By DEVIN WEEKS
Ask any longtime Coeur d’Alene residents what they remember about Trail Creek, and you’ve just unlocked a doorway to youth.
“I only remember that my birthday fell on one of the days we were there and the kitchen staff made me a cake,” said Jessica Stephens of Coeur d’Alene, who went to Trail Creek in 1996. “It was so nice to be able to celebrate with my friends and helped me feel a little less homesick.”
“Trail Creek was a blast!” said Cheyenne Lillis, a camper in 2010. “I remember doing the ropes course challenge as a trust exercise and all of us just helping each other whether we were friends or enemies! So many good memories.”
“I had wood attached to yarn that I spun around like nunchucks and hit people,” said David Kopriva, of Coeur d’Alene, recalling his 1995 Trail Creek memories.
“Chomping Life Savers in the dark to create sparks in our mouth,” said Coeur d’Alene’s Jason Kruger, who had his life-changing experience in 1991.
Melany Haddock, who grew up in Coeur d’Alene, also remembers the magic when she went in 1980 and discovered a nifty trick. She loved Trail Creek so much she went back as a counselor in high school.
“I had never been to a camp before,” she said. “I remember the choosing of cabins and loving our cabin counselor because she was really funny. My favorite part of the trip was the night hike. We had flashlights and two counselors who took us down a trail in the woods until we got to a big field. We all sat in a big circle and were given crystal mint Certs. We were then told to chew with our mouths open which was kind of a treat since it was such bad manners. As we all chewed, sparks could be seen coming from our mouths. It was so cool!”
That was then.
This is now.
“It was my first time sleeping in a cabin last night,” said Lakes sixth-grader Austin Spang, who is wrapping up his trip to camp today. “It was like sleeping on an air mattress.”
Camping in cabins overnight with new schoolmates, singing call-and-answer songs, learning about the environment, bonding with high-schoolers, trying new activities, experiencing nature, climbing obstacle courses, paddling a canoe for the first time.
Trail Creek is not just an outdoors experience for sixth-graders.
In North Idaho, it’s a rite of passage.
“This is still a big deal for sixth-graders,” said Lakes Middle School science teacher Jason Shanley, who is at Camp Lutherhaven with his students this week as they make their Trail Creek memories.
“It’s different for every kid,” Shanley said. “A lot of the kids who have never really had a camping experience, this might be their first opportunity to do it.”
This is Shanley’s 24th year teaching sixth grade and also his 24th year at Trail Creek. The program was founded by Coeur d’Alene School District sixth-grade teachers in partnership with U.S. Forest Service personnel in 1973 to give kids a true outdoor learning experience. It was originally held at the Magee Work Center, a historical Civilian Conservation Corps camp, at Trail Creek on the Coeur d’Alene River.
The site was sold in the ’90s, so for a couple years the program moved to Camp Easton Boy Scout Camp near Harrison. In 1998, Lutherhaven’s Shoshone Base Camp adopted the Trail Creek program and campers again experienced wilderness adventures on the North Fork of the river. In 2007, Trail Creek moved to where kids experience it now, at Camp Lutherhaven on Mica Bay. The move was brought on by changes in curriculum and increasing transportation expenses.
From Bigfoot lore to scientific field studies to creating friendships with high school mentors, wherever they experience it, Trail Creek is something students remember forever.
“I remember one of the counselors, Grace, as someone I wanted to be like when I grew up, because of her kindness,” said Brooke Wolford of Spokane, who went in 2009. “It was October, so it was cold, and my hands were freezing. So she gave me her mittens, and I remember bonding with her over our shared opinion that mittens were the superior winter hand equipment. It’s simple, but it left an impact because 10 years later, I still remember it.”
More than 50,000 students have been through the Trail Creek program since its inception, and in 2013 it was almost called off. But generations of campers who had their own kids by then didn’t want their children to miss out on such special experiences.
“You learn a bunch of songs that stick with you,” said Lake City High School junior Savannah Marti, who is working as a counselor for this year’s campers. “I still know some of them from when I was in sixth grade.”