A Century With Kids

ON HER DEATHBED three years ago, timber heiress Patsy Collins gave up an engagement ring she'd received more than 60 years before from Larry Norman, the fiance who died on a bombing mission over Germany before the pair could marry.

Sell the ring, Collins instructed, and use the money to send a few more kids to Camp Orkila in the San Juan Islands.

It was a poignant request from a former KING-TV chairwoman who'd given millions to charities and environmental causes. The World War II engagement had shocked Patsy's regal mother, Dorothy Bullitt. Larry was a mere bank clerk, son of Charlie Norman, who served as camp director for 23 years, and Ruth Norman who worked as camp nurse.

Yet Larry was the great lost love of Patsy Collins' life, Charlie became her surrogate father, and both introduced Patsy to magical Orkila, starting a lifelong affiliation that resulted in Collins' 1996 sponsorship of the camp's Patsy Collins Adventures in Leadership for Girls.

"You never forget your first love," Collins told Cassandra Tate of Historylink.org in 2000. She never forgot either Larry or Orkila.

Rather than fulfill Patsy's request directly, camp directors quickly raised an amount equal to the ring's modest worth and put it on display in the camp's Larry Norman Lodge, or dining hall, as a symbol for future generations.

Taking this long view is typical of the YMCA officials who govern Camp Orkila. The camp, 100 years old this summer, has stamped the childhood of hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians. Now it is ambitiously planning for the next century.

Orkila is a place where many Seattle kids first truly met nature. Where they outlasted homesickness. Grew up. Belonged. Helped out. Had a crush. Tasted adventure. And where some, like Patsy Collins, left a piece of their hearts.

More information

For details on the camp and its centennial celebrations, check out www.camporkila.org or phone 206-382-5009.

Orkila's Orcas Island setting, zillion-dollar San Juan views, majestic trees, rolling farmland and rustic charm combine to engrave memories. "There are years and years of laughter and fun that surround the place," says third-generation camper Jeff Pritchard. Like a cathedral or a battlefield or a pyramid, it has presence, a place haunted by salt spray, wood smoke and good feeling.

Of 233 YMCA camps nationwide, Orkila is one of the biggest, and raises the most money in donations.

The camp has been a century-long mirror of American society. It started as an all-boy, white Christian enclave with military-type discipline. Poor kids sold soap to go there. It has evolved to include people of color, girls, ecumenical spirituality and promotion of individual choice over group conformity. Improbably, the venerable Y, no longer exclusively male or Christian, is still hip.

In a society that sometimes seems polarized between slacker anarchy and holier-than-thou intolerance, Orkila stresses common-sense values like honesty, respect and responsibility. It still has kids raise the flag, say grace, spend time in spiritual contemplation, and take their baseball caps off at appropriate times. There's even lights out and reveille and taps, "though it's hard to find that trumpet player," admits camp director Dimitri Stankevich.

"The values I learned at camp are what I turn to today," said Ashley Kmiecik, sent to Orkila's Patsy Collins Leadership Camp by her grandmother after the death of her father. Ashley returned every summer, became a counselor and now, after college, works in public relations for the YMCA.

"We hadn't done any camping as a family," recalled the grandmother, Carolyn Kmiecik. "It was a way to help the kids over the rough spots." It helped turn frenetic Ashley, she recalled, into a poised young woman.

That's one side of camp. The other is a modern Disneyland of activities: kayaking, sailing, skateboarding, ultimate Frisbee, BMX biking, rock climbing, horseback riding. Chris Pierce, executive director of the Seattle YMCA's camping services, has launched a $3.5 million campaign to expand all this, including a proposed new aqua center with a wave machine. Capture-the-flag and basket weaving has been supplemented with Club Med.

On a recent weekend that brought more than 200 Sammamish-area fathers and sons to Orkila in an Adventure Guide program (the PC renaming of Y Indian Guides), harnessed 7-year-olds were hoisted on cables between two giant cedars to heights that left their eyes big as sand dollars.

"Come on, Michael, pull that lever!" new friends shouted in encouragement. And after a couple long minutes of agonized apprehension, Michael did, vaulting out toward President's Channel and then swinging back like Tarzan, apprehension replaced with a wild grin. "I want to do it again!" he shouted.

"I did this whole thing with my daughter," Marin Miller of Issaquah recalls. "She still talks about it. So now I'm here with my son, Nick."

John Deeny of Bellevue came as a kid and had returned — his 14th time at Orkila — with his own son, Joe, who's 8. "My Dad was one of those guys who worked a whole lot of hours so it was special to come here with him. I want to do the same with my son. It's nice, because it gives you a set time together that can't be broken."

THE NAME OF Orcas Island is an adaptation of Horcasitas, one of several titles held by the man who was the Mexican viceroy when the Spanish explored the archipelago in 1791. (The same viceroy is the origin of the names for Guemes Island and Padilla Bay.) Camp Orkila was originally called Seattle Boys Camp and then, beginning in the 1930s, Orcila, a compression of Orcas Island. Confusion over pronunciation quickly led to a decision to change the "c" to a "k."

The camp began when Seattle's Colman family — which built the city's first Colman dock in 1882 — began allowing YMCA camping at its Agate Beach property on the northwest side of Orcas in 1906. In 1938, the family deeded the 174-acre property (worth tens of millions of dollars today) to the organization for a permanent camp.

The family also sold 107-acre Satellite Island (10 miles west, and used for overnight outings from Orkila) to the Y for a mere $10,000 in 1947. Shipbuilder Robert Moran, founder of Rosario and donor of Moran State Park, gave 10 acres at Twin Lakes to the YMCA that same year, and in 1974 the Y purchased the 190-acre Darvill farm adjacent to the Agate Beach holdings. Today's Orkila campers may eventually find themselves at all these properties.

Before private ferry service began from Anacortes in 1922, getting to Orkila was an adventure in itself. Steam launches would leave Seattle with a load of boys at 7 a.m. and not arrive until 9 p.m., its campers frequently seasick. Things improved with a steamer called the Kulshan, which left Colman Dock at midnight and had staterooms for the boys. The youths were transferred to small launches at Anacortes the next morning and taken to West Sound, where they hiked the final six miles to camp. In those days Orcas was as remote from Seattle as Neverland.

While the lads were supposed to sleep during the long boat voyages, more typically they ran wild in excitement and arrived exhausted. One counselor managed to confine them to their cabins only by confiscating all their clothes.

After private ferry service to the San Juans began, buses made the trip from Seattle to Anacortes, the same route used today. Cost of camp was $2 for the round trip, plus a dollar-a-day camp fee. Today the price ranges from $385 for the most basic week to $1,850 for a three-week backpacking, river-rafting and kayaking trip, with an average cost per camper of $630.

The early camps were rustic, with tents on the narrow verge between forest and sea. The Colman family dirt tennis court became an early ball field, and the 1926 swimming pool was filled with saltwater from the channel, remaining a cold plunge most of the summer. Electricity didn't arrive until 1938, and camper cabins still don't have it today.

Employment at what was then a remote site tended to draw a succession of interesting characters. One of the cooks was Mrs. Turner, the nearly-300-pound mail-order bride of Little Joe, who barely tipped the scales at 90. Mrs. Turner wouldn't take the job unless she could bring Florence, her Holstein cow, and led the animal by trail to camp.

Chapel Rock, a serene rocky point looking out toward the Canadian Gulf Islands, was originally called Gamblers Rock after some boys were discovered engaged in a lively game of cards. After its naming makeover it became the locus of the spiritual side of Orkila, a spot of contemplation significant to generations.

One YMCA tradition is the Ragger Ceremony in which initiates are blindfolded by different colored "rags" and led to a natural amphitheater in the deep woods, where gate keepers explained the steps to membership. This sense of belonging, of making friends with strangers, and of self-discovery away from the bounds of family and school are cited by camp veterans as some of their most powerful memories. So is their initial fear of a distant new place.

SUMMER CAMP, marshmallows and kumbaya are as American as baseball and Barbie. There are at least two dozen Hollywood movies with camp settings, from comedies to sex romps and slasher films. Titles range from the nostalgic "Indian Summer" to "The Monsters of Camp Sunshine." Bill Murray found stardom in "Meatballs." Charlie Brown, the Simpsons, and the South Park gang have all been to camp. Hank Ketcham, creator of "Dennis the Menace," went to Camp Orkila.

The programmed enthusiasm and necessary regimentation of camp life make it ripe for satire. In "Addams Family Values," the monster children are shown in rebellion against creepy conformity.

Yet camp movies are also stories in which the shy find love, nerds find victory, and the fearful find self-reliance. Camp is Oz, handing out brains, heart and courage. It is fresh family, a place for mild rebellion within safe confines, a chance to explore without becoming irredeemably lost. "You can't wrap kids in bubble-wrap," says Monica Elenbaas, the Seattle Y's vice president of communications.

Carver Gayton, 67, was an African-American pioneer when he went to camp around 1950, at the age of 12 or so. He was the only black kid there, and says the experience helped mold his life. "The fact that I didn't know anybody there when I went forced me to be more social," he says. "I thought the counselors were pretty strict, but the regimen was of value to me." The rebellious bunkmate who became a lifelong friend was Ron Crockett, owner of Emerald Downs, and Gayton is now director of the African American museum at Colman School.

Frank Pritchard, 85, brother of the late congressman, went to Orkila in 1932 when he was 12 years old and shared a cabin with budding cartoonist Ketcham. The impish artist bet a proprietor at Deer Harbor a milkshake he could make the man laugh. Ketcham got the milkshake. Pritchard remembers a lot of baseball and a military discipline in which the boys rose to a bugle, lined up for inspection of fingernails, and competed for cleanest cabin.

It was also a great introduction to life, he recalls. "I had to get along with other people I hadn't chosen to be with. The counselors were adults, and they were really straight-arrow guys. We saw how adults do things right — that it's OK to be fair, to be honest." Pritchard is still on Orkila's board and was followed to the camp by his son, Jeff, and then his grandson, Jeff Jr., who became a camper and then counselor.

One of his grandson's fondest memories was a boating overnight to Satellite Island, where they slept under a tarp. The kids weren't packed and ready when the boat came to pick them up the next morning, so the counselors just threw them some food and said they'd try again tomorrow.

"We were shocked, we didn't know what to do," Jeff says of the marooning. "We just had to rough it out for another day. The guys didn't care all too much, but the girls were livid! They couldn't believe what had happened. That was a great time."

Girls first were allowed at Orkila in 1970 as a financial panacea after the YMCA recognized the camp was in a tailspin, its traditions hopelessly outdated in the tumultuous 1960s. The limited experiment was such a success that by 1972 all regular camper sessions were co-ed. "It had a civilizing effect on the camp," recalls Don Anderson, the camp director in the socially stormy years of 1970 to 1979. "An all-male campfire gets an awful lot of bathroom humor."

"It was an interesting time to be camp director," Anderson says of his tenure. "That was the peak of the youth culture — antiwar, free love, macrobiotic diets — the time when young kids were rejecting everything traditional."

So Orkila changed in some ways, and held fast in others. Anderson enforced a strict no-drugs-and-alcohol policy, firing four staffers before camp even started. But he ended the camp's long-standing military style and focus on competitive sports, instead letting kids choose from a smorgasbord of activities. "We started treating kids like adults. They kept asking, 'You mean we really can do what we want to do?' And with choice, they came back."

Humor remained. Anderson's staff started a rumor about an offshore sea monster, using a couple of scuba divers to surface a fake head. "Of course we denied the monster existed, and of course the kids all knew it was there. As the week went on, the rumor grew and grew." At the closing campfire, the divers went into the water again and in the twilight, the "monster" moved toward shore. "Half the kids fled, but the other half picked up rocks. We almost lost all our divers before we could convince them all it was a joke."

But after a hundred years, camp is corny, right? Lame?

So how come fewer than a thousand attended Orkila in 1951, but 16,000 kids and adults passed through its plethora of year-around programs last year?

Because kumbaya has kept up with the American individualism of the 21st century. "In any Little League baseball game, nine children always lose," says ski-movie mogul and Orcas resident Warren Miller. So Miller, champion of individual sports, got together with Orkila's directors and started raising money to update Orkila yet again with freestyle sports.

With the help of sailboat inventor and neighbor Hobie Alter, Miller and his wife, Laurie, worked with Orkila on new facilities. A dirt BMX bicycle track was installed not far from the horse stables. Near East Sound, islanders built a skateboard park that is ranked as the third best in the world. They started Warren Miller Freedom Week, in which kids can play Ultimate Frisbee or sail on Hobie Cats. More improvements are planned, and the result is that camp is still cool.

You can go to Orkila and attend Farm Camp, Horse Camp, Drama Camp, Skateboard Camp, Marine Biology Camp (and Orkila has its own marine biology lab and tank), Sailing Camp, Bicycling Camp, Dance Camp, Spy Camp, Rocket Blast.

Don't you wish you were a kid again?

Sometimes forecasts for our Brave New World are pretty grim. A crowded, climate-changed world escaped only through virtual reality: frenetic, gadget-burdened, ruthless, impersonal, anonymous, unstable, terrorized and selfish.

But that's not Orkila, and after 100 years, the biggest difference is that the trees have grown taller. It's a place where Ashley Kmiecik remembers the crash of surf just feet from her cabin doorway, where Carver Gayton remembers the phosphorus in the waves and more stars than he'd ever seen in Seattle, and where Jeff Pritchard remembers cliff diving at Twin Lakes, the storm that hit his kayak party, and corn-dog day when you could eat as many as you could hold and build a log cabin afterward from all the sticks.

"I think that the camp can only get better with age," Pritchard says. "When you go there it's like its own little sheltered world where you can totally let go and be yourself. I hope every little kid gets the chance to have the experiences I had."

Over the next hundred years, quite a few will.

Bill Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

Orkila was a pioneer in integration in the 1950s and now introduces a diverse mix of boys and girls to outdoor adventures. Here, Peter Boucaud gives his 8-year-old son, Gabriel, help with a bow and arrow. (BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Dads joined their sons at the ferry landing in the early 1960s. While the camp was originally all-male, all-white and all-Christian, it now hosts girls and people of all colors and religions. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
Around 1930, Orkila rowboats were made of wood. Now those have given way to fleets of kayaks, aluminum rowboats, Hobie Cats and other watercraft as the camp has expanded its offerings and extended its reach. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
In the late 1920s, cabins lined the waterfront at the southern end of camp. The cabins are no longer there. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
One of Orkila's enduring attractions is its place on Agate Beach on Orcas Island. At each night's campfire, visitors are treated to a stunning view of sunsets and the Canadian Gulf Islands. (BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Seven-year-olds get a Tarzan-like suspended ride on a Camp Orkila weekend that brings dads and kids together. (BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Camp Orkila was so important to Ashley Kmiecik after the loss of her parents that she eventually came back as a counselor and now works for the Seattle-area YMCA. Behind is the cabin she first stayed in. (BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Camp director Charlie Norman and his wife, Ruth, who was the camp nurse, watch a pie-eating contest from the lodge perch in the 1930s. The lodge, built in 1921, was replaced with the Larry Norman Memorial Lodge in 1953. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
The camp archery range, seen here in the late 1920s, still exists. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
The main lodge at Orkila is named after Larry Norman, son of longtime camp director Charlie Norman. Larry Norman was engaged to timber heiress Patsy Bullitt Collins when he was killed in World War II. Collins became a major benefactor of the camp. (BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
In the late 1920s, boys' hands were checked before dinner. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)
Around 1915, a YMCA campsite looked like this. (COURTESY OF YMCA OF GREATER SEATTLE)