Cascading Along


Lutherwood Camp & Retreat Center

Bellingham, Wash.

One-week, on-site sessions: $260-$300

Half-week, on-site sessions: $145

Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP): $270-$400

Two-week boat-building program: $800

Day camp: $80

Ages: First grade through high school

Let’s face it… The Pacific Northwest is a great location for a summer camp, complete with foaming fresh and salt whitewater, enormous timber, dizzying elevation changes and a plethora of lakefronts.

In real estate, location is everything, but not necessarily for camps. Programming, staff and facilities are everything for a camp, and location is a bonus.

Take Lutherwood Camp, which calls the idyllic burg of Bellingham home. With about 105 acres of superb Washington real estate and a built-in camper constituency drawing from 294 western Washington Lutheran churches, the camp should be a shoe-in for success.

However, the camp — after almost 50 years of operation — almost shut down for good in 1992. The problem was not location, but the need to deal with modern realities.

For most of its lifetime, beginning in 1946, Lutherwood operated as a gathering place for local churches, with perhaps one paid caretaker or camp director. The churches themselves were responsible for most of the renovation and running whatever programs they came up with.

As time went by, the camp became more organized, first utilizing volunteer staff, then paid staff in the ’70s. What it couldn’t seem to overcome was the homespun history of a place that had never really operated as a true summer camp.

Changing History

Alan Rogstad, the camp’s director, arrived in 1993 and set out to change history and provide a well-rounded summer camp experience for not only the kids in the surrounding Lutheran churches, but anyone else from the community looking for a good summer camp.

“In the last 20 years camps that operated on a shoestring are a thing of the past because of government regulations and rising costs, requiring them to operate under the same rules and guidelines as restaurants and hotels,” says Rogstad. “One of the biggest things we faced was that the infrastructure was so poor — water and electrical was substandard and outdated. So we started with a new attitude and operated under those governmental guidelines. The ACA also had a lot to do with that — the guidelines they provide are great.”

In 1994, Rogstad says the camp received a windfall of around $300,000 from limited logging that also had the benefit of thinning and clearing land for future development. This tackled those nagging infrastructure problems that threatened to close the camp. Lutherwood also did extensive renovation of the facilities, which hadn’t been updated since 1962, and built one small cabin.

Next up was revitalizing the programming and making sure that hospitality was top-notch. As Rogstad points out, practicing excellence in hospitality — which is really a staff and attention to detail issue — ensures a healthy return ratio of satisfied campers and guests for the retreat end of the business.

Three Programs, One Philosophy

“The first thing is hiring good staff. There’s no other single factor that is as important as getting good people,” says Rogstad. “They’re representatives of your organization; it’s particularly true of a camp where parents are very concerned about the morality and the lessons their kids are going to learn.”

Lutherwood combs local colleges and universities for candidates, making sure that potential counselors understand the requirements of being a counselor before they even apply. Applicants are then put through a rigorous interview and reference process, where camp standards are presented unambiguously right off the bat.

“Through experience I’ve learned how important it is to be very clear with your staff right up front about what you expect from them,” says Rogstad. “It’s easier to be tough and then lighten up, than to start out wishy-washy and try to come back and tighten things up later.”

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