What Is Specialty Camp?

What Is Specialty Camp?

By Pati Egan

The January 1992 Camp Ondessonk Newsletter featured this question, and then went on to introduce a totally new way to enjoy Camp. Specialty Camp evolved into Camp Ondessonk’s incredibly popular Adventure Camps. Let’s take a look at how it all got started!

The first Specialty Camp ran from August 16th through August 23rd.  No other campers were at Camp that week. This post will just be an overview of the inaugural program.  Posts in the future will go more in depth into the four programs that ran that week.

This is a photo of the original Specialty Camp campers. Our Executive Director Dan King, who helped run Horsemanship Specialty Camp stated that the campers were grouped into units that might contain more than one Specialty Area.

What Is Specialty Camp?  Camp Ondessonk

Originally, there were supposed to be six Specialty Groups:

Horsemanship Specialty Group

Adventure Specialty Group

Trekking Specialty Group

Aquatics Specialty Group

This all sounds pretty familiar, right? These next two were offered but did not have enough interested campers to sign up to run the program. The description from the Newsletter stated that campers in these two groups would: 

Range Specialty Group would spend the week at Archery and at the Rifle Range. Campers would learn to “skillfully shoot .22 caliber rifles and standard recurve bows; learn proper handling, care, assembly, and cleaning; shoot various types of bows at various distances; trap shoot with .20-gauge shotguns; participate in contests and demonstrations all under the eye of expert instructors.”

The old Rifle Range

What is specialty Camp-  Camp Ondessonk The old Rifle Range

Crafts Specialty Group was not as popular as the program is today. The description states that “campers will have the opportunity to work with craftsmen from Southern Illinois. Raku pottery will enable campers to search for a particular type of clay, shape their creation and bake it in the earth. Other special projects may include: fabric weaving, basket weaving, ceramics, kite making, totem pole carving and other crafts.”

Camp Ondessonk Crafts Specialty Group Campers  Handicrafts

The Specialty Camps that did run – The Staff

Camp used their most experienced staff and contracted out specialists in a few areas.  The original staffs read like a “who’s who” of Camp staff in 1992. Dan recalls that “four programs ran simultaneously. Horse Specialty Camp, Canoeing Specialty Camp led by Joe Bushue, Suzy (Munn) Mahoney, Sam Pate, Jenn (Janson) Brennan, Andrea (Kish) Biske, Allison Scheffers, and Amanda (Bahan) Gauch. Trekking Specialty Camp led by Mary Kay Marcquenski and Tony Boyer, perhaps with help from Pilar Velez, and Rock-Climbing Specialty Camp that was run, in part, by an outside rock-climbing group with support from some of Camp’s staff.  Dan King states, “I was Unit Leader for the horse program. Danny Clancy was Equestrian Director at the time. He handled horse related stuff. I concentrated on camper leadership and logistics. Chris Cahnovsky volunteered for a portion of the week – perhaps the whole week, but I kind of recall him just being there for the overnight part on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The horse and canoeing programs each had around 32 campers”

First Aquatics Adventure Campers

First Aquatics Adventure Campers

Suzy (Munn) Mahoney and Jenn (Janson) Brennan recall that the trip was on the Wabash River. Jenn recalled that, “We went on the Wabash River. Before the trip Gene (Canavan) showed all of us how to tip in a canoe in the swimming lake. We could not swim in the water because of undertows. It was all paddling for sure. No real current to take you, and we cooked over the fire. We dug in the sand every night to burrow out a place to sleep and put the canoes on top so if it rained, we would have shelter.” Suzy related that, “I remember being pretty nervous when we hit some ‘rapids.’ We were carrying a ton of gear, coolers, etc. in the canoes. I was afraid if anyone capsized, they’d lose everything or have wet belongings for the remainder of the trip. Like I said, tough week – but rewarding!” Both agreed that the trip was one of the highlights of their time on staff.

What is specialty camp- Camp Ondessonk Two girls and a canoe

Horsemanship Specialty Group

I imagine Catherine, our current Equestrian Director, would be surprised that there were 32 campers who went on this inaugural trip. Current Board President Chris Cahnovsky was staff on this trip.

A few of the campers on this first trip.

Camp Ondessonk Specialty Camp   Horse Campers
Horse and Staff drinking together.

Dan remembers that, “Jennifer Rheinecker and Colleen Shaughnessy were along as campers on that first program. Danny Clancy and I chose the campsite the previous winter. At the time, the Forest Service maintained firebreaks in that area, which made the site we chose a good setting for feeding the horses with real grass, plus setting up a nearby campsite for boys and one for girls in an open meadow surrounded by a dense hardwood forest was ideal. The campsite was down the grassy fire lane trail across Trigg Tower Road from Davis-Green Trail Ride. It was accessible by truck, but it felt like it was deep in the woods – because it was.”

Trekking Specialty Group

Trekkers would be called our backpackers now. They learned map and compass skills, Leave No Trace camping ethics, and, according to the newsletter, “They will also learn to pack everything they need to survive for three days afield on their backs.”  They also visited some of the most remote sites at and around Camp.

Bleeding Buffalo

Camp Ondessonk Bleeding Buffalo

Adventure Specialty Camp – Rock Climbing Arrives!

“Adventure campers will explore all the most popular sites and split rocks at Ondessonk as well as some high-adventure activities never before offered during summer camp.” Expert outside instructors taught campers “to climb on belay, and rappel down the massive sandstone bluffs that are famous in the Shawnee National Forest” (Newsletter January 1992). Camp did not have a climbing wall or any of the awesome elements campers try at Challenge today.  A highlight was a trip to the SIUC Touch of Nature High Ropes Course.

Specialty Camp only existed for two years but it didn’t end! It was the forebearer of all of the Adventure Camp Programs that are offered today. These programs just keep getting better and better! Thanks, all of you who took a chance to try something new – almost 30 years later your initiative and flexibility is still going strong!

If you went on one of these inaugural trips in 1992, please leave a comment below! We’d love to hear from anyone who participated in Trekking or Adventure!

Thanks to Dan King, Chris Cahnovsky, Suzy (Munn) Mahoney, and Jenn (Janson) Brennan for the photos and insights into these unforgettable weeks.

Click here to learn more about Camp Ondessonk’s history.


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