On a chilly morning in late April, snow still frosting the ground, Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center is quiet. Another group of school kids is due to arrive the next day, but for now the woodland paths to the cabins are empty, and just a handful of staffers are afoot, feeding the animals at the nature center and continuing to get the camp out of winter mode and into full-on summer.
One of those staffers is Upham Woods director Jessica Jens.
"It's a respite," says Jens of the land Upham Woods sits on, just north of downtown Wisconsin Dells. "It's a place of solitude within the craziness of the Dells."
People who've never heard of Upham Woods find it hard to believe a spot this rustic exists barely five minutes from Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Cook Shanty, but here it is - beautiful among pines and sandstone rock formations, along a back channel of the Wisconsin River where the boat tours don't come.
Although Upham is officially an "outdoor learning center," operated by the University of Wisconsin-Extension, visually it fulfills the childhood conception of the perfect summer camp - log cabins connected by footpaths through the woods, campfire ring, crafts area, swimming and canoeing in the river and plenty of nooks and crannies for exploring.
"People who come become absolutely committed to the camp," says Jens. She knows, having first come to Upham as a 4-H-er from Sheboygan County, later returning as a counselor and now as director. Jens majored in agricultural education at UW-Madison and has a master's degree in outdoor education. This is her dream job. And she's leading the charge of taking the camp into the 21st century.
In 1941, two sisters, Elizabeth and Caroline Upham, gave the land where they used to camp and picnic in the summer to the University of Wisconsin. There was nothing on the land when it was given to the UW - no cabins, no shelter of any kind. The sisters themselves used a sandstone cave as a camping shelter. The donated parcel included 100 acres on the mainland and 210-acre Blackhawk Island.
The Uphams stipulated that the land would be a rustic camp for youth, used for educational purposes. It was never to become a public park, and no permanent building could be built on Blackhawk Island. In 2011, while within range of waterparks and jet ski rentals, Upham Woods has fulfilled their wishes. Over 7,000 kids a year come here to camp, race along its paths, canoe to the island, sing around the campfire and sleep close to nature, perhaps for the first time.
"I love Upham Woods," Jens says with the enthusiasm of a kid. "It gets into your blood." Moreover, surrounded as it is by what Jens terms "high-impact tourism opportunities," it is "amazing that they saved a place like this." The land is valuable, and Jens is grateful for the support Upham has received from the UW. That said, no tax money goes to support Upham Woods; 80% of its budget comes from revenue the camp brings in. (The rest comes primarily from 4-H, under the auspices of UW-Extension.)
The first building, what is now the craft center, was built in 1941. The kitchen and main lodge were built in 1945, and 4-H clubs began using the camp for on weekend days by the early 1950s. Most of the sleeping cabins were built during the '50s under the direction of conservationist Wakelin McNeel - better known as "Ranger Mac" - who also raised money to buy additional land and is memorialized with his name on one of the cabins.
Upham Woods is now open year round. From mid-March to June, it's booked with school groups; in summer with 4-H clubs and county organizations; in fall with more school groups, scout groups, church and arts groups. Even in the winter, there are campers (the cabins are winterized and have baseboard heat and wood stoves). Cold weather activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, animal tracks, tobogganing and snow science.
Peak times are scheduled two years in advance, but "there are always pockets open," says Jens, and those get filled in "with whoever calls."
Starting this week, Upham kicks off a capital campaign to raise funds to build a new, larger-capacity, accessible bathhouse and make the hill on which the cabins are built ADA accessible, along with one of the cabins. The old bathrooms will become a program pavilion, and finally the lodge will be expanded, enlarging the dining hall and creating more classroom space. Almost no building has been done since the 1960s; the last structure to be completed was the nature center in 1977.
Most of Upham Woods' programming is geared toward 5th-7th grade. Research shows that an overnight camping experience and an immersion in nature have the most long-lasting impact on that age, says Jens. Programming is available from kindergarten to grade 12, and trained naturalists and counselors - all university graduates - lead the classes.
There are over 50 programs available that groups can sign up for when they come to camp. Some are nature- and science-based, such as classes on bats, beavers, birds, snakes, tree identification and weather. Some are more active - hiking, canoeing, archery, fishing, swimming, orienteering. A number focus on area history - the voyageurs of the fur-trading era, the logging industry. There's even an archeological dig at the site of the old Dell House, a logging-era hotel and tavern once on the island, where it's not uncommon for campers to find shards of broken crockery and the like.
A few Madison-area schools make camping trips to Upham Woods yearly or every few years. Sennett Middle School has been sending its students there for over 35 years. "It's usually the most memorable thing about their middle school experience," says Principal Colleen Lodholz.
One-third of the school goes every year, in two groups, for two and a half days. "They come back tired and sleepy, but smiling," says Lodholz. Programming is curriculum-related, with students studying pond life and raptors, for instance, but there's also community-building.
Costs for the trip have been rising, and the school does activity-based fundraising to bring them down. Lodholz feels the Upham trip is so essential that Sennett has started an Upham Foundation to raise funds to ensure the trips continue to take place for future students.
Until recently, it's been hard for people who are not part of a group to visit Upham. It's not a public park, and as a place where groups of young kids are staying, they can't have drop-ins wandering around the grounds.
This year, though, a number of public weekend days will open the camp to visitors, and a special Family Camp Weekend will enable families to overnight there and participate in canoeing, campfires and Blackhawk Island hikes - or just kick back and relax. "It can be as active or as laid-back as people want it to be," says Jens.
Upcoming visitor days are Stewardship Day on May 14, where volunteers will help spruce up the camp (RSVP to 608-254-6461), and guided hikes of Blackhawk Island on July 23 and Oct. 8. Family Camp Weekend is Oct. 15-16, with meals provided, activities each day and campfires each night ($105 adults, $85 ages 5-12, under 4 free).
Jens, who has young children of her own, wants Upham to still be around for them as they grow older. "It's been kept in good shape, but it's time to reinvest for the next generation."
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