primitive Camper vs Wild Ondessonk map reading skills

Camper vs Wild learn skills such as navigation using a map and compass, starting a fire without using matches, orienteering, and Leave No Trace camping skills.  Suzy Munn Mahoney recalls that her son’s group found their way from Pine Lake back to Camp using only a map and compass. 

primitive Camper vs Wild Ondessonk
Camper vs. Wild campers building a fire

The important things both programs have in common is life-long friendships, leadership development, and an appreciation of God’s creation.  No one was quite sure why the Primitives had such a short life span.  It was suggested that environmental concerns (the first Earth Day was held in 1970) was a big factor in this decision.

Peyton Mahoney-Camper vs. Wild

During the celebration of Camp O Day, let’s all commemorate both our past with the present, as they are both intertwined to bring out the best in the youth of today.

Special thanks to Suzy Munn Mahoney for her assistance with Camper vs Wild.

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