Area youth recently attended the Coonskin Cap Brigade West Camp held at Camp Cotubic outside Bellefontaine. The camp is both a tradition that crosses generations but also attracts new attendees each year. It is sponsored by the League of Ohio Sportsmen Foundation along with related sportsmen clubs such as the Greene County Fish and Game Association. It’s not the place that makes it special. It’s a unique combination of the people and mission that make the annual Coonskin Cap Brigade Camp special.
An ever revolving group of parents and youth who attend the camp add to the unique environment. Some attendees now cross several generations while others are new to the Coonskin experience. The leadership of the camp has changed several times over the years. Regardless of whose name is at the top there is a strong cadre of volunteer leaders and instructors who continue to support the program.
The instructors provide life experience, an example of dedication to conservation, our sporting heritage and passing that along to new generations. Because of their dedication and example, younger leadership is stepping forward to do their share for the future generations. It’s all part of the extended family that makes the Coonskin Cap Brigade Camp a special place and experience for so many.
Josh and Amanda Kell from Jamestown combine the experience of being instructors along with sponsoring their children. They became involved about ten-years ago when Josh’s oldest daughter, Cora, attended camp. Amanda Kell explains, “It was a whirlwind of fire starting, maps, hands-on learning, tomahawks, rifle ranges, shotguns, archery and the 1800’s outdoor living. We were absolutely hooked. We knew we had to get involved in this amazing program.”
They also knew, with younger children at home it would be for a long time. She continues, “We joked together about how we would be involved in Coonskin for the “long haul”. There was no doubt that all our kids would benefit from this experience. With the children spaced out in ages, we joked that Coonskin was “stuck” with Josh and I for at least 10 years.”
Kell adds, “Cora completed the program and started as a junior instructor when our son started his first year. He completed the four years and now returns as a junior instructor. It is so amazing to watch the first year students when they arrive. They are a little timid and rather small but with faces delighting with each new experience. We watch them grow, mature, and come back year after year, retaining what they have learned. Then as young adults we see them teaching the new kids coming in and really enjoying their work with the youngsters. They are proud to share the experience and we are proud to have been part of their growth.”
Their youngest daughter has been waiting, not especially patiently, until it came her turn to attend the Coonskin Cap Brigade Camp. Amanda continues, “Fast forward and here we are ten years later and our youngest started her first year. She has been looking forward to Coonskin for years! It’s the first year that all of us were at camp together! She was all smiles the entire weekend, She was especially happy when she shot the bullseye with the muzzleloader where I was her instructor. She also got to sample the venison that Daddy had been roasting all day over the open fire in the outdoor living primitive village.”
The Coonskin Cap Brigade program was started in 1964 at Lake Hope for youth ages ten to sixteen. The West Camp was started in 1985 after local leaders recognized the need for outdoor education closer to home. The four-year Coonskin program centers around a pledge of sportsmanship and conservation. While many activities span the four years, others are unique to a particular year. Activities include outdoor living, firearms, naturalist programs, archery, orienteering, first aid and watercraft safety. First year students receive basic instruction in each area. Computer simulator laser guns are used to introduce safe gun handling, range procedures, and marksmanship.
The activities build on the first year experience for the second, third and fourth year students. The first year students build a blue bird box. The second year students sew their coonskin caps. The third year students participate in a field trial pheasant hunt. The four year program is climaxed by the woods walk competition for the graduating students. Anytime a youth is on any range, an instructor is with them. Upon completion of the program, the youth may return for another four years as a junior leader. When the youth become adults, they may be invited to join the program as an adult instructor.
The camp is a family event and atmosphere. There are many parents sharing outdoor time with their children. There are instructors, such as myself, who have watched their children complete the program, become junior leaders and instructors. Grandparents often attend with the grandchildren to share the experience. Kell concludes, “Time passes and the Coonskin Cap Brigade Camp has become a major part of our lives. We’ve gotten involved with the 1800’s village and on the rifle range. We think of ways to add to the learning experience for these kids. Our children are growing up with Coonskin. It is our home away from home for one weekend each year. It’s not just a camp but a family. We are thrilled that our entire family is involved.”
No doubt a special bond is shared throughout the camp. The event has a unique and special atmosphere that has made it special for well over fifty-years. During the camp one wishes it could go on; however, by closing time late Sunday afternoon everyone is happy to see it ending for another year. Of course it is a great feeling to be looking forward to another year already!
Larry S. Moore is a local resident and outdoors columnist.