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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Camp reinvented

Bible camp finds second role in raising environmental stewards

Tucked in the green, leafy mountain forests of the Pacific Northwest is an old-time Bible camp that’s calling on one of its strongest assets — nature — to help see it into the future.

Lutherwood Camp and Retreat Center near Bellingham, Wash., now offers a host of environmental education experiences for fifth-graders from a half dozen nearby schools. The 350 annual school visitors have provided a big attendance boost, alongside the 500 traditional campers and other groups who visit this lakeside Bible camp. It’s strengthened the future for Lutherwood, which was established at the end of World War II.

“We want to grow that number,” executive director Rob Gillespie said of the schools that send teachers and students to Lutherwood for environmental education.

The camp’s environmental education programs are a response to a state law that requires such curricula for school-age children — outside of the bits and pieces they receive in regular science courses. Washington is among the 10 percent of states with such a requirement, said Jim Elder, director of the Maine-based Campaign for Environmental Literacy. Maryland has the strongest requirement.

At 103-acre Lutherwood, inquisitive environmental learners tend to lettuce, radish and bean plants in the greenhouse and garden, then harvest and eat the produce in the historic dining hall. They measure the food that is wasted during meals. Soon they are taking only what they need, a big sustainability lesson.

“If we use all of our resources, we’re not going to have the resources to replace them,” Gillespie said. 

Peering beneath the surfaces of Lake Samish and Mud Creek, students discover macroinvertebrates that feed salmon, which in turn feed humans in ever-repeating cycles — if protected. Gillespie hopes to soon get salmon eggs from the state for the students to grow.

Taking part in one of many “Ranger” experiential-learning expeditions, students get their hands dirty examining soil. They discover how the soil filters and purifies water that sustains humans — if it isn’t carelessly contaminated.

Trudging along cool, shady trails they identify diverse plants and creatures that form an ecological symphony. They also master Lutherwood’s ropes-challenge course, learning about interdependence among campers, and among humans and nature.

Best of all, they roll up their pant legs and slog knee-deep through a forest mud pit to find out that it’s really a nursery for a host of little plants and animals. Learning at Lutherwood is, well, totally slimey.

“Fifth-graders like getting muddy,” said John Vickery, 22, environmental education teacher and challenge course coordinator.

Some students live in city apartments cut off from nature. Here they are enveloped by nature, the experience heightened because they aren’t able to use their electronic gadgets.


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