In 1982, Camp Arcadia marked its 60th Anniversary with weekly balloon releases. Guests gathered on the patio and attached cards with their names and addresses to the balloons with instructions for anyone who found it to reply. (see photos) The multicolored balloons – filled with helium and imprinted with “Camp Arcadia 1922-1982” were then released skyward. Campers hoped their balloons would travel far and wide, spreading awareness of Camp Arcadia to folks who found them.**
Guests who were lucky enough to get a response were encouraged to notify Camp so they could track where the balloons landed. The first response card came in July of 1982 from a balloon found in Canton, MI. Throughout the summer and into the fall and winter, campers relayed letters to the Camp office. Those letters and original response cards were displayed on the phone booth by the office for guests to enjoy, and Camp Director Barbara Unger saved them all. She also personally responded to the folks who returned balloon cards with Camp brochures and an invite to visit RKD.
Most balloons naturally ended up in Michigan, but some made it to Ohio. Several were found in remote places by hunters, and a few cards were returned looking pretty beat up, having been exposed to the elements for weeks or months. Some contained sweet letters from kids or older adults who were excited to have found both the balloon and possibly a new pen pal! Campers were also excited to get letters, as they had no idea where their balloons had gone. (Because the response cards did not list Camp’s address but only the address of the camper, many of the “finders” were unsure just how far the balloon had traveled. Many finders’ responses traveled farther than the balloon itself!)
Far and away the most well-traveled balloon belonged to Dawn Brandt. Dawn, a staffer in 1982, released her balloon in August before heading back to school at Wartburg College in Iowa. Imagine her surprise when she got a letter all the way from Eastport, Maine! (Fun fact: Eastport is actually the easternmost city in the entire United States and the least populous city in that state.) A young man named Mike Phillips sent this letter to Dawn:
Amazingly, not only had the balloon traveled 900 miles, but it had ended up in the hands of a fellow Lutheran! Mike mentioned that he had been to Camp Pioneer, a Lutheran camp in New York, which is still in operation and a member of NLOMA (National Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Association) alongside Camp Arcadia. Camp was not able to connect further with Mike – he did not list his complete return address, and he may have been vacationing in Eastport – so we may never know if Mike ever visited Camp Arcadia himself.
But Dawn remains very connected to RKD, having married fellow staffer Karl Weber, who led the release (see photo). Dawn and Karl own a cottage in the Cottage Colony and their children have also worked on summer staff. Karl currently serves as the archery instructor, so he and Dawn still spend their summers at Camp Arcadia.
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**At the time, balloon releases were common celebratory events; however, recently, wildlife and environmental groups have raised awareness about the serious impact that the practice has on many animals. Today, several states have laws controlling or banning large releases of helium balloons, but none of those existed in 1982. You can read more information about the impact of balloon releases in the Great Lakes region here.
Our thanks to Stephanie Jass for her research and writing for this article! Photos included in this article are courtesy of the RKD Archives: Art and Dot Hesskamp Collection.