San Francisco Chronicle

Hard times for Oakland’s family camp

- By Annie Vainshtein

After a year fraught with uncertaint­y and disappoint­ment, the Feather River Camp community was eager to return to the mountains.

With the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind, the camp was ready even if it meant fewer and smaller sessions, social distancing, no indoor activities and no camp songs at Feather River. The family camp has operated in Quincy (Plumas County) since 1924.

But as raging wildfires threatenin­g the region started getting closer, it seemed like the parade of disruptive disasters would never end.

Last week, Oakland’s Feather River Camp had to close again — this time in a frenzy.

The family camp was forced to evacuate its campers, staff and horses as the Fly Fire, which later merged with the Dixie Fire, inched closer to the camp’s borders late last month. Now the potential for yet another missed year is already looming.

“This is a camp director’s biggest fear,” said the camp’s executive director, Mark Olson. “This is such a special place to hundreds of thousands of families and Oaklanders.”

Now, another year of lost revenue is financiall­y threatenin­g the future of the camp, which was founded by the city of Oakland to give residents a lowcost opportunit­y to enjoy the Sierra. Oakland’s park department ran the camp until 2003, when it was handed over to a nonprofit group in the face of budget constraint­s.

The camp is funded largely by registrati­on fees and contributi­ons. In 2019, it served 2,700 campers — an increase of 38% over the prior year.

The camp was planning to serve over 3,000 campers before the pandemic hit. The day the shelterinp­lace order was issued in the Bay Area, camp administra­tors printed 35,000 brochures for distributi­on in Oakland public schools.

Canceling the 2020 season was a challengin­g decision for the camp and its community, Olson said, especially as they managed refunds, fundraisin­g and securing eligibilit­y for Paycheck Protection Program loans. No employees were laid off, but many seasonal positions were left vacant, he added.

In the fall, the camp operators started to plan for the 2021 season, and in March, they opened registrati­on. In May, they welcomed their first campers over the Memorial Day weekend.

For campers like Jessica Russell, 49, who first started going to camp with her husband and twins 8 years ago, even a modified return to camp was a salve.

It was one of the hardest things to give up during the pandemic, she said, and to come back after almost two years felt like a return to normalcy, if only briefly.

“You feel like you’re a million miles away, but it also has this uniquely Oakland vibe,” Russell said. “It’s just the perfect opportunit­y for families with kids to take them someplace where they can have that sense of independen­ce, but still have time with their family.”

In normal times, a typical stay at Feather River consists of swimming, horseback riding, and themed weeks that include activities like astronomy, music, dance, storytelli­ng, mountain biking and more. There’s archery, line dancing, campfires, talent shows, and arts and crafts.

But two weeks later, when Russell was already home, she saw that the fires were getting closer to the camp. That moment was painful, she said.

Due to the unstable situation with the wildfires, the camp canceled its last two sessions of family camp, but is hoping to open back up in time for August activities and Labor Day.

But with no end to Northern California’s wildfire season in sight, the future seems more uncertain than ever.

The thought of losing the camp to wildfires or financial hardship feels, for many campers, like a piece of Oakland would be lost, too.

For East Oakland native Lukas BrekkeMies­ner, whose family has been going to the camp since the 1970s, Feather River is more than just a connection to earth or nature — it’s a true legacy of Oakland, he said, and one that was inspired by the notion that workingcla­ss people deserve vacations as well.

“Over the years, it’s always felt like Feather River has been one of the bestkept secrets of Oakland,” BrekkeMies­ner said. “There’s this deep, historical connection to Oakland ... but with the express design of Oaklanders in mind.”

BrekkeMies­ner said he brought his 1yearold daughter to the camp for the first time, where she spent time with her extended family for what seemed like the first time after the pandemic.

With the camp forced to lurch from one calamity to the next, BrekkeMies­ner said he hopes Oakland officials will consider greater financial support for the camp.

“Legacies don’t live on by themselves,” he said. “They need to be sustained. I would love for (the City Council) to go up and experience it and talk to folks for whom its been a lifeline, and think about what a gift it could be, and how it could keep going.”

 ?? Feather River Camp ?? Oakland’s Feather River Camp has struggled for more than a year because of the pandemic and, more recently, wildfires.
Feather River Camp Oakland’s Feather River Camp has struggled for more than a year because of the pandemic and, more recently, wildfires.

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