Center Lake Camp
Scroll down to find Post 1 of By the Campfire’s Ruddy Glow
The Legend of Pierre
The air was chill and a full moon lit Center Lake Camp in north central Michigan. Campers and staff huddled around a blazing fire on the hill overlooking the lake, a perfect setting for a story. But I didn’t have a story. All I had was a mossy wooden rowboat half hidden in sand on the bottom of the lake. It spotted it one day while exploring by canoe. Obviously, it had been there a long time, and I wondered how it got there–wood boats generally don’t sink. Campers had noticed it too. With only that mossy fossil as a prop, I launched the story. I had no idea where it would lead
A story needs conflict: good guys and bad. The Ojibwa and Pottawatomie tribes became my good guys. They didn’t get along to well, but they faced a common enemy, Pierre, the cheating fur trader, my bad guy. Somehow, I’d find a place for the old boat.
The story surprised me: it told itself, as stories often do; but the denouement must have been made in heaven, for no mortal could have planned it.
With the big moon and a crackling fire, I didn’t need much of a story, and frankly, I can’t recall most of it, but I began with the ancient boat, promising to tell how it got there. We journeyed back to the fur trade days and the tribes who first camped at Center Lake. I didn’t press the history, for I didn’t know it, but neither did the campers.
I created Pierre, the crooked fur trader, a seasoned woodsman, ruthless, cunning. His cheating enraged the Indians, but they feared his rifle. They waited and watched.
One night, Pierre camped on this very hill. The moon was full. The forest crowded close. His fire burned low, and Pierre sat listening; his rifle and furs nearby. In the distance, a wolf howled.
From the forest Pottawatomie warriors watched, while Ojibwa canoes glided ghostlike toward shore, where Pierre’s boat waited.
A movement in the forest disturbed a great gray owl. It flew heavily through the trees and swept low over Pierre’s fire. Sensing something had disturbed the owl, Pierre arose silently. He gathered his bundle of furs and rifle to make his way to the security of the lake. Suddenly, Pottawatomie cries filled the night. Staggering under his load, Pierre ran to the lake. He threw the furs in the boat and pushed from shore. Then Ojibwa war cries drove terror into his soul. Pierre poled furiously, fully visible in the moonlight. Arrows flew from shore and canoe. One stuck home and Pierre staggered. The boat tipped, filled with water and slowly sank under the weight of ill-gotten furs. And there it rests today.
The story was finished. The circle of campers sat by the coals of the fire, caught up in the mood of the moment. I have no idea why I added more, but with hushed voice I said, “Legend has it that on this hill, when the moon is full and the night is still, you can hear Pierre’s heart, beating, beating, for his spirit could find no rest.”
Then the hair rose on the back of my neck. Through the night came a faint thunk, athunk, athunk. I swear, until that moment, I had never noticed the pulse of an oil rig a few fields over.
Joe and the Gypsy Fortune Teller
We old guys love to visit the past. Sometimes we feel good; other times we wonder how could we have been so stupid. One of the stupids carries me back to a campfire at Center Lake. The camp became a significant part of Wayside Baptist in Muskegon, where I served five years. We helped develop the property and strengthen the first youth camps.
About the time the camp opened, Joe and Julie Burkhart joined Wayside. Joe was a man of refined tastes—he loved fishing and the outdoors. And we had another common interest: Scouting. Working together, we launched a troop at Lincoln School, where Joe taught. He became Scoutmaster and I volunteered to be chaplain. Within a year, 60 boys joined the troop.
Each summer Joe put together an extended camping trip. The third year, he plotted a two week trip around Lake Michigan. Thinking it improper to send boys off without a chaplain, I joined the trip. In mid-June four leaders and about 20 boys headed north in the troop’s refurbished bus. Our goal: Imp Lake Campground in the Ottawa National Forest, our base for exploring that part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We stayed about a week and then worked our way south through Wisconsin, planning an overnight at Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist haven. We had good kids. We could turn them loose with little fear of mischief. Joe and I roamed about. We came upon a Gypsy fortune teller plying her trade. I figured that dark-skinned fortuneteller wearing a red kerchief would make a story, though I had nothing particular in mind..
The following spring, Center Lake hired Joe as summer manager. I signed on for young teen week. My duties included evening campfire. As I reflected on story themes, the Gypsy fortune teller came to mind. I plotted with Joe.
At dusk, campers, staff, and visitors gathered around the fire on the hill overlooking the lake. Among the visitors was an elderly grandmother. I began the program: campfire songs, reflections on the day, and as darkness deepened, I launched into the story. Joe stood just outside of the fire circle, primed for his part.
I told about the previous summer’s Scout trip, all true. When we got to the Dells, truth came up lame. I pictured Joe and me mingling with the knot of tourists at the Gypsy’s booth, not hiding our skepticism. She grew increasingly agitated. Suddenly, she rose, ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, and pressed into the startled crowd. She shoved her face close to mine and shouted, “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note in my hand.
At that point in the story, I fumbled in my wallet and fished out a tattered, folded paper. “This is the Gypsy’s note. I don’t know why I kept it. I don’t believe in fortune tellers.” Smoothing the paper, I pretended to read by firelight. “Ridiculous! Joe and I are the best of friends–” A hushed voice: “What did she write?” I read slowly, “By this day another summer, one of you will slay the other.”
With a yell, Joe leaped the campers circling the fire, leaped the fire, and headed for me. I hurled down the hill into the darkness with Joe close behind. We lay out of sight in tall grass, stifling laughter. That was one campfire the kids would remember!
Little did we know. At the fire circle, panic. Campers cried. The old grandmother came close to a heart attack. When Joe and I appeared, expecting applause for a masterful performance, our laughter turned to chagrin. Said one infuriated soul, “How could you!”
This Little Light of Mine
1962 the Baptist General Conference invited me to direct camping and boys’ work. I traveled to camps in many places and filled various roles. Center Lake Camp, ministry I was involved with at its beginning, invited me several times. On each visit I looked forward to seeing John Libke, a friend from those early years. Converted late in life, John gave himself to kids. He came to camp each year, sometimes as a counselor, sometimes as speaker. John was without peer as a storyteller. When Satan hurled darts from John’s giant flannel board, you ducked.
The events of this story took place in the mid-60s. John was the speaker. I was a utility person and led evening campfires. The fire circle had moved from the hill to the slope overlooking the swimming area. I recall the sandy shallows reaching far out where lived the biggest pollywogs I ever saw.
Trying to make the final evening memorable, I planned a familiar campfire gimmick but with a twist. , If it worked, the kids would remember.
I recruited help to set up my gimmick during the evening chapel, when no camper would be in sight. To pull it off, I needed calm waters and full dark. Fortunately, we had a waning moon.
From two lengths of 2 x 4 we constructed an eight-foot cross which we wrapped in burlap to hold a generous drenching with fuel oil. We planted the cross 30 feet or so out from shore in the sandy point. About six inches above the waterline I tacked a small staple. From a fishing rod hidden in the brush on shore I ran a monofilament line through the staple, then back to shore. I coached a counselor on his duty.
During the week I had scrounged a metal wash basin and covered it inside and out with crumpled foil. A paper toweling pad in the bottom awaited an anointing. I tied a wire leader on the monofilament and snapped it onto the basin, which rested on a substantial block of wood, forming a handsome, a rustic altar. A bundle of fine cedar sticks lay nearby.
Blessedly, the night was calm and darkness hid the cross, as the bell summoned campers to the fire circle. They came boisterous, laughing, Uncle John Libke among them.
Seeking spiritual decision making has been part of the camp tradition from the frontier camp meetings to this day. May that ever be so! Countless souls have come to Christ camp and countless more have renewed their faith at Christian camps. Campfires provide opportunity for campers to share new-found faith, and leaders have devised various ways to visualize the sharing: slips of paper or chips of wood tossed on the fire. I hoped to visualize the impact campers can make when they go home.
We sang rousing songs then quiet songs and we reflected on the good camp week. Warmed by the fire and the sense of God’s presence, I invited campers and staff to tell of their faith and camp decisions. I invited them to place a stick on the altar by the water as a symbol of their desire to share Christ back home.
Many came, some with tears, a heartwarming scene. A tangled pile of sticks formed in the basin. Finally, a counselor I had prompted shared his heart then held his stick in the fading fire. He carried it ablaze to the basin, probing to the oil-soaked pad. The dry cedar quickly ignited, and I placed the flaming basin on the still water at the water’s edge. Then, mysteriously, the basin began to move, abetted by the hidden counselor.
Spellbound, the campers watched. The basin moved, driven by some unseen force, its flames reflected on still water. We began a quiet song. The basin moved slowly, then stopped. A tongue of fire rose and kept rising. It spread along each arm of the cross and to the top, lighting the darkness, a light kindled by the campers’ love for Jesus.
I thanked God for the Light of the world. I thanked God that we, too, can be lights to show the way out of darkness to friends back home. We returned to our cabins quietly. A memorable evening.
Fire From Heaven
A year or so after my dramatic campfire, I was back at Center Lake. This time I was the chapel speaker and Uncle John Libke looked after evening campfires. My flaming cross had so impressed him he decided to give it a go, but with a new twist.
Late afternoon on the final full day of the week, with the campers occupied away from the beach, I joined Uncle John and his helpers at his car. The trunk produced a bundle of half-inch pipe, fine wire, burlap sacks, a long nylon rope, a gallon can of fuel oil, and a foot-long contraption wrapped with burlap and fitted with pulleys.
The threaded pipe segments formed into a cross which we decked with burlap and planted in the sandbar about where my cross had stood. We drenched it with fuel oil. Uncle John was about to attempt an old camp gimmick, Elijah’s fire from heaven. We secured one end of the nylon rope to the cross two feet above the water and led the other end to an old cottonwood near the campfire circle. John coached the tree-climber.
Darkness was falling as I told the final chapel story. The campers milled about, waiting for the bell to summon them to the last campfire. Uncle John was ready; his storytelling was awesome. The campfire blazed he paced and gestured, morphing into. Elijah. He taunted the Prophets of Baal. They cut themselves until blood gushed out, but no fire fell. Exhausted from their frenzy, they retired.
Stone by stone Elijah built an altar. He laid on wood and slayed a bull and placed pieces of it on the altar. Then he drenched the whole works with barrels of water. Then he prayed, calling out, “Let the fire fall! No fire.
John made three mistakes. He did not test-run his missile; he did not calculate the elasticity of nylon rope; and he did not imagined how hard it would be to strike a match high up in a cottonwood hanging on with one hand. A heathen camper giggled.
John backed up in his story and again prayed loudly. “Let the fire fall!” A flicker, a flame. Through the darkness a fiery missile hurled downward over the lake, bounced off the water once, twice, and died. More heathen giggles. Uncle John said, “Lloyd, close the meeting.”
I thanked him for the great story and said, “Sometimes our fires don’t work, but you can count on it, God’s fire never fails.” We dispatched a counselor in a rowboat to light the cross and the campers watched the fire until it faded. Uncle John sat sadly nearby.