SMALL VICTORIES are taking place in the woods of West Seattle just a few hundred yards away from a four-lane stretch of asphalt traversed by thousands of cars a day and exactly one mile from a steel mill.
Here at Camp Long, tucked amid spruce and birch trees, past a sprawling expanse of meadow, rustic cabins and a king-size campfire ring, Trenton Fernandez is preparing for his first rock climb.
He stares ahead, his mind rummaging inward, as he waits his turn to scale the 25-foot climbing structure.
He’ll tell you later that he was scared out of his mind, especially when he reached the top.
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“I almost passed out going down.’’
But the 7-year-old — wearing a helmet and harness connected to ropes — seems fearless right now as his tiny right hand grabs a thin edge along a granite boulder. He climbs quickly, like a gecko, the blue lights in his sneakers flashing as his feet seek out toeholds on the rock.
A monitor holding the safety rope offers gentle encouragement.
“One step at a time,’’ she says. “The rope has you.”
As he nears the top, he turns, his face a panic.
“Don’t look down,’’ offers his father, Ray Fernandez, of SeaTac.
In no time, Trenton is back on terra firma. He beams at his dad and jumps in line for another turn behind Sam Dole, a towheaded first-grader who’s missing a front tooth.
Dressed in shorts and a Spider Man T-shirt, Dole has rock climbed before with his dad. Still, he runs into trouble right away as he tries to get leverage on the mostly flat surfaces.
He grabs at the rock face again and again before he finds his footing. As he pulls himself up, he looks back at his father, standing about 9 feet below.
“Way to stick with it,’’ his dad, Malcolm Dole, says gently.
Dole, 49, hasn’t been to Camp Long since he moved to Seattle to join the rock-climbing tribe here 20 years ago. He’s not thrilled about his son’s obvious passion for the sport. “Youth and danger are a tough combination,’’ he says. “If he took it up at 25, that’d be great.”
But his boy’s boundless energy needs an outlet, he says, and “the outdoors is a pretty good place to put it.”
That’s exactly what the men who conceived Camp Long thought when they hatched their plans for what was then, and now, a place to experience the great outdoors without leaving town.
It’s also a place where you can discover the heart of old Seattle.
NOT OFTEN does a judge confess to thievery. But that is pretty much what Juvenile Court Judge William G. Long did — though he liked to call it “benevolent larceny’’ — when talking about the genesis of the park that would ultimately bear his name. Here’s what happened:
It was the 1930s, and the federal Works Progress Administration was in overdrive, creating jobs through public-works projects. Parks, including a golf course in West Seattle, were springing up around the city.
Workers began clear-cutting the area, but the southwest corner of the acreage was clearly too wet for the golf course, so they planned to fell the trees and plant flowers and grass instead. Before workers could clear the area, Seattle Parks Board member Archie Phelps put out some feelers.
He contacted his buddy, Judge Long, to see if the land might be suitable for a Boy Scout camp site, according to an account of the larceny Long gave in a 1957 speech.
“I went home, put on my old hiking clothes and cruised the tract with Archie,’’ Long said. “We fought our way through brush, nettles, briers and fallen trees. Where the parade ground now is located, the place was a swampy bog. The whole tract was truly a jungle. But it struck me as having great possibilities for a camp site not merely for the Scouts of West Seattle, but for the kids of the entire city.”
Though still a young city, Seattle was already a place where nature, conservation and exploration were a central part of life. The influential Mountaineers, founded in 1906, included some of the city’s most prominent residents, people who experienced the mountains as a sort of transformation zone.
They successfully evangelized for parks and trails in the mountains, and worked with youth groups to share and spread their fervor for the outdoors.
Long and other representatives from the city’s youth groups huddled and hatched a plan for what they saw as a character-building camp inside Seattle. They selected Clark Schurman, a Scout leader who had developed a wilderness camp for his troop, to draw up the plans.
The prevailing aesthetic for park structures at the time was rustic, incorporating materials used by early pioneers, according to an article in historicseattle.org. The aesthetic was spelled out in guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Interior and executed in new parks around the country.
Schurman, who worked as chief guide at Paradise on Mount Rainier, embraced that aesthetic at Camp Long, where the lodge, bridges, trails and cabins he designed would be equally at home on The Mountain.
From his perch on Rainier, Schurman saw a growing need to train mountaineers capable of rescuing people who, through ignorance or bad luck, got lost or injured. To help develop those new search-and-rescue parties, Schurman designed what would become the nation’s first man-made climbing structure, built of granite and concrete. Schurman Rock turns 75 years old this year.
According to Long, Schurman “wanted the rock to be the first step toward the summit of Mount Rainier, and that when a youngster had mastered the problems of the rock, he could stand upon its crest and view his ultimate mountain-climbing goal — the top of Mount Rainier,” visible in the distance.
But all that poetic intention required money. We’ll pick up again with Judge Long:
“Those were the Depression years, and money was not exactly easy to come by. So there had to be a lot of persuading, maneuvering, finagling, scrounging, snaffling and even a little benevolent larceny to translate those plans into reality,’’ Long said, describing the devious means by which the camp was built.
He practically brags about the pilfered materials. To wit: Lumber from other city parks, “in some manner not entirely clear to me, found its way into some of the camp buildings.” Lumber from another camp was “quietly transported” to the new park. Paving stones from a downtown Seattle street “in some manner” became part of the lodge.
His co-conspirator, Phelps, appears to have danced on the edge, too. Long, who died in 1974, noted that Phelps was subsequently elected a King County commissioner, and, as such, built a sawmill for the county. “I have good reason to believe that some King County lumber is incorporated in the buildings of this camp.”
Another judge, overseeing the receivership of a bankrupt nursery, was credited with “benevolent connivance” for his role in securing creditors’ approval to remove ornamental trees at the nursery and plant them at the new camp.
So much for Seattle process. Or liability concerns. Fires? Rock climbing? Unfettered romping in the woods?
Turns out it was a wildly popular mix.
Since the park’s opening in 1941, hundreds of thousands of people have visited, most of them in groups. Among them, some of the country’s most celebrated climbers, including Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest.
At the camp’s opening ceremony, Judge Long told the assembled masses that the camp would be a refuge for the city’s children. An article on historicseattle.org quotes Long as saying the camp would provide kids with “strength in body, mind and soul” and “lead them from the dirt, congestion and complexities of the city.”
It’s still doing that today.
KELLY IRVINE is walking her terrier mix toward the fire pit where 80 Cub Scouts gathered around the fire the night before to toast marshmallows, put on skits and tell jokes, a ritual that she remembers from her brothers’ time in Scouting.
A program specialist at Little Eagles Child Development Center in Seattle, she’s one of about 60,000 people who will visit the park this year.
Irvine spots her 10-year-old nephew, Jake, one of the Scouts from South King County, running around the south end of the field. His forehead is smudged with charcoal, and he’s carrying madrone wood that he holds up to Irvine in wonder.
“Look at this!” he says, before running off again.
“Camping transports you,’’ Irvine says. “It’s something your memory never forgets. Sitting around a fire singing songs — it’s a basic human activity that people have been doing since time began.”
The Scouts slept in the 10 cabins — each named after a Washington mountain peak — which typically book up early for the summer months.
“It’s like you’re in the middle of nowhere in the city,’’ says Irvine. “I work with women who have never been camping. They don’t have tents or sleeping bags or any camping gear. You don’t need them (here). They have electricity and toilets, and cabins with mattresses and nice fire pits. This is an easy way to transition to tent camping.”
Camp Long is the only park in Seattle where year-round camping is allowed, and the only city park where you can build a fire away from the beach, says camp director Sheila Brown.
“S’mores are almost a requirement here,’’ she jokes.
While the camp is still popular with Scout troops, church groups and schools, its profile has shrunk. Part of that is visibility — you can barely see the sign for it as you drive along 35th Avenue Southwest. But it also feels dated, a place for the nostalgic and those who find contentment walking in the woods looking for salamanders or peering in the pond for fish.
Climbers who might have practiced on Schurman Rock have migrated to indoor gyms that provide rain-free climbing environments year-round. Families with young kids tend to gravitate to parks with play structures, and activities such as navigation via compass/sun dial have become obsolete for those who prefer the GPS on their cellphone.
To introduce modern-day challenges in keeping with the founders’ intent, the park has brought in a ropes course, a series of challenges designed to build confidence and develop group problem-solving skills, says Brown, who’s been camp director the past 10 years.
The upper ropes course, with its spider web of ropes and zip lines tucked in the treetops 15 feet in the air, looks like something out of “Robinson Crusoe.” The lower ropes course is a series of activities that bring people together to solve problems, like climbing together through a tangle of ropes and tires to reach a platform.
On a recent day, three students stand precariously on a moving wood beam suspended about 12 feet off the ground, trying to climb past a pastiche of tires as they make their way to the platform tethered to safety ropes. Their nervous chatter as they continue to reach and pull themselves up, up, up is rivaled only by the shouts of encouragement from their classmates and teachers below.
The students are from The New School, an alternative school in Seattle, and come from Somalia, Mexico, Vietnam and Russia.
Raman Jama, a student who is wearing a hajib and a skirt under her harness and helmet, is the first one down. She bumps fists with her teacher, who was one of four people holding the rope that lowered her down from up top.
She looks relieved and slightly awed as she gazes up at where she was only a few minutes earlier.
“It was good,’’ she says, shyly.
During their next visit, they’ll tackle the upper ropes course, where a group from another alternative school — the Interagency High School in South Seattle — had spent the day a few days earlier.
One girl refuses to move after making it across the first high-wire walk. A dozen others, however, are standing on platforms after helping each other get across floating wood blocks, vine-like ropes and zip lines for the ultimate descent on two long, steep zip lines that will bring them back to earth.
“It’s safe risk-taking, something teens’ brains are wired for,’’ says Brown. “We need to provide opportunities for them to take risks. Their emotional lives are so different, and one of the things we need to do is keep them safe.”
For some of the students, it may be the first time they’ve wandered and played in the woods, or spent time around a fire.
“It’s a good place for inner-city people who don’t have the means or the wherewithal to leave the city,’’ says Brown. “There are kids who live in Seattle who have never been to the beach.”
Watching the kids play in the woods, it’s clear that Camp Long is building something more than character. It’s building community, and connecting us to our past.
It reminds us that in a vast world, we can still discover ourselves and find our tribe in something as simple as singing around a fire.