Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finding Camp Rabideau: a gem in the forest

It is early spring here in Southern Minnesota—with little snow remaining, there remains a possibility of more snow despite the chirping birds that are preparing their nests. This is the time of year I most want to go camping—I enjoy winter, but when it’s over, I want to dig out the tents. The best I can do is think of past trips and plan future ones. I have been reminiscing of a trip we took to northern Minnesota when lessons of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) became an indelible part of our memory. There are many examples of the work of the CCC throughout Minnesota—and the United States. However, there are only three camps that have substantial character remnants of the entire camp. Only one’s character has remained unaffected enough to qualify to be included on the National Register of Historical Places: CCC Camp Rabideau. This gem is tucked into the background of the surrounding countryside of a remote part of north central Minnesota. We discovered this completely by accident on a camping trip to Red Lake.

My mom had repeatedly expressed a desire to be included on our camping trips. We had gone “up north” with her so she could enjoy spending time with us on “those camping trips of [ours].” As we drove to Red Lake, we passed a small sign announcing the presence of the camp. Having pitched many tents in the dark, we wanted to ensure we didn’t do that with Grandma; we waited to drive in on our return trip. I had worried that perhaps, I had made the wrong decision when it took so long to find it on our way back, but we did indeed find it and it was worth the wait. The camp remains under the control of the US Forestry Service in the Chippewa National Forest in Northern Minnesota—though I suspect someday it will be transferred to the National Park Service like Camp Coldwater in St. Paul.

It was amazing to see the site returning to a condition that is more reminiscent of its natural state. The 112 acres was purchased in 1934 and had been stripped of the forest covering by the lumber barons. The “boys” of the camp arrived to a bare ground that they were able to set up a baseball field on. This is a hard fact to digest given that the millions of trees that the CCC had planted have now grown to a rich forest—though certainly not to the massive sizes that existed prior to the invasion of the lumber companies. When we were there two years ago, the camp was staffed by volunteers—some who where there as boys.

The stories were wonderful. One of my favorite was about a couple of boys that snuck out after lights out to go fishing. Caught by the Commanding Officer, they were worried they were going to be sent home—a terrifying prospect for boys who knew that their families needed the money that was sent home during such desperate times of the Great Depression. The commanding officer insisted that the boys “do what needed to be done” and fry the fish and share the meal with him. Two years later—and the story still gets to a soft spot in me. I hope the stories are documented for the inevitable time when the boys are no longer around.

Though no admission is charged or even asked for—a donation bucket at the end will accept any free will offering—no gift is ever too small. The monies collected are accepted very gratefully and are used for future restorations. A site definitely worth seeing—I hope you can enjoy the trip and benefit from the “boys” who are still there sharing their time, energy and wonderful experiences of a bygone era.

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