How Michigan’s Cole Canoe Base cooks up fun for campers and staff

Welcome home — or, rather, welcome to Cole Canoe Base in Michigan. This camp uses a special recipe for success — and a cooking event called Beast Feast — to keep campers and staffers coming back year after year.

It’s hard to imagine an office more packed with Scouting stuff than the one belonging to Gus Chutorash.

Wood paneling peeks through the few spots not covered with photos, plaques, certificates and camp accreditation pennants. These are mementos from Gus’ 38 summers as camp director of Cole Canoe Base, 150 miles northwest of Detroit.

“Some call it cluttered,” Gus says, looking around. “But I like it.”

Cole, a heavily wooded camp cozied up to a bend in the Rifle River, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Gus has been a fixture for three-quarters of that time, and along the way he has met countless staff members, Scouts and Scouters who know him simply as “Gus.”

You can see Gus’ influence on the camp’s annual upgrades, its passionate staff and its unparalleled first-year camper program. And you can see it on Beast Feast, held every Monday night during summer camp. It’s part cooking competition, part carnival, part progressive dinner. At Cole, Beast Feast makes for a tasty appetizer before an incredible week.

Canoe Base Cooking
Nicolas Hampton of Troop 647 from Detroit garnishes deep-fried Oreos before Beast Feast.

The first course
To properly enjoy Beast Feast, billed as the “largest outdoor cooking demonstration in Scouting,” you need a fork, the biggest plate you can find and an empty stomach. Napkins are optional.

Units prepare one or two signature dishes and then Scouts and Scouters walk around, sampling a bite of this and a scoop of that.

Lasagna baked in a Dutch oven bubbles and steams. A line forms in front of Troop 675’s award-winning chili. And you smell the sticky bread with Hershey’s Kisses baked inside well before you get to taste it.

Vincent Mathias, an assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 675 from Wadsworth, Ill., sets down his sample of “Camp BruLay” — crème brûlée in small Dixie cups — to survey the scene.

“Beast Feast keeps them coming back,” he says. “They have fun, they learn new things and, to be honest with you, it gets them away from the videogames for a week. I’ll be back next year.”

Cole offers Scouts like Andrew Harrast (front) and Michael Jensen of Troop 648 from Mount Pleasant, Mich., a range of paddling options: from a half-day trek to a four-day 50-miler.
Cole offers Scouts like Andrew Harrast (front) and Michael Jensen of Troop 648 from Mount Pleasant, Mich., a range of paddling options: from a half-day trek to a four-day 50-miler.

Never standing still
He won’t be the only one. It takes four or five summers to try everything at Cole, and just when a Scout thinks he’s done it all, Gus and his staff introduce something new.

These are improvements like new high-adventure treks, new merit badge offerings (at last count, 100) and new roofs on the pavilions. Most of the physical improvements, Gus is proud to say, are the work of volunteers.

Troops and crews complete weekend camp-improvement projects — or maybe they’re home-improvement projects. A sign at the entrance to camp says “Welcome Home,” and Scouts and Venturers treat Cole as a second home.

Senior Program Director Justin Sandelin, in his ninth summer at Cole, says the camp is renowned for its abundance of choices.

“If they didn’t do something one year, they can come back and do that next year,” Sandelin says. “On top of that we have an awesome staff, and a lot of us have come back year after year.”

Staffer Jared Wolfe teaches Alex Duerksen of Troop 164 from Okemos, Mich., how to tie a fishing fly.
Staffer Jared Wolfe teaches Alex Duerksen of Troop 164 from Okemos, Mich., how to tie a fishing fly.

If you can call it a job
There’s something different about the 82 young men and women on staff at Cole. They all love their jobs: the guy ringing you up at the trading post, the woman in charge of the buddy board at the waterfront, the guy refilling the coffeemaker in the Scouters’ lounge. It’s infectious.

“Enthusiasm has been a part of what we’re about for a long time,” Gus explains. “We only have six days to win them over and give them the time of their life.”

Building an enthusiastic team begins long before staff week. Cole has a de facto farm system; a current Cole staffer is probably a former Cole camper. They just can’t stay away. Just look at Program Director Billy Winkel, in his ninth year on staff and still loving every minute.

The Cole spirit sometimes spills over into unintended places. On one afternoon off, Winkel and some fellow staffers went to the store for supplies. But they forgot they were walking down the aisles of Walmart and not the pine-lined trails of Cole.

“We just see a person and say hello, and then we need to run away from that person because they’re just staring at us,” he says.

The friendliness works back at camp, Winkel says. Around Tuesday night a change occurs, and instead of getting a funny look when you say hello to a camper, “they say hello right back.”

Somehow, Rachel Hellar can command the attention of 52 first-year campers. Her secret: A points system that rewards positive behavior. She buys the winners ice cream.
Somehow, Rachel Hellar can command the attention of 52 first-year campers. Her secret: A points system that rewards positive behavior. She buys the winners ice cream.

And first prize goes to …
Rachel Hellar is so good at running the first-year camper program, Scouts don’t realize they’re completing requirements.

“I had a first-year camper ask me in the middle of the week, ‘When are we gonna start working on stuff?’ ” she says.

The Scouts treat Hellar like a rock star. After class, they swarm to ask questions and tell jokes. Once her fan club has moved on for the day, Hellar explains her method. She’s an elementary education student at Eastern Michigan University, but she doesn’t treat the first-year camper program like school.

“It’s summer,” she says. “It’s time to have fun.”

Hellar is an expert at keeping the Scouts engaged — not easy with 52 Scouts ages 11 and 12. She seamlessly jumps to a song or a game or an activity whenever attentions sag.

Her success ensures these Scouts will be back for their second year next summer, and they might even be on staff someday. Hellar, a former camper here, knows all about Cole’s magnetism.

“Cole Canoe Base has always been a home for me,” she says. “You really get to experience something you would never, ever experience anywhere else. Once you come to Cole Canoe Base, you’re part of it for your entire life.”


Three of the strangest dishes at Beast Feast:

  • Chocolate-covered bacon
  • Deep-fried corn on the cob
  • That time a troop roasted a whole
    pig on a rotisserie turned by a car engine

Five ingredients to a great summer camp
Read these and consider: How did your summer camp experience stack up?

  1. Easy to navigate: A big camp can intimidate a first-year camper, so Cole has color-coded trails, easy-to-remember area names and a straightforward layout.
  2. Welcoming to all Scouts: The staff at Cole raises state flags for units from other states. If you’re visiting from Alabama, Wyoming or anywhere in between, yours will fly the week you’re there.
  3. A world-class waterfront: Cole’s Bosco Lake looks postcard-perfect: neatly stacked aluminum canoes, two gleaming 100-year-old Old Town war canoes, a working lighthouse and a swimming area.
  4. Signature high-adventure activities: Canoe is Cole Canoe Base’s middle name. Scouts enjoy spectacular single-day canoeing trips or full-week excursions.
  5. Quality camp commissioners: Camp commissioners help newbies get comfortable. “We like to say Cole comes at you fast,” says Walt Carothers, new unit manager. “We want to take the overwhelming part out.”

All together now
If you think Cole Canoe Base is packed with activities, take a look at the entire Michigan Crossroads Council. The council’s top-notch camps offer everything a young person is after.

The camps don’t compete with one another. Instead, they share resources and even direct units to other council camps when they want a change of scenery. The approach, says Outdoor Adventures Director Frank Reigelman, is “all for one, one for all.”

4 Comments

  1. My first experience with Cole Canoe Base was when my son Dave was a first-year scout in 1997. I’ve been back for at least a week every year since until a change in employment situation stopped me in 2014 and have the camp t-shirts to prove it. Whether as a camper, volunteer staff member, or just a drop-in visitor, Cole is truly a second home to me. I know of no other place that can accomplish so much in one week of resident camp to prepare youth for a lifetime of adult responsibilities ranging from the mundane (latrine cleaning) to the sublime (helping a fellow camper survive a bout of homesickness) to daily existence (cooking your own meal). Kudos to my second extended family – the staff and campers of Cole Canoe Base.

  2. As a 4 year returning troop we always feel like we are “coming home”. It can be challenging in these times to keep our older scouts engaged. But Gus is a master. His passion and relentless desire to keep youth in scouting is evident in the program at Cole. He spends all year researching so that he can keep the program at Cole relevant and exciting and engaging. He never stops trying to improve the program. He is a master salesman with a passion for scouting that is unparalleled. The proof is in the pudding when 95% of our 120 youth attended camp this year with 52 high school aged scouts leading the charge. Gus allows the youth a chance to make a difference and leave a legacy. My daughter Claire was on staff this year and has already promised to return. I don’t know of any other camp whose retention of staffers is nearly so significant and that speaks for itself. I am hoping that Gus will be able to keep working is magic for many many more years.

  3. Some of my fondest memories are of summer camps at Cole Canoe Base in the early 1980s with Troop 1101. Thanks for the article, it is great to see how the place has grown. Congrats on 50 years!

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