Strike Gold

By Niki Ranchino

When I remember my childhood, thoughts come flooding back about time spent outdoors building forts, boats, and other creations with whatever materials my siblings and I could find. When I was 10, my parents sent us on treasure hunts, following maps with hand-written clues from mysterious pirates. Many years later, when I began to program a day camp named Winnamocka, it was obvious that my adventures as a child would steer much of the programming.

Develop Navigation Skills
Now, 30 years later, Winnamocka is an overnight camp that still practices the activities I did as a child. Treasure Hunts are a fantastic way to get campers to use problem-solving skills, navigation skills, and lots of imagination as they actually discover the treasure at the end of the hunt. This event takes place on Friday mornings, with the entire camp divided into teams. During the map reading, characters from Huckleberry Finn to Ethan Allen to silly rapping pirates drop in to share some of the clues. After giving each team its first clues, the members head out on the trails with a counselor in tow for a mad hunt to figure out the clues and be the first to find Blackbeard’s famed treasure chest. I am always amazed watching these campers put their heads together to solve the very difficult last rhyme. In the spring and fall, Winnamocka hosts adult retreats as well. They, too, can choose to participate in a treasure hunt. It’s a fantastic team-building experience, but I’m amazed at how many grownups don’t have decent navigational skills these days. Our seasoned campers could show them a thing or two!

It’s War
At 2:15 on a Friday afternoon, the entire camp can be found at Fort Crown Point, a fort the staff constructed, complete with a working drawbridge. Teams are drawn on the first day of camp. Counselors and campers are dressed for war in a particular battle theme complete with camo paint. War captains have previously developed a plan of attack and defense before the game begins.  Half of the camp uses various strategies in defending Fort Crown Point from the surrounding attackers. One weapon of attack is a wooden gun that fires rubber ammo, created from cutting and tying tire inner-tubes together. The staff found the ammo material by experimenting with different designs, something that could be launched a fair distance, but not hurt upon impact.  Each camper’s gun was made at an earlier activity period, where the weapon was sanded and decorated. The team then learned strategies for attacking and defending the fort. Some campers, who are now on the staff, still bring their original guns, created as far back as age seven. It’s a huge part of the camp experience.  This year, post-camp, a 30-year counselor reunion is being held, and, of course, one of the activities on the first day of the retreat is … WAR!

Pirate Ships Invade
Two years ago, with the help of my father, the staff created two incredible pirate ships. The pirates and the crew (campers) board the ships, equipped with water cannons and water balloons. As the music starts, the pirates get campers to their battle stations. As each ship passes, it is bombarded with water. Anyone watching from across the lake will hear, “Batten down the hatches! Hold your fire!” and lots of giggling. This amazing activity requires more planning and maintenance than some of the other adventures, but it’s a huge hit.  

This spring, work will begin on a cruise ship that will navigate through the Jungle Lagoon. Of course, at the helm will be a “certified African Queen pilot,” accent included. The cruise will take campers by hidden crocodiles and explore ancient temples my family has made from a substance called Dryvit.  Also, an Indian tipi village is currently being constructed on a bluff close to Fort Crown Point. From here, I imagine Indian tribes will make secret plans for attacks on the fort, or campers might meet Indians for campfires and camp-outs.  

Defining The Experience
When my team tries out new activities or redesigns one, we all have the same goal in mind.  First, we want it to be true to the camp experience and our vision statement. The game must be extremely safe physically and emotionally, and require campers to grow and learn. We want the game to encourage imagination and outdoor growth. Every activity benefits from some type of an imaginative character and has a team-oriented approach.  And, we certainly want it to be fun!

The Smell Of A Memory
There have been numerous activities at Winnamocka that required plenty of money, maintenance, and transportation. During staff training this year, I addressed a large group of returning counselors, many of whom were previous campers at Winnamocka and asked, “When you smell something or see something or play something, what reminds you of camp?” Every one of the counselors mentioned the smell of the logs in the bunks (cabins are in a building named Fort Jackson). Many mentioned hilarious characters in the Treasure Hunt, the battles at Fort Crown Point, walking the trails over camp, time spent in their bunks getting to know friends and counselors. Not one mentioned the more expensive activities like blobbing or ski boats, although those are great activities with opportunities for camp growth. We try to create as many activities around the camp that support the old-fashioned ones I enjoyed so much as a kid. I know our campers have enjoyed these adventures and grown tremendously. And it sure has been fun.

Niki Ranchino is the Founder/Owner of Camp Winnamocka in Arkadelphia, Ark. Reach her at


Camp Basics
Counselor to Camper Ratio:  1 to 5
Location:  Arkadelphia, Arkansas
Costs to Attend Camp:  $1,050 for a week-long, residential camp experience
Ages:  7-15
About Camp:  Winnamocka is an adventure and imagination-based camp.  Our campers live in a pioneer fort with 250 acres of trails, lakes, lagoons, and other attractions.