When resident assistants (RAs) from Calvin’s student life division stayed at Camp Waltman Lake back in March, they tried to catch a flock of wild turkeys that were wandering on the property. “They were very fast, and they got away,” recalled resident director Jared Votaw, who led the retreat. The RAs were able to track the turkeys in the snow for quite a distance. They also hung out, hiked the trails and ballroom danced in the main lodge. “It was great to rest and have fun and get away from campus,” Votaw said.

Calvin’s baseball team has also found a retreat at the lake, as has the student-led orientation group, the staff from campus ministries, and staff from various college divisions. Three brides are planning their summer weddings at Camp Waltman Lake. Several families will be camping there over Memorial Day. People are fishing there and boating there and hiking there. “People see it and get excited about it and go up there, and they take other people up there,” said Henry DeVries, Calvin’s vice president for administration, finance and information services. “The nice thing about it is, it’s not that far away, but when you’re there, it feels like it’s a million miles away because it’s so peaceful and serene.” 

Lodge at Camp Waltman Lake.
Lodge at Camp Waltman Lake

The 319 acres of forest, lakes, meadows, trails, wetlands, cabins, campsites, horse barns and lodges that make up Camp Waltman Lake have been a part of Calvin College for about a year and a half—and the camp’s identity as Calvin’s recreational and retreat center is gradually evolving. “One thing the camp committee has mentioned several times is that the property is to be ‘organic,’” said Matt Hoekzema, the physical plant staffer who oversees camp renovations and user reservations. Students, faculty, staff and friends of Calvin are are able to reserve the cabins, campsites and main lodge for a small fee, and, because there is no official on-site camp staff, they’re encouraged to tote their own gear and handle their own logistics. “User involvement means user ownership,” Hoekzema said. “It’s good for people to set up their own chairs, cook their own food and leave the property clean for the next user.”

While campers are shifting for themselves, Calvin’s physical plant staff works to get Camp Waltman Lake into good physical shape. The property, formerly known as Brook Cherith Camp, was originally built as a Christian haven for children aged 7 to 18, and it has seen 40 years of summer wear and tear. The camp, which was unoccupied for three seasons of the year, was maintained mainly by volunteers, Hoekzema said.

Carpet was old, paint was peeling, buildings were deteriorating, the tetherball was flat. Beaver dams clogged the stream and choked off the flow of water into the lake. A colony of flying squirrels had taken up residence in the walls of the main lodge. “Damage from the squirrels was so bad, the entire lodge had to be reinsulated and resided,” Hoekzema said.

They also found 11 refrigerators, eight sofa beds, three semi-trailers stuffed with construction debris and four dilapidated camping trailers scattered around the property, all probably donated from friends of the camp. There were hundreds of toilet paper tubes, saved for arts-and-crafts projects. “What does a mouse love to live in? Toilet paper tubes,” Hoekzema observed.

When Calvin acquired Camp Waltman Lake in 2010, resources to revitalize the property were limited. “We haven’t had sufficient funding to do a major overhaul,” said DeVries. “We’ve gone up there and done a project or two as we’ve had the time.” Despite the limited resources, the physical plant crew is determined to achieve a professional restoration of the site, Hoekzema said. 

A complete restoration

They have re-sided and re-windowed the main two-story lodge. They have restored the flue liner in the chimney, which had been cracked in a lightning strike. They have repainted and recarpeted the main lodge with carpeting purchased on the internet. They have eradicated mold. They have furnished the lodges with recycled bunks, chairs, tables and other items from Calvin residence halls. They have ripped out the dilapidated deck on the main lodge (which looks over the lake) and replaced it with a larger, more expanded deck. They have cleared out the beaver dams.

Seating area outside lodge at Camp Waltman Lake.
Seating area outside lodge at Camp Waltman Lake

The effort has been moved along by the help of volunteers. Last September, student leaders for Streetfest, Calvin’s service-learning event for incoming students, trained at the camp by ripping out carpets, mapping the property with GPS and removing beaver dams. “By using volunteers to remove carpet, we’ve cut the physical plant’s carpet layers’ labor in half,” Hoekzema said. “By cleaning the insides of buildings before the physical plant staff painters work, we’ve ensured that the painters have clean surfaces to work with. Volunteers and student labor have provided hundreds, thousands, of hours in service that otherwise would have to have been done by plant staff.”

Camp Waltman Lake is 40 miles north of Calvin. It takes 35 to 40 minutes to drive between the two places, but Hoekzema found out last November that he could do it in 30. “We had a hunter on the property who called me at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and said, ‘Are you guys doing a controlled burn up here?’” he recalled. Hoekzema sped to the camp to find a stolen pickup truck abandoned and on fire in the middle of a five-acre field. “It’s just part of the job,” he allowed.

Recreation is the goal

Stay at Waltman Lake! Find out more information »

More than s'mores:
Alumna continues to cherish camp

Every summer since she was 10 years old, Leigha Oberle ’11 had spent her summers at Brook Cherith Camp. “I was a counselor for about three years. I was waterfront director for about two. I was a camper there for about 10,” said Oberle. “Every summer I made new friends and experienced new things … . It was like a second home.”

Oberle was serving on the camp’s board when the nonprofit association that controlled it chose to pass it on. “We were looking for people to take care of the land, and we thought Calvin would be a good fit,” she said. (One condition of the transfer was that the lake would continue to bear the name “Waltman,” after camp board president and camp supporter Norman Waltman.)

“Leigha was passionate about what the camp provided in her life, intentional about sharing that with other kids and committed to seeing the camp used for the benefit of God’s kingdom into the future,” said Calvin’s director of financial services Sam Wanner, who handled the donation.

Oberle, who now works as an aquatic supervisor for the East Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, sits on the committee that oversees programming for Camp Waltman Lake.

“Brook Cherith Camp was an integral part of who I am as a person now. My fellow campers, staff members and mentors all allowed me to grow in a place that encouraged exploration,” Oberle said. “My hope is that the fellowship and community that has been created by this camp will now be passed along to Calvin College and its community. Whether it be as simple as a song around the campfire, or fishing off of the dock—the beauty of the property will forever give someone the feeling of peace and contentment.”

How can you help?

Calvin is still outfitting Camp Waltman Lake with camping and outdoor recreation equipment. If you have something to donate, contact Matt Hoekzema or (616) 526-7673.