An Idaho camp turns 100 and celebrates a century of support from Kiwanis.
Story by Katie Cantrell
I cried every summer, starting when I was 9 years old. Sometimes the tears came in June, other years in August. But every single time I boarded the boat to leave Camp Sweyolakan, the lump in my throat would rise again. I loved that camp so fiercely, it broke my heart to think I’d have to wait an entire year before I’d be on the boat again.
Sweyolakan is a rambling, idyllic summer camp tucked among the pine-forested hills on Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho. One of the many things that made it magical was that it wasn’t accessible by car. The land went so steeply uphill from the camp into the wilderness that no one had ever bothered to build more than a logging road anywhere in the vicinity, so everything from campers to kitchen supplies arrived by boat. I’d wait by the railing for the moment we would round the final corner and see the main dock come into view, packed as always with counselors singing the traditional welcome song: “We welcome you to Sweyolakan/Mighty glad you’re here/We’ll send the air reverberating/With a mighty cheer…”
I’m a little ashamed to say that my younger self had no idea that I had Kiwanis to thank for the best memories of my childhood. Sure, I’d paddled the bright blue wooden war canoe named “Kiwanis” around the bay, but it lined up on the beach next to the Wacatawani and the Pequod — just another exotic-sounding name to me.
I knew the high schoolers’ section of camp, which was on its own bay up and over the hill from main camp, was called Kiwan-Echo. But no one ever said, “You know, that’s because in 1927 the Spokane Kiwanis Club bought those 64 acres and donated them to Camp Fire Girls, just as they helped buy the original camp land in 1922.” Or maybe someone did say it, but I was too busy learning how to build a tarp shelter, make sand candles and shoot a bull’s-eye to pay attention to the history lesson.
Camp Sweyolakan turns 100 this summer and is the most enduring legacy of the Kiwanis Club of Downtown Spokane. Camp Fire Girls began in Maine in 1910 as an outdoor-oriented youth development organization. (Now known as Camp Fire, it’s open to all children.) When the Spokane council was chartered in March 1922, they made a presentation to the Kiwanis Club of Downtown Spokane. The Kiwanians adopted the Camp Fire Girls as the club’s second major activity, alongside their work for the Washington Children’s Home Finding Society. The club immediately began raising funds to help Camp Fire Girls purchase a summer camp, presenting them with US$1,000 in June of that year — almost a quarter of the money needed to buy the original 16.5 acres.
That generous gift was just the beginning of a century-long relationship during which Kiwanians put both of Kiwanis International’s mottos — the original, “We Build,” and “Serving the Children of the World,” adopted in 2005 — to work year after year.
In the beginning, Kiwanians helped build Camp Sweyolakan with their time and talents as well as their checkbooks. The lakefront parcel had a dock and a few existing buildings when Camp Fire Girls took ownership, enough to house 55 girls at a time, but most of the land was still an untouched forest.
The first boatload of campers arrived on July 2, 1922, with the Kiwanians — and their hands-on support — hot on their heels. Eleven days later, 75 Kiwanians took an early morning train from Spokane, Washington, to Coeur d’Alene, where they met 30 members from the Coeur d’Alene Kiwanis club and loaded both themselves and one member’s tractor onto barges for the trip. At the camp, they graded an athletic field, cut trails, built steps from rock slabs and reconfigured the main building into a dining hall that served 475 campers over the course of the first summer.
The Kiwanis Clean-Up Day quickly became an annual tradition. As the camp continued to grow and take shape over the years, Kiwanians built a tennis court, donated and installed a 75-foot flagpole, cleared stumps and debris, painted, tore down old buildings and helped build new ones — whatever needed to be done. Their Sweyolakan workday was never complete without an evening of fun with the campers and counselors: Newspaper clippings from the early years recount boat races, sing-alongs and challenges between Camp Fire Girls and Kiwanians, including a “hotly-contested one-legged race” in 1925 that the Kiwanians narrowly won. The Camp Fire counselors later responded with back-to-back canoe race victories in 1932 and 1933.
Nearly a century may have passed since Kiwanian Elmer Hill loaded his Cleveland Tractor onto a barge at the Coeur d’Alene dock, but the Kiwanians’ support of Camp Sweyolakan has never waned. In 1947, they made another gift of 147 acres of land, a huge buffer extending up and out from the main camp that forever ensured Sweyolakan would feel like an island set apart, even on a world-class lake teeming with private homes. Over the years, they have consistently helped open and close the camp each spring and fall.
“The last time I was out there, a tree fell across the trail during the winter,” remembers Chuck Young, who has been a member of the Downtown Spokane club since 1991 and is a past club president, past district lieutenant governor and the current president of Spokane Kiwanis Charities. “They’d already cleared the tree and the stump, but we had to repair the trail. There were four or five of us with shovels and picks, moving rocks and dirt to make the trail safe to walk on.”
In addition to dealing with the surprises from the North Idaho winters, a major focus of the work days is moving the camp’s boats in and out of their winter storage. That’s no small task, considering that some of the canoes weigh 180 pounds and have to be lifted eight feet in the air to reach the doors on the dining hall porch.
“Those humongous war canoes, they’re heavy,” Young says. “You’ve got to get about a dozen people to get them off the sawhorses and up to the dining hall porch. I’ve learned to be nowhere near the canoes when that takes place.”
Young chuckles, adding that he’d rather spend his time with a shovel or a paintbrush.
Tracy Taitch is another Kiwanian intimately familiar with both sides of this longstanding relationship. She was a camper and counselor at Sweyolakan in the 1970s and ‘80s, followed by 20 years as the director of Camp Fire Camp Dart-Lo, Sweyolakan’s sister camp in North Spokane — which the local Kiwanis clubs have also steadfastly supported since 1945. Taitch’s appreciation for the clubs’ involvement with Camp Fire led her to join the Downtown Spokane Kiwanis Club in 1994. Now a past president, she has seen firsthand how the important the longtime bond is to both organizations.
“Kiwanis is a service club that supports its community with time and money. Kiwanians are not afraid to get their hands dirty and do the hard work,” Taitch says. “It’s very comforting for Camp Fire to know that Kiwanis will always be there, to provide financial support and actual labor at the camp.”
At the same time, Taitch adds, Sweyolakan and Camp Fire projects are a foundational piece of the Downtown Club.
“It’s part of the commitment you make when you join, even if you have your own passion.”
In fact, the club has expanded its service to other local organizations. But members make sure it’s never at the expense of Camp Fire.
“We’ll pick up your passion too,” Taitch says, “but we won’t lose this one.”
Kiwanis has served tens of thousands of Sweyolakan campers over the last 100 years. Many attend Sweyolakan or Dart-Lo on a Kiwanis scholarship, a tradition that dates back to at least the Great Depression. In a 1932 letter to the Spokane Kiwanis Club president, the executive director of Camp Fire Girls wrote: “We are especially appreciative of your gift of campships to needy Camp Fire Girls whose fathers in many instances had not been employed for months.”
After noting other joint projects between the organizations, the letter concludes: “There are so many things for which we feel grateful to Kiwanis! May the warmth of Camp Fire ever reach out to include Kiwanis in its friendship circle.”
That feeling of gratitude continues today.
On behalf of everyone who is instantly transported back to the best days of our childhood by the smell of pine trees on a hot day or the hummed refrain of a favorite camp song: Thank you, Kiwanis International. We are indeed grateful for the enduring legacy you have endowed on Camp Sweyolakan. You have served the children of the Inland Northwest so well.
Katie Cantrell is a freelance writer and journalist based in northwest Montana. Her years as a camper and counselor at Camp Sweyolakan taught her how to paddle a canoe in a straight line and not to panic when a roasted marshmallow catches on fire. She is especially proud of her ability to build a one-match fire without using any paper.
This story originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.
This is a wonderful piece Katie! I got goosebumps and feel the magic of Camp Sweyolakan just by reading your lovely work. Proud to be a member of this Kiwanis club and a part of Camp Fire Inland Northwest! We are so grateful to Kiwanis – Kids need Kiwanis and Camp!
My time at Sweyolakan was in the 50s and 60s as camper, CIT, and counselor. As a volunteer in later years I have enjoyed helping out when needed. Your article is such a wonderful tribute to Kiwanis and the camp so many of us treasure! Happy 100 to Sweyolakan!