LONG PINE — Its 75th anniversary brought a good share of highs and lows to Camp Witness — especially where its waterways were concerned.
The nondenominational, nonprofit Bible camp, located at the confluence of Pine Creek and Willow Creek just north of Long Pine in North Central Nebraska, saw a radical increase in the number of campers this past summer as part of the facility’s anniversary celebration.
But devastating floods in March and again in September have left camp officials struggling to restore access to a majority of the camp’s land and scrambling to raise funds to protect one of its main buildings.
“For the last 70 years, these banks have not moved and nobody’s had a problem,” said camp director Glenn Smith. “Now the 50 feet of bank that was between us and the creek is all gone.”
Founded in 1944, Camp Witness includes about 80 acres of wilderness in Brown County. Each year, it draws about 350 youths from a roughly 300-mile sphere of influence to its day camps and specialty camps that range in interest from sports, outdoors, arts, and music and drama. It also hosts special-needs camps and offers its space for rent for a variety of visiting groups.
“I would say we have close to 1,000 people who come and go through the course of the year,” Smith said of the camp’s guests.
The property is divided by Pine Creek, which converges with Willow Creek near the camp’s gymnasium. When floodwaters washed across much of the state in March, Camp Witness was cut off from 65 acres of its land when the wooden bridge on a minimally maintained county road fell in.
“Sadly, the county wants to abandon it now,” Smith said. “We are in cordial discussions at this point, trying to convince them they need to work with FEMA and NEMA to get that bridge replaced.”
A separate walking bridge also was washed out in the March flood. Smith said it was salvaged but no longer spans the enormous gap left by the eroding bank.
The county road bridge, he said, was about 24 feet long, which is now about 50 feet too short to span the now roughly 70-foot gap.
“It’s not like you can throw a little dirt in there and it will be fine,” he said. “It’s a big mess.”
Smith said FEMA officials had visited a few weeks ago to look at the bridge and discuss the possibility of getting it replaced. But then parts of North Central Nebraska were hit with a second round of flooding after torrential rains fell in mid-September and created a major setback on recovery efforts from the earlier flooding.
“The county is in a tough situation because all of the work they’ve done since March washed away in September,” Smith said. “Now we’re back to the bottom of the pile again.”
The September flood exacerbated an even bigger problem for the camp, as well. During the peak of the most recent flooding, Willow Creek — which is usually about 8 inches deep and 8 feet wide — was about 15 feet deep and 120 feet wide, Smith said. Now only about 6 feet of riverbank remains between the edge of the camp’s 16-year-old gymnasium and a 15-foot drop that leads down to the creek.
“The creek is not there now. It went back down, but if we have another significant water event, it’s very possible it will undercut our gym,” Smith said. “Then it becomes an unsafe place to work, and it’s possible we could lose the whole gym.”
Moving the gym is not feasible nor cost effective as it would require the relocation of the camp’s septic system and possibly other nearby buildings, he said.
Smith said the estimated cost to restore the bank in a way that it will protect the gym moving forward is about $125,000. Adding that to the annual fundraising needs for operational costs has led camp officials to set a goal to raise $200,000 in about 60 days.
“We really want to get this work done before the ground freezes, if possible, so that when it thaws in the spring, we don’t automatically have a problem,” Smith said.
Smith said he also understands shoring up the riverbank also will include working with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“At this point, I have to trust that the government doesn’t want a half-million-dollar gym lying in the creek,” he said. “That’s not in their best interest.”
Camp Witness has a series of fundraising events planned, beginning with this past Saturday’s “Save the Camp” supper and informational gathering at the camp. It offered an opportunity for visitors to stop by and see the camp and survey the damage done by the 2019 floods.
A “Save the Gym” event will follow on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 3 p.m. A supper will be served at 6 p.m., and an auction will follow. The camp’s annual fundraising Thanksgiving banquet is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, and will feature special guest Taylor Mason.
Smith said he already has spoken with at least one ag producer who offered a donation of several hundred bushels of soybeans for the camp’s benefit. Although he knows it’s been a difficult year, Smith said he hopes others will be as generous because the camp has done great work in touching the lives of youths throughout the years.
“I can tell you stories of impact all afternoon long,” he said of the camp’s positive impact.
He also prays the forces of nature will be kinder to Camp Witness, at least until its facilities are better protected.
“We’re in the Sandhills, so that entire bank is nothing but covered-up beach,” he said. “It’s not going to take a lot to continue to undermine it.”