By Joseph Robertia
While they had come to be silly in the silage, young Maci Miller suddenly seemed uncertain of the situation. From deep within a thick white puff coat that consumed her small form, she shuddered while staring at the tiny opening in the side of a large red barn wherein the baled labyrinth that was Solid Rock Bible Camp Hay Tunnel maze was housed.
“Go on, have fun,” said her mother, after tying Maci’s pink knit hat tightly under her chin. Filled with nervousness, she got down on her knees and crawled into the hole that served as the entrance. Minutes passed as muffled sounds emanated from inside the barn — the shuffling of knees over the compacted cut grass and children saying to no one in particular, “This way.”
Finally, Maci popped out and zoomed down the slide that served as the exit chute from the hay tunnel, and if the ear-to-ear grin was not enough of a sign that she had experienced a change of heart while crawling through the dark, her exclamation made her emotions clear.
“I want to go again, Mom! Can I go again?” she squealed.
Her mother, Lyndi Miller, gave an approving nod and the girl rushed off and wiggled back into the barn, again and again over the next hour.
“She was a little leery at first, but once she went through she couldn’t get enough,” Miller said.
The elder Miller was not quite as enthusiastic to follow her daughter’s now-cheerful forays into the tunnel.
“I grew up around here, but this is my first time because I’m a bit claustrophobic,” she said.
Other than those with fear of tight spaces, Noah Procter, barn manager at Solid Rock, said that most people find the experience exhilarating and good family fun.
“It’s been going on for around 20 years, but it’s really grown in the last 10 or so,” he said.
Opening the first weekend in October and running through the first weekend or so in November, the hay tunnel attracts a crowd, from families looking for a fall-themed adventure to organized groups.
“It’s a lot of school classes, youth groups, 4-H, Girl and Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and birthday parties. Last year we had around 1,600 people come through and this year we’re looking at around 1,800,” he said.
The youngest has been an 8-month-old, who traversed the tunnel strapped to Mom, on up to retired guys going through, Procter said.
Procter said that the tunnel began as a way to stock fodder for the livestock that play an important role in Solid Rock’s summer camp.
“We have between 15 and 20 horses that we winter over for the summer program, so putting up all this hay saves on costs over the winter,” he said.
Around 1,600 bales are bought from a farm in Funny River. Rather than just stacking the bales and being done with it, Proctor said they decided to create mazes within the barn to provide some traditional fall fun for the community.
“It takes around 200 man hours to put it together. We figure out what elements we want each year — such as stairs, a fire pole, ladder, etc. — then we figure out what side of the barn we want to make the entrance/exit, then we just start stacking,” Procter said.
The hay maze, while more than 12 feet tall in some places, is constructed in a way that bales are stacked solidly under the elevated areas, and with no more than one bale over a tunnel at any given point, just in case there are emergencies.
“I’d say almost every tunnel, there’s someone who has a claustrophobic episode. They’ll back out of the front or sometimes we have kids who get lost or ask for help out, so we’ll pull them out of the top,” Procter said.
Without a light, the tunnel takes roughly 10 to 20 minutes to navigate. With a flashlight or headlamp, most kids can make it through in two to five minutes.
“Taking a light in takes away from the experience, though,” he said.
Miller, however, said that her flashlight was a requirement.
“Without the flashlight I might have needed saving,” she said.
Lacey Brown, who also grew up on the central peninsula, said she remembers what it was like to be apprehensive about entering the maze.
“I’ve been coming since I was 9 and I was terrified as a kid. I didn’t go through alone until I was around 13. Now, as an adult, I have three kids of my own. It’s family tradition to come,” she said.
Her kids enjoyed wiggling their way through several times, and the tunnel brought out the kids in the hearts of Brown and her sister.
“It’s fun to go through a couple of times to get to know it, then I’ll race my sister though without a light,” she said.
Procter said it was great to see so many families come back for so many years. Even if kids struggle with the uncertainty of the dark or the unknown from time to time, everyone seems to leave with memories that last a lifetime, Proctor said. He said there’s really only one sort of person he tries to dissuade from visiting the tunnel.
“If you’re one of those types that’s allergic to hay, you really don’t want to go in there,” he said.