Big Lake Youth Camp goes the extra mile

The entrance to Big Lake Youth Camp in the Cascades near Sisters, Oregon. The PCT Welcome Center is at right. Photo by Mark Larabee.

On Monday, two weeks before the first campers would arrive, counselors at the Big Lake Youth Camp about a quarter mile off the Pacific Crest Trail in the Oregon Cascades readied the grounds and the cabins that will be summer home to up to 200 kids and teenagers each week.

On a beautiful day in the shadow of Mount Washington, the staff paused its steady bustle to dedicate a new PCT Welcome Center. It’s a place for weary hikers to do their laundry, take a shower, pick up their resupply packages, connect to Wi-Fi and grab a home-cooked meal. There are tent sites nearby where they can stay the night and regenerate.

Mount Washington watches over the Big Lake Youth Camp. Photo by Mark Larabee.

Big Lake Youth Camp in the Willamette National Forest has been hosting PCT hikers for more than four decades. The new PCT Welcome Center, a refurbished A-frame cabin with a kitchen, hot showers and comfortable lounge, is the next step in the evolution of services provided by these trail angels.

The renovation was sponsored by long-time PCTA member Bob Johnson of Minnesota, who during his 2015 southbound section hike of Oregon, received a little unexpected trail magic from a camp staffer during a difficult dry section on a hot day.

Bob’s story

Bob and a friend were hiking during a drought year and found that many of the water sources they expected to find had run dry. He described a particularly trying day in a letter, which camp Director Les Zollbrecht read aloud during the dedication ceremony.

Camp Director Les Zollbrecht reads a letter from donor Bob Johnson. Photo by Carol Sim.

“Hot, tired and just a bit discouraged, we sat on a trail-side log, sweat dripping from our faces. Four north-bound hikers came past and shared a half-liter of their water. That was our total water supply for the next three hours. Getting up and moving, eventually we found ourselves slogging south on a gravel road, under a very hot sun, headed for someplace called Big Lake Youth Camp. We didn’t know what it was, or what we’d find, yet it had a lake and we wanted to be there!”

Bob, whose trail name is Minnesota Hiking Viking, said he remembered really wishing for something to drink. They were still a mile from the camp when he flagged down a passing vehicle and asked the driver if he had any extra water. The only liquid in the car was the milkshakes that the driver’s two kids were drinking.

“Man! Those looked good! I would have paid $100 apiece for them,” Bob wrote.

The driver went on and Bob and his friend continued to walk. A few minutes later, the same man reappeared without the kids and offered them a ride to the camp. That night, they showered, stayed in a cabin and rested for the next day’s hike.

The ribbon cutting officially opened the PCT Welcome Center. Photo by Carol Sim.

For every action there is a reaction

Bob wanted to give back for the trail magic he received, donating much of the money that it would take to renovate the welcome center at the summer camp. Les said the inspiration and energy Bob and his staffers put into the center will be a great asset to both the camp and the PCT.

The camp is about teaching young people while having fun and enjoying nature. It is working with the Forest Service to teach campers Leave No Trace ethics during their stay. “If they learn it here they can take it back home to their communities,” Les said. “This is really important.”

Bob’s support of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and our work to protect and maintain the trail goes back many years. In keeping with his generous spirit, Bob included a check for the PCTA with his letter. I was the lucky one to accept the donation during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The energy and happiness during the event was palpable. The counselors, mostly college-aged students from the Pacific Northwest and around the world, were excited for the summer to come.

Camp staff prepare for the dedication ceremony. Photo by Mark Larabee.

In his letter, Bob called the PCT a national treasure and the experience of hiking it character building and spirit renewing.

“While it offers many benefits, hiking any mountainous trail, even the PCT, week in and week out, is a wearing experience,” he wrote. “It wears out your shoes, it wears out your clothes and it can wear out your body. That’s why the support provided by Big Lake Youth Camp, and, now, this special hikers’ facility, is so important.”

That’s why, he said, he supported the project.

From the end of the spur trail off the PCT, hikers and horseback riders are welcomed to the camp.

“For most hikers, stopping here is akin to finding an oasis in the middle of the wilds of Oregon,” he wrote. “And, who knows how the kindness shown to hikers by the Big Lake Youth Camp may ripple out into the world? Maybe some of them will pay the kindness forward — in other places and in other ways.”

Action. Reaction. That’s true trail magic.

Inside the newly renovated PCT Welcome Center.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.