For Over 70 Years, This Summer Camp Has Been Immersing Kids In Wisconsin's Environment

Sep 1, 2017

Towering Pines Camp For Boys came to life in 1945. As environmental awareness was on the rise in the 1970s, the northern Wisconsin camp pioneered an environmental immersion program that garnered national attention.

They call it acclimatization.

The campers merge with the natural world – in some unconventional ways. For instance, camp leaders teach the kids what it feels like to navigate the world like a raccoon.

Jeff Jordan (left) confers with John Sorkin, a long-ago camp counselor who now serves as handyman, ski instructor and song leader.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

“Tape their thumbs together. We also isolate the senses, so quiet walks where you just listen, blindfolded walks to your quiet and listening,” Jeff Jordan says.

He’s son of the camp’s founder and has been leading the camp for the last 30 years.

Looking back at its history, Jeff says the camp sprang to life serendipitously.

One of John Jordan's passions was educating the children about the history and culture of the native people from the region.
Credit JoAnne Jordan Trimpe

“At age eighteen my dad came up here on vacation and decided it would be a good idea to run a fishing resort. So my grandfather sold their home in Cicero and used the money for a down payment. But (my grandfather) decided (my dad should run) a boys camp, since there was already a girls camp down the road, would be the way to go," he says.

Calla Dellinger Craze (left) at Camp Woodland For Girls, Towering Pines sister camp. Calla is program director.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Jeff was still a boy when his parents purchased that nearby girls camp – Camp Woodland for Girls. Jeff’s sisters and niece run it.

Today, the family manages a combined 500 acres – much of it forest and wetland.

Jeff says the camp’s acclimatization program was featured in a 1974 issue of National Geographic. It published a story with photos of kids soaking in sensory experiences.

Jeff’s nephew, Jonathan Dellinger, is second in command at Towering Pines.

The 1974 National Geographic article.
Credit Susan Bence

Jonathan can’t remember summer life without it, from early childhood on. “As long as I can remember, they would take us out, we’d put on lifejackets, we’d jump into Lost Lake which is an overgrown lake where the bog is stretching out and the moss is there, catching frogs, salamanders anything that couldn’t bite us."

The family is determined to carry on his grandfather’s legacy, and has his notes as a reference.

"We know much of what we know about camp because of the things he wrote down – his records and diaries and memoirs.  He was fascinated by the traditions of the land and the people here and we try to carry on a lot of those - as best we can,” Jonathan says.

Jonathan Dellinger (far right).
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Matt Dellinger, Jonathan’s older brother, steers a sailboat and points to spots where campers get immersed in forest and bog ecosystems today.

“This is the area where the kids experience a lake ecosystem. We get a raft of lily pads out here,” he says.

Campers jump in for a fish’s view of life beneath the flowering pad.

“They put on scuba diving gear, snorkels and masks and they look up and see the stems and the lily pads from below.  It's absolutely beautiful; it’s amazing,” Matt says.

The specialness is not lost on camper Ross. This is his sixth summer at Towering Pines. He recalls an overnight camping expedition across the lake, when he and his mates explored a bog and walked atop a sea of peat moss. His eyes widen with wonder as he relives the moment.

“It was like a lake, and then it was moss and roots and stuff over it – it’s pretty much like a trampoline,” Ross says.

Matt Dellinger says his family hopes to continue bringing future generations face-to-face with nature.

“We’ve tried to keep this place as it was when they first made the program over all these years – because we know how special it is and how much we appreciate it, getting those perspective,” he says.

Three Dellingers: - left to right - Emeric (future camper) his uncle Will (counselor and sailing coordinator & his dad Matt.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio