OCEAN PARK - The Dunes Bible Camp welcomed the first campers during the summer of 1957 and for the next half century Russell Watterberg and the staff have based their activities on the simple premise of reaching boys and girls, men and women for Christ.
"Right from the start, when we were one of the first camps in Southwest Washington, we said that camp leaders must preach the Word of God and the belief in Jesus as Savior," Watterberg says.
From the humble beginnings when the only permanent building housed the rest rooms to today when over 400 campers can be accommodated, with a like number able to also camp at the Loomis Lake site, the Dunes Bible Camp has always stressed maintaining a healthy and fun atmosphere. The goal is to provide campers a safe environment conducive to developing physical, mental, and spiritual growth and well-being. "We can't take any credit for the camp's growth over the years," Watterberg explains. "We have been faithful in our service and God has been faithful in blessing the camp."
Watterberg and his wife Myrtle came to the Peninsula in 1953 and at 25 years of age he started the Seaview Baptist Church. Fred and Sadie Cyphers donated much of the land the Dunes Camp is on a mile south of Ocean Park. The area was then called Lilly Dell Dunes and there was a one-bedroom house with a closet in a tower and the other building was a chicken coop. The house was eventually remodeled into a modern three-bedroom home with ocean view and the chicken coop became a sparkling-clean snack shack for decades.
Campers in the 1950s stayed in large canvas Army surplus tents and classes were held outside as weather permitted. A fire pit provided a meeting area and there was an outdoor baptismal.
The Southwest Conservative Baptist Association in the mid-1950s purchased land south of Lilly Dell and a board of five pastors, including Watterberg, took over administration of activities. Campers paid $12 for a week of camping and the first converts to Christ were soon recorded in Watterberg's log books that chronicle 50 years of service. He had worked as the "Sand Man," hauling sand for fill to augment his income as Seaview's pastor, but by 1959 the Watterbergs moved full-time to the camp.
"I remember taking campers out to the beach and beachcombing for materials to help build a 36 by 40- foot structure we used for meetings and another 28- by 36-foot structure we used as a bunkhouse. We used vizqueen, which had just come out, to cover them," Watterberg recalls. The structures doubled as a cook house and the larger as the dining hall. Picnic tables also served as pews for the makeshift chapel. "We did pranks like short-sheeting, greasing toilet seats, toilet-papering, and so on and often the biggest offenders were pastors," he laughs. "Campers certainly were more hearty back then than now."
Constant facility upgrades and expansions
The kitchen was the next permanent structure and then came the dining hall in 1961 and the chapel in 1962. "Seven pastors helped with the construction and by shopping for the best prices, we put up the buildings for about 50 cents a square foot. We never applied for government grants, but relied on volunteer help and donations," Watterberg says. "I remember counseling three men of the congregation who had marital problems while I was installing plumbing fixtures. They took their turns to talk while I worked." In 1964 additional bunks for boys and a girls' bunkhouse were completed.
One of the biggest difficulties proved to be growing lawn on the dune area in order to create play fields. In 1964 the 130 by 74-foot building that was to house the gymnasium and ocean view retreat area was built. "We started by calling it a play shed," Watterberg says. "Now it houses up to 100 campers and staff in a heated facility so we can have camps during the winter months."
Another major acquisition occurred in 1960 when Lilly Wiegardt donated 100 feet of Loomis Lake frontage. In 1970 the directors chose to purchase more land at the Loomis site. The original thought was to provide a safe swimming and recreation area away from the rip tides of the Pacific Ocean. A dock was soon constructed and the lake deepened to provide for a water slide. Loomis Lake is still often used for baptisms.
In 1967 another 100 acres across Loomis Lake to the east was leased and the area afforded campers' trails and some very interesting campouts as they shared the site with various indigenous animals, including a few black bears. In 1965 the first primary-age children came and a group of 100 enjoyed the up-graded facilities. There were 21 sessions and 1,500 individuals who visited the Dunes that year. Camper-days surpassed the 10,000 mark by 1971 and now that number is around 25,000 annually. It is estimated that as many as 750,000 camper-days have been logged in Watterberg's ledgers over the past half century.
In the late 1960s a six-bedroom staff unit was completed and an addition to the kitchen facilities was also finished. In the 1970s more boys' and girls' units were added and a new fire pit was finished to improve the outdoor meeting site. "Many a time I would buy fish for two cents a pound at the local cannery and I'd teach pastors and campers how to clean them," Watterberg remembers. "We ate very well in those days."
Watterberg says, "We let go and let God provide." In 1970 the ledger showed a beginning balance of $45.58 and by years end the ledger revealed an income of over $25,000. "Today it is not uncommon for the camp to earn $25,000 in one weekend." In the 1970s a possible legal skirmish was smoothed considerably as a family that also had a claim to the Lilly Dell property proved to be Christians or converts due to circumstances and the potential problem was quickly solved. "I brought along a notary when I made my visits," Watterberg chuckles.
Steve and Linda Holmes arrive at the camp
Perhaps the biggest change in the Dunes Bible Camp occurred when Steve and Linda Holmes came to live and work at the camp full-time in 1988. "The ministry had grown enough that Steve could direct camps and take on improvement projects and Linda worked in the office and helped (her mom) Myrtle in the kitchen." John and Karen Suprunowski became part of the work team a year later.
In 1990 a crew of RVICS (Roving Volunteers in Christ's Service) parked their RVs and soon completed a home for the Holmes. The next year a camp of over 400 people set a record for the largest ever and in 1992 over 28,000 meals were prepared during 50 camps and retreats.
In 1979 a swimming pool had been added "as a service to the public and to provide a safe place to swim." Watterberg says. "The fees we charge pay for the lifeguard and staff wages and the camp pays the electric and other bills from its income." On Oct. 6, 1992 fire struck at the Dunes, greatly damaging the pool. With the help of Jess and Kathi Woolliscroft, who also cared for the grounds at the Loomis site, the pool was restored. In December, 1994 a new 3,800 square foot dining facility was completed and in 1998 a 30 by 60-foot chapel was christened for use.
On Feb. 12, 1999 a second fire, this time at the gymnasium, caused considerable damage just as a group of 317 winter-time campers were about to arrive. Insurance covered some of the replacement costs and there was only one cancellation due to the fire according to Watterberg. "Shortly after the gym fire, 40 campers received Christ in one service." By 2000 a total of 5,469 campers spent 22,317 camper days. "We would feed up to 350 people and have the cleanup done in just over an hour," Watterberg says. "That is a testimony to our friendly, accommodating and hard-working staff that is a great witness to our campers."
Currently there are around 20 full- and part-time staff employed at the Dunes Bible Camp. There are over 70 camps and retreats held year around, with the Dunes Bible Camp sponsoring seven of them, down from a total of 12 they directly hosted a few years ago. The camp tradition of forming a circle of unity is still followed. Treks to the beach and kayak excursions on Loomis Lake are among the activities. Gone is the "weasel train" Russ used to form with a four-wheel ATV and several trailers full of gleeful campers and government regulations and inspections have become more a part of camp management.
Watterberg says, "We have had people come here in the 1950s and later their children and now their grandkids have stayed with us. We have had campers from England, Colorado, Canada, from all over. Lincoln Avenue Bible Church from Bremerton has been coming here for over 40 years."
One of Myrtle's favorite camps is when the Pacific Lutheran football team arrives. "It is so refreshing to see some of those strong young men sitting under a tree reading their Bibles or discussing what they've learned in small groups." Recently the group of high school youth from Woodland's Life Center Church "were rocking out for over two hours" Linda observes. "They are pretty charismatic," Steve adds.
With the Holmes dedicated work and leadership and Watterberg and Myrtle's steady helping hand the camp is now in the process of expanding their Loomis Lake grounds and just completed a concrete area for volleyball. "We let God provide and he blesses us," Watterberg states when asked about other future plans for the Dunes Bible Camp.
"The camp is kind of like that fir tree over there," he says pointing to a tall and twisted tree just east of the kitchen's back entrance. "We are a bit gnarled and have had our share of adversity, but we are still standing and we're still growing and maturing."