The unhurried lapping of waves, the sweet sounds of birdsong, and the wind curling its way through the trees – that’s right everyone, it’s time for the lakes episode of Out Travel the System!
Settle back in the hammock to listen as host Nisreene Atassi talks to David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt, the husband-and-wife team behind Camp Wandawega. They delve into the key elements of what makes a lake vacation so special, and how it’s different from say, a vacation involving a beach or a pool.
Fishing, boating, swimming, or simply doing nothing at all – there’s nothing quite like the traditions involved in this style of vacation, whether it’s the first or the 50th time you’ve headed to the lake.
From what to do to what to eat to how to create your own lake aesthetic, this episode has it all.
Lake Traditions and Mindset – not just for Summer
Nisreene Atassi: Recently, it was my husband’s 40th birthday, so it felt like the perfect time to sneak away for a little lakeside celebration. We fished, played outside, went for hikes. It was absolutely perfect. We know there’s still a ton of interest in continuing to explore the great outdoors, so we wanted to explore the great tradition of heading to the lake. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System. In this episode, we’re going to dig into what makes a lake vacation unique, and give you some tips on making the most out of your next lake vacation. And who better than David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt, the husband and wife team behind Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin, to help us dig in. Welcome to Out Travel the System, you two. So excited to have you on.
Tereasa Surratt: Thanks for having us.
David Hernandez: Great to meet you. Excited to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: All right, Tereasa, can you help our listeners who aren’t familiar with your property, paint the scene a little bit by telling us a little about Camp Wandawega. What can people generally expect when they go on a trip there?
Tereasa Surratt: People come to step back in time, almost a century. You’re looking at cabins and interiors and landscape, even down to the boats and the bikes. Everything is there to transport you into another state of mind by presenting you with really, antiques and vintage everything.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. I love that. So tell me a little bit about the property. So full transparency for our listeners. I actually had the lucky, lucky chance of going to Camp Wandawega so I know a little bit about the place. Tell us a little bit about the setup and the layout of the land almost.
Tereasa Surratt: Well, we’re on 25 acres. You’re sitting right on the edge of the lake, and then you just see the little cabins dotting the perimeter. I think that if you could imagine a 1920s lodge or resort, that’s really who we are. We’re a real traditional, small, but old- school summer camp.
Nisreene Atassi: David, I think one of the things people tend to associate with the idea of heading to the lake, is the idea of tradition. You hear of families going back to the same place year after year, sometimes decade after decade. How does tradition really play into the whole aspect of Camp Wandawega for you?
David Hernandez: To me, this is the place where I grew up, basically. I mean, we didn’t own it back in the ’60s and ’70s, we bought the place in 2004. But it was basically my childhood church camp. I’ve been going there since the late ’60s, early ’70s with my mom and dad and my brother and my extended family. So when I go back there now today, it’s just such a kick for me to see little kids and visitors and guests doing the exact same thing that, you know, I was doing there when I was there back in the 1970s. There’s really a lot of traditions. And we’ve seen that also too with a lot of the guests who come now. They’re people who’ve been coming year after year after year. They come once and they get hooked by the lake activities and the boating and the fishing, and just kind of hanging around doing nothing. And this sounds strange too, but also things with fire. You’re always told that you can’t play with fire, and don’t touch the matches and put down that lighter. And then this is a place where there’s campfires and bonfires and there’s always a fire burning somewhere. But we see people coming from the city and you realize, oh yeah, this is a kid who’s probably never been to a campfire before. So things like that I think are really timeless and they’re just great experiences. And it’s funny because it’s so simple. It’s not like… you know, when you ask somebody ‘what did you do?’ It’s like, ‘I did nothing, I just kind of hung out’. But there’s a simple kind of beauty to that.
Nisreene Atassi: The people who are coming back year after year, do you get the sense that they’re looking to really create those traditions and long- standing memories that you have?
David Hernandez: Yeah, we definitely see that. One of the things that I love the most is when you see a little kid down at the lake pulling in a fish for the first time, the squeals of joy is just amazing. But it’s just great for me to relive that experience over and over again through all these other families that are coming back.
Tereasa Surratt: Everything was simpler before we had all the technology, and people would embrace the books that they brought with them, and the hammocks, and just taking a canoe out. And so when folks come to camp, that’s what they end up doing again because we don’t have televisions in the cabins, and we don’t have air conditioning and many of them don’t have heat. Sometimes they have no choice but to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.
David Hernandez: This is not a fancy place. In a lot of ways there’s nothing about it that’s terribly special. I think that’s part of the beauty of it. But a lot of these parents tell us that it’s their child’s favorite place in the world. It is a kick to see other people have that kind of attraction to a place that meant so much to me as well.
Nisreene Atassi: For a lot of people, when they do think about lake vacations, they are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything and to really unplug. And so I think this idea of just simplicity and basic joys in life, I think really comes into play. What are some of the other activities that people love to do?
David Hernandez: This may sound kind of silly, but one of the favorite things is rowboats. I’m really surprised at how many people don’t know how to row a boat, which is kind of funny. We see some amazingly accomplished people, people who are doctors and PhDs and world travelers, and we see them get into a boat and we don’t realize it’s probably the first time they’ve ever gotten into a rowboat before. And if you’ve never done it before, someone really has to give you a little bit of a mini- lesson. And you see these guys, we had a guy who was an ex NFL player, or you see people who are big athletic people who run triathlons and things like that, and then they get into a rowboat and they have no idea what they’re doing. And I think it’s a great equalizer. But once you see them master it, they learn how to go straight, they learn how to turn, they know how to stop, and you can kind of see that transformation happening which is just so much fun.
Nisreene Atassi: It’s funny because my husband and I once did a canoe trip down the Russian River and we definitely almost got divorced. So I always tell people if you want to go through marriage counseling, or if you want to do something before you actually get married, go on a canoe trip or on a rowboat with your partner, because that is like the ultimate lesson in communication. Because if you are not communicating and you’re not in sync, you’re basically going around in circles and it’s an incredibly, incredibly arduous task. So I actually believe that. Lake Wandawega is obviously the heart of the camp for you guys. So, Tereasa for anyone who’s never been there, can you give me a sense of what it’s like standing on the shore? What can you see? What can you hear?
Tereasa Surratt: Imagine for a second you’re standing on a dock that’s almost 80 years- old. In front of you, you can see across the lake. It’s a really tiny lake. It’s a pretty, clear lake, and it’s not very deep. As you look down, even off the end of that pier, you can see all the way to the bottom.
David Hernandez: It has largemouth bass, northern pike, catfish, and then all manner of panfish, bluegill, sunfish, stuff like that so it’s fun for fishing.
Tereasa Surratt: The thing that you’re going to notice the most is the absence of noise, other than the birds and the lapping of water. Because our lake is so small, we don’t get the jet skis and the power boats. You hear things that you didn’t even pay attention to before because the layers are gone.
Nisreene Atassi: My memory of Lake Wandawega was that it was basically nothing but Camp Wandawega on it. You’re so right, and that you don’t actually notice any of those extra things. There’s also a really gorgeous tire swing. Is that still there? Do you guys still have that?
David Hernandez: Yeah. We’ve got lots of swings and the tire swing I think is one of the favorite attractions, especially among little kids.
Tereasa Surratt: From my childhood, and I grew up on a farm, that was one of the first things that I remember my dad hanging for us in the trees, in the country. There were five of us kids, and I grew up with one so when we bought Camp, it was the first thing we put up.
Nisreene Atassi: As we were preparing for this episode we wanted to just dig in a little bit more. We surveyed Americans just to see what were some of the top activities they associated with lake vacations, and 60% said that the number one reason was for relaxation. And so I feel like all of the things that you’ve just described really play into that. Why do you think people specifically associate relaxation and some of those more basic joys with lake vacations? Do you think it’s because they’re reminiscent of these memories from their childhoods as well?
David Hernandez: You know, it’s interesting because sometimes we see people where it is reminiscent of their childhoods, and in other instances it’s people who maybe didn’t have the benefit of that sort of getaway as a kid, people who didn’t grow up near a camp or didn’t have access to a lake. They can travel the world, they can go anywhere they want, they have means and they come to this modest little lake resort.
Nisreene Atassi: You watch movies and things like that, and you always see these kids at summer camp and that sort of American tradition, so I think you’re right. I didn’t have that quintessential childhood. My parents are from overseas so it was a little bit different. And so when I went there it felt like I was finally getting a taste of it, so I can definitely understand why people would seek that out.
Tereasa Surratt: We get a lot more folks that are looking for a different experience and they’re there for all of it. They’re really there for it, to embrace the weather and everything it brings. Because that is what makes it the most memorable, not just for the adults, but for the kids too.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Okay, well we’re going to keep exploring the concept of lake vacations, including how you can bring a taste of the lake right to you, right after this, so stay with us.
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Nisreene Atassi: Welcome back to Out Travel the System. I’m here with David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt of Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin. We’re talking all about lake vacations. All right, guys, I’m curious. Why do you think people would want to come and do a lake vacation versus a beach vacation, or a vacation where you’re staying at a hotel and maybe have easy access to a pool? Why do you think they might choose a lake versus anything else?
David Hernandez: In our case, I think it does have to do with the solitude that comes from being on the shore, and being in the water and feeling like you’re part of nature in a lake location, in a way that you don’t when you’re at the ocean or when you’re at a place with a pool.
Nisreene Atassi: You guys have worked really hard at creating a really specific aesthetic of Camp Wandawega. Tell me about your vision for creating this ultimate lake retreat for your guests, and the overall vibe that you hope that they walk away with.
Tereasa Surratt: That’s the most fun part. We don’t look at Pinterest or other resorts or campgrounds around us. We really take our inspiration from research. And going back to when Camp Wandawega was built in 1925, it’s nothing that they expect. When you walk into your kitchen and you open that drawer, you’re only going to find bakelite- handled spatulas, or percolators from the 1950s. Everything in your hands, everything you touch and everything you’re surrounded with, is meant to sort of transport you into another time, which inherently puts you in a different mindset. Because when you’re playing tennis with an old beat up wooden tennis racket, then you play differently. I think you can go anywhere today and have everything new and fresh, and I feel like that’s almost expected, and it doesn’t actually help you experience your time in a different way. And so maybe folks don’t like to make coffee in a percolator but they learn how to do it, and they get Googling it. We try to give people as many opportunities as they can to see things differently and put themselves in the position of maybe how their grandparents or their great- grandparents would have vacationed.
Nisreene Atassi: How do you choose what goes in and what goes out, and sort of that whole process?
Tereasa Surratt: I think that, I live for the flea market. That’s what I would suggest to anybody. But honestly, it’s just the process of not being in a hurry, and keeping your eye and your mind and your heart open all of the time, everywhere, which means yard sales, barn sales, thrift markets, flea markets. If you’re patient, you can decorate for nothing. I mean, literally. If you go to camp, everything there came from the thrift stores in the area, and of course has been curated, well over a decade of curating to pull that together. We say nothing crosses the threshold of camp if it’s newer than 1960. The silver linings to owning a summer camp and 25 acres of buildings is that you can shop all the time. It’s really fun.
Nisreene Atassi: So if you were going to give someone tips for recreating that experience at home, how would you advise them? What tips would you give somebody?
Tereasa Surratt: I think you needed a hammock. You needed a stack of great books. I think you need a radio, maybe a record player. And you need, I think great s’mores sticks, things to cook with outside. All of those things are really just tools and a catalyst for experiencing being in the now.
David Hernandez: One of the things too that we often talk about, is the idea of disconnecting to reconnect, and disconnecting from the modern world, disconnecting from your iPad, from your phone, from your TV, and then reconnecting with each other or with nature or the world around you. It’s like, you can take that idea with you to your everyday life and find little moments where you can reconnect with your loved ones by just shutting down and focusing on yourselves and each other for the moment.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Do you guys go and do other lake vacations? And if so, what are you looking for to help you plan and choose that destination?
David Hernandez: Because we’re up at the lake all the time, you’d think when we’re taking a trip we’d want to do something completely different. But we do do a lot of exploring. A lot of these old resorts and old camps are being sold off and being turned into like modern housing development, so we’re trying to see as many of them as we can while they still exist.
Tereasa Surratt: We feel like if we don’t see as much as we can now, who knows if they’re still going to be around. One of our favorite vacations was right before COVID. We went to Northwoods and visited a place called Boss’s Lodge. It’s this epic piece of Americana that is just disappearing from the American landscape now, because the value of the land is more than the profit that can be made by running the resort. But right next door to Boss’s is a place called Coon’s Franklin Lodge, which you have to check out because it is a time capsule. It’s like Dirty Dancing and it’s an honor to get a reservation there. It’s really hard to get in. And it really teaches us to respect history and preserve it. And it’s not about recreating or making something new, it’s about preserving what we have and just paying respect to the land.
As much as we like to travel overseas, so much as in our backyard and COVID has taught us that. Just throw a stone within a hundred miles of Wandawega, there’s a dozen places we had never seen before. We’re like, ” Wow, I didn’t even know this was literally in our backyard.” Old restaurants, other lakes, tiny little bars on tiny little lakes that are just gorgeous little moments that are preserved again in five generations of a family. So we like to explore local and I think the past year has taught us that more than anything. You don’t have to go too far.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s obviously been a massive trend, I think in general, people really focusing on exploring their backyard. I think that’s been just a real benefit to the past year. I try to call it I think, a silver lining as well. How do you both feel about vacation rentals?
David Hernandez: We do do a lot of vacation house rentals as well. And sometimes we’ll do it in the winter and the off- season so it’s not like we’re really swimming or boating or anything, but there’s just something about the peacefulness and the views, and the proximity to nature that you get when you’re renting a little vacation rental home on a lake.
Tereasa Surratt: This cottage industry is no longer cottage, right? People are now realizing that they can have both. They can afford to buy a second home and fix it up, and then share that time and let other people use it too.
Nisreene Atassi: David, I want to go back to a comment that you said. You mentioned that you guys have been going in the off- season to some of these lakes. Which I think is really interesting because most people actually associate lake vacations only in the summertime because they feel like if you’re going to do those quintessential things, the swimming and playing outside and that kind of stuff, you want the warm weather. What are some other really compelling reasons to go during other times of year?
David Hernandez: There’s something that’s so nice about going to places in the off- season, even if a lot of the local features and amenities may be shut down for the winter. You kind of feel like you have the place to yourselves. When there’s basically no birds, there’s no crickets. There’s no frogs. You sit outside on the edge of the lake, a frozen lake in the winter and all you hear is just the ‘hoo,’ just the slow, steady wind across the frozen lake. When the lake is frozen, the lake lets out an otherworldly moan. It’s a sound like you’ve never heard before. It’s almost like the surface of the frozen lake has become like the skin of a drum., and it just moves really slowly with the change in temperature. It’s one of my favorite times of year.
Nisreene Atassi: I never think about lake vacations in the winter time, but the way you just described it, David, makes it sound really appealing, and I think going off- season definitely sounds like it has some perks. I’m curious, were you guys open for the entirety of this past year, during the pandemic? How did you navigate that?
Tereasa Surratt: It was an interesting time for us. Momentarily, we were thinking it was going to be a really rough year, but then this idea of kind of social distant, friendly travel, started becoming a thing as people were getting a little stir- crazy. They would come here and do contactless check- in. They would go to their own quarters, and basically, they didn’t have to see another human being the whole time if they didn’t want to. It was interesting too. We even had a lot of doctors who I think, they wanted to travel, they wanted to get away with their family, but they didn’t want to have to go into quarantine when they got back, so they loved the idea of being able to go to a place where they didn’t have to see any other human beings the whole time.
Nisreene Atassi: It’s interesting because when we did that survey, people highlighted wanting to take lake vacations, because they’re family- friendly and they were looking to actually spend time with family. So are you expecting to have this continuation of families looking to get away, or do you think you’re going to start to see more friends trying to reconnect and get back together that they haven’t seen in a year? What do you think’s going to happen?
Tereasa Surratt: It’s exactly like you just said. People are just so hungry to get out of the house, see each other again now that everyone’s vaxxed. Everyone that comes to camper are vaccinated and they’re just excited to be outdoors together. But they’re not quite ready yet maybe to jump on an international flight with their whole family so they’re still looking for that opportunity to get just driving distance away. Even during the weekdays, we’re finding that people are really jumping on these reservations, gathering quickly, their squad, their families, and then coming with these epic meal plans. That’s the fun thing to see families do. They come with whole itineraries for the things that they’re going to do. Sometimes they make t- shirts for their family and then they, they pack like they’re going to move in for a month. It’s fun to see. When they roll in they’re really committed to having a good time.
Nisreene Atassi: Great. I love that. Food comes up a lot on this show because I’m a big foodie. I feel like it adds a massive amount to my overall trip and experience. I want to hear from you guys. Breakfast to night time, what is the quintessential menu that you need to have an amazing lake vacation?
Tereasa Surratt: Okay, that’s my favorite question I think we’ve ever been asked. I’m going to give you the answer that everyone else probably would give you when they come to camp. Because they all want to make bacon and eggs in the morning and they want to make it a griddle. They want to make eggs on an open fire. They want to do the cast iron skillet. People really get into making coffee on an open fire too and that’s always fun to see. And then I’m going to actually skip lunch for a second and jump to dinner, because people get most excited about their dinner plans because everyone wants to do burgers, wiener roast. So I would say that, and then s’mores. And I think for lunch, people like to… graze. David, what do you think?
David Hernandez: My thing is to shop local. I want to show up there with an empty cooler and stop at the markets. Go to a fish fry, stop at the farmstands. Just see what the local area has to offer, and we definitely encourage people to do that at Wandawega.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. I love that. I’m trying to think of what we brought with us when we came. I think we had chicken in foil packs. We had brats. Basically, our weight in chips, s’mores, all of that. I think I actually have a photo of, as I was packing everything up so maybe we can include it when we post this episode.
David Hernandez: Preparing meals could be part of the fun and part of the memories and part of the ritual, but there’s also something nice just about grabbing a six- pack and a bag of really good beef jerky from the local gas destination. I could live off nothing but beef jerky during the entire trip.
Tereasa Surratt: He’s a beef jerky fanatic, if you guys want to do a whole podcast and just talk about that.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, okay. Maybe it’s a beef jerky of the roads in America type of thing.
Tereasa Surratt: It’s so true but our 10-year-old hates it because when you’re in the car-
Nisreene Atassi: It stinks!
Tereasa Surratt: … and it’s hot, oh my God, does it.
Nisreene Atassi: It stinks. Yeah.
Tereasa Surratt: It smells so bad. And the person that’s eating the beef jerky never realized how much it reeks because they’re the one eating it. And my daughter and I are like, oh please God, stop. And our dog Frankie’s in the back. And he’s like, no, I’m loving this. The whole car smells like it for a week.
Nisreene Atassi: I have some friends, the ones whose wedding actually was at Camp Wandawega who are probably going to listen to this episode, and distinctly remembered when we were on a road trip and my husband opened up a bag of beef jerky and it was the stinkiest thing. So this is going to be a nice little Easter egg for them. I can’t wait for them to reach out to me once they hear this. Amazing.
Well, before we wrap up, I wanted to just do a quick question to both of you. For somebody who’s listening to this episode, they now all of a sudden feel absolutely inspired to go and take a lake vacation. They’ve never done it before. What are your top three things that you would recommend that they do, just help get them started and planning their trip?
Tereasa Surratt: Oh my gosh. This is a good question. I don’t know if I can narrow it to three.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, fine. You can give me five if you want.
Tereasa Surratt: Just started dreaming first. Jump on to your favorite five Instagram accounts. Find a movie that inspires you like Indian Summer or something like that, then that can also help you narrow down the type of vacation you want to have, and it can inform the types of places you start to look for. And then I would say, start thinking about what you want to pack, because the second you get your duffle, I say duffle because we are a summer camp. What you pack in that bag is really setting your intentions for the experience that you want to have. So, pick that book, grab that special bottle that you’ve been saving, that you picked up someplace, because the more that you plan based on your intentions and the more you can manifest that perfect getaway, which is going to be imperfect by the way, everything always is, but it’s about being in the present. The optimism that you have when you’re packing that bag is what you’re going to carry through your vacation.
Nisreene Atassi: What are the intentions of just packing all bottles of wine?
David Hernandez: I like that!
Nisreene Atassi: That’s a real specific trip right there.
All right, David, what about you?
David Hernandez: I’m intrigued by more of like the blue highways, the out-of- the- way sorts of things too. I would encourage people, don’t do the obvious. Find little out- of- the- way places, find little rundown places or rinky- dink places that all of your friends haven’t been to and everyone’s not talking about, and maybe you’re not seeing on Instagram because they are a little bit more out of the way. So to me, I love that kind of sense of discovery that comes from taking the road less traveled.
Nisreene Atassi: I love it. Well, that feels like a perfect way to wrap up this episode. And for those of you listening, if you need the ultimate lakeside inspiration, be sure to check out Camp Wandawega’s Instagram. We’ll link to it in the show notes. That will give you some really amazing inspiration.
David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt are the co- owners of Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin, on Wandawega Lake. Thank you guys so much for spending the time with us on Out Travel the System. I feel like we’ve covered so many amazing things.
Tereasa Surratt: Thank you for having us. It’s been fun.
David Hernandez: Our pleasure.
Nisreene Atassi: I feel so inspired after this episode, because there are just all of these things and all of these attributes that we had talked about that feel like they really just can give you that quintessential lake vacation. And I know for me, when I go and plan my next lake vacation, I’m thinking about all of these things. I’m thinking about the simpler things that give me those easy joys. Unplugging and disconnecting a little bit, grabbing that good book, making that amazing cup of coffee. Going and walking around barefoot, feeling the grass in between my toes. I can’t wait till my next one.
I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System. We’re heading to the east coast next as we continue our Only In series, and we’re bringing you to the best of Boston. Tune in as we go beyond parking the car in Harvard Yard. Until then, happy travels!
Nisreene OTTS Promo: Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our showrunner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan. Our associate producer is Katie Doten, with sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.