Visiting the World of Wohelo

A summer day with the young girls who become strong women at the end of a dirt road on a lake in Maine.

On Sebago Lake in Raymond there is some C.S. Lewis-style magic going on. A wardrobe appears in the form of a long dirt road offering—if you’re lucky—entrance into a world called Wohelo, where girls rule and it is always summer. This enchanted place is just 45 minutes from my home in Portland, and just a few miles from a busy road of antique shops, Dunkin’ Donuts, and marine supply stores. Its physical nearness to the world I live in only adds to the shock of arrival, to the sense that I must have passed through some magical portal to get here. I park my car and follow the sound of a bugle being played by a red-headed girl in blue. As she plays on, other girls in blue and white emerge, laughing, talking, singing, filing down the steps leading to a large building overlooking the lake. I tap one girl on the shoulder and ask her where I might find Quincy Van Winkle. She points, and I turn around.

“You made it,” says one of the camp’s directors smiling, offering a tanned hand. It is all I can do not to ask, “Where am I?” I know, logically, that I made it to Sebago Wohelo—I see the wooden signs tacked to trees, the brown cabins, the bugle, the girls aged 12 through 16 (nearby Little Wohelo, run by Quincy’s sister in-law Heidi Van Winkle Gorton, is home to campers aged 6 through 12). But Wohelo is like camp squared, it’s so beautiful. I revel in the dappled light, the steep pitch of the boulder- crusted, pine-needle-coated land, and the rise of the water, trimmed out in blue hills. The weather could not be more perfect— cloudless skies, a balmy 74 degrees. It is one o’clock, lunchtime, and Van Winkle and I follow the procession into the dining hall.

The sounds in the dining hall are familiar— that cafeteria clatter of silverware, the dull buzz of dozens of simultaneous conversations—but the water views through the many-paned windows are out of this world. I take a seat beside Quincy and her husband, Mark Van Winkle, the camp’s owner and one of three directors (the others being Quincy and Wohelo alum Jennie Walsh), and find myself immersed in a series of rituals: grace, the passing of many plates, clapping, the singing in unison of songs with sweet, sometimes odd, lyrics about gratitude and friendship. It doesn’t take a keen observer to note that the melodies and lyrics take on special meaning to the girls who have memorized them; what I’m hearing is the sound of belonging. When the singing is over, leaders are named and awards are bestowed in accordance with the three-tiered program of nautical accomplishment called, in ascending order, water bug, water baby, and (my favorite) water witch. Afterwards, counselors stand to make announcements like, “The kiln is hot!” and, “It’s not too late to sign up for the talent show!”

Wohelo is governed by a code of ethics and set of rules and behaviors that become second nature for those who live within them, but which seem spectacular to someone who has the special privilege of dropping in. Amidst the excited energy, the Van Winkles explain what’s going on and why, from the camp’s emphasis on table manners to the development of life-long skills and appreciation for the outdoors. Most traditions are over a century old, and can be traced back to when the Wohelo Camps were founded in 1907 by Mark and his sister Heidi’s great grandparents, Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick and Charlotte Vetter Gulick.

I could write a book about the Gulicks— others have, and Dr. Gulick himself wrote several—but suffice it to say that these two were pioneering advocates of what was at the beginning of the twentieth century a cutting-edge concept: physical education. The couple cofounded the organization Camp Fire Girls, and Dr. Gulick was the president of the American Physical Education Association, president of the Playground Association of America, and the creator of the YMCA’s original logo representing mind, body, and spirit. Charlotte Vetter Gulick gave Wohelo—which stands for work, health, and love—its name. The Gulicks were also the founders of boys’ camp Timanous, now situated on nearby Panther Pond and owned and operated by the Suitor family. Amazingly, Wohelo has stayed in the Gulick/Van Winkle family all this time.

After lunch the girls return to their cabins for an hour of rest and relaxation, and counselor Laura Douglas is kind enough to let me join her and her campers in their cabin, Ursa Major. As we carefully make our way along the steep, rocky  terrain, Douglas pulls bashful, dark-haired Jessie—a third-generation camper—into a side hug and congratulates her on being elected to the Grand Count Committee, which means she has been elected by her peers to run the final council fire. Jessie grins and looks up adoringly at Douglas. All of Douglas’s twelve-year-old campers are clearly smitten with her. She was their age when she came to Wohelo for the first time. The twenty-one-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, is kind, calming, and comfortable in her own skin. During our chat on the cabin’s back porch Douglas tells me about the role Wohelo has played in her life so far, and what she hopes to offer her campers. “At Wohelo I learned how to be myself and not be ashamed about that,” she says. “As counselors we try to bring the weird out in campers, because at school they’re not focusing on your personality and the good in you. Everyone has a place here.”

Making our way inside the cabin I dodge shoes hanging from the rafters—something to do with a prank recently played on Douglas and her sixteen-year-old assistant counselors, known in the Wohelo vernacular as TGs, or “trusted girls.” The group is already arranged in a circle, ready to talk camp. “This is the dream cabin,” Jessie says, referring to how well the girls get along. A spunky girl called Maddie chimes in: “Someone would have to spend like a million dollars to recreate this cabin. Because we’re all pretty crazy.” Then, in an onslaught of speeches peppered with likes and laughs the girls tell me about the best friends they’ve made at Wohelo, the skills they’ve acquired, and all that they’ve learned to live without—including cell phones and electricity.

As magical as this place is, these girls have not lost sight of the world on the other end of the dirt road; they have an acute understanding of the specialness of this experience and how it changes them not just for the summer but throughout the school year, year after year. “You bring this whole different look on life when you go home,” says Jossie, one of the TGs. “Camp really teaches you to look around and appreciate what’s around you. When I go home I’m talking about what the leaves are doing and noticing that there is a storm coming.” One girl is especially shy and shrinks from my questions. “Christina is a great sail racer,” says Jessie, causing Christina to blush with pride. “Yeah,” says Maddie. “She soloed today.”

That afternoon I roam the grounds, noting girls bent over looms in the crafts cabin and journaling on rocks. I see sailors riding the strong winds, occasionally capsizing, throwing their weight onto centerboards and righting their vessels with studied technique and impressive strength. Later I will learn that Wohelo is known for its sailing program, which is no surprise given the ideal conditions in the protected deepwater cove and the large fleet of 420 sailboats on hand. On the docks, I watch young women swimming laps in an effort to reach whichever personal goals are on the horizon. Wohelo’s award system incentivizes hard work and self-discipline, and leads campers to attempt and master a wide range of activities. As Irene, a camper from Spain, puts it, “We’re all at different levels. Everyone is being pushed to be a better them. We’re all helping each other out.”

Just as I am starting to settle in, to begin to recognize camp songs and phrases like “water queen” (a title bestowed upon the best of the best divers), I leave the world of Sebago Wohelo for Little Wohelo, which is only half a mile away but imbued with its own distinct kind of magic. For one thing, the landscape is different, the cabins arranged in a semicircle around a wide-open field filled with kids—ages six through twelve—running and playing in the setting sun during a rare unscheduled hour after dinner. For another thing, there are goats, Zinnia and Rupee, who get into all kinds of hilarious trouble while on the prowl for unguarded peanut butter sandwiches and macaroni salads. Despite the age-based differences in programming, and Little Wohelo’s special emphasis on qualities like thoughtfulness, cooperation, and enthusiasm, the core principles remain the same from one Wohelo to the other. “Girls come here to become strong women,” says Heidi Gorton, summing up the camp’s mission. “They come here to test themselves in ways they can’t at home.

By the time I get back to Sebago Wohelo, the wind has picked up. The sky is pink, the water is the color of dirty coins, and the air starts to fill with the smell of ozone. It is going to rain. As they did when I first arrived, campers emerge from over boulders and behind tree trunks, only this time even the chattiest girls from Ursa Major are quiet and have a look of solemnity about them. At first I wonder if the weather brought on this change of mood, but then I see that Douglas and the other three head counselors are dressed in leather and beads. It is time for the council fire to start, which means my time in the world of Wohelo is coming to a close.

The girls sing while they process around the patch of blacktop that serves as the dance studio during the day. Their voices are hushed by the wind, the lyrics difficult to understand, but the older women seated on either side of me are mouthing the words. They are alumnae, I realize. I do some rough math in my head. One hundred and nine summers. Seven weeks in every summer. Wohelo has seen something like 762 council fires. The sky starts spitting, and we collectively hold our breaths as Mark Van Winkle runs the spindle across the old bow drill to make fire by friction, as his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did before him. Douglas and the other head counselors stand around the pile of wood chips to block the wind. Finally the flames catch with a puff of smoke, and the rain lets up, leaving the fire to burn while the ceremony continues in a series of songs and announcements, rituals that bring smiles to the solemn faces of campers and alumnae.

At a certain point, Quincy Van Winkle gives me a sign that it is time to leave—the rest of the ceremony is for Wohelo girls and women only. It is nearly dark by the time I reach my car. Reluctantly and with caution I bumble down the unlit dirt road, back to where I came from, hoping that someday I’ll return to this magical place or—even better—that my daughter will.