Sleeping Bear Dunes and Maddy Gras: Interlochen Arts Camp traditions provide students with friendships, memories for years to come

Camp staff share their favorite activities and traditions, some dating back to Arts Camp’s founding in 1928.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Junior trip 2016

Morning dawns are crisp and clear at Interlochen in June. As sunlight gleams through the pine trees, a trumpet sounds the reveille, signaling the start of a new day. Arts Camp students will then spend hours practicing their musical instruments, honing their acting skills, and penning the first drafts of new novels. But they will also take time to relax and have fun. Interlochen Arts Camp hosts a variety of traditional activities that inspire confidence, spark curiosity, and foster lifelong friendships among campers. Here, two staff members share the traditions that make the Arts Camp experience so meaningful. 

Dean of Camp and Special Projects Jennifer Wesling has been working at Interlochen Arts Camp for 42 years, long enough to see former campers return with their own children. According to her, Camp activities aren’t just add-ons to the “real work” students do; they’re every bit as essential. “The out-of-classroom experiences that students participate in allow them to develop lifelong friendships. It's a chance for them to learn new things,” she says.     

At an arts camp, it’s only natural that many activities revolve around creative performance. In the popular lip-synch competition called Interlochen Idol, which has been running for 15 years, students team up with cabinmates and compete to win the coveted title. “Last year, the winners did ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from Titanic,” says Sarah Krysan, campus activities manager. “They had a full cardboard cut-out of the Titanic. It was awesome.” Students also have opportunities to attend the variety of student, faculty, and guest performances that are staged every summer. In a given year, these may include theatre performances, dance performances, chamber recitals, gallery openings, poetry readings, film screenings, and more. 

Interlochen’s location is ideal for outdoor activities. In a Camp tradition that’s lasted more than 40 years, students can take a trip to one of northern Michigan’s most well-known destinations, Sleeping Bear Dunes. Here, students can climb the dunes for a stunning view of Lake Michigan. If they lap the challenging Dune Climb 10 times, they receive the title of Dune Goon. Back on campus, Green Lake and Duck Lake offer plenty of room for beachside recreation. Campers can swim, sunbathe, or go boating. They can develop teamwork skills and athleticism by playing basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, or Gaga ball. Interlochen even has its own archery range. This summer has brought an exciting new addition: “We now have low ropes courses for team bonding activities,” says Krysan. 

Some traditions are just for fun, like Maddy Gras, named after Interlochen founder Joseph E. Maddy. In this event, high school campers plan and host a carnival for all of the younger students. Cabins or units are also free to organize their own unique events. Past summers included an event called Counselor Makeovers, in which students choose costumes, makeup, and hairstyles for their camp counselors to model. Some years, an event called Interlochen Top Chef pits students against each other in a battle to prepare the tastiest cuisine. The contest is judged by senior camp staff. 

During their time at Interlochen, campers are bound together by several historic traditions that have existed since the Arts Camp’s founding. Reveille and taps provide musical cues for the beginning and end of each day; distinctive blue-on-blue uniforms unify campers into one cohesive group of young artists. Since the 1950’s, Arts Camp has included Cabin Nights, weekly opportunities for students to bond with their cabinmates. These events usually include some kind of tasty, campfire-cooked treat—whether that’s a “campfire cone” or a Dutch oven pizza. “I want every single camper to cook something over a fire when they're here,” says Wesling. Most beloved of these older traditions is Les préludes, the last piece played by the World Youth Symphony Orchestra each summer. Established by student request, the emotive tune has been an Interlochen tradition since 1928. Today, it offers a fitting finale to a summer students will never forget. 

“These activities are woven into the fabric of Camp,” says Wesling. Krysan, who has a background in education, says that every tradition helps bolster Interlochen’s “holistic” approach toward educating students: “You have to educate the student’s mind, body and spirit.” Here, traditions unite everyone through enjoyment and shared experiences. Surrounded by caring staff, students push beyond their comfort zones and build lasting friendships. “This truly is the most magical place in the world,” Krysan adds. 

Learn more about Camp life.