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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Camp Fire sparks lasting friendship: Bond that originated at Camp Sweyolakan over 60 years ago comes full circle

April 20, 2022 Updated Thu., April 21, 2022 at 9:38 a.m.

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Karen Erickson and Lois Richards were loyal Camp Fire members who enjoyed annual summer outings at Camp Sweyolakan, but they didn’t strike up a friendship until both were counselors-in-training in 1956.

“When four people share a teepee, you have to become friends,” Erickson explained.

Erickson attended Lewis and Clark High School and Richards, North Central. Both were active in the Spokane Junior Press Club and Camp Fire, but it took sharing that teepee to form a lifelong bond.

The first order of business involved giving Richards a camp name.

“I was Miss Karen, but Miss Lois? That didn’t sound right. Her name is Lois Christine, so she became Miss Chris,” Erickson said. “And she’s still Chris to me.”

They bonded over camp life and keeping watch over their charges.

“I was never good at getting up in the morning, but when you have bugles you have to,” said Erickson.

Other challenges were in store.

“When it rained, we learned to dig a ditch around the teepee and make sure it drained downhill,” Richards said.

While working at Sweyolakan they discovered they were both ambitious and hardworking.

Erickson worked as an intern at the Spokane Daily Chronicle and after graduating from the University of Washington in 1962, she became a full-time general assignment reporter.

Richards graduated from Washington State University in 1962, and then spent two years in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps.

“I was part of the first group sent to Ethiopia,” she said.

Before departing for a long career in foreign climes, she worked enough summers at Sweyolakan to earn a heavy, pewter five-year mug.

Last week, she showed off the battered mug at Erickson’s South Hill home.

“This mug has traveled around the world with me, to Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan….”

Erickson grinned.

“She drinks nothing but Jack Daniels.”

Richards nodded.

“That’s no secret. It’s widely known!”

Despite living worlds apart for most of their adult lives, the bonds forged more than 65 years ago at Camp Sweyolakan have endured. The commonality of often being one of the few women in their career fields strengthened those ties.

From the Chronicle in Spokane to the Tri-City Herald, to many years in public relations, Erickson enjoyed a long and varied career in communications and lived primarily on the west side of the state.

Richards spent 35 years with the United States Agency for International Development, with the bulk of her career spent in Africa.

Neither married nor had children.

“What man could put up with either of us?” asked Richards, grinning.

The friends kept in touch via mail and occasional visits when locations allowed. In 1995, without either of them discussing it, they chose to retire and return to Spokane. Erickson came home to care for her aging mother and to buy her first house, and for Richards, Spokane was always her retirement destination.

It didn’t take long for them to plunge back into Camp Fire life.

“Chris (Lois) got on the board, and she asked me to join the board and work on Camp Fire together,” Erickson recalled.

Their combined life experience afforded them a different perspective.

“When we came back we had a much wider view of the world,” said Erickson. “Our first thoughts were that we needed to bring Camp Fire Inland Northwest into the 21st century.”

Both were early advocates for inclusivity, including welcoming boys to Campfire.

“The more the merrier,” Richards said.

She quickly discovered the organization’s finances were in disarray and used the wealth of her economic experience to help.

“It’s much better now,” she said. “We actually have investments. I’ll probably be on the finance committee till the day I die.”

Erickson used her communications and outreach knowledge to help introduce inclusivity to the local group.

“We’re proud to see the changes Camp Fire has experienced to empower more kids to thrive and find their spark,” she said.

When Camp Sweyolakan celebrated its 75th birthday, the friends were there.

“We would have slept in a teepee if we could have, but we slept in a tree house, instead,” said Erickson.

In July, the camp will celebrate its 100th birthday.

“You bet your life we’re going!” Richards said.

Erickson, who’s on the planning committee, laughed.

“We’ve signed up for the overnight crowd!”

The pair attributes their enduring friendship to their shared worldview and credits the leadership and teamwork skills they learned in Camp Fire for their successes in life. The hope that they’ve helped pave the way for other professional women gives them profound joy.

Richards summed up their philosophy with a quote from an old Camp Fire story, “The Nowhere Road.”

“Carve your steps wide and deep to help those who come along behind you,” she said.

For more information about Camp Sweyolakan’s 100th Birthday Celebration visit https://campfireinc.org/birthday.

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