Camp Watonka was a residential summer camp for boys aged seven to sixteen in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. It was the only science camp for boys accredited by the American Camp Association in the United States. Accommodation was in traditional cabins with modern bathrooms and electricity. Campers could stay for two, four, six or eight weeks.
It was one of many summer camps in The Poconos (for other camps in Pennsylvania, see the box at the foot of this article). Field trips to the Appalachian Trail for hiking and mountain biking and to the Delaware River for tubing and kayaking are scheduled each summer.
Camp Watonka was located 3 miles (4.8 km) from Hawley, ten miles (16 km) from Honesdale and 100 miles (160 km) New York City. Many campers were from the tri-state region but others travel from all over the United States and the World.
Two of the former railroad beds (those of the Erie Railroad and Pennsylvania Coal Company) are now used as mountain bike and dirt bike trails. The third has been converted to a road.
During the summer of 2006, all campers and staff left the camp for three nights as a precautionary measure due to a sudden rise in the level of Middle Creek, caused by a week of heavy rain.
The camp is less than a mile from Wangum Falls. A distinctive monocline can be seen from the historic truss bridge that crosses Middle Creek about twenty feet above the Falls. Campers with an interest in geology can learn about this and other geological features around the camp by taking the earth science class.
The camp has a small, private lake with a waterfront and beach area. The lake is too shallow for boats with props, but the camp has kayaks, canoes, rowboats, sailboats and windsurf boards. Campers can fish from a boat or from the fishing dock across the lake from the waterfront. The lake has fish typical of Pennsylvania including Perch, Bass, Sunfish, Pickerel and Catfish as well as frogs and turtles.
Activities and facilities
Each day at Camp Watonka is split into 5 activity periods, two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. The schedule is fully elective; campers choose the activities they want to do. At the start of each two week session, campers choose which science classes they want to take, often selecting one or two. Counselor-to-camper ratios are typically one-to-four.
Camp Watonka has eleven purpose built and equipped cabins for its science program.
There are laboratories for chemistry and physics, a nature cabin, with facilities for a variety of animals that are brought to camp by counselors and instructors, and two computer suites. Campers develop photos in one of the darkrooms and direct and edit their own film in the video production class. Other science classes include electronics, robotics, astronomy and earth science. In recent years, experienced instructors and counselors have delivered classes in their specialist subjects, including architecture, renewable energy, automotive design and quantum mechanics.
Instructors vary the class content to suit the ability of the campers. Class content varies from summer to summer.
In addition to the camp’s science program, there are facilities for many other sports and activities.
Camp Watonka has a large ropes course facility, designed and built by Alpine Towers International.
The 50' climbing wall (Carolina Straight Wall), built in 2001, has six faces with varying degrees of difficulty. The 50' tower (Alpine Tower II), built in 2001, has six routes to the top and various obstacles to tackle, including cargo nets and hanging logs. A swing is suspended between the tower and an adjacent support. Riders are attached to the swing, hoisted diagonally and then released to swing back and forth like a pendulum.
Both the wall and tower have interchangeable foot and hand holds. These are rearranged periodically to vary the climbing experience.
Unlike the wall and tower, where campers are belayed by an instructor from the ground, campers use professional lobster clasps to climb the third structure, known as the Odyssey course. Built in 2002, the facility is used primarily for team building exercises. There are two zip lines attached to the Odyssey. The camp also has a variety of low rope elements.
The camp is accredited by the National Rifle Association. Campers can practice shooting rifles and pistols on the 50’ range as well as trap shooting. Archery is offered as well, under the direction of a USA Archery certified instructor. A variety of bows including Genesis bows and Mohegan wooden recurve bows are used. Campers learn to shoot by advancing through a system of ranks shooting at distances including 10, 20, 40, 60 yards and more.
Campers can learn how to swim, canoe, kayak, row, sail and windsurf at the camp’s private, spring-fed lake. Swim instructors deliver optional American Red Cross Learn to Swim classes. Campers can also try to climb the inflatable iceberg, relax on the beach or float around on one of the inflatable tubes.
Camp Watonka has two tennis courts, a basketball court, a hockey court, a volleyball court, a softball field and a soccer field. Campers can also play frisbee and tetherball.
The camp has ten mountain bikes of various sizes to accommodate campers of all ages. Campers over ten years of age can ride one of the camp’s dirt bikes. The camp has a variety of Honda bikes with automatic or manual transmission and from 2-5 horsepower for campers of all abilities.
Other activities include arts and crafts, woodwork and rocketry. Campers can take home everything they make.
Several times each week, special events take place during the evening activity period. Regular guests include entertainer Ron Dagan and Pete Mackevich from the Pocono Snake and Animal Farm. There are regular movie nights, cookouts and optional over night camps in the camp’s forest.
Camp Watonka has been owned and directed by Donald Wacker, a retired science teacher from New Jersey and leader with the Boy Scouts of America, and his wife, a nurse, since its foundation in 1963. The Wackers now operate the Camp with the assistance of their son and daughter-in-law, both school teachers in Wayne County.
Each cabin accommodates eight campers and two counselors. Each activity is led by a fully qualified instructor or lifeguard. Each science class is delivered by a graduate or student, selected by the directors for their ability to enthuse the campers about their specialist subject. Counselors are regularly hired from other countries including the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The camp has a full-time nurse and fully equipped infirmary.
In addition to the annual summer camp, the owners and directors rent the facility during the year to schools and other groups.
Camp Watonka, like many summer camps, has its own traditions and myths.
Each session opens and closes with a camp fire, fireworks, games and skits. The first camp fire is ignited by the camp owner, Don Wacker, with water, the first of many science experiments the campers will experience over the course of their stay.
Campers have the opportunity to win numerous prizes and awards, which are presented to them on the last day of their stay. Prizes can be won for designing the best rocket, achieving a rank in archery and riflery, catching the biggest fish and participating successfully in the activities and science classes. Winners of certain awards are listed on the camp's Hall of Fame.
Each summer, many campers and counselors choose to return to camp. This has led to the propagation and evolution of many funny and scary stories unique to Camp Watonka, including those about the monsters that live around the camp, such as the infamous drop bear, and in the camp's lake, as well as the story about the mysterious counselor named Jack who burnt down Cabin 13.
- Camp Watonka, Official Website.
- American Camp Association Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, Database entry for Camp Watonka.
- New York Times, Confessore, N. (2006) When camp is by a river and a downpour is at hand, it's time for an unscheduled field trip
- Pennsylvania Department for Conservation and Natural Resources, Wangum Falls monocline.
- Alpine Towers International Archived 2011-07-07 at the Wayback Machine, ATI facilities in Pennsylvania.
- National Rifle Association, National Register of places to shoot