Camp Shady Brook celebrates 65 years

By: Megan Wood
August 19, 2013
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Canoeing, horseback riding, arts and crafts - summer camp hasn't changed much over the years.

At Camp Shady Brook in Deckers, these types of activities have been enjoyed for 65 years, and counting.

"Camp Shady Brook, since 1948, has literally provided outdoors experiences for thousands of children in the Pikes Peak region," said Merv Bennett, former president/CEO of the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. "But actually, it's served children from the Denver area as well, and the whole Front Range. I call it a unique laboratory that can't be replaced."

Decades before the YMCA purchased the land in 1948, the property was homesteaded by the Bandhauer family. The valley, sitting at 6,700 feet near Fourmile Creek and South Platte River, is where Robert and Lizzie Bandhauer spent their summers with their four daughters. They called it Bandhauer's Retreat and invited people to stay and experience the Western way of life.

Three original buildings still stand at the camp today - the ranch house where the family lived, a temporary cabin that was used while the ranch house was built and a dance hall, which was constructed so that the Bandhauer daughters could find husbands.

The restored ranch house is now the camp's office, and the dance hall served as a dining hall until 2010.

In the 1920s, the ownership of the property was passed to the Day family. The Day's Dude Ranch populated the area with horses and cabins and existed until the YMCA purchased the property.

The future of Shady Brook wasn't always certain. At one point, the Denver Water Board proposed the Two Forks Dam, which would have flooded half of the camp, Bennett said.

"We didn't know whether the camp would be able to survive that - if the dam had gone in, it would have put Highway 67 right in the back of camp," said Art Wannlund, the camp's executive director from 1972 to 1982. "It was a challenge to run it, and we didn't know what the future was going to be."

Wannlund said it was difficult to manage Shady Brook in the '70s because it was a hard period to operate anything and the unemployment rate was high. Some things were easier then, however. Campers didn't need permits from the National Forest Service to hike in the canyon behind the camp, like they do today.

"One of the things that is important today that was important then is that this is an opportunity for many of these children to have their first experience away from home - learning to build new friendships, living in a new community," Wannlund said. "It's a real challenge - the fears that children have - and to help them work through those."

This summer, 1,021 campers ranging in age from 6 to 17 headed to Shady Brook, said Pat Soldan, the camp's executive director.

"For the last four years, we've been steadily growing. In 2009, with the floods, we had to shut down the last couple weeks," Soldan said. "So it's been a recovery trend."

The camp is no stranger to disaster. In 2002, the Schoonover Gulch and Hayman fires burned nearly all of the camp.

"It had two fires within nine days of each other, and we lost camp season for a whole year," Bennett said.

The Schoonover Gulch fire burned nine buildings, including the caretaker's home and the maintenance facilities. But the camp persevered. Tent platforms were built as temporary lodging, and two large lodges, the archery range, the campfire area and ropes courses were rebuilt.

By 2003, the camp reopened. That's when the flooding began. And it continued periodically for nearly nine years, spilling gravel and debris into the lake.

"But the lake is now back, and the fish are happy, and the kids are canoeing and swimming in it and the horses like it," Bennett said.

Jen Johnson started working at Shady Brook in 1986 when she was 15. She worked as head wrangler at the stables, in the store and as a counselor supervisor.

"Shady Brook is like no other place," she said. "It can change lives, it can provide freedom, it can provide independence. That's what camp is about."

Her 12-year-old son just completed his fifth summer at the camp and her 9-year-old daughter attended for the first time this summer.

"Shady Brook is home for me," Johnson said. "It's like an extension of me, and it's become an extension of them."

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