Camp Champions blends adventure with lasting memories

by Pamela LeBlanc
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN 
A group of boys plays pickleball (a combination of ping pong, tennis and badminton) on a court at Camp Champions in Marble Falls.Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN A group of boys plays pickleball (a combination of ping pong, tennis and badminton) on a court at Camp Champions in Marble Falls.

MARBLE FALLS — Laura Mehl marches toward a cluster of screened-in shelters built over the water at Camp Champions.

She rifles through paperwork, a pen poised in her hand. It’s time for cabin inspection, and the 21-year-old counselor has expectations. “The flaps over the windows have to be even, no spider webs on the rail, shoes organized well and no socks inside them. I check for trash around the cabin and look in the trunks and under the bunks to make sure everything is clean,” she says.

She steps inside a wooden structure that mere moments ago resembled a Target store turned inside out: Tiger Beat magazines, batteries, flashlights, stationery, dirty T-shirts, rumpled blankets, flip-flops, everything you need to make a friendship bracelet, markers, disposable cameras, the makings for water bombs, a rubber chicken, tubes of sun screen and wet swimsuits on every available surface.

“It looked like someone put a bomb under everyone’s bed and it went off, and stuff went everywhere,” says 12-year-old Hallie Smith of Magnolia.

All that detritus has been folded, wiped down, swept, stacked and tucked away — for now. Twelve girls snap to attention, greet their inspector and sing a song about keeping their quarters tidy.

“Looks good,” Mehl says with a grin after a careful look. As she swoops out the door, the girls breathe a sigh of relief. If they pass eight cabin inspections, they earn a pizza party. Now they can get on to the real business of the day — having fun.

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Camp Champions in Marble Falls. Boys are grouped by age in the un-air conditioned cabins at Camp Champions.Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Camp Champions in Marble Falls. Boys are grouped by age in the un-air conditioned cabins at Camp Champions.

Camp Champions’ history here on Lake LBJ reaches back to 1967, when it opened as a boys camp. A girls camp was added three years later. Among the camp’s founders are former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal and All-America swimmer Hondo Crouch, who helped make Luckenbach famous. In the early days, sports was a focus.

Today, activities have broadened to include ceramics, dance, tumbling and drama, but the waterfront remains one of the busiest places on the 90-acre campus. Any given day, campers squeal as they ride an inflatable “banana” dragged behind a boat, zip down a waterslide, flop onto a huge inflatable pillow dubbed “The Glob” or soar sky-high as they pitch themselves off a rope swing. And there’s the all-important (and sometimes dreaded) Lake Swim, in which older campers, escorted by a fleet of canoes and kayaks, swim about 800 meters across the lake and back.

This summer, campers will also get to enjoy a brand-new swimming pool, complete with waterslides.

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Michael Kaplan swings off a rope swing into Lake LBJ. The boys and girls have separate waterfronts. They also can take out kayaks and small sailboats.Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Michael Kaplan swings off a rope swing into Lake LBJ. The boys and girls have separate waterfronts. They also can take out kayaks and small sailboats.

Camp Champions serves about 400 campers during each of three three-week sessions (plus a one-week session), and activities this day include gaga (an Israeli version of dodgeball), tennis, basketball, riflery, horseback riding, archery, sailing, wakeboarding and waterskiing. There are Indy go-carts to race, a climbing wall to conquer, a music room in which to practice instruments and a ropes course to tackle. Every session includes a rodeo night, a campout and a visit to the sweat lodge, where herbs and steam are part of the rite of passage.

When they first arrive, campers are sorted into two factions: the Trojans and Spartans. Every session winds down with the Trojan-Spartan Wars, an athletic competition between tribes. The battle reaches a fever pitch during the war canoe races, when older campers pile into oversized boats, paddle to the middle of the lake, change positions and paddle back.

Behind the scenes, camp owners Susie Baskin, 40, and Steve Baskin, 43, say they act as “partners in parenting.” They bought Camp Champions, just outside Marble Falls, in November 1995. The camp is co-ed, but operates as separate boys and girls camps, divided by an invisible line. The two sides mingle at weekly dances and share a dining hall, dubbed the Fillin’ Station.

In accordance with long-standing tradition, campers address counselors and staffers — and vice versa — by their first name, followed by ma’am and sir. The Baskins, then, are Susie Ma’am and Steve Sir. The “Four R’s” — respect, responsibility, reasonable risk and reaching out to others — are emphasized.

“It’s a reminder that we are respectful of all people,” Susie Baskin says. She says she hopes campers leave with a greater appreciation for the possibilities life holds for them.

“We believe that life has meaning and each of us can make a contribution that’s more than just atoms banging against each other,” Steve Baskin says.

No cell phones or digital cameras are allowed; Walkmans and iPods are permitted, but only in cabins, and only if they don’t interfere with bonding. Candy is banned, too.

But the kitchen makes up for that, turning out what nearly every camper dubs “the best cake ever.” Breakfast might be French toast soaked in syrup, or scrambled eggs. And fresh fruit, if you want it. Dinner could be burgers, pasta or chicken, with a salad bar always available.

Afterward, the campers clean up with precision efficiency: Leftover food is scraped onto a slop tray, plates are stacked, unfinished drinks poured out, utensils gathered, tables wiped down, floors swept.

“Camp has a way of making you feel very comfortable very fast,” says counselor Anne Berry, 20, of Austin, who has been coming to Camp Champions for seven years.

After a few days of acclimation, most of the campers don’t even seem to mind the lack of air conditioning in most of the cabins, each of which holds two counselors and 12 campers. Screened windows let the breeze blow in straight off the lake. Without lights, they rely on flashlights after dark.

“The best part about camp is chilling out in the cabin,” says Sam Hines, 14, of San Antonio, who has six years of camp under his belt.

Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Allison Lewis, left, Molly Reidy, Manda Martin, Brooke Strake, Lauren Parra and Jessica Grenader jump off the stage at Camp Champions. During the evening torchlight ceremony, the camp uses the stage for skits, songs and announcements. The stage is where the evening Torchlight ceremony with skits, songs and announcements takes place.Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Allison Lewis, left, Molly Reidy, Manda Martin, Brooke Strake, Lauren Parra and Jessica Grenader jump off the stage at Camp Champions. During the evening torchlight ceremony, the camp uses the stage for skits, songs and announcements. The stage is where the evening Torchlight ceremony with skits, songs and announcements takes place.

Another highlight? Themed dances that take place each Wednesday night under the covered basketball court. Last summer, nearly everyone, including the Baskins’ basset hound Fenway, donned yellow for a Mellow Yellow-themed gig. Among the attendees? Two guys dressed in banana costumes, a dancing mustard bottle and someone wearing their mother’s saffron-colored bridesmaid dress from the 1970s. No one seems to be self-conscious, and the whole lemon-colored entourage sings along to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”

“Camp gets in their blood,” Susie Baskin says.

Kristen Layton, 21, a counselor from Bastrop, calls Camp Champions a welcome break from reality. “You’re living life to the fullest, but you don’t have a care in the world,” she says.

So what do campers miss about the outside world? “I miss making easy (phone) calls instead of going through the hassle of writing a letter,” says Jordan Goldberg, 13, of San Antonio. Still, he wrote home four times in 2007.

Last summer, flooding that kept Lake LBJ closed for more than a week presented a special challenge to the staff. Counselors got creative, dreaming up games of baby-pool baseball and dizzy bat races to keep the campers happy. They even discovered an unexpected bonus: Campers got to know each other even faster than usual.

“We did a lot of cabin bonding,” says Adam Rindler, 13, of San Antonio. “We kind of got tired of each other, but it was good.”

Pop your head into a cabin or sit down to lunch and keep your ears open, and you’ll hear it all (we did).

On cabin life: “It’s like a big slumber party.”

On cleaning the cabin: “We try and keep it neat, but it doesn’t always work out.”

On relaxing without modern appliances: “I cannot wait to watch TV.”

On, well, camp life: ‘I’m in Cabin 13, and it smells like dead fish out there.”

And this: “I love it so much.”

Ah, summer camp. Wouldn’t it be nice if it could last just a little bit longer?