FAIRBANKS - Chuck Mailander, the waterfront director at the Lost Lake Boy Scout Camp, kept a close eye on the boys swimming and boating in the crystal blue water on an early July day.
The weather had cleared in between bouts of rain and the scouts were enjoying themselves the same way Scouts have done for the past 55 years at the lake 60 miles south of Fairbanks along the Richardson Highway.
"If this lake could talk, oh, the stories it could tell," Mailander said.
There would be stories of Scouts dating back to 1951 when the Boy Scouts first acquired the 450-acre plot south of the lake for their camp. The lake would have seen boys grow up to become leaders, returning to the camp with their own sons and grandsons.
And the lake would tell of the changes to the camp itself. The past few years have seen $3 million worth of renovations to the facility. Cliff Crismore, an executive with the Midnight Sun Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said that in 2000, the council began looking at ways to improve the camp.
"The council had to ask, 'Where do we want to be in five years? What do we want the camp to look like?"' Crismore said.
With a hodgepodge of money from foundations like the Rasmuson Foundation, community members and grants from the state, the Midnight Sun Council began making capital improvements to the facilities starting with a modern sewer and water system.
"We had to have that before we could do anything else," Crismore said. "Pit toilets are really a thing of the past."
Besides running water, hot showers and flush toilets, they installed a new plastic dock and a changing house on the waterfront. They built a new trading post and mess hall, and laid some new roads.
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The council also added a COPE course at the camp. COPEChallenge Outdoor Personal Experience pits Scouts against a challenging obstacle course of stunts like climbing across beams and ropes suspended 35 feet in the air.
Some of the improvements are purely creature comforts, while others were required by law.
"One campsite is now designated and designed specifically for special-needs kids," Crismore said. The new camp site is completely wheelchair accessible. It was designed with input from the local troops who have special-needs Scouts.
The improvement campaign has been a community-wide effort, Crismore said, and the brown and green buildings spread throughout the woods all feature the marks of it. For example, a plaque on the rifle range proclaims that the building was funded by the Fairbanks Flying Lions and constructed by a group of fathers and sons from a local ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The community responded to the call for help, Crismore said, because the camp is used by several groups in the community, not just the Boy Scouts.
"It doesn't justify owning a facility and putting money into a facility just to benefit the Boy Scouts," he said.
Besides the thousand or so Boy Scouts from across Alaska and the nation who use the camp each summer, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, the Latter-day Saints girls camp and Operation Purple are some of the groups who use the Lost Lake facilities.
"We've had weddings out here, we've had memorial services out here," Crismore said.
This is the first year the Farthest North Girl Scout Council will hold their local summer camps at Lost Lake. For the past 20 years or so, the Girl Scouts had camped at Twin Bears, but the renovations at Lost Lake drew them there.
"We've grown and the facilities at Lost Lake were just very enticing," said Mara Lutomski, the director of Camp Jessie Bloom. "The work that (the Boy Scouts) do and the standards that they hold for their camphow they keep it clean and they keep the facilities up to dateit's new and fun for our girls."
Not everyone, however, is happy with all the changes at the camp. The new roads cut right through some popular campsites, according to Taft Ashcraft, a First Class Scout from Troop 4 in Fairbanks who has attended camp at the lake for the past several years. "They took out a lot of the trails too," Ashcraft, 15, said. "It's just not as fun to get from place to place anymore. It's easy and accessible, but it just doesn't feel like camp."
David Durst, 16, from Troop 10, agreed.
"They kind of wussied it up, actually," he said. "This is complete luxury camping."
Lost Lake certainly isn't your father's Scout camp. Scouts now pitch their tents on elevated cement pads free of protruding rocks and roots. There's no more cooking over a roaring camp fire since the Scouts eat meals in the mess hall with camp staff cooking up familiar fare like sloppy Joes or macaroni and cheese. Camp staffers communicate by cellular and satellite phone.
"It's a trade off," Mailander said of the changes. "Camp's become more civilized, but you also get to spend more time in the program areas" earning merit badges.
"We try to give the kids the best value for their time," he said.
And even Ashcraft and Durst don't mind all the changes.
"The bathrooms are 10 times better," Ashcraft said.
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