Deep in the tall forests of eastern Lewis County, there is a camp where boys and girls of all ages reconnect with nature. They run, they play, they build trails, they touch the moss, they disconnect from electronics. For many of these kids, this can be their first trip ever outside of a city. And it can be life-changing for almost any child – or even adult – who attends.
Cispus Learning Center began life as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in 1935 with a dual role of protecting natural resources while providing jobs and a stipend for men. CCC was disbanded in 1942 but was basically revived later as the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), which provided training and education for young adults. So in 1966, Cispus became a training site for YCC.
In 1978 David Keaton, now 54, was one of those young people who attended Cispus as part of YCC program. “I loved it there. It was a lot of fun while also being educational and a lot of hard work. I have great memories. I wanted to go back; I had spent two summers there. But after I applied for the summer of 1980 that’s when Mount Saint Helens blew, and that ended our program.”
In 1981, the Association of the Washington School Principals (AWSP) took over the property in a lease agreement with the Forest Service. The Association of Washington Student Leaders (AWSL), a division of AWSP began hosting educational programs of many types. An Outdoor Health and Fitness program is offered to teach students about outdoor recreational opportunities. A summer leadership camp is also offered. Other groups have used the facilities for camps such as summer science camps.
Facilities, while older, are still very useful, and include a full gymnasium, dormitories, dining hall, auditorium, educational classrooms and an outdoor pavilion. Popular hiking trails, a bonfire area and a play field are also in use. One building is still the same – the Sasquatch Lodge complete with its massive fireplace. And plans are being made to build a new large facility that will be more conducive to varying size groups.
The new building, called the Burley Mountain Dormitory, is named after Burley Mountain, which is located about 13 miles from Cispus Center. You can drive most of the way to the top of the mountain, then walk a short way up to the top to a Forest Service lookout building. From there you get an amazing up-close and personal view of Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, all from one spot.
While the dorms are set up with 26 bunks on each side and hold 52 people, the Burley Mountain Dormitory would have 20 rooms holding two people each. “It will be much more attractive for groups that want their own meeting space,” explains Chase Buffington, general manager. “Besides, some adults snore (like me) so it would be nice to have my own room and not keep everyone else awake,” he laughs.
Cispus has just received approval to start clearing the site but a building date is not scheduled. “It’s a funding thing,” explains Buffington. “If an individual or business wants to donate, they certainly can.”
Buffington says that last year they had 15,000 to 18,000 people come through, which equates to an impressive 50,000 use hours. “Groups stay three to five days, except our summer leadership classes, which stay longer,” he says. Most area middle schools now send their sixth graders to a weeklong camp at Cispus. It’s an event so popular that at times when budgets have threatened to stop the visits, parents have banded together to raise funds to keep it going.
Cispus, which is open all year long, is also well known for their ROPES Challenge Team Building course. People of all ages have attended the site to practice their team-building skills in the peaceful natural setting.
The reason for the allure and popularity of Cispus Learning Center has not changed over the years. Buffington explains, “Everyone likes the idea of no cell service. For people to actually turn off their phones for the day and have conversations is amazing. Kids too, it takes them a few days but then they are laughing and talking,” smiles Buffington. “It’s just good human interaction.”
Staff feel the same way. “We all love camp songs. We hear a lot of them working here, there are a lot of smiles,” says Buffington. “We have a lot of staff that have been here a long time.”
Marty Fortin, Director of Outdoor Learning Schools is an example of that. “He’s been working here over 25 years, but he started coming to camps in the 1970s,” says Buffington. “Everyone comes to get away, relax and enjoy nature.”
The feelings one gets at Cispus Learning Center has not changed in over 80 years. That calm, that reconnection with nature as well as its ability to speak to our souls, never goes out of style.
Cispus Learning Center
2142 Cispus Road
Randle, WA 98377