The Woods:: Camping, Not Sondheim

by A. Sebastian Fortino

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 13, 2008

Despite having been aware of it for at least thirteen years I screamed out after a morning Bloody Mary, "Oh my God, we are so gay!" This was to my traveling buddies as we sat on a bench poolside at The Woods Campground, Leighton, PA in the majestic Pocono Mountains. I don't think it was the groups of gay men - both dressed and undressed - of all ages, the masseuse in a sexy red swimsuit or the magnificent show the night before that lead me to this exclamation. It was the gay feeling in the air. Not a pink kind of gay, not bead throwing from a Fifth Avenue Gay Pride float kind of gay, just a profound sense of openness. It was a comfortable kind of gay, not showering before breakfast at the clubhouse was perhaps the most liberating. I even felt comfortable smelling faintly of last night's bug spray. (Perhaps because last night's bug spray had a hint of that morning's Egoiste by Chanel.)

Interview with a Proud, Veteran Camper

Pat Gremling spoke to me about the campground. What it is, what it was and what he hopes it will become. He spoke so passionately about The Woods - with a mailing list 6000 strong - that I am sharing most of it here!

How many owners are there of The Woods?

There are three owners. Me, my partner Scott Heffelfinger and John Adam Parr. John Adam and myself are the primary operators of the camp. We each have certain talents that really compliment each other. The combination of our talents never seems to collide.

When did you purchase the facility? How long have you been open?

I began my research in 2001. We took ownership of the property in fall of 2003 and our first season began in May 2004. We're coming to the close of our 5th season.

How does the first year compare to this last/current season?

I remember fearing that nobody would come or the unknown infrastructure of the campground would fail. What I didn't expect was that the campers were just as cautious with us in the beginning and whether we would break our promises of what the camp would become. They needed to trust us and I'm happy to say after 5 years, we continue to receive support from them. I feel proud that we've been able to put so much back into the camp. Each season [campers] arrive to see a new set of steps or new doors or gardens, fresh gravel or new furniture. Another interesting result of opening The Woods is how we've been thanked for serving the gay community. For many of our guests, it is much more than a campground. For some, it's the only place they can feel totally at ease away from stereotypes, hate and pressure to conform.

The grounds were once a hunting area. Did you have any negative reaction from the previous owners when you told them how you planned to 're-brand'?

The previous owners operated the camp for over 40 years. They had hundreds of acres on the adjacent mountain. I remember removing shooting tables off the area where we now do stage shows. We went from flying bullet shells to feathers! It was a rough period disclosing our intentions to the campsite occupants. If you think about it, like our current campers, they had a common bond and took a possession of "their" campground. Here we come, get them all excited that new owners are here to improve the facility and then drop the bomb that... the camp will be changing drastically. We gave them the option to stay, but none took it. I received some pretty nasty and threatening emails. The owner was less surprised. She knew Scott and I were partners. She lives close by and has visited us many times. She even sits in the audience of some of the stage shows with my Mom!

How did you come to be interested in camping?

Scott and I will be together 20 years this October. So back then, we were at a point in our relationship where we wanted to try new things together. I remember getting soaked in a tent in Promised Land State Park. We decided something with wheels would be better and bought a used popup. We discovered gay campgrounds and liked the experience of being able to be a couple in "public." The popup got upgraded to a trailer and we still camp every weekend at The Woods! I will admit that what we and many other permanent members have isn't really camping anymore. When decks, wireless internet and programmed lighting enter the campsite, we're required to turn in our "roughing it" card.

I was not familiar with gay camping - it seems to be quite a phenomenon! How does your facility compare with other facilities in the Northeast?

I couldn't help but take ideas away from my camping experiences at Hillside and Oneida. I tried to mix my own ideas with what I thought were the best parts of my visits. You will find things at each campground that will not be at the other. We're proud of our property with its beautiful five-acre lake and all the covered areas in the event of rain. We also pride ourselves in having a number of sites that can handle the big rigs. What gay campgrounds all have is the common bond between campers and the love they have for the outdoors. It's hard to find a camper who is in a bad mood (except when they have to leave on Sunday).

I see you have a family weekend on your list of weekend events. Do you see gay families with children primarily or people bringing their relatives to this event?

The idea was developed to encourage gay partners with children to have something really fun to do as a family. It must be tough for them to camp at a regular campground without getting stares or comments from straight families who feel the need to "protect" their children from the gays. I've been surprised to see very little activity from gay parents. What we have seen is the families and friends of our regular campers utilize that weekend to - as they say - "show them where we've been all summer!" Our events include a scavenger hunt, arts and crafts, pumpkin decorating, an outdoor movie, game shows, karaoke, and dancing in our club.

What is your most popular weekend?

My first thought would be to say Bears or Leather weekend. But I see just as much business on some of our other themed weekends like Illumination, Mardi Gras and the holidays. You really can enjoy any weekend whether you partake in the activities or not.

How does The Woods plan to expand over the course of the next year or so?

An expansion of the campground has been in the works since the beginning. There will be a lot of land disturbance and that requires a ton of engineering work and soil testing. We're at a point that we can give a good estimate that approximately 90 sites will be added for the 2010 season. Our waiting list for perm sites is over 225 people long so the expansion is absolutely necessary!

I asked about any possible negative reaction from the previous owner in terms of The Woods catering to the gay community. What about the locals and area business?

This has been limited to remarks amongst themselves and jokes in the local watering holes. I hear about them from friends of mine but this area is pretty liberal. Our county has had two nudist resorts for years so we're the new kids on the block. Any business that is paying attention knows that their profits have skyrocketed in the past 5 years.

If you had to describe your clientele and demographic how would you do so?

Gay & Lesbian. [laughs] We welcome anyone 18 and older (except on Family weekend where there is no age bracket) and find the majority of our campers are in their 40s and 50s. We're getting more young campers and female campers but that is our main area needing growth. What I've seen over the years is that a lot of first timers come as guests of Woods veterans. It's pretty funny to see how quickly some decide to add themselves to our perm site waiting list!

Lastly: How many people are permanent campers versus tent...dwellers?

There are 54 sites designated as perm sites. The number of campers varies on each. The weekenders camp mainly in popups or trailers. I've seen many upgrades in the last 5 years. Tenters going to trailers and trailers going to motor homes and motor homes going to bigger motor homes. I think the regional RV dealers owe me a Christmas card!

Happy Campers

I also spoke with Mark Harris and Frederick Smith of Doylestown, partners and seasoned campers, who said, "The Woods campground has been our preferred campground almost since it opened. It truly is the people who make it an exciting and fun place to go. There are so many diverse people all wanting to relax and have a good time!"

They learned of The Woods from John Adam Parr while vacationing in Rehoboth, DE about five years ago and have been devotees ever since. They look forward to the proposed 2010 expansion and take full advantage of Beltzville State Park. As Woods veterans, Frederick and Mark recommend rafting in Jim Thorpe, shopping at Country Junction and most importantly forging friendships with other campers.

"The fact you build lasting friendships is always a plus. We do stay in touch with the people we meet and enjoy meeting new ones as well. We get together off season both at our homes or out at clubs or eateries."

With themed weekends running from Memorial Day through closing there are many varied activities and experiences. My traveling buddies Dave, his brother Steve Heckert and I chose Labor Day weekend to head north. Dave was there over the Fourth of July and was anxious to return. He joked that it was because he had bought a $10 seasonal membership - which everyone must do in order to camp - but clearly he wanted to go back for more fun.

"It was so nice to be around gays and not have to worry about what to wear. This is a pretty drama-free environment and that's how I get away," Dave said.

Know Your Tent & Your Weekends

On our second night at The Woods, we did have a bit of drama. We finally retired to our tent after being entertained by campers until three in the morning. Soon after the glissando of a falling tent woke us. This made us all the more jealous of the other campers' comfortable, artfully decorated trailers. We all woke up but didn't acknowledge our alertness. Instead in awkward silence we tried to sleep and reinvented the collapsed tent as an extra blanket. After thirty minutes, however, we seemed to come to the same epiphany. In a chorus we whispered, "We could suffocate if we don't fix this!"

The moral of the story: the next time we go we hope to reserve a cabin. The cabin rates begin at $90.00 per night for two campers and $19.00 for additional guests.

Even though the precious days of summer are over you can still visit The Woods through the end of October or get your name on the list for next season! The pool was recently outfitted with a heater so you can probably squeeze in a backstroke or two, and at least pretend it's summertime. Two-night weekend packages start at $53.00 for a pair of campers in a tent so a weekend there is not cost-prohibitive. (Just try setting up the tent at home first so you'll avoid an early wake-up call!) October offers Family & Friends Weekend, Bear Weekend, an Oktoberfest and their closing Halloween Weekend. In addition to the fun and comraderie there is one point that must meet universal agreement for Woods' campers: the sylvan beauty of its location and the canopy of stars urbanites like myself always forget about. The Woods campground offers you all the tranquility of the Pocono Mountains. If you happen to get a drag show with the price of admission you're not cheating Mother Nature!

Visit their website or call them at (610) 377-9577 for further information.

Sebastian Fortino is a writer and editor, who has worked for a variety of LGBTQ publications. He is interested in crafting content for our community that represents the diverse interests of queer readers and captures queer life. A graduate of Fordham University, Lincoln Center, he currently lives in his native Philadelphia with his fiancé.