The Pack Report

Swapped Stories: Camp Talks with Camp Kooch-i-ching’s Director, JR Verkamp


The most extensive collection of Duluth Packs might belong to Camp Kooch-i-ching, a wilderness boys camp on Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota. Duluth Pack recently had the opportunity to speak with Kooch-i-ching Director, JR Verkamp, and we’re happy to share that interview below.

Kooch-i-ching and its sister camp, Ogichi Daa Kwe for girls, are operated by the Camping & Education Foundation, an outdoor education organization headquartered in Cincinnati. The Foundation also runs the Urban Wilderness Program, which empowers Cincinnati students through boatbuilding, canoeing and wilderness skills, as well as a remote tripping outpost in Ontario called Owakonze.

PC: Michael Martinez


Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

JR: I started going to Camp Kooch-i-ching when I was 9 years old in 1987. I always joke that I cried on the first day of camp because I was so homesick, then, after four weeks, I called my mom and asked her if I could stay for the rest of the summer. She said no, so I started crying then too. I fell in love with Kooch-i-ching as a young boy and have only missed three summers since 1987.

Following college, I immediately got into education. While Kooch-i-ching helped develop my passion for working with kids, working with kids made it possible for me to return to Kooch-i-ching. Fast-forward to 2007, I was hired full-time as an assistant director, and then in 2012 or so I took over as director. Today, my primary responsibilities are recruiting, retention, and staff hiring.

Q: What can you tell us about the camp’s history and background?

JR: Camp Kooch-i-ching was founded in 1925. In the beginning, it was a place that gave football players from Chicago an opportunity to experience the Northwoods of Minnesota and Canada. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Bernard Mason, who studied under Ernest Thompson Seton, introduced our wilderness trips program and Native American program.

Our trips program, which I think defines us today, gives our campers and staff the opportunity to learn and be challenged in a wilderness setting. Our Native American program guides our relationship with nature and our ability to become stewards of the Earth. In short, we look up to the Native Americans, who were the best campers ever. In the early 1960s, John Holden, the director at the time, created the Camping & Education Foundation, a nonprofit entity, which then owned Kooch-i-ching. At this time, a lot of camps had gone bankrupt, and we are thankful that John Holden had the foresight to create a nonprofit.

In 2005—long overdue—we started our girls camp, Ogichi Daa Kwe. Today, Ogichi is at full capacity with an amazing campsite across the lake from Kooch-i-ching. While the two camps are separate, they use the same trip routes and do many of the same activities—and use Duluth Packs! As the father of three girls, I’m extremely thankful for Ogichi, knowing my daughters will have many of the same experiences that I had growing up at Kooch-i-ching.

PC: Ben Woods

Q: Could you tell us about the Native American culture and names associated with the camps?

JR: The names of the camps are rooted in Ojibwe and Anishinaabe culture. Kooch-i-ching can be translated in different ways, but is often translated as “mist by the lake” or “mist by the waterfall.” Also, the camp is located in Kooch-i-ching County, Minnesota.

Ogichi Daa Kwe was a name given to the camp by Nancy Jones from the Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation in Canada. Ogichi Daa Kwe means “strong-spirited woman.” Nancy has been a friend of camp for years and has made many of our moccasins and beaded regalia. Because of this relationship, Nancy was invited to help with the founding and naming of the girls camp.

Q: Could you go into some detail about what a typical camp stay is like?

JR: We have what we call a “dual program,” meaning we have an in-camp program and a wilderness trips program. Kids come from over 35 US states and multiple countries. Being on their own, without mom and dad telling them what to do, they develop a sense of independence by navigating their role in the cabin and the community, learning how to build relationships, and participating in activities with others.

There are a lot of games, activities, and competitions, as well as skill-based classes. Now, when we use the word “classes,” this is nothing like being at school. These are activities that campers are unlikely to be able to do at home, such as archery, riflery, climbing, Native American crafts, and Woodsmanship. In Woodsmanship, we teach skills like tree identification, how to use a knife and ax, how to build fires and shelters, and other skills they can use when they go out on their trips. The last and probably most important piece of our in-camp program is community service. We don’t have a janitorial or maintenance crew. We do all the work ourselves, so everyone must participate. There is no job too small and no job too big. Everyone does their part and leaves the camp better than they found it.

These concepts all translate to wilderness trips. To be successful on a canoe trip, you have to have that sense of community service engrained: Everyone has to participate. Everyone has a paddle, everyone has their gear, everyone helps set up the tents. And obviously, there are a lot of different personalities on a trip. Living in the wilderness is tough. Sometimes it rains, sometimes you’re hungry. You have to cook all your meals over the fire, which can be tedious. What this means is you have to prepare, and you have to work together.

Q: What’s on the packing list for kids?

JR: The list is fairly extensive, but we ask the parents not to send their kids with any prized possessions. We are a wilderness camp, we spend our time outside, and our gear gets pretty beat up. A good rain jacket, a good sleeping bag, and a good pair of shoes are probably the most critical items. Things that dry fast are a plus.

Q: Given that most of your campers are there for three to four weeks, I imagine this is a great opportunity to teach your values to the kids?

JR: Absolutely. The growth of our kids is the most important thing. Kooch-i-ching is fun. We have a 75% retention rate, which is extremely high for a summer camp, so the fun is had. But we also look for ways to challenge our kids. We are completely OK with our kids failing, because when they fail, we know they will grow. We look at ourselves as partners with parents, helping them raise good kids. The ultimate goal is for these kids to take the values we teach back to their communities. Our kids will be challenged, but they will also receive a lot of love, kindness, and support. Marrying the concepts of strength and kindness is of utmost importance.

Q: Could you tell us about the relationship between Kooch-i-ching and Duluth Pack?

JR: In my time at camp, Duluth Packs have always been our most important piece of gear. The Olive Drab color is our go-to—we’ve never deviated from that color. It doesn’t stand out; it blends in with the wilderness, and that’s how we like to think of ourselves. We’re a little bit old school: We try not to stand out and we just try to keep moving forward, from point A to point B. There are two pieces of equipment we use on every canoe trip: Duluth Packs and something called a wannigan, a wooden box for carrying food that can also be used as a third canoe seat.

In my experience, Duluth Packs are somewhat bomb-proof. We put our packs through significant stress and they always hold up. Duluth Packs are simply a quality product. They’re strong, reliable, and dependable. We have hundreds of packs, including the #4, #3, and #2 styles. Most of our campers have their own Duluth Pack backpacks that they’re proud to wear to school. You just know that your Duluth Pack is going to last forever.

Duluth Pack has also been great at managing repairs if they are needed. They emphasize re-servicing products instead of buying new, and that is greatly appreciated. There’s always a great sense of honesty when working with the Duluth Pack team. We appreciate all the customer service and support from the company. Also, the fact that Duluth Packs are made right in Minnesota, just a couple of hours south of our camp, is something that should not be lost in the conversation.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected the Camping & Education Foundation?

JR: COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the Foundation. We were unable to have camp last summer, but at the same time, we were able to do some things we haven’t had time to do in the past. We spent part of May and June documenting everything there is to know about Kooch-i-ching and Ogichi Daa Kwe: risk-management, lesson plans, trip menus, gear, routes, vendors, etcetera. What we’ve created will serve as a roadmap for future generations and future staff, allowing them to use these resources when needed.

Another highlight is that our bunks are basically full for 2021. We even have a waiting list. We also attempted to stay engaged with our campers and parents last summer. Our staff sent handwritten letters to our campers, we started a podcast, and held Zoom gatherings. It wasn’t camp, but we did our best.

Q: Can you touch on the importance of conservation and sustainability in the organization?

JR: “Leave it better than you found it” is our unwritten code when it comes to the wilderness. We practice Leave No Trace camping and minimize waste, only taking what we need. We pick up other people’s trash along the way. We want to keep our wilderness as pristine as possible—for everyone’s use.

On a higher level, we recently signed an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to implement a Forest Stewardship Plan, which will evaluate all of the Foundation’s property. This will allow us to better understand the type of forest we have, the risks to that forest, and best practices for ensuring that it remains healthy. The notion of taking care of the Earth, and teaching that to kids, is crucial.

A special thank you to JR Verkamp for telling us about Kooch-i-ching, Ogichi Daa Kwe, and their long relationship with Duluth Pack.

All images were provided by Camp Kooch-i-ching contacts with approval to use.

Happy swapped stories, friends!

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