When resident assistants (RAs) from Calvin’s student life division stayed at Camp Waltman Lake back in March, they tried to catch a flock of wild turkeys that were wandering on the property. “They were very fast, and they got away,” recalled resident director Jared Votaw, who led the retreat. The RAs were able to track the turkeys in the snow for quite a distance. They also hung out, hiked the trails and ballroom danced in the main lodge. “It was great to rest and have fun and get away from campus,” Votaw said.
Calvin’s baseball team has also found a retreat at the lake, as has the student-led orientation group, the staff from campus ministries, and staff from various college divisions. Three brides are planning their summer weddings at Camp Waltman Lake. Several families will be camping there over Memorial Day. People are fishing there and boating there and hiking there. “People see it and get excited about it and go up there, and they take other people up there,” said Henry DeVries, Calvin’s vice president for administration, finance and information services. “The nice thing about it is, it’s not that far away, but when you’re there, it feels like it’s a million miles away because it’s so peaceful and serene.”
The 319 acres of forest, lakes, meadows, trails, wetlands, cabins, campsites, horse barns and lodges that make up Camp Waltman Lake have been a part of Calvin College for about a year and a half—and the camp’s identity as Calvin’s recreational and retreat center is gradually evolving. “One thing the camp committee has mentioned several times is that the property is to be ‘organic,’” said Matt Hoekzema, the physical plant staffer who oversees camp renovations and user reservations. Students, faculty, staff and friends of Calvin are are able to reserve the cabins, campsites and main lodge for a small fee, and, because there is no official on-site camp staff, they’re encouraged to tote their own gear and handle their own logistics. “User involvement means user ownership,” Hoekzema said. “It’s good for people to set up their own chairs, cook their own food and leave the property clean for the next user.”
While campers are shifting for themselves, Calvin’s physical plant staff works to get Camp Waltman Lake into good physical shape. The property, formerly known as Brook Cherith Camp, was originally built as a Christian haven for children aged 7 to 18, and it has seen 40 years of summer wear and tear. The camp, which was unoccupied for three seasons of the year, was maintained mainly by volunteers, Hoekzema said.
Carpet was old, paint was peeling, buildings were deteriorating, the tetherball was flat. Beaver dams clogged the stream and choked off the flow of water into the lake. A colony of flying squirrels had taken up residence in the walls of the main lodge. “Damage from the squirrels was so bad, the entire lodge had to be reinsulated and resided,” Hoekzema said.
They also found 11 refrigerators, eight sofa beds, three semi-trailers stuffed with construction debris and four dilapidated camping trailers scattered around the property, all probably donated from friends of the camp. There were hundreds of toilet paper tubes, saved for arts-and-crafts projects. “What does a mouse love to live in? Toilet paper tubes,” Hoekzema observed.
When Calvin acquired Camp Waltman Lake in 2010, resources to revitalize the property were limited. “We haven’t had sufficient funding to do a major overhaul,” said DeVries. “We’ve gone up there and done a project or two as we’ve had the time.” Despite the limited resources, the physical plant crew is determined to achieve a professional restoration of the site, Hoekzema said.
They have re-sided and re-windowed the main two-story lodge. They have restored the flue liner in the chimney, which had been cracked in a lightning strike. They have repainted and recarpeted the main lodge with carpeting purchased on the internet. They have eradicated mold. They have furnished the lodges with recycled bunks, chairs, tables and other items from Calvin residence halls. They have ripped out the dilapidated deck on the main lodge (which looks over the lake) and replaced it with a larger, more expanded deck. They have cleared out the beaver dams.
The effort has been moved along by the help of volunteers. Last September, student leaders for Streetfest, Calvin’s service-learning event for incoming students, trained at the camp by ripping out carpets, mapping the property with GPS and removing beaver dams. “By using volunteers to remove carpet, we’ve cut the physical plant’s carpet layers’ labor in half,” Hoekzema said. “By cleaning the insides of buildings before the physical plant staff painters work, we’ve ensured that the painters have clean surfaces to work with. Volunteers and student labor have provided hundreds, thousands, of hours in service that otherwise would have to have been done by plant staff.”
Camp Waltman Lake is 40 miles north of Calvin. It takes 35 to 40 minutes to drive between the two places, but Hoekzema found out last November that he could do it in 30. “We had a hunter on the property who called me at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and said, ‘Are you guys doing a controlled burn up here?’” he recalled. Hoekzema sped to the camp to find a stolen pickup truck abandoned and on fire in the middle of a five-acre field. “It’s just part of the job,” he allowed.
At some point, the camp committee and the physical plant staff would like to move from reclamation into recreation: “Just imagine paintball,” Hoekzema said, looking over the horse pasture during an April visit. “We’d love to have a pool table up here. We’d love to have another ping-pong table.” He’d like to repair the zip line that came with the property and get the two inherited pontoon boats functioning. He’d like to get golf carts for the property. “We need funding to at least get a proper ball for the tetherball pole!” he said. The camp could potentially save the college—particularly the student life division—a lot of money in rental fees for non-Calvin affiliated off-campus conference and retreat venues, Hoekzema said.
“It’s beautiful. It’s affordable,” said assistant dean of residence life Jay Wise. “It’s a great resource for Calvin.”
This spring, the Calvin community has a lot of opportunities to see Camp Waltman Lake. The college’s administrative assistants will spend Administrative Professionals Day there. The political science department will visit the lake for a day. The first wedding will take place at the camp in June.
Hoekzema is kept busy with the details. He has become pretty adept at giving tours of the place. Driving along the waterside in April, he observed: “Springtime is kind of a honeymoon for the lake because the lily pads aren’t up yet.” Once the pads emerge, he said, the lake surface shrinks a little. While showing off the newly painted cabins, he pointed across the valley to another clutch of cabins. “In a couple of weeks, you won’t even be able to see that hill because of the dense vegetation. It’s amazing how the scenery changes with the different seasons,” he said. “It’s a nice day,” he said, looking around. “There are a lot of nice days up here, to tell you the truth.”