By Clark Fair
Bert Schultz was working alone in late winter at Solid Rock Bible Camp, cutting rafters for a building that would eventually contain a crafts shop, when a friend stopped by. Noting the Skil saw, the friend asked Schultz if he’d ever sawed through his own electrical cord. Then, after assuring the friend that he’d never do anything so dumb, he promptly did exactly that in his first cut after the friend’s departure.
Irritated, he leaned against one of his sawhorses and began to braid the wires back together in preparation for wrapping the damaged cord in electrical tape. As he worked, the sawhorse suddenly bucked, the ground started to roll violently and the building began to shake.
Schultz tried to maintain his balance as the world trembled all around him. Windows in a nearby building shattered, and the ice on Miracle Lake cracked as black mud churned around its edges. The camp bus, without front tires and up on blocks for repairs, sank to its wheel housings as the blocks flew outward. At Memorial Lodge, the concrete-block chimney crashed to the ground.
When the shaking finally subsided, Schultz ran to his home to check on his family. The Good Friday dinner of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and moose meat was ruined and dishes were broken, but his wife, Donna, and their son, Scott, were all right. As night settled in, they attempted to assess the damage to the camp and to use their radio to learn the extent of what had just happened.
They discovered there had never been a Good Friday like this one in the history of Alaska, and that March 27, 1964, would be remembered as the day of the Great Alaska Earthquake.
But awesome power of nature did not deter the Schultzes. A new stone chimney eventually replaced the shattered concrete blocks, and other repairs to the camp were made, as well. Under their guidance, and with plenty of help, Solid Rock Bible Camp continued to grow and prosper, and this year will celebrate its 51st year of existence.
The 194-acre camp, which now is run by Ted and Valerie McKenney and features dozens of activities for youths from the Kenai Peninsula and beyond, got its official start in the summer of 1958. It was a much more raw and unpolished affair in those days. In their camp memoir, “Miracle at Solid Rock,” the Schultzes recall those initial sessions of camp and the years of preparation that allowed it all to happen.
Even before the Schultzes arrived in Alaska, the groundwork for the camp was being laid.
Around the peninsula in 1952, several missionary-based Protestant churches joined together to form the Kenai Peninsula Fellowship and unite under this common goal: “To know the Lord Jesus Christ and make him known.”
In 1955, according to the Schultzes’ book, Austin Meeks, a Baptist missionary from Ninilchik, first voiced the notion of beginning a Christian-centered youth recreational facility, and KPF established a committee to seek a site for it from the Bureau of Land Management.
Committee members traveled to Anchorage to review BLM maps and selected several potential sites. At one site, at Mile 90.5 of the Sterling Highway, committee members snowshoed into the property, and there found a rock about three stories high, swathed in moss and spiked with young trees. They climbed the rock and looked around at the mixed deciduous-coniferous forest and the half-mile-long lake nearby, and decided they had found their campsite.
KPF petitioned BLM for all of the land surrounding the lake — about 200 acres. BLM countered with an offer of 100 acres for $1,300, and the committee accepted. Financial times were lean, however, and the sale price was too steep, so in July 1956, KPF settled on only 70 acres for a price of $945.27.
The following year, the Schultzes entered the peninsula picture.
Bert Schultz and Donna Porte had both grown up in Altoona, Pa. Bert, now 77, was the son of a butcher/grocer/antiques dealer, while Donna, now 76, was the daughter of a baker, who later worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bert was raised in the Methodist church, while Donna grew up as a Baptist, but both of them came to their faith when they were very young, and both were inspired as teenagers to consider missionary work in Alaska.
When they met, their inspirations and their passions intertwined. They became engaged in 1952, married in 1953 and headed to Alaska for their first northern missionary experience in 1957. After a four-month building project at Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, they moved to Sterling to pastor the Baptist church there, and made their first connections to the Kenai Peninsula Fellowship.
In 1958, the fellowship became determined to hold its first camp on the property that was becoming known as Solid Rock for its prominent landmark. In order for camp to occur, however, an infrastructure of sorts was needed — a road into the property, housing for the campers and a staff to run the operation.
Bert Schultz and Paul Weimer walked in from the highway and staked out a road route that was later opened up by Jesse Robinson and his D-7 Cat. Robinson also cleared away the trees and moss on the site that would eventually hold Memorial Lodge, the first permanent structure on the property. This clearing, on exposed clay soil, became the site of the first camp that summer.
The clearing also became the source of considerable aggravation during the rainy days of camp, when the clay churned into a gooey mess and inspired a few early campers to dub the area “Solid Mud Bible Camp.”
The Schultzes, along with Floyd and Virginia McElveen, Lloyd and Ruth Dean, Ray and Irene Mainwaring and others, worked hard to prepare for the first camp. They used unpeeled spruce logs to construct the framework for the first camp shelter, which they topped with tarpaulins and sided with Visqueen. Under the shelter, they scattered sawdust for a floor and built tables, benches and a serving counter.
They also built a 10-foot dock on the lake for the camp’s single rowboat, hung a stout rope from an overhanging birch tree, erected primitive outhouses and built a fire pit to heat the 55-gallon drum that supplied hot water for camper cleanup and washing dishes.
When the first five-day session began, 34 junior high and high school campers showed up, prepared to sleep in tents and under tarps, to participate in Bible lessons and a half-dozen outdoor and under-tarp activities (volleyball, swimming, hiking, boating, arts and crafts, singing), and to help with the basic necessities that would allow the camp to function.
Each camper brought silverware, a bowl, a plate and a cup; a box of cereal and a box of Jell-O or pudding mix; and a sleeping bag or a bedroll (with moss used as a mattress). Some campers brought extra food — sugar, flour, eggs, bacon — while other KPF members and camper families provided Alaska-grown potatoes, carrots, lettuce, radishes and rhubarb, plus moose and caribou meat, fresh salmon and wild cranberries, and dozens of cookies and pies for dessert.
Lloyd Dean acted as camp director, with Ruth Dean as camp nurse, and Irene Mainwaring, with her Betty Crocker recipe book, as camp cook. Bert Schultz said that 17 of those original 34 campers “prayed to receive Christ as Savior” during that first session, and that everyone had a great time despite the mostly rainy weather.
However, if week one was damp, week two was soaking. The second camp session, for children from second to sixth grade, was held in a series of downpours, which produced mud three inches deep on the volleyball court, flooded tents, saturated sleeping bags and created sopping clothes on wet and homesick kids.
Floyd McElveen recalled, “We did our best to quiet them, take care of them, talk to them about Jesus, and keep them from dying of pneumonia.”
After only three days, organizers canceled the remainder of the session. The quarter-mile road up to the highway had deteriorated so badly that they had to trudge up the hill repeatedly with all the kids and their gear to waiting parents.
But, said Donna Schultz, that soggy experience and rainy exodus “didn’t dampen our spirits.”
Over the next 50 years, Solid Rock Ministries Inc., would add more than 120 acres (including parts of two small lakes) to its camp property; construct more than two dozen buildings, including snug cabins for all the campers; streamline its services to offer a diverse range of camping experiences, ranging from horseback riding to waterskiing; and add dozens of new activities for participating campers.
In the late 1960s, Solid Rock even temporarily ran its own radio station, KSRM, as it tested its own range of influence. The station’s call letters originally stood for Solid Rock Ministries.
Every year, it seemed, something new was added to the camp. For Bert Schultz, who acted as camp director from 1961 to 1986, the notion of newness became a sort of annual mantra: “Every year when camp started, I wanted some new, exciting thing for kids to do, so when they came back to camp they could see a difference, see a change.”
“One year,” Donna added, “we didn’t have any money, but we painted all the doors in the camp — red or something.”
Always something new, through a half century and thousands and thousands of campers. Even under new leadership, the camp continues to prosper.