For several years, Tammy and Barry Loe of Post Falls dreamed of starting a Catholic summer camp for kids.
But camp land is almost impossible to find anymore, anywhere, at any price.
And liability insurance? For a Catholic camp for children? You’d need a miracle.
The miracle arrived in a letter hand-delivered to Catholic parishes from Lutherhaven Ministries in Coeur d’Alene.
Would the churches be interested in partnering with Lutherhaven, owner of two beautiful camps in North Idaho?
Would they ever. Next Sunday, 80 children will descend on Lutherhaven’s Shoshone Base Camp, 60 miles northeast of Coeur d’Alene, for a week at North Idaho Catholic Youth Camp.
This “miracle” is actually part of a nationwide trend some call “camp share.”
This trend is preserving green space for children throughout the United States, enabling them to hike, swim, canoe, do arts and crafts and tell scary stories around the campfire.
Here’s a camp story, but it’s not a scary one.
Once upon a time, lake and river property was plentiful and cheap in the Inland Northwest, and upon this land, youth camps were built.
The YMCA’s Camp Reed, for instance, was established in 1915 with a land grant of 15 acres from Frank and Emma Reed. It now covers 555 acres on Fan Lake, 30 miles north of Spokane.
In 1922, Camp Fire bought 16 acres at Mica Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene for $4,000, and named it Camp Sweyolakan; it now covers 300 acres.
Camp Four Echoes, also on Lake Coeur d’Alene, was founded in 1938, with the original 126 acres purchased by the Lion’s Club for $250, according to the Girl Scouts website.
The Spokesman-Review’s 2010 Summer Camps guide lists nearly half a dozen so-called residential camps, most with deep roots in the Inland Northwest.
Camp Lutherhaven, on 65 acres on Lake Coeur d’Alene, came into existence on Memorial Day 1946 after months of hard work, and money-raising, by a coalition of Lutheran churches in what was then called the “Inland Empire.”
Enter the baby boomers. In their growing-up years, the 1950s through the 1970s, Inland Northwest residential camps prospered, as did the organizations and churches that sent kids to their camps.
The challenges began in the 1980s as enrollment in traditional youth programs, such as scouting, declined. As did church attendance in many of the mainstream denominations with summer camps.
Meanwhile, urban specialty camps – soccer and basketball clinics, for example – flourished, keeping kids city-bound in the summer.
Then, the cost of running residential camps skyrocketed.
“Camps disappear,” said Sean Nienow, a director with the National Camp Association. “The owners sell. Or develop. Or camps lose access to the land where they’ve been for years.”
Church camps are especially vulnerable.
“It’s estimated that about 50 percent of church camps will close in the next decade,” said Bob Baker, executive director of Lutherhaven Ministries.
“Camps get into a downward spiral. If the numbers are decreasing, they can’t put money into upkeep,” he explained. “So the buildings wear down and then fewer people want to come to camp.”
Lutherhaven bucks the trend, in part, with its camp-share programs.
This summer, Lutherhaven, as it has for decades, will offer 10 weeks of its own camp programs for young people.
“About a third come from Lutheran congregations, a third from other denominations and a third are unchurched,” Baker said.
In addition to its own programs, Lutherhaven camp-shares in two locations – at the original Lutherhaven on Lake Coeur d’Alene and at Shoshone Base Camp on the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
Its camp-share partners this summer include Hospice of Spokane’s Camp Chmepa for grieving children, as well as camps for Idaho Drug Free Youth and for Beats and Rhythms, a camp experience for children with chronic heart problems.
“We say, ‘We’ll take care of all the camp pieces, and then you just insert your program where you want to,’ ” Baker explained.
For camp-share partners, Lutherhaven provides its property, buildings, counselors, food, cooks – and liability insurance.
“Insurance in 2000 was $43,000 a year,” Baker said. “Now, it’s nearly $100,000 a year. In 10 years, it’s more than doubled.”
Lack of available property – and dream-ending insurance premiums – make it nearly impossible to start a camp from scratch these days, said the National Camp Association’s Nienow.
“There are things we sue over we didn’t sue over in the past,” Nienow said. “It’s not that camps are more dangerous now, but we’re a more litigious society.”
Lutherhaven Ministries doesn’t say yes to every camp-share opportunity, Baker said.
“A men’s group wanted to black out all the windows in our chapel,” he said, “and they were into drumming and dancing, and we weren’t sure what they were going to be doing there, so we said, ‘You might be better going somewhere else.’ ”
Next week at North Idaho Catholic Youth Camp, campers will enjoy traditional activities, such as rock climbing and arts and crafts, mixed in with traditional Catholic activities, such as Mass and the Rosary.
Lutherhaven charges the Catholic youth camp organizers $200 a child. This is the third year of their partnership. The camp happens on a shoe-string budget, thanks to volunteer help from St. George’s Catholic Church in Post Falls, and especially from Roxanne Donelan, the group’s fundraiser.
“We’re not a youth camp just for Catholic kids. We’ll accept anyone, but we practice our faith when we’re here,” said Tammy Loe.
Campers will arrive from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond; one is from North Dakota.
“Anything we need, they supply,” Loe said of Lutherhaven Ministries. “They allowed us a safe place where they accepted and supported our belief system. The whole place is covered with prayer.”
The camp is stunning. It hugs the western edge of the Bitterroot Mountains at the confluence of Shoshone Creek and the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. Everything is green: the grassy areas the children play upon. The tree-filled hills. Even the camp buildings are painted a lush shade of nature’s primary color.
Lutherhaven operated Shoshone Base Camp, a former U.S. Forest Service training center, under a special use permit from the federal government for a decade before buying it outright last year for $705,000.
Thriving camp programs made the purchase financially viable, plus Lutherhaven received donations from donors who support its core value of “getting kids outside,” as Baker put it.
Nienow pointed out that camps throughout the United States preserve green space vulnerable to development. Most U.S. camps sit on lakes and rivers with million-dollar views.
Recently, a camper from a big city in the Midwest spent time at Shoshone Base Camp.
Said Baker, “I overheard him saying, ‘Boy, if this were back where I lived, it would be a national park.’ ”