Minnesota unplugged

As she drove away from Star Lake Wilderness Camp for the first time, Michelle Hargrave worried she’d made a huge mistake. 

She’d dropped her son, Zane Coyle, then 10, off in the middle of the woods, under a tarp in the rain — about 2½ hours north of their Twin Cities home — at a primitive campground in northern Minnesota. 

Zane would spend the week living in the woods, building campfires, cooking his own food and sleeping in a tent at the rustic youth camp. 

There was no dining hall, no camp store or even a main lodge. 

Campers are assigned to family groups of about 10 to 15 campers who are responsible for feeding themselves, washing their own dishes, cutting firewood and maintaining their tents
and campsites. 

All campers turn in their phones and other electronics when they arrive and can pick them up when they leave.   

Hargrave had a hard time getting her head around the camp’s back-to-basics nature.

“I had way overpacked his stuff, and it was hard for him to carry it. I was worried about him having enough mosquito repellent,” Hargrove said. “It was scary to do that as a mom.”

But when she came back to pick him up, he was beaming: “He was having such a great time,” she said.

Now 16 and living in Mankato, Zane has returned to Star Lake Wilderness Camp near Crosslake — about 2½ hours north of the Twin Cities — every summer since then, often for two to four weeks at a time. 

“When I’m at camp, it’s nice not to have the distractions of technology — and finding other stuff to do to entertain myself,” he said. “I think most of the other campers feel the same way. It’s nice to get our phones back and listen to music, but you kind of forget about it during the week.” 

A long history 

Star Lake Camp was started in 1962 by the United Methodist Church, which operated the camp until 2012. 

Camp supporters then created a nonprofit organization to keep the wilderness camp running, leasing the 435-acre wooded property from the church for $1 a year. 

The camp is located in the heart of the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, where multi-million dollar lake homes dot the shore. But campers remain secluded from such modern development deep in the woods. 

They spend their days kayaking, canoeing and swimming along an undeveloped mile of sandy beaches on Little Star Lake. The camp also encompasses large portions of three other neighboring lakes.  

Walter Lockhart, a Methodist minister from St. Paul, serves as camp director. He employs a staff of seven camp counselors, including many who started out as campers themselves, along with several adult volunteers. 

Star Lake offers both Christian wilderness camps and traditional secular camps. Most campers have completed grades 5 to 8, though there are camps for younger elementary students, plus service camps for high school students. 

Younger campers often stay for three to four nights, while older campers may stay for a week or longer, participating in service camps that include work on trails and other facilities. 

Making camp affordable

What makes Star Lake unique is its cost. If families can’t afford the suggested camp fees of about $65 per day, then they don’t need to pay. Kids should get to attend wilderness camp, regardless of income, ability or gear, Lockhart said. 

If campers show up without camping gear, Lockhart and his staff will provide it. Kids do need to bring weather-appropriate clothing, including closed-toed shoes, and completed mandatory health forms.

Everyone is equal at Star Lake. 

“This is a very different type of adventure,” Lockhart said, standing under 150-year-old Norway pines at the wooded camp. “We sit down, write a schedule and ignore it the rest of the week.”

Each week the camp typically hosts 25 to 35 campers spread out at three campsites, with a 6-1 ratio of campers to counselors. 

The campground has three storage buildings on site and a pavilion with no walls, which doubles as an emergency storm shelter. There are also two small rustic cabins for staff. 

Coming back

Sarah Hoh of St. Paul was 8 years old when she first attended Star Lake as a family friend of the Lockharts. She enjoyed the experience so much she continued to go back each summer. Now a sophomore in college, she spent her second year as a counselor there last summer. 

“I struggled as a child with being very shy,” Hoh said. “My family never went camping, and I just really enjoyed being outside. I remember having a lot of beach time, and that was the coolest thing to me as a kid.”

Creating community

Star Lake’s rustic features encourage kids to grow up and develop self-reliance skills, Hoh said.

“Campers use tools that they wouldn’t otherwise use; they cook and they make their own home,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to live in a place that’s different, but also in a small group of people their own age.”

Nathan Lockhart, Walter’s son, has spent most of his summers at Star Lake. Last summer, he returned from Emerson College in Boston, where he’s a theater major, to serve as head cook and lifeguard, among other duties. 

“I needed some time in the woods,” Lockhart said. “Star Lake is special to me. You may come to camp with a friend, but you leave camp knowing 12 other people who have built a community with you.”

Adventures and s’mores, too

Each summer many of the older campers attempt to complete the Brainerdarian, a camp tradition. 

Campers push off from shore at 5 a.m. in canoes and navigate the Whitefish Chain of Lakes and the Pine River to canoe more than 40 miles to Brainerd.

Last year three groups of canoeists nearly made it before sundown. 

They were picked up seven miles short of the finish line. 

Like all summer camps, campers also enjoy singing songs around the campfire each night, making s’mores, performing camp skits and playing tag in the woods.  

“It’s a labor of love for me,” said Walter Lockhart, who’s been involved with the camp since 1987. 

“And it’s a wonderful experience for kids,” he said. “We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we make it feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Jodie Tweed is a freelance writer living in Pequot Lakes.