This camp is your camp

Using a state pilot project, the Cascade Land Conservancy has made it possible to preserve historic Hidden Valley Camp for future generations. It's more than a win for holding back sprawl, it also saves an incubator of the Northwest's conservation ethic.
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Hidden Valley Camp is in Granite Falls, Snohomish County

Using a state pilot project, the Cascade Land Conservancy has made it possible to preserve historic Hidden Valley Camp for future generations. It's more than a win for holding back sprawl, it also saves an incubator of the Northwest's conservation ethic.

As a kid, I thought little about our paradise in the woods. We slept in big canvas tents and ate our grub in a mess hall, called to meals by the brassy squawks of the camp bugler. We hiked in the nearby Cascades, exploring exotic places like the Big Four ice caves, the ghost town of Monte Cristo, and the slopes of Mount Pilchuck. We rafted Huck Finn-style, learned to square dance, swim, shoot rifles and arrows, chop wood, and make stuff with our hands. We learned how to saddle and ride horses, and shovel their manure. After meals and around campfires, we sang the folk songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and on Sundays we attended "chapel" in a forest grove where we could give thanks for nature.

This was summer at Hidden Valley Camp, near Granite Falls in Snohomish County. It's still pretty much that way. Founded in 1947, the camp is going strong, though it's feeling pressures from the up and down economy, the changing fashions in summer camps, and the press of development. Still, it is an oasis for a Northwest that often seems to be disappearing. Only about 45 miles from Seattle, HVC once seemed at the end of the world, down the road from a rough logging town, at the end of a dirt lane. It took hours to get there in the days before freeways, and once you'd arrived in this sanctuary surrounded by hills and trees, you felt removed from school, parents, chores, and city life.

That such an experience is still largely possible today is thanks to the owners, the remarkable McKinlay family which has owned and operated the camp since 1973 when founders Harry and Imogene Truman retired. Purchased by parents Bob and Nan McKinlay, it's now run by the second generation of McKinlays, Todd and Jen, and a third is being groomed. It has served several generations of campers. The continuity of ownership is now being aided by a continuance of purpose. An experimental program created by the state will make it possible to permanently preserve Hidden Valley Camp and its 62 acres from development. With the help of the Cascade Land Conservancy (CLC), the camp has sold its development rights and put into place an easement that will protect it from sprawl.

Legislation signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last spring is designed to create a regional market for the transfer of development rights (TDRs). The state Department of Community Trade and Economic Development got some $3 million in funding to provide grants for the purchase of development rights to keep working farmland, ranches, and forests in operation. Those development rights, in the form of credits, can then be sold (in this case by the CLC) to urban developers looking to add more housing units or taller structures than current city zoning permits. The idea is to use the market to compensate rural property owners, save working rural land, and boost urban in-fill to offset sprawl. Five properties, including Hidden Valley, are part of the pilot program, including 640 acres of pine forest in Kittitas County, and forest tracts in Pierce County.

Finding the sweet spot for using the TDRs is the next challenge, so as not to produce new development that is a cure worse than the disease. TDRs are not only a tool for new projects, but a way to steer them into appropriate zones. They can be used to protect historic structures and urban fabric as well as nature, if used properly. CLC spokesman Steve Dunphy assured me the credits would not be used to enable projects like the 6,000-home development once proposed for Lake Roesiger, a so-called "fully contained community" that was slated to sprout just a few miles from HVC. Existing towns and cities are the targets for receiving the TDRs.

So, Hidden Valley's lush valley is safe from the sprawl. Unlike some lands, HVC's is important not just for its timber, but as an institution that for more than 60 years has helped instill kids with the conservation ethic that the new program attempts to further. HVC gives youths a place to play away from home that offers ready access to the wilderness. The land and camp program itself are also imbued with Pacific Northwest heritage. Many of us who grew up here take the John Muir ethic for granted. Some of us came from families that made their livings off the land, from fishing to farming to logging, and loved it for its bounty and its beauty. The struggles over growth and development are where the region fights to keep its soul, a struggle carried on by homegrown generations of environmentally minded outdoor enthusiasts. It's something that's too easy to take for granted, but it happens not by birth but by experience and real-world education.

As summers shrink and cities grow, the Northwest risks becoming more detached from rural areas. Kids learn to be green in schools, but the forests are largely theoretical. Early exposure to the woods can be profound, and have big later impact. I attended John Muir Elementary school in South Seattle, where we kids were taught who Muir was and what his values were. So was my father before me. It's interesting to note that two other John Muir Elementary alumni were the Ellis brothers, Jim and John, who became Seattle civic leaders, and who not only helped shape the city, but in Jim's case led the way to clean up our waterways and develop regional transit. He also helped lead the Mountains to Sound Greenway project that preserves a scenic I-90 Cascade corridor, work inspired in part by what he and his brother learned building their own cabin in the woods near Preston. America might be watching Ken Burns' latest documentary about the creation of the National Parks, but many of us absorbed these values with mothers' milk.

I was a camper at HVC, so were my older sisters and many friends past and present. I also worked there for the Truman and the McKinlay families as a counselor, dishwasher, and camp bugler who managed to blat out "Taps" each evening. In many ways, I came of age there in the summers. Most of my memories are of play and adventure in the woods and mountains, learning to cook skunk cabbage stew or, more pleasantly, devouring wild huckleberries in the Cascade foothills like a ravenous bear. But when I visited HVC for a ceremony on Friday to commemorate the camp's new lease on life, I was struck with how the lessons of wilderness had as much to do with people as trees.

The HVC of the 1950s, '60s and '70s was not a wilderness. It was a partially recovered landscape, one that had already been brutally logged. The evidence of its prior life was everywhere, and was worked into camp lore. There was an old wooded trail of railroad ties, the Old Ghost Railroad we called it, where once forest giants were hauled out by steam and chain. There was an old logging road, a rusty Donkey engine in the woods, a trapper's cabin, the remains of a settler's home we called "Crazy Alice's." Expeditions into the trees, ferns and Devil's club often revealed old treasures such as a collapsed moss-consumed log cabin surrounded by trash like the rotting remnants of a hobnail boot, a railroad spike, a tobacco tin, or a 19th-century whiskey bottle purple with age.

The camp was dotted with giant stumps with chopped notches where loggers once stood on planks to cut down the big cedars. At Big Four, there were the remains of an old hotel that had burned down. At Monte Cristo, abandoned mines and slag heaps tempted us to look for gold that might have been missed, and to explore dark, empty tunnels blasted into the mountainsides. The wilderness of my prime Hidden Valley years was mostly second growth, a landscape of recovery from turn-of-the-century industry. We enjoyed the new wilderness that was growing around the vestiges of the slaughtered one we were too young to remember. The 50-year-old trees and foison undergrowth were big enough for our imaginations.

We also celebrated the human heritage in our camp rituals. The Paul Bunyan campfire was where we told stories in the dark about the giant mythical logger who created our landscape, digging valleys with his axe and creating creeks with his spit tobacco. We sang songs like Woody Guthrie's "Roll On, Columbia" that celebrated the dams and rivers that shaped the landscape as much as Bunyan. Each camp session, we divided into two teams, "Pioneers" and "Indians," and played a wild capture-the-fort game, then competed in woodcraft skills such as campfire cooking, turning logs with a peavey, or swinging a double-bitted axe while wearing our pre-grunge flannel. We took turns sleeping in the camp tee-pee and soaked up a forest ethic that was about conservation, but not anti-human. It was less Muir and more Teddy Roosevelt, who undoubtedly would have pronounced our active, full, rigorous camp days as "bully."

Logging still goes on near HVC. In the '70s, clear-cutting accelerated on some of the nearby hills, and loaded logging trucks still rumble through Granite Falls. Some of the slashed landscapes are regrowing, already hidden by the greenery that has since sprouted. In other spots, you get peekaboo views of cut landscapes. This is a place where the timber business is a kind of farming and trees are harvested. New in recent decades is creeping sprawl, the clearing of the land for boxy housing clusters as prolific as new alder. HVC is less remote than it was, and the threats seem multiplied. But the camp is striking because the trees that were once half a century old are now nearly 100. If anything, the grounds seem greener, the trees thicker and noticeably taller. The world is transforming rapidly, but inside Hidden Valley, Eden ages gracefully and lushly.

Preserving HVC is important for its land and trees, but we can't ignore its value as a mentor of values and tradition. I am reading my friend Timothy Egan's new book, The Big Burn, which tells of the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and how Teddy Roosevelt and forester Gifford Pinchot and activist/author John Muir helped invent the concept of conservation as public policy. It's a fascinating to see the birth of so many of the Northwest values we take for granted. They were not delivered by the gods, found in holy books, or inscribed on stone tablets. They were new, progressive notions conceived by people who had to argue and fight for their respectability and acceptance. Conservation is a concept that could still disappear under the concrete and asphalt of progress. What the McKinlays and the Cascade Land Conservancy have made possible is for HVC to stand as a bulwark for these ideas, a living embodiment of them, as an incubator for the next generation or two or three of Northwest greens.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.