CAMPING IN ALASKA
So many stories and so little time. There are four camps I have used in Alaska: Birchwood Camp in Anchorager, Southeast Camp at Juneau, Salmon Lake Camp at Nome and Hope Retreat Center at Hope. I have already written about Hope, so I shall not repeat much here.
During my summer at Moose Pass in 1961, I was ordered to be a counselor for one week at Birchwood Camp. Years later I either learned or was reminded that I worked in the first camp to be held in this camp. Cabins were large army tents set on a platform. The dining hall was an even larger Army Tent. I don’t remember who was in charge, but the second week of camping I was in charge. Unfortunately, another pastor who had a doctoral degree from Boston School of Theology was a counselor during the second week and he was insulted to have to work with a Dean who was so inferior to him. He criticized me right in front of the campers. It was one of the few times in my life that I came close to slugging some one, but deep down I knew that would not be a very cool thing to do. Camping in those days was run according to a strict plan and I did make a mistake and he was gracious enough to point it out to everyone in the camp. I went for a walk and Mary Ann Harlan talked me down from my anger. I took some satisfaction in the fact that his people skills were not good and from a distance I learned of some of his exploits in ministry. At one point in my later career he was interim superintendent for a few months and I wondered if I could pass that time without any interaction with him and I succeeded. Not my greatest accomplishment, but interesting to me.
(A footnote to my anger is that I carried that anger with me back to seminary. Eventually I was sharing this anger with one of my professors and as he observed my physical reaction to the memory, he asked me: “Where is this preacher who is making you so angry?” I told him that he was in Portland, Oregon. Then the professor asked me: “How many miles away from you is he?” And I guessed 2,000 miles. Then the professor gently pointed out the power I was giving this individual. He could make me angry from a distance of 2,000 miles. “What a powerful person he is!” For some reason that helped me and the physical reaction to the memory immediately became less. I didn’t even have a physical reaction when he was given the task of being my interim superintendent for three months.)
When I returned to Alaska full-time, I served at Kenai and Chugiak, so camping at Birchwood continued to be part of my summer responsibilities. I remember one lad from Seward who had been physically abused. If his story was true, he had run away from some one in Kansas and ended up in Alaska. I did observe scars on his back. He had an attitude. Some older children teased him and he picked up a piece of firewood and hit one of them over the head. Fortunately, it did no permanent damage, but the older children were ready to teach him a lesson and he ran away from camp. By God’s grace I was able to find him and bring him back to camp. I had stern words with the aggrieved parties and no one was killed on my watch.
When assigned to Chugiak, I was expected to manage the camp. No salary. So I insisted on a title: I became the Superintendent of Birchwood Camp. Lots of adventures. When it came time to purchase a new vehicle, I wanted a four-wheel drive Chevrolet. Roger Thompson, pastor at First United Methodist in Anchorage wanted to save some money and buy a regular truck. Finally I looked Roger in the eye and said: “If you prevail in this discussion, the first time I get stuck, I will wait until midnight and call you for help.” He was convinced and he supported my request. And when I got stuck with the four-wheel drive vehicle, I didn’t call him.
A new lodge was built and Alaska Methodist University gave us some old equipment. Barbara designed and helped us install the kitchen. That design has stood the test of time. I was inspired to harvest lots of salmon for summer camp food. I purchased a set net and hired some native Alaskan men to do the work on a 50/50 deal. The first summer my share was stolen and the second summer the power went off and all the fish in the camp freezer were spoiled. I gave up. It was during these years of cutting firewood in the winter time that I learned I was allergic to birch wood. Ironic, to say the least.
Because of vandalism, we moved to having a resident managers (Loren and Julia Rodebush) and that has been the case even to today. I recommended to my successor at Chugiak that he avoid being the camp superintendent and he was pleased to make that arrangement.
Remembering James Kirsch: he worked for the Alaska railroad and part of his task was burying things the railroad no longer used. Occasionally, I would get a message from some one that if I went to the railroad tracks, there might be something I could use. It was a miracle. But one acquisition was special: steel I-Beams for a bridge. That required some special equipment to move them into place, but a new bridge across a tiny stream lasted for many years.
Some of my stories are difficult to date, but after serving in Juneau and Nome, I came back to Anchorage and found myself as a counselor in a high school camp. There were at least five students whose fathers were clergy and they treated the dean very badly. I knew we were in for trouble when one camper arrived with a pickup truck full of furniture and sound equipment. For some reason we allowed him to stay, but bear in mind I was not in charge. The disrespectful treatment of the dean got so bad that I intervened and a truce was arranged. I can’t remember how that was accomplished, but it was not a pleasant experience.
The next year there was a new camp planned for 2nd graders and I volunteered. It was a wonderful experience. This was approximately 1983. One child, also a preacher’s kid, was asked to help set the table and his response blew me away. He was thrilled to be asked. I knew that I would be working with early elementary children as long as possible.
We returned for the 50th anniversary of the camp and Walter Hays Jr graciously arranged for me to share the spotlight of sharing memories. It turned out that I was a counselor in the first camp held there in 1961. For the second camp, I was Dean. Promotion came fast in Alaska.
SOUTHEAST ALASKA CAMP – John Argetsinger Campus
I was a leader in this camp for five years. It took a great deal of energy for two weeks of camping. I came up with the brilliant idea of selling the camp to the Juneau School District for Environment Education classes, with the understanding we could use it in the summer time for two weeks. That deal went through and they upgraded the kitchen and then gave it back to us. The School Board cancelled its two best programs as a power play with the voters. I don’t know how that turned out, but some of the founders of the camp were not happy with me. I was never thanked for getting the camp a new kitchen.
One of the activities was hiking five miles to either Eagle Glacier or Herbert Glacier. I carried my 30-06 with me and the wisdom of that was confirmed when I came upon bear scat that was still steaming. With noisy children, we never saw a bear and for that, I am grateful.
Over the years, lots of dedicated lay persons have kept the camp going. Now there is a resident manager, so the pastors of the Juneau churches do not have to provide the main leadership.
SALMON LAKE CAMP IN NOME
This camp was owned and operated by the Lutherans, but they were very generous in sharing the camp with others, including the Methodists. It was in a beautiful valley about 50 miles from Nome. My best story came when I took a group of women to the camp for an activity. One mile from the camp a bear stood in the road and looked at us and then went into the tundra away from the camp. The women announced that they wanted to go home. I didn’t think that was necessary, so I delivered them to the camp. Then I drove home. They got home to Nome before I did. I never figured out how that happened. Native Alaskans in the Nome area do not like bears. Bears were used in the same way my brothers used the boogie man to scare me as a child. However, I never saw a boogie man and we all saw the bear.
HOPE RETREAT CENTER
Having been the pastor in Hope in 1961, I took youth groups there every chance I got, both when I was the pastor in the Kenai Parish and when I was the pastor at Chugiak and much later, when I was the pastor at East Anchorage. I have written about Hope in another blog. (see January 2015)