Spending winter at Echo Ranch

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

It won't be long now, and summer will be here. Let us hope that's sooner than later.

For the staff of Echo Ranch Bible Camp, activities begin to take place in late April and continue until the end of September. The spring and fall are our retreat seasons, and the summer is set for the main camping programs.

Ever wonder what happens during the winter? At the end of the fall retreat season, a majority of the staff leave Echo Ranch and go back to their homes around Southeast Alaska. But there is usually one family that lives on the Echo Ranch property as the winter caretakers.

The main responsibility of the winter caretakers is looking after the horses. This means feeding the herd of more than 20 horses twice a day and keeping tabs on the health of each animal. The horses still roam the property, but they are very familiar with meal times.

In the winter, the horses grow thick rough coats and take on independent personalities to match. The caretakers ensure that all the horses get plenty of feed and that one individual doesn't grab too much hay from another.

The next biggest responsibility is snow management. Echo Ranch has its own little atmosphere that hangs over Berners Bay. The weather at camp can be completely different than what takes place in Juneau. Each year varies, but the past couple of years have been packed with large amounts of snow.

Whoever volunteers for the caretaker position is taking a step back into real pioneer days. To conserve fuel, the generator is only run for about eight hours a day. Access in and out of camp can be very limited, and there is often zero access for weeks or sometimes months.

Communication is narrowed down to the radio phone and satellite Internet when the generator is running. And compared to five or 10 years ago, that is step up. Before the snow begins to fall, visitors can walk out to the camp, but it's not long until having guests is no longer an option.

If the caretakers have children homeschool is the only way to go. Studies are done by candle light and oil lamps. Cooking is done with a supply of natural gas located by the house which also helps to keep the home warm. The hope is to fill the pantry in the fall, but this does not always happen. Chickens are kept at the ranch to provide fresh eggs, and the freezer is filled with fish and various kinds of Echo Ranch-raised pork.

Carl and Heather Ramseth, along with their five children, are taking care of Echo Ranch this season. They have described caretaking as a humbling, challenging, rewarding, frustrating, lonely and deeply satisfying experience all at once.

This winter, the Ramseths watched as every piece of snow removal equipment broke down along with every other system camp has in place for their winter stay. They have learned that what we've come to rely upon is not always reliable. However, by asking God for strength and his daily provision, the Ramseths have been determined to make it through.

One answer to prayer has been support given by Echo Ranch staff and friends of the family living in Juneau. Whether through financial support, the use of snowmachines or just calling on the radio phone to say hello, the Ramseths said their experience would not have been the same without the caring people God has placed in their lives.

Toward the end of April, the rest of staff will return to Juneau with the hopes of opening camp. The camp facilities will need to be reset and all of the equipment pulled out of storage. The horses will need to be groomed and readied to give campers trail rides once again.

There have been many caretakers over the years and each has faced their own set of challenges. It can be a very faith-stretching experience, and the camp is thankful for all the hard work our caretakers have done. Their role at Echo Ranch is just as vital as the work that takes place during the warmer months.

• Jon-Michael Gwinnell is a staff member at Echo Ranch Bible Camp. He can be reached at jonmichael@discoverechoranch.com.

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