With fellow campers ready to catch her if she falls, Dane Palm, 14, of Seattle, hangs on during the low ropes course at Camp Killoqua on Monday in Stanwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

More than s’mores: Camp Fire celebrates 100 years

STANWOOD — On a grassy field near the lake, staff and counselors greet each other with camp names — “Frog” or “Disney” — while campers paddle kayaks or jump off the dock, making as big of a splash as possible when they hit the cool water.

There are squeals and laughter from groups in the sunshine, while others swap stories in the shade. The young campers are proud. They’ve been in Camp Fire, and coming to Camp Killoqua, for five, seven, even 11 years.

They’re building on a 100-year legacy.

Camp Fire is celebrating a century in Snohomish County. The nonprofit, which offers clubs, camps, outdoor education and more to kids all over the county, also is launching a nearly $2.2 million campaign expected to help serve thousands more children and teens.

Camp Fire Snohomish County works with more than 7,500 youth each year. That includes at summer camps, outdoor education programs, and clubs and activities in schools and, recently, at low-income housing locations.

The goal is to serve 4,000 more young people after construction and remodeling, mostly at Killoqua. This is the third such campaign Camp Fire has run in the last 30 years, one per decade.

Before launching the campaign, organizers did a survey to see what the people know about Camp Fire, campaign director Christa Pugh said. The answers mostly fell along the lines of “s’mores” and “girls.” And while s’mores are certainly a camp highlight, there’s much more to the programs, which welcome boys and girls.

Camp Killoqua director Carol Johnson has been with Camp Fire for 40 years. Her tireless efforts to reach as many kids as possible have driven past campaigns. One of her greatest sources of pride is how inclusive the organization is.

“We serve any child, no matter religion, income, whatever,” she said. “We try to have programs any kid can be involved in. We want the whole family to be involved in Camp Fire in some way.”

100 years of history

Mary Brannon is the longest serving Camp Fire volunteer here. She started leading her daughter’s Bluebirds group in the 1950s, and notes that she never stopped helping, just slowed down. Dave Surface, the organization’s executive director, visits regularly for a cup of cocoa and to update her on how things are going.

Brannon, 97, didn’t know what she was getting into when she signed up to lead a Camp Fire group. Looking back, she’s glad she did.

“I’m lucky I could do it,” she said.

“We were lucky to have you,” daughter Barbara Sweeney said.

Brannon and Sweeney, who live in Everett, remember turning 3 pound coffee cans into mobile stoves. Their group once stopped for a cookout on its way back from touring the state capitol. Sweeney’s sister also was in Camp Fire, and Brannon’s granddaughter was a camp counselor.

Sweeney eagerly anticipated going to camp each summer, but Killoqua took a limited number of campers. Brannon would wake at 5 a.m. to mail Sweeney’s application.

Now, her dream is that Camp Fire won’t have to limit how many children it reaches. Over the years, the organization has added services, including grief camps, activities for campers with disabilities, environmental education and clubs or classes in schools and neighborhoods.

Nancy Kniest, 54, is one of five sisters who were in Camp Fire. She has daughters and nieces in it, too. Her grandma, Neva Stuchell, helped scout the location for Camp Killoqua 75 years ago.

“I want Camp Fire to survive,” Kniest said. “I want it to grow.”

Camp Fire formed nationally in 1910 and arrived in Snohomish County seven years later. By 1928, the local council had bought its first camp, a Swiss-style chalet a mile above the Big Four Inn on the railroad up to Monte Cristo. It served about 100 girls a year for four years, until the railroad bridge washed out.

In 1941, the council bought 60 acres on Crabapple Lake near Stanwood. The camp was named Killoqua, which means deep, peaceful lake. Meanwhile, groups in Everett were expanding.

Within 15 years, summer registrations for Killoqua passed 1,200. Adjacent land was purchased, bringing the property up to 185 acres. Camp Fire settled its county headquarters in Everett.

The first contingent of boys joined what had previously been an all-girls organization in the 1970s.

In the ’90s, the nonprofit began looking for ways to keep up with a growing county and changing education needs. Camp Fire families, volunteers and staff rallied.

Looking to the future

Kate Sankovitch and Jillian Prater, both 12, sat on a sunny patch of grass to visit before lunch at Camp Killoqua earlier this month. Kate has been coming to camp for five years, Jillian for three.

“A lot of times when you’re at home in the summer, it’s kind of boring and you want a place to get away and get into the woods,” Jillian said.

Past capital campaigns have allowed Camp Fire to expand what it provides for kids, in the woods and the cities, said Surface, the executive director. The first campaign in 1997 raised $1.8 million, and work included remodeling the Killoqua waterfront and adding housing for an environmental education director. There now are more than 40 schools that visit Killoqua for outdoor lessons.

The next campaign, in 2007, raised about $2.5 million. Three new buildings went in and the lodge and kitchen were updated. An outdoor pavilion was added, and day camps became part of regular programming. More than 600 children now go to day camps each year.

The current campaign seeks $2.2 million. The biggest piece, $1.3 million, is for improvements at Killoqua. Projects include a duplex and meeting rooms, garages and a storage building. A field archery course, bouldering structure, inflatable star dome, disc golf course and interpretive displays would be added. The ropes course needs upgrading, and new mountain bikes, electric golf carts, a bus and van are to be purchased. Solar panels would be installed and incorporated into lessons. The headquarters in Everett also would get updates, among them better heating, ventilation, carpets and security.

The goal is to finish fundraising by mid-2018. Some work has started and the duplex is to be built this fall. The hope is that everything can be done by 2020.

Though most of the work is at Killoqua, Camp Fire also aims to grow programs elsewhere, including afterschool groups and lessons.

About 10 percent of the fundraising budget will be used to pay for running the campaign: staff, materials, printing, mailing, consulting. Some money also will be set aside in case donations to the regular budget slow while attention is on the capital campaign. The goal is to keep the budget strong so Camp Fire can support any child, regardless of income, Surface said. About a third of campers, for example, come to camp on partial or full scholarships.

‘Life-changing experience’

Brandon Oke, 12, took a spill playing a game of GaGa Ball at camp. It’s a sort of dodgeball that takes place in a round, wooden court. It’s one of Brandon’s favorite activities, and a bloodied knee didn’t deflate his enthusiasm.

He advises other campers to enjoy their time. It helps to get some sleep before each day’s activities. He learned that the hard way.

Elizabeth Casper recently graduated from Everett High School and was surrounded by kindergarten and first-grade campers during her second week as a counselor this summer. She’s been in Camp Fire since third grade.

She remembers how her counselors made her feel brave and willing to try new things. She wants to do that for others.

She wishes more people knew about Camp Fire and what it does for the community, beyond the summertime swimming and s’mores.

“It’s interesting how everyone knows about Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. I think Camp Fire is kind of that forgotten group,” she said. “But it’s great because it includes everyone. I know it’s definitely shaped who I am.”

Myrna Overstreet, 80, has a photograph somewhere of her mom in Camp Fire uniform, the first of four generations. Overstreet joined in fifth grade and went on to become a leader. As children, she and her sisters would go to camp every summer. Her daughter, granddaughter and grandson also have been involved.

She remembers cooking meals outside and making friends. She learned to swim at camp. Killoqua is the scene of some of her favorite childhood memories. She hopes Camp Fire can make it the setting for many more treasured moments.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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