Cascading Along


Lutherwood Camp & Retreat Center

Bellingham, Wash.

One-week, on-site sessions: $260-$300

Half-week, on-site sessions: $145

Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP): $270-$400

Two-week boat-building program: $800

Day camp: $80

Ages: First grade through high school

Let's face it… The Pacific Northwest is a great location for a summer camp, complete with foaming fresh and salt whitewater, enormous timber, dizzying elevation changes and a plethora of lakefronts.

In real estate, location is everything, but not necessarily for camps. Programming, staff and facilities are everything for a camp, and location is a bonus.

Take Lutherwood Camp, which calls the idyllic burg of Bellingham home. With about 105 acres of superb Washington real estate and a built-in camper constituency drawing from 294 western Washington Lutheran churches, the camp should be a shoe-in for success.

However, the camp -- after almost 50 years of operation -- almost shut down for good in 1992. The problem was not location, but the need to deal with modern realities.

For most of its lifetime, beginning in 1946, Lutherwood operated as a gathering place for local churches, with perhaps one paid caretaker or camp director. The churches themselves were responsible for most of the renovation and running whatever programs they came up with.

As time went by, the camp became more organized, first utilizing volunteer staff, then paid staff in the '70s. What it couldn't seem to overcome was the homespun history of a place that had never really operated as a true summer camp.

Changing History

Alan Rogstad, the camp's director, arrived in 1993 and set out to change history and provide a well-rounded summer camp experience for not only the kids in the surrounding Lutheran churches, but anyone else from the community looking for a good summer camp.

"In the last 20 years camps that operated on a shoestring are a thing of the past because of government regulations and rising costs, requiring them to operate under the same rules and guidelines as restaurants and hotels," says Rogstad. "One of the biggest things we faced was that the infrastructure was so poor -- water and electrical was substandard and outdated. So we started with a new attitude and operated under those governmental guidelines. The ACA also had a lot to do with that -- the guidelines they provide are great."

In 1994, Rogstad says the camp received a windfall of around $300,000 from limited logging that also had the benefit of thinning and clearing land for future development. This tackled those nagging infrastructure problems that threatened to close the camp. Lutherwood also did extensive renovation of the facilities, which hadn't been updated since 1962, and built one small cabin.

Next up was revitalizing the programming and making sure that hospitality was top-notch. As Rogstad points out, practicing excellence in hospitality -- which is really a staff and attention to detail issue -- ensures a healthy return ratio of satisfied campers and guests for the retreat end of the business.

Three Programs, One Philosophy

"The first thing is hiring good staff. There's no other single factor that is as important as getting good people," says Rogstad. "They're representatives of your organization; it's particularly true of a camp where parents are very concerned about the morality and the lessons their kids are going to learn."

Lutherwood combs local colleges and universities for candidates, making sure that potential counselors understand the requirements of being a counselor before they even apply. Applicants are then put through a rigorous interview and reference process, where camp standards are presented unambiguously right off the bat.

"Through experience I've learned how important it is to be very clear with your staff right up front about what you expect from them," says Rogstad. "It's easier to be tough and then lighten up, than to start out wishy-washy and try to come back and tighten things up later."

"A good example of that is our alcohol policy. I start right away with the interview, and if they have an issue with it, it affects my hiring," adds Rogstad. "Then, at staff training, I state right up front in very black-and-white, stark terms, on purpose, that this is our policy. If you're drinking on the weekend, you're not going to come back on Sunday night and be at your best. If you're still under the effects from anything you did over the weekend when those campers come in, that's grounds for dismissal."

Rogstad reports great success with this method, as any staff problems have been practically non-existent. The staff return rate over the past few years has also been outstanding, with about half returning each year, a strong percentage among college-age staff.

The nature of the camp with its three main program components -- the on-site program, the Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP) and its day camps run in conjunction with local churches -- provides a feeder program of sorts for both campers and staff.

"One of the minimum requirements for OAP counselors is that they've already served in the capacity as a counselor or something equivalent in the past, so they have experience doing that already," says Rogstad. "A lot of times they're attracted to that position because they want to take it in a new direction and do something a little more challenging. Most of the OAP counselors tend to be those who are moved into that from the main program."

Many of the campers feed from day camp, to the one-week, more traditional on-site camp to the adventure program. The Lutherwood system itself encourages this. The day camp is for kids from first to sixth grade. Lutherwood also runs a half-week residence camp for first through fourth graders. Fifth graders and up can go to the week-long program, and junior-high kids and up can go to OAP.

All three components use Lutherwood as base camp, but the day camps and OAP are really off-site.

At the day camps, Lutherwood shuttles counselors to run the programming at a church. The church is responsible for getting the kids there, providing lunch for the campers and dinner and shower facilities for the staff.

At OAP, campers live in a wilderness area, sleeping in tents and cooking their own meals. They hike, raft, rock climb and learn about the environment. And, like Lutherwood's other programs, they participate in devotionals and Bible studies.

"We focus on experiential learning. I'd much rather talk about faith and issues surrounding that, or environmental education, while we're out doing something else than sitting everyone down and letting them yawn for an hour," says Rogstad. "You can use tangible analogies -- things you see to draw attention to a certain subject or something you're trying to get across."

Another popular component of OAP is the camp's challenge course, built by Grip It Adventures. At OAP there's a high and low ropes course. At the on-site camp there's a low ropes course.

"What attracts them initially to it is different from what they look back upon once they've done it, and that's an important distinction," says Rogstad. "It just looks like fun; it kind of looks like an amusement park. But when you get up in the trees you're meeting a lot of your fears about heights and physical challenge head-on. They're designed specifically to look intimidating. If you can do it, it opens a lot of doors as far as thinking what you can accomplish and what you're capable of. It really has a strong impact on someone from that standpoint."

Rogstad adds that the low courses are more group oriented, though the high ropes also provide a group problem-solving component.

"We have one activity called the Single-Line Tension Traverse, which is a series of ever-increasing cable sections," explains Rogstad. "A group has to get everyone up on this cable in train fashion and get everyone from one end to the other, so they're trying to bridge these gaps between trees on top of these cables. They're really impossible tasks unless they figure out a way to work together to do it. The dynamics are amazing to watch."

Programming Diversity

Additionally, Lutherwood operates a number of specialty programs under the OAP and on-site camp umbrellas. These include water-ski/wakeboard, canoe trips, mountain biking, backpacking, fine arts and guitar.

One of the more unique programs is the camp's two-week boat-building session. OAP's program director is an accomplished boat builder and created a sea kayak design that is relatively easy for campers to construct.

Campers spend the first week building their boats. The weekend is spent painting and water-testing the craft. Then the final week is spent on a sea-kayaking trip to the San Juan islands, just off the coast of Bellingham.

Meanwhile, the one-week on-site programs are a flurry of activity, with each day filled with such things as hiking, water skiing, ropes course, crafts, environmental education, devotionals, team sports, an open period at the waterfront, sing-alongs and just about anything imaginable.

Every night after an all-camp game like capture-the-flag, Lutherwood holds campfire. Tuesday nights are the exception, as everyone gets a taste of outdoor adventure with an all-camp night out in tents, cooking their own suppers and living under the trees and stars.

With such diverse programming that's been capitalized, nurtured and solidified over the last five years or so, Lutherwood is ready for the challenges of the coming years.

Rogstad says the next few years will see greater attention to facilities, as the camp strives to make campers even happier than they are, and becomes more of a year-round facility.

"We host about 1,400 campers each summer, but during a whole year we bring in almost 5,000 retreat guests. The potential for year-round retreats is quite a bit larger," says Rogstad. "It's worth noting that about a quarter of our total usage is non-Lutheran. Western Washington University brings a lot of groups here. We just had a handicapped camp last weekend where the outdoor recreation department at Western Washington ran the whole program, and we provided the facility."

Beyond the surge in interest for year-round retreat facilities from various groups, Rogstad has noted an interesting trend in discussion with other Lutheran camps.

"They're seeing a real push this year in particular for things like family camp programs, and most of them are attributing that to 9/11. Families are thinking more in those terms," comments Rogstad.

Bryan BuchkoComment