After 98 years of continuous operation, camp has enjoyed its share of unsolved mysteries: What really happened with Uncle Phil and the Vega horse? Is Chief buried under that mound at the council ring? Who is Uncle Howard Gould, and why did he sign every wooden surface in the lodge dressing room?
For the past 30 years, camp has contemplated a mystery on par with any other: Where did Uncle Steve Callahan hide during his decade-long run of Unk Hunt success? And was his hiding place permitted by the rules? Is it possible that Callahan cheated?
Those questions have taken on legendary status at Winnebago. For untold years after Uncle Steve’s final summer on the staff, Unk Hunts would still feature a lodge-wide chant of “Callahan cheated!”—yelled with glee by campers who’d never met the man.
But few secrets last forever, and this one had been given a preplanned expiration date. The answer to the questions—“Did Callahan cheat? And where did he hide?”—were written down by Uncle Steve himself during camp’s 75th anniversary summer in 1994 and sealed in a time capsule that will be opened during camp’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2019.
But those in attendance at the 1994 capsule-sealing couldn’t foresee a worldwide phenomenon that would prematurely expose the secret: social media.
This past October, Uncle James “Mac” MacIntyre was doing off-season maintenance work at camp, when he found some prehistoric-looking scrawlings on a wall. He photographed the odd sight and posted it on Facebook. Within hours, the image had spread to the far corners of the Internet, getting the kind of frenzied response that would greet a leaked Game of Thrones episode.
Uncle James’s photos showed the structural foundation underneath the dining hall and a concrete wall near the center of the building. On the wall was Uncle Steve’s name and a list of every year he’d successfully hidden in that very spot. There was also a handwritten note from Uncle Steve, dated July 6, 1996, congratulating the future individual who had finally discovered his secret.
The Winnebago Alumni Newsletter contacted Uncle Steve at his home in Florence, Alabama, for comment.
“I remember those ‘Callahan cheated’ cheers,” says Uncle Steve. “Did they really still say that all those years later? Should I say I’m flattered?”
Steve went into his first Unk Hunt with no real plan about where to hide. As counselors scattered in all directions, he decided to crawl under the dining hall, entering near the steps on the Eagle Field side. There was no deck at that time, meaning the path to his spot was about 15 feet shorter than it is today. Still, it was arduous.
“It’s pitch black, it’s dirty, it’s nasty,” recalls Steve. “You had to scoot over a water pipe and then under floor joists. It went from a five-foot opening between the floor joist and the ground to a two-foot opening. You had to crawl on your elbows like a damn sniper.”
The actual spot where Steve hid is near the base of the fireplace, on the kitchen side. “My body would be tilted back against the fireplace and I could peer around the corner,” he recalls. “It would take 30 to 40 seconds just to crawl back out to daylight.”
From time to time, campers would venture under the dining hall, but they never made it as far back as Steve did. The prevailing rumor at the time didn’t involve Steve hiding under the dining hall. The legend was that he hid in the swamp behind the archery range.
“Kids would bring back arrows, claiming they found them in the swamp near my hiding spot,” laughs Steve. “So I started playing along. I would tell kids: ‘I saw you walking by. You were 10 feet away from me.’”
Prior to the Facebook leak, only one other person knew the location of Steve’s spot: Emmanuel Pinto, a former camper who was Steve’s co-counselor in senior lodge in 1989. Otherwise, Steve managed to keep the secret from his fellow unks.
“I do remember waiting for everyone to just get out of there, and when I saw people about 25 to 50 yards away from me, I could just mosey back underneath the dining hall,” Steve explains. And when the klaxon blew, ending the Unk Hunt, “I’d wait for the commotion to die down and just quietly make my way back to the lodge. I was usually the last one back.”
Steve had looked forward to witnessing the moment when his big secret would finally be unveiled to the world. And while the secret will already be known to many in attendance at that ceremony in the summer of 2019, Steve says he’s at peace with what has transpired.
“I won’t say my feelings were hurt, but I was looking forward to that moment. But I’m looking forward to getting up there still.”
Few, if any, Winnebagans remember the exact wording of the Unk Hunt rules during Steve’s first summer in 1987. But we do know that, for years, the rules have banned going under any building where the access point is covered by latticework. And indeed, the underside of the dining hall is hemmed in by latticework.
Which leads to the ultimate question: Does Callahan think he cheated? He chuckles, and pauses to consider.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”