Cultus Lake United Church Campground has closed its gates for the fall and winter season, but unlike other campsites, it won’t be opening again in the spring.
After 81 years, CLUCC will no longer be a place where campers and camp counsellors can gather and talk about God. No longer will meals be served in Rutley Hall. No more Band-Aids will be issue at the nurse’s cabin. No more late-night giggles will be hushed in the tree-named cabins of Alder, Birch, Cedar, Dogwood, Fir, Maple, Poplar and Spruce.
“It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,” said Sarah Veltman. “It’s my favourite place in the world.”
Current and past campers, counsellors, staff and volunteers gathered on Labour Day weekend for The Final Campfire, a celebration of eight decades of memories, friendships, laughs and tears for some of the thousands involved with the camp over the years.
CLUCC began in the late 1890s as a summer camp and meeting ground at the corner of Higginson Road and Chilliwack River Road in Sardis.
In 1933, a 50-year lease was signed for the 15-acre piece land at the south end of Cultus Lake, in between Lindell Beach and Maple Bay, where the campground currently sits. The lease was renewed for another 30 years after that, and most recently the camp secured a single-year lease which expires on April 30, 2015.
CLUCC sits on provincial crown land, and is leased through Cultus Lake Provincial Park which plans to convert the area into a public campground starting next year.
“B.C. Parks has been in communications with the United Church and they are aware of our intention to redevelop the site for public use,” wrote David Karn, media relations for the Ministry of Environment, in an email. “The decision was not taken lightly and was made only after careful consideration. An expanded campground at Maple Bay will increase park capacity and benefit all visitors to the provincial park.”
On Sunday about 100 people were there for a morning service. They stood holding hands in a circle for the ‘squeeze prayer’ — one person started by saying thanks, then when finished, they squeezed the person’s hand beside them so the next person could say a few words.
“Lord, I’d like to thank you for the many years that this camp has been operating. Eighty-one years has been awesome. It’s touched many lives, mine included,” said one.
“I have many memories, too, of this camp — of being a camper, of being a counsellor, of bringing my kids to family camp. So for me, it is also a very sad day,” said another.
Harry and Helen McTaggart were two of Sunday’s guests. They met at CLUCC in 1952 — he was the groundsman, she worked in the kitchen. They got married four years later. He paused for a moment to explain what the camp is like.
“How do you put that into words?” he asked. “It’s just… heaven. It’s what heaven must be like.”
That night, the group gathered to sing and pray around the last campfire that was lit at CLUCC.
One camper stood up a yelled “this is a repeat-after-me song!” Everyone else jumped up. “This is a repeat-after-me song!” they shouted.
Some songs were loud and full of actions, others were quiet as friends swayed back and forth in unison to the gentle strum of a guitar.
After an hour of singing, Kristin Autio, minister in training, said the last campfire prayer.
“God of singing and dancing and silliness and camp, we are gathered together in a strange group of people in the most wonderful way,” said Autio. “We are preparing for a goodbye tomorrow; a goodbye that nobody really wants to say, but a goodbye nonetheless. So let us enjoy this night with you. Give us peace to see the beauty of camp at night.”
The campers slowly departed to their cabins for one final sleep at CLUCC.
In the morning, the group made its way to the chapel in the woods.
Tall evergreen trees surrounded the rows of long wood benches. A dirt floor of branches, rust-coloured leaves, and bugs sat beneath them.
It was a sad day for everyone. People sat with their arms around each other crying and comforting one another.
When the sermon was over, Samantha Adams walked over to a six-foot-tall wooden cross leaning against a tree. The cross was laden with unlit tealight candles. She picked up the cross and carried it on her back down to the lake as people followed her. She gently laid it down where the grass meets the beach.
One by one, people walked up to the cross, shared a memory of CLUCC, and lit a candle.
There were memories of jumping off rocks, getting a pie in the face, getting their first CLUCC sweater, eating candy at night when they’re supposed to be sleeping, not being able to see out of one eye after being bit by a mosquito, and the awful taste of mustard mistakenly put on grilled cheese sandwiches.
“This camp has meant everything to me. This camp is what was the hold on me. Without it, I don’t know where I would be,” said Adams.
One camper recalled ‘the goose run’. You’d start at the top of the hill, he said, from the dining hall and “you’d run as fast as you can and scream as loud as you can toward the geese.”
Moments later a flock of geese flew over the lake. They appeared to be a bit offtrack, and seconds later, they made a U-turn. A minute passed, and the geese returned, honking loudly, directly above the CLUCC crowd gathered for the cross ceremony. Everyone looked up and laughter flowed from the campsite.
After they shared their memories, the cross was placed into the water and pushed away from the shore.
“These might not be people you are close to particularly, but they are your family,” said Autio. “They are your church family, they are your camp family and they are your friends because of this place.”