“We’re up at Tanadoona — the camp of our dreams where the water just ripples and sparkles and gleams.”

This was the song that echoed in the Tanadoona forest nearly 100 years ago when the camp was started — and the tradition still continues to this day.

Beginning in 1924, Tanadoona was gifted to the Camp Fire Girls — a program similar to the Girl Scouts in which girls would earn patches as they learned about nature, camping, team building and life skills.

Expanding its outreach to boys and girls in 1975, Camp Fire is now an organization that gives kids hands-on learning and outdoor experience in nature year-round at Tanadoona.

Located three miles south of Excelsior along Lake Minnewashta, Tanadoona caters to ages 5 to 17 with day camps, overnight camps and family camps, plus adventures at Camp Fire Minnesota’s Grand Rapids, Minnesota, location, Camp Bluewater. School-break camps, outdoor leadership development programs for older kids and community events keep Tanadoona running in all four seasons.

“We just really see nature as the catalyst to growth,” said Kelly Abraham, marketing director for Camp Fire Minnesota. “And through camp we see how much kids grow and learn through having an unplugged experience.”

Growing into camp

Families who are interested in Tanadoona can start their kids out with shorter day camps and eventually work up to sleep-away camps and eventually Counselor in Training programming.

Day Camps for ages 5–14 run Monday through Friday and provide traditional camp opportunities, including canoeing/kayaking, archery, arts and campfires. Day campers can add a Thursday overnight to try out sleeping away from home for a single night.

Typical day camps offer a variety of activites while speciality day camps create extra time for areas of emphasis such as Shelters, Forts and Hideouts; Outdoor Living Skills; Sports Galore; and others.

Campers ages 7–14 can attend a Mini-Resident Camp, Sunday–Wednesday. Resident Camp (Sunday–Friday) is geared toward ages 7–15. During both types of camps, kids are scheduled into various activities that rotate throughout the day. Ages 12–17 are eligible for a Teen Bluewater Getaway in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, as well as the opiton of a Teen Week, which is more relaxed than other weeks of camp, including the option to roll out of bed later, stay up at the campfire longer and attend a camp dance, too.

Leadership development oppportunities include training weeks for Day Camp Assistants (ages 14–15), Counselors in Training (ages 15–16) and Junior Counselors (age 17).

Finding one’s spark

Tanadoona’s mission is to use nature as a catalyst for kids to discover their “spark.”

While many campers see their spark as merely their favorite camp activity, Abraham describes it as something deeper, something they love to do and want to continue doing throughout their lives.

“[Finding their] spark doesn't have to be that everyone walks away wanting to be a naturalist, but that everyone — through the lens of nature — is learning something about themselves and having more confidence in who they are,” Abraham said.

Sometimes it can take awhile.

Last summer, 16-year-old Counselor in Training Talia Salinas said she was still working on finding her spark, her unique passion.

“As I continue to come back [to Tanadoona], I'm just falling in love with being here,” said Salinas, who first attended Mini-Resident and Resident camps. “It’s pretty cool to see the growth of people at camp — and I want to see that in other kids.”

All are welcome

Tanadoona works to make the outdoor experiences possible for all kids with a scholarship program, which involves giving a scholarship to one out of every three kids. In fact, organizers make sure to save spots for children in need, rather than allowing families who can afford it to fill up the camp.

“We're very sure about making sure that kids — who otherwise wouldn't because of financial barriers — are getting time out here,” Abraham said. “But I think the really cool thing is that when you're at camp, nobody knows whether you're on scholarship or not — and it really doesn't even matter. Everyone is just a kid here.”

For Salinas, the camp’s scholarships are near to her heart, as she wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend camp if it weren’t for the help.

But to her, the diversity at the camp is what makes Tanadoona special.

“We're all just equal here and I love how it's so diverse,” she said. “It's pretty cool.”

With 50 percent of the camp’s counseling staff being from outside the U.S., Tanadoona is visibilly diverse and has camp activities and events to enhance that broader perspective and mix of cultures. 

“It's so cool because I got to learn all about Zimbabwe yesterday,” Salinas said. “You get to talk to each other and experience people's lives just through sitting down and talking with them, which is really cool. It makes me want to go out there and travel and experience international camps.”

Continuing tradition

Camp Fire Girls traditions continue to this today at Tanadoona through the patches kids earn as they complete certain challenges, show their new-found knowledge and demonstrate specific behaviors.

All first-year campers get a paddle patch and campers can earn additional badges, too — the leaf for good stewardship of the natural word; the fish for making everyone feel welcome; the bluebird for service to others; a campfire for finding one’s spark; plus others for achievements at Tanadoona.

“[The patches program] allows you to find something within yourself, to learn, to work as part of a team,” said Day Camp Coordinator Rachael Chapman. “You learn how to become a leader and to be more confident in yourself.”

There’s also tradition of campfires, too, of course, even for day campers.

At the end of each week, campers gather around the final campfire and throw sticks into it. As they throw their sticks into the fire, each camper says their favorite memory of the camp and what they learned.

It’s an important time for the campers, Abraham said, because they learn how to reflect on their experiences.

“It’s something we want them to take into their lives,” she said. “There are a lot of things about a camp experience that you hope kids are taking out into the world with them, and that reflection point is one of them.”

Finding friendship

And while many campers might start out homesick at first, they begin to create friendships with other campers and staff members. For many, this becomes their favorite part of camp, Chapman said.

“Every week, kids are crying because they're going to miss their new friends and they exchange information,” Chapman said.

After all, campers live with each other all week long and complete challenges as a team.

“You go through all these team-bonding activities and you got so close with each other,” Salinas said. “There's something about the fact that you guys are all just combined to one space and you all have to be friends with one another and work with each other, and then you actually end up finding forever friendships.”

Abby Doeden is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a local freelance writer. She attended Tanadoona as a kid.