by Harold Roberts (late NCEM Honorary missionary)
The year was 1970 and we (Harold & Esther Roberts) were involved in Bible camp for Native young people at Jeanette Lake Bible Camp, north of Meadow Lake, SK. That year the Social Services people asked if we would consider having a week of camp for the young people of Buffalo Narrows, a settlement approximately 140 miles north and east of the Jeanette Lake campsite. They would supply transportation to and from camp and pay the camp fees. We agreed to do this and they sent us 100 campers, boys and girls ranging in age from 6 to 17 years. Most of them had never been to a Bible camp before and had no idea what it was all about.
For the director and cabin counselors, it was a hectic week and we wondered if anything worthwhile was being accomplished. However, when the buses arrived to take the campers home again, it was a scene that some of us will probably never forget. Almost the whole group wanted to stay at the Camp; they didn’t want to go home!
There were tearful goodbyes and, as the buses pulled out, many of the campers and counselors were openly crying. Somehow, during that week that had seemed so hectic to us, those young people had seen and experienced a touch of the love of God through the camp staff. A number of them had made a profession of faith in Christ during the week.
God began to lay a burden upon our hearts for them, and for the hundreds more like them in the seven settlements in the Buffalo Narrows area, where there were probably 8,000 to 9,000 people. Why should there be so many Bible camps and Christian opportunities for other young people in Canada and so little for the northern Native people? We began to pray and look into the possibilities.
We made inquiries and drove many miles in search of a suitable camp site. Late one afternoon, after a fruitless day of traveling, we stopped at some cabins along the road to visit and to leave some Christian literature. During our visit we explained to the man of the house our reason for being in the area. To our surprise he smiled and said, “I know just the place you are looking for. It is only about and mile and-a-half from here.”
He told us of an old bush road that would take us part way and we would have to walk the rest of the way. Our hopes were high and within an hour we (Abe Heppner, myself and daughter Joy) were looking at a beautiful camp site in the rough. All the potential was there: a beautiful little lake with a sandy beach, pine trees and hills, and it was only a mile from an all weather road and the hydro line. Yet it was quite isolated from outside influences. Was this God’s place for a Bible camp? Was this His answer to our prayers? Everything seemed to indicate that it was.
A few days after we had found the camp site, three of us flew into the site with the Mission plane to take a second look and to make a more thorough survey of the lake and the surrounding area. As we landed on the lake and taxied into shore, we found the water clear and warm and the shoreline was pure sand. Looking up from where we had beached the plane, we saw a natural amphitheatre of sandy hills rising up to probably 70 or 80 feet above the lake level.
The hills were covered with birch, aspen and pine, with an open central area coming down to the lake shore. It was a perfect setting for cabins and camp buildings in a semi-circle up on the hills looking down into the centre and out onto the lake. It was a camper’s dream and truly an answer to prayer! After further checking the area, we were all fully agreed that this place was all that we could have hoped for, for a Native Bible camp. God had done exceeding abundantly above all that we had asked or thought. (Our pilot that day was Ed Hickey, and Bud Elford and I were his passengers.) The first enquiry concerning the camp site was sent in to the Minister of Natural Resources at Regina on April 30, 1971.
Now, there are times when God gives a vision for some special work or project and, in answer to prayer, everything seems to be falling perfectly into place. Everything indicates that this is God’s leading and His direction. Then He lets that vision die! He closes the door.
Word came back from Regina that they were sorry to inform us that all of the land in the surrounding area had just been put under a land freeze because of a large proposed pulp mill that was to be built, and that no land was available — indefinitely.
God allowed the death of this vision so that we might understand that if it was ever to become a reality, that He would be the doer of it. It would be in His good time and in His way. For us, we must be willing to surrender all of our desires and plans to Him, trusting that His way is best.
In the meantime another request had come from Buffalo Narrows for 100 campers for the 1971 season. Again they were bused out the 140 miles and all camp fees paid. A number of them became car sick on the way because of the many hills and curves in the road. God was still impressing upon us the need of a camp much closer to where these young people lived.
In the summer of 1971 there was a provincial election in Saskatchewan and this brought about a change of government. The proposed pulp mill was cancelled out even though much of the clearing and ground work had already been done for it. Sept. 7, 1971, another letter was sent to the Department of Natural Resources at Ile a la Crosse, SK. A lease was granted for the camp site on Oct. 13, 1971, received with much thanksgiving and praise!
A week later we were able to move a small trailer, a tent and some supplies to within a half-mile of the camp site. The work of clearing a road began and, on Oct. 27, the camp site was officially staked out by compass readings — five acres of beautiful camping ground. Then on Nov. 4 the trailer and tent were moved onto the camp grounds. It was an exciting but cold day as we settled in. The whole site was dedicated to the Lord in prayer. The temperature dropped to -23 degrees C, with wind and snow. Clearing and burning continued as there were many dead and fallen trees to get rid of.
On Nov. 25 three young fellows from Youngstown, AB (Alan Squire, Ron Armstrong, Dwayne Connel) brought a truckload of things for the Camp — stoves, chainsaw, a small tractor and some furniture. These fellows stayed with us for several days helping with the clearing and burning and making good use of the tractor. The temperature dropped to -28, then -34 degrees C, making sleeping in a tent very uncomfortable.
Those were challenging days with lots of good hard work, fun and fellowship. By Dec. 10 the snow and cold weather, along with inadequate living quarters, made it necessary to close down the Camp for the winter.
To close camp meant to take what we could out and commit the rest to the Lord for His safe keeping until we could get back in the spring. For a number of winters the Lord did just that as we had to leave, even when some of the local Native men told us that people would vandalize the place. We left the doors unlocked with a written invitation on the table to help themselves to the coffee if they would like to. Not even a window was broken!
After the lease on the land was granted in Oct. of 1971, several of us met to form a Camp Board. It was agreed that the Camp should be available to both Native and non-Native people, but primarily to Native young people. It should be used for year-round activities and not only for summer camping. Family gatherings and weekend retreats would also be included.
At a second meeting on Jan. 4, 1972, plans were to have a Camp brochure made up through which to make the Camp known to the public. Because of the horse-shoe shaped ridge of hills around the central part of the site, and the pine trees, it was suggested that we call it Pine Ridge Bible Camp.
Various types of buildings were discussed, as well as the general layout of the Camp. It was decided that we should use A-frame and log cabins that were well spaced around the ridge of hills and looking down on the centre of the camp site and the lake. Two hundred and forty dollars had been donated, so a camp account was opened in the Royal Bank in Meadow Lake, which is 100 miles south of Pine Ridge. It was agreed that we should already begin plans for four weeks of camp that coming summer, and tentative dates were set for July 10 to August 12. This meant that the grounds had to be cleared, buildings erected and everything necessary for a camp must be gathered together and ready by the first week in July.
As soon as the snow was gone enough in the spring to get into the Camp, work began and again living quarters were a small trailer and tents. There was much under brush and dead and fallen trees that had to be cleared and burned. Logs had to be cut, hauled and peeled, as well as lumber brought in from a saw mill about 50 miles away. Shingles were made on a small shingle mill owned by a Christian man at Buffalo Narrows, some 65 miles north of the Camp. These shingles were cut from blocks from the dry fallen logs. Some of those who helped came many miles at their own expense, as well as donating their time. It was not uncommon for some to be working at six o’clock in the morning and on till late in the evening. Those were days of hard work along with good fun and fellowship, mosquitoes and sand flies.
There was one common goal: to prepare a camp site where Native people could come and, in a homey natural setting, hear the Gospel and see it lived out in lives of Christian people who cared. By July 1, three A-frame cabins were up, as well as a log dining room / kitchen. Dishes and utensils for the kitchen were on hand, some coming from as far north as Atikameg, Alberta, others from southeast of Wainright, Alberta. A well had been dug for a clean water supply. Three canoes and a small boat and motor were on hand as well as some sports equipment.
Then came the final decision … were we ready? Should we trust the Lord, with what we had, to begin four weeks of camp? At best it would be very primitive, but all were agreed and confident that we should go ahead.
So it was on July 10, 1972, with a hastily prepared camp and $100 in the Camp fund, that a group of Native young people came from Buffalo Narrows. What an exciting day for both campers and staff! For the next month, as different age groups came in each week, the hills of Pine Ridge rang with the sounds of happy activities of these young people.
We know that there was joy in Heaven as well, for a number of those first young people came to know the Lord as their personal Saviour! One eight year-old girl, in particular, trusted in the Lord and has never turned back. She became a regular camper in the years to follow. As she grew older she would come for her week of camp and would then stay on as part of the kitchen staff. She then took part as a junior counselor and then on to the responsibilities of a regular cabin counselor. She went out to a Christian high school, then on to graduate from Bible school and into nurses training. God is faithful and does exceeding abundantly above what we can ask or think, and this girl is a seal of His faithfulness.
Others, too, went on to become part of the summer staff. One year we had the joy to have on staff five of those who had come to camp in those first years as campers. They were very cooperative and helpful, and a pleasure to work with.
The first year the Lord sent us workers from Washington State, Idaho, Illinois, New Brunswick, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It was amazing how well were were supplied with staff and finances. We had started with $100 in the Camp fund and ended camp with all bills paid. Most of the workers had been given an honorarium and we had more money left than when camp began, even though there were no camp fees received that year. But, best of all, souls had been saved and others had heard and seen the Gospel in action. A tired but happy staff closed camp and went their various ways.
God had drawn us together for a few short weeks and had made us one for His purpose of reaching these young people for Himself. That which was once only a vision of what could be, had become a reality. Yet we were to see much more of God’s faithfulness and blessing in the years that followed.