Taking care of Camp Melacoma

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Stepping onto the grounds at Camp Melacoma is a lot like stepping back in time.The 142-acre heavily wooded site is tucked away in the hills of Skamania County, 13 miles up Washougal River Road. It has been a kids’ camp since 1948, when Robert Wineberg deeded the first chunk of the property to the Camp Fire Cascade Council.

Over the years, it’s been a place where literally thousands of kids of all ages and backgrounds have converged to explore nature first hand, and get the quintessential summer camp experience.

Dodi Jensen, a longtime Washougal resident, became the camp’s on-site caretaker in 2008. Jensen was looking for a change of pace and was familiar with the property, having volunteered at the site before.

“I had fallen in love with the camp long before I ever came to work here,” she said.

During a recent tour of the property, it’s easy to tell she’s familiar with its every nook and cranny. Perched aboard a four-wheeler, Jensen pointed out some of the camp’s 17 wooden buildings, many of which are named after people who have been important in its history.

There’s Wineberg Lodge and Nieman Lodge, and nearly a dozen primitive cabins where campers sleep. It’s got archery, bb gun and sling shot ranges, as well as a pool and a canoe pond. There’s also a craft house and a nurse’s station. All of this sits among the creeks, streams and trails that weave throughout.

Jensen points to an outdoor stage area, and describes a scene she has witnessed many times over.

“Imagine what this sounds like with 200 or 300 little girls singing,” she said. “It’s glorious. It’s wonderful.”

But unfortunately, summer 2010 was the last time those joyful sounds were heard at the camp. That’s when an investigation began into the high levels of naturally occurring arsenic that were discovered in one of three wells at the camp, forcing the its closure until a state Department of Health approved treatment plan could be established and administered.

But thanks to Jensen and her husband, Andy, laughter and singing could become commonplace at Camp Melacoma once again.

The couple formed the non-profit Camp Melacoma Association to purchased the property from Camp Fire Columbia in July in what Dodi Jensen describes as “a really good deal.”

“We had many different groups looking at buying the camp,” she said. “We bought it so that we could keep it a kids camp.

“It was eventually going to go to developers if we hadn’t bought it,” she added, explaining that private parties already purchased much of the property surrounding the camp.

Camp Fire Columbia had owned Camp Melacoma since 2010, when former owner Mt. Hood Council of Camp Fire folded, said Mark Baylis, the Portland-based organization’s spokesman.

Camp Fire Columbia agreed to take ownership of Camp Melacoma, even though it already owned the 552-acre Camp Namanu near Sandy, Ore.

“After much deliberation, we realized that operating two resident camps would have required resources and staff capacity that we just don’t have,” he said.

According to Baylis, Camp Fire Columbia agreed to sell the Camp Melacoma property below the assessed property value because market conditions for the sale of the property had been poor, and in an effort to keep it as a place for youth.

“Above all, we were committed to ensuring that Camp Melacoma be preserved for use as a summer camp for kids,” he said.

During the past five years, the Jensens have been more than just caretakers of Camp Melacoma. Even prior to the purchase, Dodi Jensen said they had put $150,000 of their own money into the property, which included purchasing equipment.

Now that their non-profit has taken ownership, Jensen said she plans to immediately address the arsenic issue.

Nikki Hollatz, Skamania County environmental health specialist, said there are options available to property owners with these kinds of water issues.

“There are different treatments, depending on exactly what levels of arsenic are in the water,” she said.

Dodi Jensen said one treatment uses chlorine and costs upwards of $75,000 to install, while another uses an aeration process and costs approximately $10,000.

Any treatment plan could involve at least a year-long pilot study.

“I’m hoping to go with [the aeration] route because it is the most effective and the least expensive, and no chemicals of any kind are used,” she said.

Whatever plan is in place must meet state Department of Health guidelines.

“They can’t re-open until they get arsenic treatment and approval,” Hollatz said.

Jensen said she plans to have a community dedication event in September, and hopefully re-open the camp by next summer.

“We love this camp. It’s a wonderful place,” she said. “The whole thing has been a true blessing of God, without a doubt.

“We know that God intended us to have this; we won’t ever let anything happen to it,” she continued. “It is now protected and saved forever for our community.”

Jensen said she has dreams that Camp Melacoma will one day offer classes in sustainable living, provide a location for local student to attend outdoor school, and even host events like weddings, anniversaries and reunions.

“But it’s always going to be a kids camp,” she said. “That is going to be our number-one emphasis.”