Paradise Lost -- Camp Closes, But Spirit Stays

LOPEZ ISLAND - The sun sets reluctantly over Camp Nor'Wester, clinging to the ripples in Mud Bay and turning the dry grass on Cactus Rock to gold before slipping out of sight.

For more than half a century, Sperry Peninsula on southeastern Lopez Island has beckoned thousands of campers and counselors to comb its rocky beaches and slumber in teepees under its old-growth timbers.

Today, about 190 campers were to leave Mud Bay Road for the last time, making way for billionaire Paul Allen, who bought the 387-acre peninsula last year for a private residence.

In their final days there, between renditions of "Take Me Home (Camp Nor'Wester)," folk dancing and meals fixed with berries and cattails, staffers and campers said what they would mourn was much more than a summer camp.

Whether they spent 50 summers or just one recycling their garbage, paddling through pristine waters and entertaining one another with stories instead of television, many Nor'Westerners say the spirit of this place has seeped into their souls.

"It's a lifestyle," said Deb Armstrong, Nor'Wester program director and 1984 Olympic gold medalist in skiing, who spent more than a dozen summers at the camp. "For everyone here, there is nothing else in the world that can replace this."

Optimism dies slowly on Sperry Peninsula: Even as the final day approached, campers and counselors sang loudly, willing their voices to reach Allen.

Bill Holm, who joined the camp as a counselor when he was 17 in 1942, said the setting is what makes it unique. After rehearsing a Native American ceremonial song with the children, Holm sat on a bench on the deck of the rugged lodge that serves as the heart of Camp Nor'Wester. Just about every summer since his first, the scholar and artist has been at the camp, carving totems, building a long house and keeping alive traditions of the Kwakiutl.

The philosophy of the camp, he said, has remained the same. A spirit of friendship, self-reliance, tolerance and respect, especially for the environment, long outlasts the four-week sessions. "I haven't put a piece of scrap paper on the ground for 50 years," he said.

Donn Charnley, a former state representative who now lives on Lopez, was 9 years old in 1937 when he first attended camp. All of his six children followed him, and five became counselors. His five grandchildren were gearing up for their turn, he said.

"I am who I am because of this place," Charnley said, as he sat beside Holm with the shores of Mud Bay as a backdrop. "It's my life."

The alumni list includes former Gov. Booth Gardner, television news anchorwoman Jean Enersen, Bruce McCaw and Bill Gates' late mother, Mary.

David Shipley, a speechwriter for President Clinton, spent five summers as a camper and three as a staffer. He and his wife were married there in 1994, and this summer, they brought their young daughter to Sperry Peninsula.

"The reason you hear such a strong reaction is not for us - we aren't going to go to Camp Nor'Wester again - but for our children and all children," he said. "There are fewer and fewer places like it."

With tuition for a four-week session at $2,050, the private for-profit camp has been called a playground for children of the wealthy. The majority of the campers - about a third are from Washington - attend private schools. But counselors, directors and alumni fiercely oppose the image. Many campers are middle-class children, they say, sent by grandparents, aunts, uncles or parents who work hard to make the opportunity possible.

"This camp has helped so many people become good citizens," said Paul Henriksen, who runs the camp with his wife, Christa Campbell. "A lot of those people are out in the Northwest making a difference."

Others say it is more important than ever for children of every economic level to learn the lessons Camp Nor'Wester teaches.

"We all know the urgency of what kids need these days in terms of direction, guidance, love and role models," Armstrong said. "All of that they have here."

Directors formed a nonprofit corporation last year, dedicated to continuing the camp. They have evaluated 50 sites, but Henriksen said none compete with the protected waterfront, untamed wilderness and seclusion of Sperry Peninsula.

It is not the first time the camp's future has been uncertain. Inspired by an international Boy Scout jamboree in England, Frank Henderson started International Camps on San Juan Island in 1935. When the lease ran out, Henderson and his wife, Lucile, were unsure whether their camp would continue. Luck brought them to Sperry Peninsula in 1945, and Camp Henderson operated there until their retirement in 1966.

Gardner and other camp alumni raised money to buy the property and keep the camp running. In 1980, the peninsula was for sale again, and Bellevue businessman Charles Curran bought it intending to build a home. But he agreed to keep Nor'Wester going one more year, and after a summer of watching the camp operate he changed his mind and pledged to support Nor'Wester. Soon his children were spending their summers on Sperry Peninsula.

Last year, Curran told the camp's advisory board he was ready to sell.

Henriksen and Campbell said they were told they had six months to raise money to buy at least a portion of the land. Ten weeks into their fund-raising efforts, they said they learned the property had been sold. They had about $2 million in pledges, but Allen had purchased the entire property for $8 million.

Curran said he had told the directors the sale would be on a first-come, first-serve basis. Historically, he said, camp supporters have not been able to raise the funds necessary to save the camp.

"There was absolutely never any indication to me ever in the history of the camp that that was realistic," Curran said.

Allen spokeswoman Susan Pierson said Allen offered to donate back all the buildings, horses, teepees and boats, and said Nor'Wester could use nearby Allan Island, which he owns, as an alternative site.

"Certainly he's trying to be as helpful and as understanding as possible," Pierson said.

After an exhaustive study, the rocky cliffs of Allan Island were deemed too dangerous for children and the unprotected waters unsuitable for the camp's sailing and rowing programs, Henriksen said.

Camp supporters said they are not bitter toward Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world.

"He's a good man, we all know that," Armstrong said, standing in a wide meadow, and pausing between thoughts to chew on a blade of grass.

"But I can't help but think there is another amazing piece of property somewhere that would meet his needs, one that wouldn't disrupt something as deeply rooted as what is here."