105 DEGREES OUT HERE ON A SUMMER day, and we've got the best swimming hole
river," asserted John LaBoyteaux, a southern Humboldt resident and representative of Camp Ravencliff. Perched across the Eel River from Redway, Camp Ravencliff has provided childhood memories for Humboldt residents since the 1930s.
The YMCA of the East Bay, owner of the 65-acre camp, is eager to continue that tradition by offering a pair of one-week camp sessions for children and teens in July and August. The camp has been used by local school groups and YMCA campers from outside the area, but this year marks an emphasis to attract Humboldt youth.
The original camp was built in the early 1930s by the Eureka YMCA on a five-acre riverside parcel. When the Eureka organization ceased existence in the 1960s, ownership transferred to the Richmond YMCA. Further consolidation landed the camp in the hands of the YMCA of the East Bay, which then acquired an additional 60 acres. That provides the camp with a backcountry area adjoining Whittemore Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
"I suppose I got involved by accident," said LaBoyteaux, who lives near Weott. That was about six years ago, he said, when he attended a meeting about the Redway Community Services District's plans to expand its wastewater treatment plant and to build a containment pond next to the cabins at Camp Ravencliff.
He remembered thinking that the issue shouldn't be all that hard to solve and ended up being a negotiator of sorts, working with then-Supervisor Roy Heider and the services district.
The district ultimately changed its plans and the pond was relocated. "That's ancient history now," LaBoyteaux said. "But I got to like the place."
Because he felt the camp had strong ties to the community, he began to work with the YMCA as a part-time employee representing the camp and making improvements to its facilities.
As the YMCA of the East Bay has gone through changes, LaBoyteaux said it was actually considering selling the camp a few years ago. But the new leadership decided not to sell, and in fact has made several recent improvements including new bathrooms and showers, upgraded kitchen facilities and a parking lot away from the living and program staging areas.
"I think a lot of that had to do with there being some strong community sentiment about Ravencliff," he said. "This originated here in Humboldt County the Eureka YMCA built it. There was a promise when we gave it to them down there that it would continue to be available to Humboldt County kids.
"The YMCA recognizes that camping has changed an awful lot," added LaBoyteaux. "Ravencliff is the traditional sleep-under-the-stars, eat-in-the-mess-hall, swim-in-the-river outdoor camp."
Camping programs this summer for girls and boys ages 7 to 12 will feature traditional activities such as swimming, canoeing, sports, crafts, drama and campfires. Teens from 13 to 15 years old can also attend a session with added special challenges, and those 14 to 17 may apply to participate in the Campers in Leadership Training program to assist cabin counselors, mentor younger campers and learn leadership skills.
There are 10 rustic cabins with no electricity, each with bunks for nine campers and one staff member. The mattresses are provided, but campers need to bring a sleeping bag.
"These were built after 1964, because a lot of the original cabins were below the lodge and went away in the flood," LaBoyteaux said, pointing to the series of cabins dotting the hillside just below the upper meadow and well above the river. The main lodge is one of a few original 1930s buildings. Although the deck and screened porch that surround the building, which overlook the river and a couple of huge, gnarled sycamore trees, are post-1964. The original deck was torn off by the flood waters. Other camp facilities include separate boys' and girls' bathrooms and showers, an arts and crafts building, and an infirmary.
The lodge was where Cutten Elementary School teacher Linda Forbes with several students and parents made sandwiches for lunch one afternoon. She and instructional aide Sandy Heston brought 27 fourth graders and some parents to Ravencliff for a late-May, two-night camping trip.
"They've had a great time," Forbes said, looking wide awake and enthusiastic after one night at the camp.
"We've been doing block prints and plaster casting, and some leaf art there around the corner. The cabins are really nice, and the showers have lots of hot water. The parents love that!" she said.
"The river is great and plenty warm for the kids," Forbes added, noting the swimming and boating activities of the day before. Leaving the school group to lunch time activities, LaBoyteaux and I headed down the trail to the river, past the campfire area with a platform stage where some of the children were practicing a skit.
"There's a nice, deep swimming hole against the cliffs over there," LaBoyteaux said. The Eel River had a greenish hue as it flowed moderately this time of year.
"I think it's the most spectacular waterfront on the whole South Fork. And yes, there are ravens in the cliffs," he added.
Several hundred yards upriver was Redway Beach, where he said campers are sometimes dropped off to wade across a riffle and walk down the beach to the camp, or where younger children are sometimes shuttled across in canoes.
The camp abounds with history on and off its grounds.
Ravencliff alumni Jamie Roscoe looked back at his days canoeing and swimming in the river and ball-playing in the upper meadow, during a recent phone interview. Roscoe was a camp counselor in 1971, during his high school years.
What he remembers most is "just the setting the sheer cliffs, the massive rock outcrops, the cabins and the lodge. You're not that far from civilization, and yet you are. It's a magical spot," he said.
Roscoe, a history teacher at Eureka High School and an archeologist who also teaches that subject part time at Humboldt State University, was not the first or the last in his immediate family to attend the camp, however. His dad first went there in 1933, later returned as a counselor. And last fall Roscoe accompanied his son on a Washington School camping trip to Ravencliff, while teaching the children some of the camp's archeology.
Roscoe's archeology background was for him another significant link to Ravencliff. Like LaBoyteaux, he, too became involved in the mid-'90s with Redway's planned expansion of the wastewater treatment plant. He was called in to ensure that no significant cultural resources would be affected in the process.
Roscoe also completed the administrative process to formally record the area as an archeological site.
"Based on a couple of artifacts we found, we know that people were there at least 4,000 years ago, and probably earlier," he said. "This whole meadow was an Indian village," LaBoyteaux said, coming out to a clearing from the wooded trail leading to the camp. "There were two distinct, different tribes, the most recent being the Sinkyone. Unfortunately, the last group of Sinkyone Native Americans who lived here were massacred over in Whittemore Grove by settlers," he said, describing life in the 1860s.
There is still evidence of the time when they were here, LaBoyteaux said. He identified an area of midden soil around the edge of the meadow, where it just starts to drop off, an area he said contains artifacts like projectile points and scraping tools.
"The Sinkyone called their village `To-che-be,'" he said, "and they had another name which was `Bus-ke-nes,' meaning `talking cliffs.' These sandstone cliffs along here have the most crisp, clear, loud echo.
"And there's a tale about that cabin right there," he said, pointing to one just down the hill. "Supposedly that's where the Native Americans had their central campfire, and that cabin has burned down three times."
The most notable traces of Native American occupation, however, are the clusters of round mortar holes in the huge bedrock outcrops throughout the camp. They were used for grinding acorns into meal for acorn flour, Roscoe said.
"Bedrock mortar sites are very rare in Humboldt County. This is the only one that I know of," he said, adding that most local Native Americans used a different method for grinding meal. LaBoyteaux pulled accumulated clumps of dirt and grass out of a few of the holes in the huge sandstone slab just outside the lodge. When he stood up, he demonstrated of the fore-mentioned echo effect from the cliffs across the river.
"This is a good spot for that," he said, while climbing about 10 feet up the sloping rock. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled. "YO!"
A rapid, extremely crisp, clear echo resulted. A few curious campers from the Cutten group watched.
"You guys tried the echo yet?" LaBoyteaux asked.
"No," they answered. "Well, there's a really great echo across the way here," he said, and yelled again. By this time more children had started to gather. "What are you doing?" asked one girl.
"I'm testing the echo. There's a great echo. Try it," he said. A chorus of variously pitched screeches, whoops and hollers from several of the children followed, to their obvious delight.
Some of Ravencliff's magic apparently had just been passed on.
Note: The YMCA of the East Bay will hold two week-long camp sessions for children and teens at Camp Ravencliff this summer. The sessions will be staffed by YMCA-trained counselors.
Girls and boys, ages 7-12, may attend one or both sessions, either July 25-Aug. 2 or Aug. 2-9. Teens ages 13-15 can attend the session, with added challenges along with the regular program; and selected teens ages 14-17 may attend either session as Campers in Leadership Training.
Reduced fees for Humboldt County children are $220 per week and $130 for the CILT program. The Garberville Rotary Club is cosponsoring several camperships for those eligible. For information and registration, call (510) 222-9622 and specify interest in Camp Ravencliff. For an application to the CILT program, call 510-451-8014, ext. 214. The camp is also available for group rentals. Contact Erin West at 650-879-0223 for group rental information and scheduling.
1. Camp Ravencliff photo by Mark Lufkin
2. Camp skit photo by Telepal.com
3. Swimming hole photo by Telepal.com
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