Oregon snow turns eight-hour camp service project into five-day retreat

The Drift Creek Camp lodge and vehicles sit under snow in February. — Levi Ebersole The Drift Creek Camp lodge and vehicles sit under snow in February. — Levi Ebersole

A small group of volunteers from Seattle arrived at Drift Creek Camp on Feb. 22 for an eight-hour middle school class service project. As the group arrived, snow began to fall. And fall. And fall.

Dustings of snow are not infrequent at the camp near Lincoln City, Ore., but typically it melts within a few hours due to mild coastal temperatures. However, this was a different kind of storm. The snow was wet and heavy.

In addition to the highly unusual foot of snow that fell on that first day, countless trees came down like pick-up-sticks across the road. For nearly three days, five men who were trapped at camp cut through hundreds of trees from morning until dark.

They worked to create a vehicle-wide path as additional snow buried branches faster than they could clear them. After three days of hard work, they had covered about three miles of a 10-mile access road that is the only path to the camp.

Staff found ways to put the kids to work in the lodge. They brought food for one day, leading to creative solutions using the More-With Less Cookbook to scrape together meals from what was left in the pantry.

Feeling weary, camp staff used Facebook to put out a call for help. A few longtime camp supporters saw the post and headed out. Along the way, they met a group of local folks who knew of “The Mennonite Camp” but hadn’t actually been to Drift Creek and also answered the call. The crew began clearing the road from Highway 101.

They cleared a narrow path through the tree debris, but the snow still prevented camp vehicles from getting out. Those who had driven up from town had better-equipped all-wheel-drive vehicles with higher clearance than the vehicles at camp.

A Lincoln City neighbor delivered tire chains for the trapped vehicles. An attempt was made to depart with the assistance of traction devices, but the snow was still too deep. By Sunday night on day 5, camp staff were discouraged and exhausted, although the Seattle group was able to ride in a truck over the snow to Lincoln City, where they could borrow a vehicle to return home.

Dennis Kauffman had mentioned bringing his tractor, so a call was made to him. He loaded his tractor and drove at least two hours to Lincoln City from his home over the coastal range and east of Salem. He parked at the bottom of the camp road and started plowing his way in.

Plowing all day Monday, Kauffman got within about a mile of the top of the hill, where the elevation is about 1,500 feet and the snow was deepest. He then drove to the lodge, spent the night at camp and began plowing again Tuesday, starting from the camp side.

He was only available for one more day. Early Wednesday he was back on the road. He worked nonstop until after midnight. With food supplies running low, camp staff was eager to head out and followed Kauffman for five hours, shining headlights on the snow as he plowed.

Finally, in the wee hours of the ninth day, March 2, Kauffman reached his starting point, and the road was clear enough to get out.

Since the February storm, Drift Creek Camp has lost six rental groups that had planned to use the facility. Two church retreats, the Drift Creek Spring Quilt Retreat and three outdoor education programs, were canceled due to the snow. The financial loss from these cancelations has been significant. Meanwhile, camp staff continues to chip away at the clearing work as the snow melts and more branches and fallen trees are exposed. The phrase “spring cleaning” has taken on new meaning this year.

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