We first spotted the smoke on a brilliantly clear June morning: through the windows of Christ Lodge, between the forest and the sky, a towering white plume rising from the mountains.
We were at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, an outdoor ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, located inside Roosevelt National Forest some 55 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado. For 50 years, Sky Ranch has connected youth and adults with the natural world as a setting for experiencing Christian faith in community. I should know: I'm a former camper as well as a member of the board of directors.
That weekend, the board had met as the camp's 50 summer staff members -- primarily college-aged students from around the country -- had marked the end of staff training with an outdoor worship service. Sky Ranch was ready to welcome the summer's first campers the next day. Little did we know how the smoke in the distance would interrupt our plans.
That morning, June 9, was the beginning of the High Park fire. Over the next three weeks, it would burn over 87,000 acres, destroy 259 homes, and render Sky Ranch temporarily homeless.
The call came into my office at Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins three days later: Sky Ranch had been asked to evacuate. The camp's property was not threatened, but fire personnel needed sole access to the road leading to Sky Ranch. Could our congregation be ready to host 150 staff and campers in a few hours?
The answer was yes. With help from three other Lutheran congregations in town, Trinity's staff and congregation members prepared rooms and started making phone calls for donations. When Sky Ranch campers and staff arrived a few hours later, they were met with everything from popsicles and pizza to sleeping bags and sticks of deodorant, gifts from businesses across Fort Collins. Sky Ranch staff led games and Bible Study at their temporary "camp away from camp." The day that had begun with a stressful evacuation ended with cupcakes and campfire songs--though understandably without an actual campfire.
The next decision, to continue camp programs or to cancel, was an easy one for director Brad Abbott and associate director Andy Sprain. Camp would go on! The mission of Sky Ranch is "facilitating an encounter with Christ on the mountaintops." Sky Ranch could still offer the encounters; we just needed a different mountaintop. Highlands Presbyterian Retreat Center, located near Estes Park and away from the fire, invited Sky Ranch to bring their camp to Highlands for the duration of the evacuation.
In a twist of coincidence or providence, the 2012 summer theme for Sky Ranch is "Everyday Grace." The experience of evacuation surrounded campers, staff, and the community with powerful examples of grace in action. We were reminded that God's grace is not just forgiveness, but abundant life--the undeserved, un-looked for gift that comes through ordinary means and ordinary people. We were also reminded that a camp, like a church, is not a building. We carry it with us wherever we go. We embody the church wherever we offer grace to our neighbors, and wherever we, in turn, receive our neighbors' grace.
The actions of Sky Ranch summer staff were one example. Most staff, focused on helping campers pack, had no opportunity to bring their own possessions down the mountain. These young adults found themselves, inadvertently but no less powerfully, living out the example of the disciples of Jesus in the Gospels. They were sent out on the road without money or an extra tunic (or in this case, without their modern equivalents: cellphones, IDs and credit cards.) Leaving possessions behind--for the sake of the Gospel, so to speak--staff made do with what others provided and put their hearts, minds, and strength toward serving campers.
Finally, 19 days after evacuating, word came that the High Park fire was 100 percent contained. Brad Abbott and Andy Sprain returned to camp for the first time. Their eerie drive up the mountain took them through the charred landscape that had been forest only days before. But then, they saw the outline of Christ Lodge in the midst of the meadow. Sky Ranch property stood as green and untouched as the day they had left.
Or, as it turned out, not completely untouched: in the absence of the camp's human inhabitants, two full-grown bears had made Sky Ranch a temporary home. At the two men's shouts of surprise, the bears startled and headed into the trees; but the results of the bears' extended stay were evident. They had first torn a large hole in the garbage shed and strewn trash around the area before finding their way inside Christ Lodge, where a kitchen full of tantalizing food beckoned and the lodge floors made a handy pooping ground. Surrounded by opened food containers, kitchen counters and floors smeared with grease, trash and bear scat, it was clear to Andy and Brad that the journey back to a reopened camp was far from over. Still, seeing--and smelling--the effects of several weeks of bear brought more acceptance than anger. Mindful of the wilderness surrounding camp property, Andy shrugged: "It's more their place than it is our place." Apparently, everyday grace extends to bears.
As of this writing, plans are underway to clean and prepare the grounds to reopen on July 8; and by the everyday grace of God, working through the hands of staff and volunteers from throughout the Front Range, it will happen. Still, I can't help but think that those who offered and received acts of grace during the High Park fire will be the ones who remember this summer of camp most of all.
Click through to see photos of the camp: