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Castaway: Celebrating 50 years of Young Life on Minnesota's Pelican Lake

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After a long battle with cancer, Philip Darby McDonald went to be with his Lord and Savior on November 4, 2012.

This book is dedicated to him.

Copyright © 2012 by Young Life.All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of AmericaISBN 978-0-578-11415-6

Jeff Munroe

CASTAWAYCelebrating 50 years of Young Life on Minnesota’s Pelican Lake

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Thousands upon thousands of people can say that, but this time the speaker is Ann Hill. She attended Castaway Club in the summer of 1968, at a time

when club was held in the basement of the Windjammer and the highlight of the waterfront was the chance to go sailing. That’s sailing — without the “para.” No flying in the sky tethered to a parachute. Just sailing. There wasn’t a zip line or even a water slide. There was a ski boat, but most of the week it wasn’t working. Those were the days when the camp’s spacious lawn was dominated by a grass tennis court. Many of the “bells and whistles” associated with a Young Life camp weren’t in place yet. But that didn’t matter. It was a great week. Anne Stepan (now Vagle)

was singing, Phil McDonald and Dick Lowey were the program directors, and Ann met Jesus Christ there. That week at Castaway, when Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the United States and the Beatles dominated the Billboard Hot 100, Ann Hill committed her life to Christ.

Ann’s husband, Vern, who has been on Young Life staff since 1971, and the area director of Stillwater, Minn., Young Life since 1987, was also on that trip. He remembered the simplicity of the camp in those days. “We stayed in what was called the Junkie … (later the Galleon). Back in those days, it was really in the woods and there weren’t any outdoor lights. A bunch of rocks painted white

HOLY GROUND“I became a Christian at Castaway.”

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lined the path to the Junkie, and we’d move those rocks at night and then sit in our cabin waiting to hear someone walk into a tree! That’s what we did for entertainment.”

But Vern, who is one of the longest-tenured area directors in Young Life history, remembers much more than just the pranks his group pulled at camp. Reflecting on that week in 1968, he speaks with the theological sophistication befitting his years in ministry. “The message I heard most clearly was that I didn’t have to be perfect for God to love me,” Vern said. “It was that message that helped change my life, brought everything into focus, and allowed me to take a step of faith. I knew

how imperfect I was and that I could never succeed trying to work my way into a position where I could be acceptable to God. Realizing that God loved me as I was helped me recognize Christ for the first time.”

And Vern would tell you — “I became a Christian at Castaway.”

Chuck Jamison became a Christian at Castaway. It was the summer of 1969, after his junior year of high school in Kansas City. The water slide had just been installed and Chuck remembers it vividly. “We went down that slide 100 times a day, learned to water ski, and were absolutely

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packed into the old dining hall — in what is now the camp coffee shop,” Chuck said. “Phil McDonald was the speaker, Rusty Palmer was the program director, Dick Lowey was playing the piano — and I went out during the 20 minutes of quiet time and walked down to the woods where the club room is today. I gave as much of myself as I knew to as much of God as I knew. I had a lot to learn in both directions.”

Chuck joined Young Life staff in 1977 while attending Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul. In 1981, Chuck and his wife, Bonnie, moved to Owatanna, Minn. He’s been the area director of Young Life in Owatanna since, establishing a mark for longevity that surpasses even

Vern Hill. Chuck has spent so much time at Castaway he’s lost track — the weeks and months add up to years: every month-long summer assignment as a Young Life staff member has been at Castaway, plus four decades of leadership camps, fall camps, work weeks, family camps, and weeks leading his Owatanna kids at Castaway. His son, Kyle, and daughter, Mandi, have both worked on the camp staff at Castaway, and Mandi still works in the camp office. It’s impossible for Chuck to imagine his life without Castaway. But with such familiarity, doesn’t every visit feel like old hat? “No way,” he said. “Every time I set foot on the property I feel like I’m on holy ground. But it isn’t ‘like’ holy ground. It IS holy ground.”

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Perry Hunter didn’t become a Christian at Castaway, but his whole family did. Like Vern and Chuck, Perry has had a long career in Young Life, coming on staff in 1974 in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he led the local club during the school year and worked at Castaway in the summers. Perry spent 22 consecutive summers on assignment at Castaway, and after serving as regional director of Young Life in Minnesota for 17 years, Perry now is a member of Young Life’s Training department. He was new in his faith the first time he visited Castaway during a winter ski camp in 1970. He met his wife, Anne, at Castaway and later witnessed his sister, both parents, and his children give their lives to Christ at Castaway.

“Castaway is a sacred place,” Perry said.

Ray Donatucci spent part of the summer of 1969 as a wrangler at Young Life’s Silver Cliff Ranch in Colorado and then returned home to Rochester, N.Y. His plan was to go down the road to the Woodstock Music Festival until his local area director asked him to take a group of high school guys to Castaway instead. That’s right. Ray Donatucci went to Castaway instead of Woodstock. Some 20 years later, he was speaking at a retreat in Northern California when a man approached him, identified himself as the pastor of a church in Nevada, and said, “You

probably don’t remember me, but I was sitting next to you on the bus home from Castaway in 1969 when I gave my life to Christ.”

Ray came on Young Life staff in 1974 in Colorado, and like Perry Hunter, he now works in the Training department. He is a familiar figure at Castaway, having done many summer assignments over several decades as camp director and speaker. “I’ve been to almost all the Young Life camps and they all are great,” Ray said, “but somewhere along the line I made a conscious decision that I wanted to focus on one place to try and make an impact.

Chuck Jamison / “I gave as much of myself as I knew to as much of God as I knew. I had a lot to learn

in both directions.”

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generation kids at Castaway. “You’ve probably heard other people say this,” Brad said, “but it’s hard to imagine my life without Castaway. It’s holy ground.”

“I became a Christian at Castaway.” Jamie Howison also gave his life to Christ at Castaway. Now an Episcopalian priest in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jamie attended a week of camp in 1976 and “went home a changed kid.” He would return to Castaway on work crew in 1978. Unlike other kids, Jamie had been on the property years before, when it was the vacation home of his parents and grandparents, C. Gordon and Isabel Smith. It was Jamie’s grandfather, C. Gordon Smith, who tossed the keys to his vacation home to Jim Rayburn, Bill Starr and Phil McDonald on September 18, 1963. With that casual toss, the property became Young Life’s. But it had been holy ground long before that. The story of how Castaway Club, this sacred space where so many lives have been forever changed, came to belong to Young Life begins in 1944, with Jamie Howison’s great-grandfather, Sidney T. Smith, and his friend Jim Rayburn.

I decided that whatever I could do in camping, I would do at Castaway. Why? That’s not too complicated,” Ray said. “The thing I especially love about Castaway is that I’ve felt it was Young Life’s most leader-centered camp, because of the beach and the lawn and the endless chances leaders have to just sit with kids and relax and talk. That’s always been the genius of the place to me. It’s a wonderful place for a Young Life leader to bring a kid.”

Brad Pearce became a Christian at Castaway. “I was sitting under a tree next to the Windjammer in 1979. Jack Fortin was the speaker that week. I think of that every time I am at the camp and see that tree.” Brad succeeded Perry Hunter in 2003 as regional director of Young Life in what is now called the North Star Region that includes North and South Dakota as well as Minnesota. Brad’s wife, Sue, is the daughter of Tom and Jean Scheuerman, long-time Young Life volunteer leaders in the Twin Cities. Tom also served for several years on the missionwide Young Life Board of Trustees. Sue first visited Castaway as a little girl in the late 1960s. Brad and Sue’s children are now third

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Chuck Jamison / “But it isn’t ‘like’ holy ground. It IS holy ground.”

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the Bank of Nova Scotia. He was also a remarkable lay preacher and lecturer who was known throughout North America for his dedication to the Gospel. One of his favorite sayings was, “My real business is preaching, but I sell grain to pay expenses.” Smith was elected president of the World’s Christian Fundamentalist Association in 1925. He served as president of the Canadian Bible Society from 1925 until his death in 1947, as vice-president of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was a member of the board of trustees of Moody Bible Institute and Dallas

Sidney Thomas Smith rose from humble beginnings in London, Ontario, to become one of the most influential people in Canada, and in North American

Christianity. A newspaper article from 1926 called him a “Canadian capitalist and Bible interpreter” and ran a headline that said “Canadian Grain Man Ready to Drop Business any Time to Talk About Religion.” He was the president of the Winnipeg-based Reliance Grain Company and served as director of Ogilvie Flour Mills, Canada Steamship Lines, the Canadian Indemnity Company, and

Sidney (Sid) Thomas Smith James (Jim) Rayburn


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Theological Seminary. He also had a profound effect on Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn.

In 1910 Smith founded the Ellice Avenue Mission in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which would later become known as the Elim Chapel. As leader of the Elim Chapel, Smith invited the “who’s who” of North American evangelical Christianity to speak in Winnipeg, and often would host these guest preachers at the family’s spacious summer home called Robinswood on Pelican Lake, Minn. Lewis

Sperry Chafer, founder and president of Dallas Theological Seminary, was a frequent guest at both Elim Chapel and Robinswood. In September 1944, Smith wrote Chafer asking him to recommend a speaker for a youth-oriented conference at Elim Chapel. Chafer’s reply, dated September 21, 1944, says in part:

“Regarding a special effort for the young people, I believe, Sidney, that the best man we have available in the United States for just this kind of thing is James Rayburn, who

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In July of 1945, Rayburn, his wife, Maxine, (who was pregnant with their son James Rayburn III) and their two daughters, Ann and Sue, spent two weeks at Robinswood with the Smith family. By then, Rayburn was calling S.T. Smith “Sid” in his journal, and at the end of his vacation he wrote, “It has been a grand, restful vacation time. No doubt the four of us have gotten much good from it. I’ve never known the girls to have such a good time over such a long period.” Sidney T. Smith died of a heart attack at 68 years old on January 31, 1947, in Winnipeg. Jim Rayburn was in Winnipeg that day, leading another week-long program at the Elim Chapel. In his journal, Rayburn wrote:

“SID went HOME today. Quickly and quietly at 5 p.m., HE was caught away to meet the Saviour he loved. Of all the sweet memories that I shall carry thru life of this dearest friend GOD ever gave me — this is paramount. SID LOVED JESUS! Like JOHN of old, he loved Him because HE KNEW HIM. “Because He first loved me,” Sid taught me of Jesus (!) great love as no other man ever did. He taught me what friendship means. He was my friend. I could never forget. He loved me. My heart rejoices in that. I wonder why it was so? He often told me so sincerely, “Jim, no matter what you did I would love you; no matter what you say I will stand by you.” He meant it. WHAT A GUY! His last week on earth was the happiest week of my life. God’s wonderful GRACE shining through SID SMITH made it so! I want to love Jesus like SID did. He loved the SAVIOUR so much that he even loved the LITTLE GUYS TOO. LIKE JESUS DID! ... We carried on at the chapel tonight for God and for Sid. It was lonely up there. The Lord gave us a great meeting with more young people accepting Christ than at any other time.”

is now head of the Young Life Campaign in this country. Rayburn graduated here in 1940 and took the Young Life work, which now is sweeping our country and is especially designed for high school students. We have had rallies here that have run up to 1,800 high school students intensely interested in the Gospel. Rayburn is almost supernatural in his appeal and power with these young people.”

At Sidney Smith’s invitation, Rayburn began annual visits to Elim Chapel in 1945, accompanied on his first visit by the “Campaigners Quartet.” Smith wrote Chafer after that first visit, “Rayburn is a very lovable person and I was drawn to him at once.” Smith also must have been delighted that Rayburn drew the largest crowds in the history of Elim Chapel. Rayburn’s journal recorded, “The first time in my life at one of my meetings where there was a huge overflow crowd and 100’s turned away. And the service went with a bang. Surely the Lord was there.” Reflecting on his first Sunday at Elim Chapel, Rayburn wrote: “This has been one of the best days in my life, no doubt about it.” And on the day of his departure, “Believe me it was hard to leave there — never have I been as delightfully treated in my life.” Of Sidney Smith he wrote that week: “Mr. Smith overjoyed. He’s a prince. So humble — real, open.”

Sidney (Sid) Smith / “Rayburn is a very lovable person and I was drawn to him at once.”

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What a journal entry! There is much revealed about both Smith and Rayburn in this passage. “SID LOVED JESUS” Rayburn’s diary screams, and readers believe it seeing lines like “he even loved the LITTLE GUYS TOO. LIKE JESUS DID!” Rayburn called him “the dearest friend GOD ever gave me.”

Rayburn stayed in Winnipeg to speak at the funeral on February 3. “Church almost full in spite of worst weather in years,” Rayburn wrote. “I experienced the worst cold weather of my life at the cemetery.” That evening Rayburn showed slides of Star Ranch, the first Young Life camp, to Sidney Smith’s widow, Emily, along with the Smith’s son, C. Gordon and his wife, Isabel. Rayburn would continue to visit Elim Chapel, speaking there again in 1948 and 1953. As Rayburn’s journal entries show, Sidney Smith made an enormous impact on him. Smith had quickly become Rayburn’s mentor, spiritual encourager and dear friend. At Robinswood, the Smith vacation home on Pelican Lake, Rayburn felt love and acceptance for his whole family in ways he rarely experienced anywhere else. He would mention the deceased Smith from time to time in his diaries, and in 1964 Rayburn listed Smith, along with others like Lewis Sperry Chafer and Sam Shoemaker, as one of his five “confidants, the highest possible level of human relationship.” In an entry in 1966, Rayburn wrote of someone’s hospitality as “the most completely satisfactory visit in another’s home that I have had — probably since the Sid Smith days.”

Why did Sidney Smith make such an impact on Jim Rayburn? It wasn’t Smith’s wealth. Rayburn certainly knew plenty of people with wealth. It wasn’t Smith’s achievement in the world of commerce. Rayburn knew many successful business people. Rayburn knew many religious leaders,

too. But he had never met anyone quite like Sidney T. Smith. Both Rayburn and Smith were devotees of Dallas Seminary Founder Lewis Sperry Chafer, who wrote, “How misleading is the theory that to be spiritual one must abandon play, diversion and helpful amusement. Such a conception is born of a morbid human conscience. It is foreign to the Word of God.” Perhaps Sidney T. Smith was just more fun and accepting than anyone else Rayburn had met of similar means and influence. And nowhere was Smith’s fun and accepting nature more evident than at his vacation home of Robinswood. How fitting that almost a century after Smith first acquired it, Robinswood, now known as Castaway Club, would continue to be one of the most seriously fun and accepting places anywhere as one of Young Life’s premiere camps. It is equally fitting that the legacy of the relationship between Sidney T. Smith and his friend Jim Rayburn lives on at Castaway.

Over the years Rayburn stayed in touch with Sidney Smith’s son, Gordon. Almost a decade before C. Gordon Smith would decide to give Robinswood to Young Life, the Smith family played a crucial role in Young Life’s acquisition of another camp. In the early 1950s when the Malibu Club in British Columbia became available, Young Life needed a Canadian entity to transact the purchase of the property. Who did Jim Rayburn know in Canada? The Smith family. Young Life Canada was established at that time, solely for the purpose of buying Malibu. C. Gordon Smith was its first president and his younger brothers were named directors of the company.

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The land on Pelican Lake that the Smith family would eventually own had been used by the Ojibway and Dakota tribes for centuries. It was

mostly forest when the first European settlers began coming to the area following the American Civil War. One of those pioneer settlers was William Henry Wagner. Wagner had been born in Prussia in 1843, and at the age of 20, he came to America as a stowaway to avoid service in the Prussian army of Otto van Bismarck. He made his way to Minnesota, took the railroad as far as he could go to St. Cloud, and then walked to Pelican Lake. He worked in the area helping to build the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The Wagner and Smith Families

On May 20, 1885, Wagner obtained 80 acres of land on Pelican Lake immediately north of the present-day intersection of County Highway 20 and County Highway 31 by cash entry patent (the way homesteaders would purchase public lands at the time). Wagner’s first residence on the property was a dugout. He established the Wagner farm there, on land that now includes the site of St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church. William Henry Wagner and his wife, Josephine, had 10 children, including sons Barney, Bill and Charlie. He persuaded his father, Nicholas, to come join him in America, and Nicholas homesteaded 96 acres between Big and Little Pelican lakes.


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His land included the site of Castaway Club, but he did not farm the big wooded bluff the camp sits on.

In 1891, Nicholas Wagner conveyed his property to his son William for $200. William Wagner sold some of the property — including the bluff Castaway is on, to a Detroit Lakes real estate developer. In 1908 John K. West bought the property for $3,500. On his death in 1910, William Henry Wagner’s remaining property was divided between his sons. In 1936 Barney and Bill started the Wagner Beach Resort, which later became known as Olson’s Resort, located just north of Castaway.

In 1915, Sidney T. Smith and family visited Detroit Lakes as the guests of their friends Mr. and Mrs. John K. West. West had the initial vision to make the 412 lakes within a 25-mile radius of Detroit Lakes into a resort area. He created the Pelican Valley Navigation Company, which built canals to connect the lakes and operated steamboats throughout the area. The families took a steamboat ride through the chain of lakes from Lake Detroit to Pelican Lake, and as they were passing the high bluff on Pelican Lake, S. T. Smith remarked, “If I ever was going to buy a place at the lakes, this is the place I would like to have.” John K. West answered, “That’s easy, because it belongs to

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The house was wrapped by a porch and built entirely on wooden posts without a basement foundation. By the late 1920s, the wooden posts were rotting, calling for extensive renovation, which included the excavation of the basement in 1928. In 1931 C. Gordon and Isabel decided to build their own house on the property, and a building that would become known as the Schooner was built. Another house was built by a Smith son named Harold, which

The Windjammer when it was the main house at Robinswood in the 1920s. Note the front porch.

Gordon and Isabel Smith’s cottage, later the Schooner

C. Gordon and Isabel Smith, 1930s

me.” A deal was worked out and Sidney Smith bought an initial parcel of 10 acres on Pelican Lake for $5,000. The family home was constructed in the winter because it was easier to transport building materials over the ice than on area roads, which were little more than mud-filled tracks at the time. Barney Wagner drove the horse-drawn sled, which brought the lumber down from Detroit Lakes to build the main house — the building now known as the Windjammer. The cost of building the house was $16,000, and 14-year-old C. Gordon Smith was sent from Winnipeg (whose schools had closed early because of the outbreak of World War I) to Pelican Lake with a job to do. At age 14, he lived alone on the property to supervise the final construction of the house and the landscaping of the property. Many of the familiar maple trees at Castaway were initially planted by C. Gordon Smith in 1916.

S.T. Smith / “If I ever was going to buy a place at the lakes, this is the

place I would like to have.”

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eventually became the Clipper before it became known by its current name, the Ketch.

When the land was first obtained by the Smith family, County Highway 31 ran up the hill and through the middle of the property. About the time of the first Robinswood renovation, Sidney Smith was able to have the road moved to its present location along Little Pelican Lake. He expanded his property by buying the land made available by relocating the road. The family built a large garage because there was no access to electric power. The garage was needed to house the large generator that powered the buildings. The size of the garage became legendary after Young Life took possession of the property. Countless leaders and kids speculated on how many cars the family must have needed at their vacation home, when the truth was that the large garage was needed for the power generator. In the first days of Castaway, that garage was named the Sloop. It was used as the original boys’ dorm. Young Life Chief Operating Officer Greg Kinberg remembers staying in the Sloop as a camper at Castaway in 1965. Later, the garage was moved to adjoin the Schooner to provide more housing for girls.

In addition to Jim Rayburn and Dr. Chafer (whose wife loved coming north for the summers to escape the oppressive Texas heat), other prominent visitors to the Smith home on Pelican Lake included Dr. Louis Evans, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Calif.; Dr. Bernard B. Sutcliffe, co-founder and first president of the Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Ore.; Peter MacFarlane, of the Union Gospel Mission of St. Paul, Minn.; William Bell Riley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis and founder of the Northwestern Bible Training School (who was succeeded

S.T. Smith, 1920s

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as president at Northwestern in 1948 by a 30-year-old Billy Graham); and Arno C. Gaebelein, C. I. Scofield’s partner in developing the famous Scofield Reference Bible. On Sunday evenings, the Smith family would hold a religious service on their property featuring either Sidney T. Smith or a visiting preacher, and one of the Smith sons would drive a boat around Pelican Lake picking up local children to attend.

The first property caretaker hired by the Smith family was Joe Bertram, who was married to one of William Henry Wagner’s daughters. The Bertrams cleared land for a large vegetable garden (where the camp volleyball and basketball courts currently are) and eventually other land was cleared in front of the main house for a lawn tennis court. Sidney Smith took much delight in helping plant dynamite charges to blow out tree stumps. During a visit to the camp in the mid-1970s that was recorded by Dave Carlson, C. Gordon Smith recalled with delight the time his father got carried away planting dynamite and the percussive blast that took out several upstairs windows of the family home.

In a 1993 article in the Pelican Lake News, local resident Howard Ottoson reminisced about being paid to pull dandelions on the Smith estate as a child; the arrival of the Smith family and servants in two large cars from Winnipeg every summer; Sidney Smith preaching occasionally at the First Baptist Church of Detroit Lakes; and that Mr. Smith “laid in substantial stocks of fireworks” for providing local entertainment on both Canada Dominion Day and the 4th of July.

The Wagner brothers would work from time to time on projects at the property. For instance, Barney Wagner did most of the excavation work when the basement was dug in 1928. And in 1940, Charlie Wagner became caretaker and moved into the caretaker’s cottage, which is now the Bridge — the camp office. At one time or another all the Wagner brothers lived in that cottage, and when the property was gifted to Young Life in 1963, C. Gordon Smith stipulated that the Wagner brothers would be allowed to live in the caretaker’s cottage as long as they desired. Charlie Wagner would live and work at Castaway until 1976, mowing and watering the lawns and tending the flower gardens.

After S. T. Smith’s 1947 death, his widow, Emily, became ill in 1949 and spent that winter in Florida. The Red River flooded that year, making a return to Winnipeg difficult, and so she spent her final weeks at Pelican Lake and died in the family home there on July 31, 1950. Following her death, C. Gordon and Isabel Smith moved into the large house and their son, Don, moved into their cottage. Another renovation of the large house was completed over the winter of 1950 because Isabel Smith wanted to move the center of family life from the upstairs to the main floor of the house. At that time, bedrooms were built on the ground floor and the porch was enclosed, giving what is now the west side of the building its familiar shape.

Insets from top to bottom: The Wagner Beach Resort, later Olson’s Resort; Olson’s Resort; Charlie Wagner

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As the decade of the 1950s ended, the C. Gordon Smith family spent less and less time at Robinswood, and as the 1960s began, they

considered leaving the property. “My grandfather felt the property was too valuable to sell,” Jamie Howison said. C. Gordon Smith had been deeply influenced by his father, Sidney, and shared his Christian faith and values. He and his wife showed a remarkable understanding of stewardship with their decision. They believed that God had already used the property in remarkable ways and would do more than they could imagine if the property were placed in the right hands. The more C. Gordon and Isabel Smith thought about it, the more they felt that giving the property to Young Life would allow it to be

used in ways similar to how Sidney Smith and the rest of their family had used it. “Giving it to Young Life was a no-brainer,” Howison said. “Jim Rayburn had maintained the relationship with my family over the years, and my grandfather knew Young Life would use it in a way our family would be excited about.” C. Gordon Smith contacted Jim Rayburn in the summer of 1963 and asked if Young Life would like the property.

“I remember I was at Frontier Ranch in the summer of 1963 with a group of kids from Washburn High in Minneapolis,” Phil McDonald said. “Jim Rayburn was speaking, and the first night when I walked into the club room he said, ‘Come up and see me after club — there’s


Phil McDonald / “We had a meal together and talked about what we would do to make it into a camp. After a while Mr. Smith had to leave, so he tossed the keys onto the table, shook hands with us, and walked out.

The three of us just looked at each other. We owned a new camp.”

Phil McDonald

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something I want to talk to you about.’ Well, I never knew what Jim Rayburn was going to say. One time he sent me to South America with a one-way ticket to do a camp 500 miles into the Amazon jungle. I had to find my own way back!”

Phil McDonald, it should be noted, is a born storyteller. And it should also be noted that Jim Rayburn did send his staff around the globe. In fact, once he did send McDonald to do a camp in Peru. On this occasion, Rayburn explained that the Smith family of Winnipeg had a property near Detroit Lakes that had been in their family for 50 years and that Rayburn had visited the property several times. Now they were considering gifting the property to Young Life. “Rayburn wanted me to go and see if I thought it would make a good camp,” McDonald said. “My wife, Joan, and I made an appointment and went up there. We were served thick T-bone steaks in their dining room, and whenever Mrs. Smith wanted something, she’d ring a bell for a servant. They had three brothers — Charlie, Barney and Bill plus another man named Jess — working as caretakers, and the grounds were immaculate. The flowers and shrubs were beautiful. And the view off the bluff of the lake was unbeatable. It was a private facility, but it was really something.”

McDonald invited Bill Starr, then based in Chicago as the Midwest regional director of Young Life, to look at the property too. A second visit was arranged, this time for Phil and Joan McDonald and Bill and Ruth Starr. “We had more T-bone steaks and decided we could make something out of this,” McDonald said. “In September, Bill and I returned along with Jim Rayburn, and C. Gordon Smith met us at the property. We had a meal together and talked about what we would do to make it

Phil McDonald

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The main house at Robinswood before it was given to Young Life

Gordon Smith in the 1960s Rick Yates and Jim Rayburn at Castaway, fall of 1963

into a camp. After a while, Mr. Smith had to leave, so he tossed the keys onto the table, shook hands with us, and walked out. The three of us just looked at each other. We owned a new camp.”

Young Life had started in Minnesota in 1952 when Tom Starr, a brother of Bill Starr and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, started a club at Washington

High School in St. Paul. Orien Johnson, one of the famed music men of Young Life’s early days, was the first full-time staff person in the Twin Cities in 1954, but only stayed for a number of months. In 1956, Phil McDonald was sent to Minneapolis from Texas.

Philip Darby McDonald (“Darby,” the name by which McDonald is widely known, is both his middle name

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and his mother’s maiden name) was born and raised in Yakima, Wash., and graduated from high school there in 1945. In 1946 he was invited to be one of the drivers for a Young Life group from Yakima attending a camp in Bellingham, Wash. When he arrived at the camp, he met essentially the entire Young Life staff at that time, Jim Rayburn, Ad Sewell, Orien Johnson, Annie Chears, Wanda Ann Mercer (Wam), Wally Howard, Ollie Dustin, Norm Robbins, and Murray Smoot. McDonald then attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and was involved with Young Life there with another Young Life pioneer named Sam Adams. He felt called to go on Young Life staff, enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1952, and was given the leadership of the club in Tyler, Texas — 100 miles from Dallas — by yet another early leader of Young Life, Wally Howard. For four years, while he completed his studies at Dallas Seminary, McDonald would make the drive back and forth to Tyler several times a week. As his time at Dallas Seminary ended, Phil and Joan were hoping to move to Tyler when Jim Rayburn sent them to the Twin Cities instead. “That’s the way it was in the early days of Young Life,” McDonald said. “We had our hearts set on finally moving to Tyler and not having to do that drive but wound up in Minneapolis instead.”

During the 1950s and early 60s, McDonald became known as one of the great Young Life program directors. He did 12 summers in a row with his trusty accordion at Frontier Ranch. (“What’s the definition of an optimist?” McDonald asks. “An accordion player with a pager.”) “I don’t think there ever was a night when we weren’t on tip toes,” McDonald recalled. He continued:

“Jim Rayburn was tough on humor … it was not something that was an afterthought. He’d introduce me as

the ‘chief of entertainment’ at Frontier Ranch. That was a pretty tough role to fill ... I remember times he’d say, ‘I think you guys laid an egg last night. You are going to have to do better than that.’ That was one of the things about Jim Rayburn — his value of humor. It wasn’t as important as the Gospel, but it was important. Humor is a very central part of my whole being. I think it is a gift from God.”

McDonald’s captivating sense of humor and passion for Christ would sustain him through the sea of changes in store for the three men who were at Robinswood that September day in 1963 when C. Gordon Smith tossed the property’s house keys to them. In a few months, Jim Rayburn would be replaced as president of Young Life by Bill Starr. Phil McDonald would replace Bill Starr as Midwestern regional director (at one time his region included points from Winnipeg to Topeka to Indianapolis). In addition to these duties, the transformation of a couple of vacation homes and an oversized garage into a Young Life camp would fall primarily on Phil McDonald’s shoulders.

The original gift to Young Life was 12 acres of land (today Castaway sits on 28.5 acres), the buildings that would become known as the Windjammer, Schooner and Bridge, and the large garage, which Young Life originally called the Sloop. The land behind the Windjammer, which now holds the buildings used for assigned staff housing and adult guests, remained in the possession of C. Gordon Smith’s brother Harold. The far reach of the property to the north ended approximately where the boys’ dorm, Carrick, stands today.

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An article from the Young Life magazine in January 1964, announced the gift of the property and reported, “It is to be known as Pelican Lake Club

and is to be used in leadership training conferences and workshops with those interested in youth leadership. The only high school conferences will be the annual ‘College Prep’ camps for graduates planning on entering college in the fall.” Somehow, the article got most everything wrong, from the property name to its intended use. The article features pictures of a group of staff on the property

in the fall of 1963, including Jim Rayburn, Bill Starr, Phil McDonald, Norm Robbins, Ken Wright, Rick Yates, and Dave Phillips.

Phil McDonald had seen the name “Castaway” in Florida and liked the way it sounded. The minutes of the Young Life Board of Trustees’ meeting on May 3, 1964, say: “Discussed the suggested name ‘Castaway Club.’ Concluded that it would be called that on an experimental basis for a year if Gordon Smith concurred.”


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From the beginning, the camp was intended primarily for high-schoolers. The lakefront location inspired a nautical theme, and McDonald chose the ship names Windjammer, Schooner and Sloop for the main buildings. There was a large room in the basement of the Windjammer, built originally as a children’s play room, which would serve as a club room. (Leaders meetings are held in that space today.) A small commercial dishwasher was added to the family kitchen, and with the help of Young Life supporters, the Palm Brothers from the Twin Cities, the living room was converted into a camp dining room. The Smith family’s upstairs bedrooms became staff housing, and if there was overflow, staff families would often stay in a trailer or cottage at Olson’s Resort. The Schooner was fitted with bunks — even triple bunks in some rooms, and the Sloop — the large garage at the end of the driveway that originally held the power generators and later was converted by the Smith family into a space that could hold six automobiles — was also fitted with bunks and became the boys’ dorm. All the alterations were designed for a capacity goal of 50 campers. The hope was to have eight weeks of camping the first summer. The minutes of the June 1964, Young Life Board of Trustees’ meeting note that $15,000 of improvements were made to transform the family estate into a camp and that the value of the property was appraised at $150,000.

The original money was spent on creating space for campers, which meant that when kids arrived for the first time in 1964, the program on the waterfront wasn’t quite what one experiences today. The Smith family gave Young Life a sailboat and a rowboat. A summer staff member brought an aluminum boat with a 35-horsepower outboard motor on it, which served as a ski boat that first summer. “That was our waterfront program in 1964,” Phil McDonald said in his typical deadpan style, “a sailboat, a rowboat and a weak ski boat. We really knocked ‘em over.” The sailboat was christened the “Eddie Blick,” a fictitious name that has become legendary at Castaway over the years. “That name began with two program guys, Larry Hendrickson and

Young Life magazine article

Speed Johnson’s cottage, originally called the Junkie

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Dave Newsome,” McDonald said. “They used to give out the ‘Eddie Blick’ award every week to an unsuspecting kid. It didn’t really mean anything. We all just liked the way it sounded.” Among other things, Eddie Blick has been the name of several boats, a room in the Windjammer, a

lost sunken island, and a mysterious person whose name comes up most every week in the camp program. For years, various visitors have asked “Who is Eddie Blick?” No one knows for sure.

Remembering that first summer, McDonald also said, “We didn’t have a professional cook, so we had Dick Lowey (one of the great piano players in Young Life history) be the cook. The food wasn’t up to Young Life standards. Kids would walk out of the dining room and head straight to Olson’s Resort to supplement their meal.” On a roll now, McDonald continued, “Years later, when Young Life came out with ‘Beyond Malibu,’ we said we already had ‘Beyond Castaway,’ it was called Olson’s.” The proximity of Olson’s, a “resort” that consisted of a couple of gas pumps, a convenience store, and several efficiency cottages and mobile homes, would present a unique challenge to Young Life until the property was purchased in the mid-1980s and incorporated into Castaway.

The camp opened in July 1964, and served 126 kids that first summer. Before the following summer, 23-year-old Peter Poirson was sent to Castaway as its first camp manager. There was much to do to prepare for a full summer of campers, but before campers arrived, the Young Life Board of Trustees met at Castaway in late May. Poirson recalled:

“I was from the San Francisco area, and I had never seen anything like the power of a Midwestern thunderstorm. I’d bought some boats and built some docks and had the boats tied to the docks — I’d never even heard of a boat lift. A day or so before the board came, we had one of those strong storms and the new boats I’d bought were getting tossed around like mad. I went down into the water

Phil McDonald / “I knew that property was everything a kid could want, and all we needed was some better equipment. I always believed

it would work.”

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and walked each of those boats to the beach at Olson’s. At times the water was up over my head. And then my boss came for the board meeting and read me the riot act when he saw the shape our new boats were in!”

Poirson remembers the work of preparing the camp, including the building of:

•Thedocksanddecksalongthebluffthatservedasawaterfront in those pre-beach days.


which was used for food storage (there was no walk-in food storage in what had been a domestic kitchen).


He and his wife, Darlene, lived in the master bedroom of the Windjammer. The work crew lived upstairs, and assigned staff members were also housed in the

Insets from left to right: Dick Lowey and Phil McDonald; The original club room; Olson’s Resort

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Windjammer. “We were only going to be there that summer,” Poirson said. “They had Dick Jacobson lined up to come in after me. It was quite an experience for a 23-year-old.”

A welcome opportunity to expand the camp arose almost immediately. Late in 1965, the property immediately to the north of Castaway became available. The building that was first called the Junkie and later renamed the Galleon was the summer home of a stock car racer named Speed Johnson. The colorful Johnson, who also operated Tiny’s Auto Wrecking in Fargo, N.D., had purchased and remodeled the house in 1945. The purchase of the house and small parcel of land surrounding it was approved by the Young Life Board of Trustees in the fall of 1965. With the purchase of the house, the old Smith family garage was no longer the primary housing unit for boys beginning in the summer of 1966.

The resulting increase in capacity and kids created camp infrastructure problems. The sewage system was often overwhelmed and the “honey wagon” had to service the camp’s septic system regularly. New drainage fields were needed. The increasing numbers of guests also overloaded the water system, and a new well needed to be dug. Though camper numbers were increasing, that growth could not produce the incremental revenue needed for necessary improvements.

Castaway was in a precarious spot. Frayne Gordon, the Young Life camp manager in the 1960s, was forming the opinion that the mission would be better served by the sale of the property and not additional investment in it. “Frayne would call me every week, it seemed,” Phil McDonald said, “and read statistics and budgets to me. It

was touch and go whether we would make it.” The need to control costs was so extreme that Rick Yates, one of the early program directors at Castaway, remembers retrieving a volleyball to run the weekly camp volleyball tournament and being told not to fill it too full with air because it would last longer if it was under-inflated. “I filled it up anyway,” Yates said, “but we really were pinching pennies at Castaway. I was told we had a budget for two volleyballs a summer.”

There is a parable that Jesus told, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, which describes those early days of Castaway well:

“A man had a fig tree, planted it in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”

“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. If not, then cut it down” (Luke 13:6-8).

It’s hard to know when to give something another chance and when to cut your losses. Well-intentioned, business-minded people in Young Life opposed sinking more money into the camp. Others were more inclined to do so. Like the man in the parable, Phil McDonald assumed the role of the patient caretaker of this vineyard, pleading for more time to solidify camp finances. Of course, in the changed lives of kids fruit was being produced, but there were enormous fiscal pressures on the camp. “I always figured, if it was worth beginning, it was worth continuing,” Phil McDonald said. “I knew that property

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was everything a kid could want, and all we needed was some better equipment. I always believed it would work.”

The issue came to a head in the fall of 1966, when the Young Life Board of Trustees discussed selling one of the mission’s camps. The minutes of that meeting reveal the issues the board had to consider: Trail West had been built recently in Colorado and was losing money; Castaway was losing money; and the Colorado ranches were losing money. On top of losing money operationally, both Trail West and Castaway needed improvements. At the same time, Young Life was adding the Woodleaf camp in California to serve the needs of kids on the West Coast. The financial pressures prompted the board’s decision to sell one of the Young Life camps, and they entertained two options — Castaway or Star Ranch in Colorado Springs. Young Life President Bill Starr argued that the attendance at Star Ranch could be absorbed into the other Colorado camps, and on top of that, the sale value of Star Ranch was appraised at approximately $50,000 more than the sale value of Castaway. The board passed a resolution to sell “one of the ranch properties within a year.” Castaway was saved and Star Ranch was slated to become a Young Life memory. Actually, Star Ranch was sold after the 1971 camping season, and the Young Life Board of Trustees’ minutes from that year noted, “The sale of this asset would provide substantial cash to repay previous years’ properties deficits.”

Insets from top to bottom: Phil McDonald in the Smith family living room; Kids outside the Windjammer; Interior of the Junkie

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Some of the early program pieces at Castaway were captured in a 33 1/3 rpm record sold to kids as a souvenir of their time at camp. This forerunner of

the camp video includes bits by many people who were Castaway institutions during the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Dick Lowey, Rick Yates, Rusty Palmer, Fred and Anne Vagle, Dick and Marcia Schultz, Don Reeverts, Paul Kaufman, and of course, Phil McDonald. “We used to tell the kids that album was really selling in some faraway place like Salt Lake City, so they better get theirs,” McDonald said with a smile. Highlights of the album include Dick Lowey and Phil McDonald doing “Rary Music,” with Lowey on the piano and McDonald on his

trusty accordion, singing and cracking jokes (Imagine them straining to sing, “Her wobbly legs provide ... transportation, and her one lung gives ... respiration.”), Rick Yates doing the camp awards banquet, and snippets of club talks by Don Reeverts, Rusty Palmer, and Phil McDonald. The back of the album cover says: “Castaway is located on beautiful property 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the fabulous north lake country of Minnesota. Sailing and water-skiing are two of the major pastimes … but the soft, green carpet lawn and woods beckon many high school kids to take time just to really get to know each other. Result – relationships that dare to be real!” The inclusion of popular songs like

Bringing the moonball onto the field On the lawn


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“Woodstock” and “Let it Be” help date the album, since both were released in 1970.

The back of the album cover speaks of Castaway being a place where relationships were real, noting that “Fred Vagle and Anne Stepan found their relationship so right they now are Mr. and Mrs. Vagle!” Anne Stepan Vagle and her sister Eileen Stepan Farrell were “discovered” by Phil McDonald one night singing at the “hootenanny” at the Fair Hills Resort around the corner from Castaway on Pelican Lake. McDonald developed the opinion that Castaway needed someone who could sing like Anne and eventually decided Castaway didn’t need someone like Anne, it needed Anne. Anne and Eileen Stepan were both recruited to come to Castaway. The Vagles would entertain not only at Castaway but at countless Young Life banquets and conferences for many years.

The cover of the Castaway album shows a group of kids playing moonball, a program staple in those early years. Phil McDonald had been using a four-foot ball for games at weekend camps in Minnesota before Young Life had Castaway, and when he found out there were bigger versions available, he figured “bigger had to be better.” Memories of the moonball included an orange version used one year at a fall camp that “looked like a giant pumpkin,” but this pumpkin unexpectedly exploded when the kids made contact with it. And then there was the moonball used for games on a frozen Pelican Lake during one Christmas camp, which was forgotten and left near the lake after they finished. “The wind got a hold of it and it blew into the next county,” McDonald said. “We had to take the car to track it down. Can you imagine being outside ice fishing or working and having a moonball blow by you?”

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The stainless steel water slide was built by Bud Anderson and installed in the late 1960s. Bud Anderson’s father-in-law, Oswald Stocke, a builder who had done much of the construction of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., joined the Young Life Board of Trustees and was instrumental in Castaway’s growth. Oswald Stocke had helped fund the original improvements at the camp in 1964, and would be a vital part of the Windjammer expansion in the early 1970s. His son-in-law’s stainless steel water slide was ready for the summer of 1969. It would become a signature feature of Castaway.

As long as the sun was shining, there was plenty to do on the waterfront or on the volleyball and basketball courts.

Rick Yates remembered the program plan for rainy days: “We had a guy who would bring out black and white movies from Detroit Lakes, and we’d sit downstairs in the club room and watch Laurel and Hardy. If it rained more than one day, we’d show the same movie backwards.”

There weren’t any Laurel and Hardy clips shown in “Time for Living,” the promotional film Young Life made for all its camps in 1971. The movie begins with a musical recitation of camp names: “Castaway, Windy Gap, Silver Cliff, Saranac, Frontier Ranch, Malibu, Woodleaf Town … all for you.” Scenes at Castaway include the ever-present moonball and kids going down the water slide. As the 22-minute film comes to its close, there is a long scene of

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Rusty Palmer with his Texas drawl talking to a group of kids on the Castaway lawn in front of the Windjammer, explaining the purpose of camp:

“We’re going to show you the best week you’ve ever had. ... You’re going to have more fun than you’ve ever had, you’re going to meet some of the neatest kids your age you’ll ever meet, and we think you’ll like the staff. ... The whole reason we’re about having you here is to try to show you the best week of your life, and we think an essential part of that is giving you an honest look at the Christian faith. ... We think that’s the key, that life without knowing Christ, the one who made it, is incomplete. ... We’re all here so that you’ll take the time to consider the Christian faith, so that you too can get in on this thing that we call the Good News. The Good News is that God loves us and that we’re free to live.”

Of the thousands who heard and responded to the Good News in those days, Phil McDonald remembers a

kid named Medrick who came to camp from Montana infatuated with the Nazi Party. “He had a copy of ‘Mein Kampf,’ a German helmet, swastikas, and everything,” McDonald said. “He met Christ at Castaway and wanted me to baptize him on the water slide.” McDonald saw Medrick a few years later in Montana and was overjoyed to learn he was married and had gotten involved in a church. “Those were incredible years,” McDonald said. “And I was so gratified by what I was doing.”

Memorable groups of kids were brought to camp by Harv Oostdyk, one of Young Life’s pioneers in urban and multicultural ministry in New York City. Dave Phillips, staff member from the Twin Cities, who would later serve as a development officer during the camp building boom of the past decade, remembers those weeks well. “Harv would be at camp for most of the week and then leave to go get the next bus of kids from New York, and I got left in charge a few times. The kids kept coming and coming, bus after bus. We must have had a 20–to–1 ratio of boys to

Barbecue night, using a mop for barbecue sauce Bus full of kids arriving at campThe water slide

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girls. I also remember early weekend camps when my wife, Marilyn, had to help cook and also had a cabin full of girls.”

Castaway was bulging at the seams, and in 1969, a master plan was created for the camp. The most stunning item on the master plan was a large building that would sit almost exactly where the Anchor sits today. This building was to be called the Pelican Lake Yacht Club. It would be a combination dining room/kitchen, club room and indoor swimming pool. The architect had recently designed the buildings at Windy Gap in North Carolina, and some of

Insets from top to bottom: Pelican Lake Yacht Club rendering; What was built 20 years later

1969 master plan

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acceptance of the master plan explains why the plan never materialized: “No work will be commenced … until funds have been raised to the satisfaction of the finance committee.” This plan was never implemented, although elements of it were prescient. As hard as it is to understand the need for an indoor swimming pool, there is no question that space requirements for the dining room, kitchen and club room all would need to be addressed. They were addressed immediately, and in a more economical fashion, but a lasting space solution for these areas would not be realized for two decades.

Insets from left to right: Waterfront activities at Castaway; The docks that were the Castaway beach for 20 years; Dick Lowey, Bob Mitchell and Dave Carlson

the roof lines on the proposed Yacht Club evoked Windy Gap. On the side of the bluff below it were the familiar tiered decks for sunbathing and a curved water slide located back toward the Windjammer. Other items on the master plan included a tennis court/hockey rink where the Barquentine is today, a parking lot by the present volleyball court, and an extended driveway into the center of the camp that led to a new administration building.

The master plan did not envision an expanded Windjammer. It was to have been used for adult guest and staff housing. The space between the administration building and Windjammer is small. An additional staff lodge was to have been built to the east of the Windjammer, close to where the camp tennis court is. As hard as it is to imagine what the camp might be like had this plan come to fruition (what, for example, might that indoor swimming pool be like 40 years later?), it was unanimously adopted at the November 1969 meeting of the Young Life Board of Trustees. One caveat in their

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Dave Carlson had been a Young Life kid in Rockford, Ill., in a club led by Andy Nyboer, a local dentist, and Jack Swanson, the

superintendent of Rockford’s schools. After working in a manufacturing company in the Twin Cities, Dave felt led to work in Christian camping and spent a year on staff at a church camp in Lake Geneva, Wis. He began talking to Young Life in the spring of 1970 and was offered positions at Woodleaf in California and at Castaway. He visited Castaway for the first time in August 1970, and Midwesterners at heart, Dave and his wife, Mary, moved there shortly afterward.

“Dave Carlson has been a great leader in the field of youth camping for decades. Young Life was blessed to have Dave

serve for 24 years as our vice president of camping, and Castaway was blessed to have Dave start his Young Life career there,” said Young Life President Denny Rydberg.

“Dave Carlson was like a brother to me at Castaway,” Phil McDonald said. “He knew what the programs needed and was ready and able to deliver the goods. He understood that the kids came first. I don’t think we ever disagreed on any issue or decision at Castaway. It is no surprise to me that he was made director of all Young Life camps. I loved working with Dave and feel we made a great team.”

Dave Carlson became the camp manager at Castaway on Oct. 1, 1970. The master plan was discarded as a dream beyond realistic funding, and a new plan was developed.

Construction beginsThe Windjammer, immediately prior to expansion


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The need for space — especially for new kitchen and dining facilities and a new club room, drove the design of the Pelican Lake Yacht Club. Young Life was operating a camp in the confines of a family home. The camp had served thousands of meals out of a family kitchen to kids and leaders packed into a family dining room.

Over the winter of 1970-71, the Windjammer was more than doubled in size with 9000 new square feet added to meet those needs. Another significant change occurred that winter: The Sloop, the original Smith family garage, was moved from its location at the end of the camp driveway and attached to the Schooner, giving that building its familiar horseshoe shape. The changes allowed Young Life to set camp capacity at 145 campers. (An

important number to keep in mind, because a decade later, the facility hosted 200 or more campers almost every week of the summer.)

The expansion of the Windjammer was transformative. It created housing space for more work crew, elbow space for dining, storage space for the kitchen, and a state-of-the-art club room. More than that, the Windjammer’s new façade was impressive, cementing it as the center of camp and providing that take-your-breath-away look that epitomizes Young Life camps. Carlson had the foresight to carry a tape recorder with him when he gave C. Gordon and Isabel Smith a tour of the expanded Windjammer in the early 1970s. “Excellent job,” Gordon Smith said, and, “This was a swell idea, putting that carpet on the wall,” when he

Denny Rydberg / “Dave Carlson has been a great leader in the field of youth camping for decades. Young Life was blessed to have Dave serve for 24 years as our vice president of camping, and Castaway

was blessed to have Dave start his Young Life career there.”

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saw the club room for the first time. It was an excellent idea — giving that beloved space a classic 1970s look and providing a comfortable backrest for anyone sitting along the wall. The additions allowed Castaway to serve many more guests. In the summer of 1966, there were 532 campers. Just five years later, there were more than 1000.

After the Sloop was moved to the Schooner, the Cutter was built to provide additional boys’ housing. Carlson then moved the camp office from an unfinished room below the Windjammer kitchen to the Cutter. Charlie Wagner was still living in the caretaker’s cottage (just as stipulated by C. Gordon Smith in 1963). Today it’s called the Bridge and it houses the camp office.

Beside the immediate need for more space, Carlson also felt a need to improve the waterfront offerings. “Let’s face it,” he said, “when I got there we had some sailboats that tended to leak and two aluminum boats with 35-horsepower motors. If you weighed more than 190 pounds, we couldn’t get you out of the water!”“Fortunately, I had the backing of Larry Entwistle as Young Life’s vice president of Camping,” Carlson said. “He was a person of vision and was the force behind the ‘Time for Living’ movie, and he was behind developing master plans for every camp. He encouraged and helped me improve the camp.”

Initially, Carlson purchased a Glastron boat and outfitted it with a 65-horsepower motor. Then, Correct Craft made an offer of their Ski Nautique boats with inboard automobile engines. The company made these boats

Insets from top to bottom: The renovated club room; The renovated dining hall; The addition of Ski Nautiques added a “wow” factor to the waterfront.

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Moving the Sloop

available to Christian camps at very little cost, and another iconic symbol of Castaway emerged. At about the same time, another — and perhaps most distinctive element of Castaway’s waterfront — also developed.

“It all came from a magazine ad,” Dave Carlson said. “I was reading ‘Outdoor Life’ magazine, and they used to run these ads where a guy would talk about doing something very exciting and unusual. One ad said, ‘Today I got behind a boat and flew in the air.’ I wanted to know if that was real. So I wrote the company and asked them if it was real — if people could really do that — and if it was real, where did they get the idea? They wrote back and told me it was real, it was called parasailing, and there was a company that custom-made parachutes you could use to fly behind a boat.

“I wrote the company that made the parachutes, and they sent me one. It had special flaps on it that would cause lift. We got it and had no idea how to make it work. I harnessed a tire to it, Olson’s let me use their beach, and

I tried to see if I could get that tire to fly. I couldn’t — the first thing I realized was that I needed to get a more powerful boat. We didn’t have the Nautiques yet.

“About that time Dan and Radona May donated a wooden Century boat to us with a V-8 motor in it. The Mays were very generous; Dan was on the Young Life Board of Trustees and was president of a Minneapolis-based airline. That gave us the power we needed, and we were able to get that tire to fly. Then we tried a person — I still remember the first guy to parasail was John Splinter, the Young Life area director in Winnipeg. The only thing left to do after that was to build a special dock to parasail from, since we couldn’t do it off the beach at Olson’s all the time.”

Ah yes, the parasail dock. Platforms were built so the sides of the sail could be lifted out of the water. The dock served as a makeshift runway. A summer staff person held onto the rope and ran along with the person going up and then jumped into the lake as the dock ended. Ideally, the sail was full of air and the person was off the ground by the

Dave Carlson and Chuck Tomaszewski enjoy the “first meal” in the new dining hall.

The expanded Schooner

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time he or she reached the end of the dock. Ideally. More than a few people seemingly walked on water as the sail filled with air or initially dropped into the lake only to be pulled out moments later. And as for landing — well, the idea was to land the person as close to the dock as possible — but wind gusts and inexperienced boat drivers sometimes delivered landings just short of the ideal — and the dock. The experience was greatly enhanced by the acquisition of Olson’s Resort in the early 1980s, including its beachfront. It was revolutionized a decade or so later by the purchase of the parasail boat, which takes the whole activity out into the lake away from the waterfront while keeping the sail full of air for an entire group.

But for all the innovative wonders that have smoothed the parasailing experience, there are still stories of incredible moments off the parasail dock. Vern Hill, for example, remembers bringing a kid with cerebral palsy to camp in

those days and having his friends take him parasailing. They picked him up out of his wheelchair and ran down the dock carrying him while the chute filled with air. “It was beautiful,” Vern said. “When the boat came around, those guys were all in the water to catch him and bring him onto shore.”

Adding the parasail was just one of the dramatic improvements made under Carlson’s leadership. Some changes brought long traditions to an end. When Carlson arrived at the camp, Charlie Wagner was still living in the caretaker’s cottage and tending to the lawn and flowers. “He and another man named Jesse used to mow the lawn with two little walk-behind power mowers,” Carlson said. “They weren’t even the self-propelled kind. I know the lawn wasn’t as big then as it is today, but still ... And they watered the lawn using the same sort of sprinklers you could pick up for your home at a hardware store. Jesse worked for Charlie, but they both were old. Jesse lived in a trailer or maybe even a school bus and he smelled like kerosene. I can remember in the winter time Charlie would have Jesse splitting logs and Charlie would stand next to him watching, supervising.” An era ended when Charlie Wagner moved off the camp after working at Robinswood/Castaway since 1931.

The remodeled Windjammer created more space at Castaway, but it took a while for the attendance numbers to catch up. The camp ran at 54 percent of capacity in 1971, serving just more than 1000 campers. “Dick Jacobson told me when I got there that every mile north of I-80 is a mile out of the way for most of America, and we were a long way north of I-80!” Carlson said. “It was a struggle to keep the camp filled. I remember that we’d worked hard that first winter on the Windjammer

Early 1970s aerial view Parasailing off the dock

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expansion and had done a ton of work to make the camp look good for the summer. I was devastated when the camp director of the first assigned team that summer told me the place looked like a construction zone.” But the attendance numbers grew under Carlson, and the camp began showing a surplus in the 1970s.

About the same time, another member of the Smith family made the land immediately south of the camp available to Young Life. The building later known as the Clipper (and today the Ketch) had been built by Sidney T. Smith’s son Harold. He later passed the property on to his daughter, Marilyn, who decided to sell it to Young Life in 1975. The addition of the Clipper allowed Young Life to expand the Adult Guest Program and share Castaway and the camp experience with greater numbers of prospective donors and volunteers. A smaller house, which eventually became known as the Dory and later expanded for use as assigned staff housing, was also included in the purchase.

Dave and Mary Carlson left Castaway in June of 1978 when Dave accepted the position of camp manager at Windy Gap in North Carolina. Carlson would continue to stay close to Castaway as a member of the Young Life Camping department and was instrumental in negotiating the sale of Olson’s Resort to Young Life in the early 1980s. Later, Carlson would serve for almost two decades as Young Life’s vice president of Camping, and his involvement with Castaway has never ended.

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Dave Carlson’s position as Castaway’s camp manager was filled by Neil Gustafson. “Gus” was a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., who, like so many

others, became a Christian at Castaway as a high school kid. He had been hired by Dave Carlson in 1975 to do maintenance at the camp and then was promoted to camp supervisor. “I think I realized after two weeks of being at the camp that this was my life’s calling,” Gustafson said. “I just knew this was what I was supposed to do.” He continued as camp manager through the summer of 1980 at Castaway before going to Windy Gap to rejoin Dave


Carlson. Gus stayed at Windy Gap for nine years and then went to work for several years at another Christian youth camp.

Although Gustafson’s time at Castaway was short, he is credited by Dave Carlson for having discovered Norton Hanson, known for years as “Snortin’ Norton,” a resident of Detroit Lakes who came to camp weekly to call square dances attired in a cowboy hat, boots and a bolo tie.

The “Initiative Games Course” was also set up during

The pipeInitiative Games

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Gustafson’s time. “I remember that being very field-driven,” Gustafson said. George Moore, a Presbyterian pastor in Omaha, Neb,. who had served on Young Life staff in Indianapolis in the 1970s and 80s remembered the origin of the Initiative Games. “Our divisional director was Jack Fortin, and he was pushing us to take kids to Castaway instead of the Colorado camps. I felt like we needed something at Castaway to parallel the physical challenges of camp in Colorado and also something that would bring the camp together the way climbing Chimney Rock the first afternoon at Frontier Ranch would. The Eli

Lilly Company in Indianapolis had invested in a challenge course, and we had Neil Gustafson come to Indianapolis to look at what they had. Soon we had several elements at Castaway — a climbing wall, the trust fall, cables that two people would walk up together, and a small piece of cement pipe buried in the ground that you’d have to slide along on your belly to get through.”

The Initiative Games became a signature feature of Castaway for the next decade and a half. Program directors and leaders would testify that they accomplished

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the goal of uniting the camp in the same way Colorado mountain climbs did. For many years, the Initiative Games were the camp standard the afternoon of the first full day, and almost every Castaway veteran has a story that begins something like this: “I was inching along in that piece of buried pipe, trying not to think about how claustrophobic I was feeling, when a kid from my cabin started in from the other side and decided to pass me in the middle.”

George Moore did several assignments as camp director and speaker at Castaway, and Dick Flynn often served with him as program director. Flynn was always ready to try something outrageous. For years, the program featured a mid-week luau, and to spice things up, a remote control volcano was built on the floating dock. Yes, you can already sense what’s coming. How could anything go wrong with a remote control volcano? Suffice it to say, the quest for a really impressive volcano blast resulted in the sinking of the floating dock and another unique memory for those who were at the Castaway luau that night.

Chuck Tomaszewski replaced Neil Gustafson as camp

manager in 1981. Chuck had first visited Castaway as a high school junior from White Bear Lake, Minn., in 1965. In August of 1970, he was on the assigned team as a work crew boss and stayed at camp after the summer session ended to work in maintenance. “The Vietnam War was on,” Tomaszewski said, “and I was waiting to be drafted. I had an accounting degree from a business school in the Twin Cities, but I knew I was eventually going into the Army.” Tomaszewski was at Castaway when Dave Carlson came as camp manager, and he contributed to the major expansion of the Windjammer over the winter of 1970-71. Then the Army did call and took notice of his accounting background. “I wound up doing accounting for the Army instead of going to Vietnam, and then when I came out of the Army a few years later, I went into accounting with Young Life at the Service Center in Colorado Springs.” Dick Jacobson, who had preceded Dave Carlson at Castaway, was also working in accounting at the Service Center and helped Chuck land a position there. “Before long, I was involved with accounting for the Camping department and worked with Larry Entwistle and Mike Sheridan. I enjoyed

Mike Ashburn and George Moore Early 1980s program Snortin’ Norton Hanson

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accounting but also felt a desire to be back at a camp as a staff member, and I wound up being selected to head up Castaway. I started there on May 1, 1981.

“It was an amazing time. It was very rewarding to see the ministry that happened there and to participate in it. It was great to build relationships with the staff who came each month.” Tomaszewski especially remembers staff people from those days like Byron Thompson, Gary Medin, Vern Hill, Jim Edberg, Perry Hunter, and Jim Bjork. He also made what was one of the greatest human resources decisions in Castaway’s history — hiring Marv Johnson as a landscaper. Marv has been a constant presence at Castaway ever since.

One of the issues that arose at that time was the feasibility of continuing to operate Castaway year-round. The buildings were not energy efficient, and it became cost prohibitive to use them during the harsh Minnesota winters. “When I first came, we had fall camps and big ski camps between Christmas and New Year’s,” Tomaszewski said, “but by the third year, we were shutting down in November and not opening up again until the spring. It cost more to heat and light the buildings than we could make in revenue.” That issue would come into sharper focus after Tomaszeski left the camp in early 1984.

The other huge transition at Castaway during those years was Phil McDonald’s departure from Young Life staff in 1979. When he had started under Jim Rayburn, there were no organizational charts or titles, other than “Rayburn was president and the rest of us were staff.” Later the titles “area director” and “regional director” were coined, and McDonald had served in both roles. After Bob Mitchell succeeded Bill Starr as Young Life president in 1977,

McDonald was named Northern field director, with a number of regional directors reporting to him. Within two years, though, McDonald left Young Life to partner with his old friend Bill Starr and start a new ministry that was backed by the governor of Minnesota. For 16 years, Phil McDonald, more than anyone else (outside of the Holy Spirit), had been responsible for taking a family vacation home and making a Young Life camp out of it. His exit left a large void.

After McDonald’s departure, Jack Fortin was named Northern field director. Fortin was a “boy wonder” of sorts in Young Life, having advanced in the span of eight years from area director to regional director to field director while still in his mid-30s. He had been a Young Life kid in Rockford, Ill., and later had attended Luther Seminary, working with Young Life as a seminary student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He first visited Castaway in 1967 and remembered learning an important lesson in punctuality during an early assignment at the camp. “I let everyone in late for breakfast one morning,” Fortin said, “and can still remember being told, ‘Don’t you know French toast has a three-minute life span and you’re four minutes late!’”

Another early Castaway memory of Fortin’s is serving on assignment in 1973 as head leader with Anne Greene of Denver as his female counterpart. That month Anne met Perry Hunter. She has been Anne Hunter since 1974.

Those early days of assignments and fun were a prelude to the early 1980s when Fortin found himself on point for the health of Castaway during developments very similar to the mid-1960s, fighting to keep the camp off the real-estate market.

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went to Castaway with Dave Carlson and looked at the problems,” said Norma Madsen, who served on the Young Life Board of Trustees between 1980 and 1994. “But I also remember thinking that even if Castaway didn’t have all the things some other Young Life camps had, it still was one of the best camps for leaders to be able to spend time with kids.”

The proposed sale of the camp was discussed in detail at the Castaway camp committee meeting in February 1982. Attendees at the meeting included Jack Fortin, Dave Carlson, Chuck Tomaszewski, Doug Amidon (regional director in Chicago), Dave Applehauf (chair of

Castaway was losing money. Operational costs had risen, and it had become prohibitive to keep the camp open year-round. In the early 1980s, Young

Life Camping Director Mike Sheridan commissioned a nationwide camping study. The Young Life Board of Trustees minutes in 1982 state, “Implementing the results (of the camping study) will change the distribution of camper beds across the U.S. ... and some staff will be upset. The study suggests we acquire a new camp in the Pacific Northwest ... and a second one in the Ozark Mountains with maybe the sale of Castaway and Silver Cliff.”

“I recall being part of a delegation from the board that

Camp staff, July 1980Jack and Sara Fortin dressed for “Grease Opera.” Olson’s Resort


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the Minnesota regional committee), and Minnesota staff including Regional Director Byron Thompson and Area Directors Steve Molin and Gary Medin. Minutes from that meeting indicate acknowledgment that Castaway was located far from major population centers, that the lake country was too familiar to Midwest young people, and that it was “hard for a surrounding group of adults to support capital projects in an exciting way.” Vern Hill, who was also a member of the Castaway camp committee at that time but was not present for that meeting, remembered the prevailing attitude was that “Castaway was at the end of a spur instead of being between large population centers.”

“I was upset,” said Jack Fortin. “I understood the problems, but I did not agree. It would cost millions to build new camps, and we could turn Castaway around for $500,000.” Fortin was allowed time at a Young Life Board of Trustees’ meeting to argue his case for Castaway. His arguments were persuasive as board minutes of 1983 prove: “Castaway Club will be retained indefinitely.” Now the challenge was raising the money to turn the camp around.

One of Fortin’s first moves was to go to the Midwestern staff and ask them for two things — to personally make three-year financial commitments to support the camp and second, to use only Castaway for summer camping.

Camp staff, July 1980

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The staff donated $50,000. “The commitments to use Castaway for summer camping were met with resistance by some who had long histories of taking groups to Colorado and elsewhere. But we needed them all to come to Castaway. One way we dealt with it was by trading some camp spots with groups in Colorado, which started a strong tradition of Colorado areas using Castaway.”

Fortin also did some serious fundraising among members of the Young Life Board of Trustees. “I feel safe telling this story since both of these men have since passed away,” Fortin said. “Norris Aldeen, a trustee from Rockford, had committed a large sum of money on the condition it be matched by another trustee, Jim Beré, the chairman of Borg Warner. We had a golf game set up to discuss this, and Jim was late because of another commitment, so Norrie was upset with Jim. After Jim finally arrived, the two of them couldn’t agree on whether to take a cart or walk. This was turning into something I didn’t want it to turn into! We were supposed to have dinner after the game, but Norrie left because we were running late and never talked about giving to Castaway. So my wife, Sara, and I were having dinner with Jim and Barb Beré, and Barb finally asked, ‘Aren’t you going to ask us for money?’ They agreed to match what Norrie was giving and then, after I told them the staff had committed $50,000, they committed another $100,000 because they were so moved by what the staff had done.”

As the camp approached its 20th summer season, it had new life. An appraisal done in February of

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1984 listed the value of the camp at more than one million dollars, a far cry from the estimated $150,000 of 20 years earlier. At the same time, a major opportunity to improve the camp came when the possible sale of Olson’s Resort to Young Life developed in the fall of 1983 and came to fruition in the fall of 1984. The Olsons had actually sold the property to the Hansons in 1970. The Hansons then decided to sell in 1973. There was some discussion about Young Life purchasing it then, but Young Life was hard pressed for the money. In addition, talks were beginning with Sidney Smith’s granddaughter Marilyn about purchasing the plot of land immediately south of the camp, the sale of which was completed in 1975. The Hansons ultimately sold Olson’s Resort to the Anderson family in 1973.

“When I would come up for camp committee meetings in the fall, I’d always check in at Olson’s,” said Dave Carlson. “In 1983, I became aware that Mr. Anderson was ill. I said we’d buy the property without even discussing terms. We had missed the opportunity to buy the property once and

couldn’t miss it again. I just knew we had to have it.”

It seems inconceivable in today’s Young Life camping world that Olson’s property line was 100 feet away from the boys’ dorm and the entrance to the camp. The purchase added six and a half acres of land to Castaway and gave the camp 651 feet of lakefront. The transaction was completed on Oct. 1, 1984, and a few days later an auction was held of the various cottages, trailers, boats and motors that had been part of the resort. The land was cleared, and in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a “sand blanket” was brought in to create Castaway’s beach.

Other major projects began almost at once. Improvements to the Galleon and Schooner were made. A new workshop was built. The Seabreeze was constructed through another substantial gift from Jim and Barb Beré. “Jim and Barb had come to camp as adult guests, and we were down on the new field where Olson’s had been,” Jack Fortin said. “We were showing Jim the fence we built — we were concerned

Castaway covered with snowOlson’s beach in the fall of 1984 The acquisition of Olson’s before the Seabreeze was built

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about kids being on that field close to where cars would come around a corner, so we built a normal looking white fence that had amazing concrete footings and would stop anything that came around that corner. Jim was so impressed with that fence. He said, ‘If we can build lives with the same sort of foundations this fence has, then it is more than worth it for Barbara and I to make another investment in Castaway.’ I’ve often thought about how that fence, which I didn’t place a particularly high value on, was a turning point for Jim and Barbara providing the funding for the Seabreeze. He said, ‘I want to give enough so you do it right, like you did that fence.’” After Jim’s death, Barb and her family continued their generous support of Castaway.

Other significant supporters of Castaway during those years included Paul and Joan Kingstrom and Ed and Virginia Sharp. Both couples were from Rockford, Ill. Paul and Joan went on to give volunteer leadership to Castaway’s development effort for a number of years. Ed Sharp was a renowned hand surgeon and would be instrumental in beginning the camp physician program at Castaway.

Castaway was further improved with the building of the Barquentine (a name for a ship with three or more masts in keeping with Castaway’s nautical theme). Since its inception, Castaway had lacked viable entertainment options in the event of inclement weather. The days of amusing kids with a Laurel and Hardy movie on a rainy day were long past. The Barquentine, a covered gymnasium, gave the camp program much more flexibility. Doug and Norma Madsen generously funded the project in honor of Doug’s father, Orville Madsen.

Orville Madsen had always had a warm spot in his heart for adolescents, primarily because his own adolescence was greatly abbreviated. Orville was the son of Danish immigrants and Orville’s mother died when he was young. His father remarried a woman with 12 children. Orville ran away from home when he was 16 and apprenticed himself to a bricklayer. After years of working as a bricklayer, he ventured into business for himself as a contractor, and his son Doug succeeded him in that business. Doug and Norma met at Wheaton College in the 1950s, and both had been involved in Young Life leadership there under the direction of George Sheffer, another of the key figures in early Young Life. About the same time, Young Life was developing in Minneapolis, where Orville Madsen lived, and Orville became an early supporter of the ministry there. Doug and Norma would be instrumental in beginning Young Life in the state of Wisconsin in the 1970s. After Orville died of a heart attack on Father’s Day in 1978, the family decided to use his memorial gifts to build the Barquentine. A dedication plaque on the building reads: “Given in honor of my dad, Orville E. Madsen, who ran away from home at age 16 and always had a soft spot in his heart for teenagers and for Jesus who welcomes us all home. Donated by Douglas Madsen and his wife, Norma Madsen.”

Another major change at Castaway came with the hiring of Bruce Peterson as camp manager in 1984. There was a need for stability, leadership and creativity in the role that had turned over three times since 1978. The camp achieved more solid financial footing under Peterson. Camper numbers swelled, and many Castaway favorites, such as the Anchor, the parasail boat, the zip line and the climbing wall became camp assets during Peterson’s 12-year tenure.

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In addition to the growth of the camp, another legacy of the 1980s at Castaway was creativity. “I always viewed Castaway as a laboratory where we could try out things,” Jack Fortin, said. “I wanted to use the fact that we were small and off the beaten path to our advantage. We felt the freedom to experiment and try new things in youth ministry. We always asked, ‘How can we stay true to the essence of the mission of Young Life while experimenting to speak to changing times?’”

Castaway was a site of many innovations in the 1980s. The camp doctor program was pioneered there. Very intentional efforts were made each month to create a community among the work crew, summer staff, and assigned team and their families. Sara Fortin was influential in choosing and preparing adult guest hosts. The camp director and speaker roles were split on summer assignments — which was definitely not the way Jim Rayburn had done it. Volunteers were given assignments

Insets from left to right: Before the parasail boat, it took a team of people to launch a kid; We have liftoff; Bruce Peterson, camp manager

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The original Clipper

alongside paid staff. One of those volunteers was Paul Olson, a professor from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., who would alternate spending summers as a professor at the Young Life Institute in Colorado Springs and serving as waterfront director at Castaway. One of Paul and his wife, Jeanne’s, children, who ran around Castaway in those years, is now the actor Eric Christian Olson, who has starred in several movies and is a regular on the television series “NCIS.”

Vern Hill was one of the people consistently doing assignments as a program director in the 1980s, along with others like Jim Edberg and George Buchok. “We had a high value of inclusivity in the Upper Midwest,” Hill said.

“I’m not sure if these were always ‘firsts,’ but we had a woman regional director and an African-American regional director, and we had women speaking and doing program. We were doing urban-suburban weeks, junior high camps, and other things that felt innovative. People like Dave Mack, Harold Spooner, Nancy Warden, Cordelia

Veit-Carey, Jody Nelson and Cindy McKay Anderson all played significant roles in shaping Castaway during those years. We were trying to stay on the edge of youth culture, and I remember we pioneered having a daily slide show at camp. That led to video, and I remember Bruce Peterson got a huge projection television we used in the club room that was upstairs in the Windjammer.”

Peterson also innovated by installing a zip line at camp. “Zip lines were a new thing, and I wanted to have one at Castaway,” Peterson said with a smile. “I had a boom truck come in during the winter and string a line down, and I took a pulley off a sailboat to ride on and stacked up some mattresses to stop myself. The guy in the boom truck wouldn’t watch! I zipped down that thing and slammed into those mattresses and thought, ‘It scared the pants off of me ... kids are going to love this.’”

Marv Johnson was one of the guys holding a mattress for Bruce. “He blew it out of my hands and slid under a truck,” he said chuckling. “I didn’t know what to think.”

The renovated Clipper, renamed the KetchThe parasail boat simplified the waterfront.

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Bruce Peterson, it should be noted, could be a bit unconventional at times. But it was Bruce Peterson who got truckload after truckload of sand brought in to create the new beach in the spring of 1985 when the lake water levels were at record highs. And it was Peterson, with an advanced degree in mechanical engineering, who designed the massive hot tubs on the deck of the Seabreeze. “We basically built mini-swimming pools,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t find anyone selling 75-person hot tubs, so we created our own.”

The emphasis on Midwestern areas using the camp had paid off. Camper numbers swelled during the decade. By 1985 there were more than 2200 campers a summer, doubling the number from a decade earlier. Additions to the Schooner and Galleon allowed for

Insets from top to bottom: The climbing wall; In the Barquentine

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extra bed space. The camp’s financial standing turned around because of the larger enrollments. But the increased capacity put pressure on other camp facilities like the kitchen, dining room and club room (the very areas the Pelican Lake Yacht Club building, which had been proposed and dismissed in 1970, would have addressed). Several outdoor meals were offered and often tables were set on the other side of the Windjammer in the camp lounge, which had been the dining room before 1971, or outdoors, looking through the windows into the dining room. The situation was far from ideal, but as usual, the camp staff made the best of it, telling displaced groups they had the privilege of “executive dining.”

A key hire was made by Peterson in the early 1980s. John Stowers was a local carpenter who originally was hired by Chuck Tomaszewski to work on some remodeling done in the Galleon. He was called back several times on other projects until Bruce Peterson asked him if he’d like to work full time at the camp in 1986. In 1989 John was named camp superintendent, a position he still holds 23 years later. “I never imagined this life,” John said, “but I’ve been very, very happy to be able to work here. Perhaps my greatest joy comes from seeing young people who

Jack Fortin / “We always asked, ‘How can we stay true to the

essence of the mission of Young Life while experimenting to speak

to changing times?’”

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come back — maybe they start out as work crew and come back as summer staff and then interns and later camp staff. I love watching them grow up.”

Building the Anchor, the Castaway club room constructed during the winter of 1988-89, dramatically changed the feel of the camp while alleviating space constraints at the same time. Up until that point, almost all activity was centered in the Windjammer. But with the Anchor and the new beach, the camp felt much larger.

The orange shag carpet of the old club room, which had seemed so mod in the early 1970s, now was hopelessly dated, and there were ongoing issues with space, heating and cooling, not to mention concerns about the structural soundness of the upstairs club room. “One of my most vivid memories the first time I went to Castaway in the early 1970s was of how hot it got in that club room,” said Bruce Peterson. “Club ended and there were about eight kids stretched out on the floor not moving because of the heat.” The air conditioning would run all day to cool the room down, but still the influx of 200 bodies at club time in that room with a low ceiling would overpower the air conditioning in the heat of the summer. There was universal support for the new club room and building it allowed the old club room space to be converted into support staff housing for work crew and summer staff, which in turn allowed the number of camper beds to keep increasing. The architects of the Pelican Lake Yacht Club design had a vision for Castaway’s amenities that largely became a reality 20 years later — except for the indoor pool.

Insets from top to bottom: Construction begins on the Anchor club room; Working inside the Anchor; Inside the Anchor after completion

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After 12 years of service, Bruce Peterson left Castaway in 1996 to head up the development of Crooked Creek, a new Young Life camp in

Colorado. He was replaced at Castaway by Camp Manager Greg Johnson, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., and a product of the Young Life club started there by Perry Hunter. Greg first visited Castaway in 1976, as a senior in high school. Greg had grown up on a turkey farm and later returned to Detroit Lakes to help manage the family farm

and convert some of it into a golf course. Along the way, he had also studied youth ministry at Luther Seminary. All of these experiences helped uniquely prepare him for his work in Young Life.

“One of the most ironic things I remember,” Johnson said, “was that when I interviewed, I was told we were more or less finished with development projects for the time being at Castaway.” Things sure didn’t turn out that way. The


Building the Anchor, club room

Greg JohnsonThe sun sets on the sails at Castaway.

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list of capital improvements accomplished during Greg Johnson’s tenure is impressive. All told, the cost of these projects totaled more than $5 million.

In 1997, the Windjammer received another major renovation. The unabated needs for additional dining and kitchen space were met by a 7000 square-foot addition to the building. The dining room was given a dramatic high ceiling, eliminating the cramped feel of

the space. In addition, the game room was expanded on the lower level of the building.

In 1999 the Dory, the small house that had come to Young Life along with the Clipper in the 1975 purchase of what had been Harold Smith’s property, was quadrupled in size. The Dory had been used for many purposes over the years, but with the addition, it was designated solely for assigned staff family housing.

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Just a year later, a new Adult Guest Lodge was built. Originally, the plan had been to remodel the Clipper, until the realization came that there was room to add another building in the space between the Clipper and the Windjammer. The floor plan was inspired by the newly built Adult Guest Lodge at Young Life’s Rockbridge Alum Springs camp in Virginia, but the building became unique to Castaway by utilizing timber frame construction and adding high ceilings. The new building was called the Clipper, and the building that had been called the Clipper was renamed the Ketch.

In 2001 the Ketch was remodeled and, like the Dory, designated entirely for assigned staff housing. Assigned staff had been housed primarily in the former Smith family bedrooms upstairs in the Windjammer, but the continued growth of the camp required additional support staff, straining the housing capacity. Over the decades, many Young Life staff brought their families to Castaway for a month and stayed in less-than-ideal housing. They did this selflessly and with wonderful attitudes of service. Stories abound of families of four or five spending a month sleeping in the same room with the kids in beds and mom and dad on a mattress on the floor; of several families sharing communal bathrooms; and even of babies sleeping in dresser drawers. Since 2001, the accommodations for staff on summer assignments and their families have been significantly upgraded.

In 2002 the Barquentine was fully enclosed. Originally the Barquentine was built with screened sides, which did provide the mosquito cover it was designed for, but gave too little protection in the fall and winter when the

Insets from top to bottom: The original Dory; The Dory today; Construction on the Winjammer expansion

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weather turned cold and snow and ice penetrated the screens. The remodel equipped the building for year-round use, with the added bonus of making it soundproof for evening activities.

In 2005 a new boys’ dorm called the Carrick was built. Located between the Anchor and the Galleon, the Carrick added 70 beds to the camp’s capacity. The Galleon, after various renovations and remodels over the years, currently holds 90 beds.

In 2008 the Cutter (built at the direction of Dave Carlson in the early 1970s for additional boys’ beds after the Sloop was moved to adjoin the Schooner) was knocked down and a new Cutter was built in its place. In addition to being used as a boys’ dorm, the Cutter also had held Dave Carlson’s office (when Charlie Wagner lived in the caretaker’s cottage before it was converted into the Bridge) and had often been used for work crew housing. Since the building of the new Cutter, the building has been used solely for housing the 39 college-age volunteers known as the summer staff.

Also in 2008, a dramatic improvement was made in the area of girls’ housing when the Schooner, originally built in 1931 as the summer home of C. Gordon and Isabel Smith, was demolished and a new dorm was built in its place. The new dorm, in a nod to the past, was named the Sloop. In 1991, an addition to the Schooner had been built in such a way that it would be possible to remove the original part of the Schooner while retaining the new construction. The buildings were contiguous but not connected. The 1991 addition still stands and is still

Insets from top to bottom: The new Clipper construction; The new Clipper; Clipper lounge

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named the Schooner. The Sloop has 96 beds and the Schooner has 80 beds. Although there are 336 camper and leader beds in the new configuration, camp capacity is set officially at 320. Every summer well more than 3000 young people visit Castaway.

In 2011 the upstairs of the Windjammer was remodeled. Now that space is used for housing the 16 summer-long interns and the 36 high-school-age work crew.

More changes are on the drawing board for the Windjammer, including plans that would make the building fully accessible by adding an elevator, improving the entryway, and also creating a hallway that would connect the two lowest levels of the building. As any Castaway veteran knows, the only way to get from the game room to the War Room or the Hold is by going upstairs and back downstairs again.

Obviously, the major projects at Castaway over the past several years have required the investment of many. Dave Phillips, who was one of the Young Life staff who visited the property with Jim Rayburn in the fall of 1963, came back to Castaway in the late 1990s as a development officer for Young Life. Gail Merrick Ebersole, serving in the Midwestern divisional director role once held by Phil McDonald and Jack Fortin, was a significant partner along with Dave. Together, with several others, they propelled Castaway fundraising to new heights.

Among the most significant benefactors of the camp is the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation of Bayport, Minn. The Andersen Foundation has a long track record of supporting the local Young Life ministry of Vern Hill in the St. Croix Valley, and trustees view

support of Castaway improvements as a logical extension of that local work.

“I’ve taken kids to other Young Life camps,” Vern Hill said, “and they are all great, but I keep returning to Castaway. I’ve been there every year since 1968. Since so many Stillwater kids have been impacted positively at Castaway, the Andersen Foundation sees its benefit to our community.”

In a similarly significant way, The Barry Foundation of Fargo, N.D., has impacted Castaway’s camping ministry. John Barry first started spending his summers on Pelican Lake as a boy in 1948. He has fond memories of the Smith family and of large groups of young people gathering on the property of Harold Smith to listen to different bands in the late 1950s. He was aware that the C. Gordon Smith family had donated their property to Young Life and remembers when the Harold Smith property was sold to

From left to right: Brad Pearce, Tom Barry, John Barry, Greg Johnson and Jeff Munroe, July 2012

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John Barry / “The more I learned, the more I liked. Our family supports

efforts at helping youth, education and developing leaders.

This is what happens at Castaway.”

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Young Life. But he really didn’t have any knowledge of what happened at Castaway or what Young Life was until a decade or so ago.

“I have a story for you if you believe in a Higher Power,” John Barry said. “In 2002 I had planted hundreds of new spruce trees on my property. We didn’t have our irrigation system working fully and these transplanted trees needed a lot of water. One morning I was driving along the lake, and I saw a tractor with a large water tank on it watering some sod on a small piece of land I knew the camp owned on the other side of the road by St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church. The camp grows sod there to replace anything they need on their large lawn. I stopped my car and asked the gentleman there, whom I later learned was Marv Johnson, if they used that rig all day, and when I learned they only used it in the morning, I asked if I could

rent it in the afternoons. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but I got the idea he wasn’t too keen on the idea of renting it to me. Yet the next thing I knew, they were bringing that irrigation unit over to my land every afternoon.

“I thought I would only need it for short time, but did I ever underestimate that. It went on and on for weeks, much longer than I planned. They didn’t charge me anything and by the time we finished, I felt since they had helped me, I would see about helping them.”

A remarkable relationship between the Barry family and Castaway began. Today, the Barrys are among Young Life’s biggest boosters on Pelican Lake. “The more I learned, the more I liked,” John Barry said. “Our family supports efforts at helping youth, education and developing leaders. This is what happens at Castaway.”

John’s son, Tom, who has spent several years working as a river guide and experiential educator in the Grand Canyon, moved back to the Midwest about the same time that his father was learning about Castaway and quickly jumped into a unique role at the camp. Tom has a natural affinity for Young Life’s Capernaum ministry for kids and young adults with disabilities, and for several summers Tom has provided a kayaking program for Capernaum kids. “I had some adapted kayaks,” Tom Barry said, “and have been able to create an experience where these kids don’t just get taken for a kayak ride but learn to operate their own kayak.”

Large numbers of helpers are needed to fulfill the safety requirements of working with these kids in this type of setting, more than the camp could provide. Tom came up

Tom Barry with Capernaum campers

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with a unique solution by creating a way for local kids to help him. “We call it the Pelican Leadership Academy, and I use upwards of 30 kids from this area to help me keep the Capernaum kids safe on the Castaway waterfront. It’s been wonderful.”

Not only has the Barry Foundation significantly helped with the recent improvements at Castaway, they have also supported Young Life’s ministry on the Native American reservations in North Dakota and helped start Young Life in Fargo.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with Young Life and get to know the people involved,” John Barry said. “I believe Young Life is making a difference, and I like partnering with them. It’s hard to believe all that came from wanting to borrow a water truck.”

The Barrys have never sought recognition for what they’ve contributed to Castaway, and the camp has complied in a humorous way. For years the camp boat drivers would take

Insets from left to right: The dining hall today; John Stowers and Marv Johnson

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Marv Johnson / “I always tell our crew to take a look at the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci of the Last Supper. You don’t see who

set the table or prepared the meal or cleaned up, but you know someone had to do it. That’s us — we don’t want to be seen, but

we want to serve. Faith matures when you want to serve instead of being served, and that’s what we aspire to.”

groups of kids out for an after-dinner tour and tell one tall tale after another about life on Pelican Lake. Invariably, when passing the beautiful Barry home, the boat driver would tell the group it was the home of the Minnesota-based rock star, Prince.

As for the story about John Barry asking to rent the irrigation truck, Marv Johnson simply shrugs his shoulders and says, “I wasn’t going to worry about that. Neighbors don’t rent to neighbors.”

Marv is one of the special servants who makes Castaway such a unique place. Born and raised on a family farm in Lake Eunice, three miles from Castaway (where he still lives), Marv had met folks like Dave Carlson and Perry Hunter in Detroit Lakes, but had never set foot on the camp before he was hired by Neil Gustafson in 1979. “He

hired me for six weeks as a gardener to help get the camp in shape for the upcoming summer,” Johnson said. “I had been studying art and was painting and needed to pick up some odd jobs to supplement my income. I guess I passed the test because Gus kept me on after the first six weeks. In those first years I worked in the summer at camp and then painted at home in the winter.”

Marv continued, “About the second year I was here I was home and we had a very early snow storm, and I couldn’t get out to get the wood I needed to heat my house. I was going to be in a very bad situation, when, out of nowhere, a truck came in pulling a trailer full of firewood. It was the crew from Castaway. They said they’d been thinking about me and wondered if I could use some firewood. That just melted my heart toward the camp and the people here. Up until that point, working here had been just a job to me, but it became

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something much more significant afterwards.”Marv will be retiring at the end of this year, December 2012. Amazingly, except for 1976-1978, the beautiful grounds at Castaway have been under the care of only two men from 1931 to 2012 — Charlie Wagner and Marv Johnson.

One of Marv’s most vivid memories of his 33 years at Castaway was the purchase of the Olson’s property and all the challenges in getting that land ready for camp. “I can’t tell you how many septic tanks are buried under that soccer field,” he said. “We caved them in. We had one spot where we couldn’t seem to get any grass to grow that first year, and I finally dug around it and found a piece of carpet buried under the dirt. No wonder the grass wouldn’t take.”

Marv sums up his years at Castaway by telling a story about a friend of his who worked in a juvenile corrections

facility. “My friend would say, ‘What’s the world coming to,’ when talking about the young people he was working with. I don’t want to demean the significance of his experience, but I’d always think, ‘I have great hope for the future’ because of the young people I was working with.

“What a joy it’s been to be here. I always tell our crew to take a look at the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci of the Last Supper. You don’t see who set the table or prepared the meal or cleaned up, but you know someone had to do it. That’s us — we don’t want to be seen, but we want to serve. Faith matures when you want to serve instead of being served, and that’s what we aspire to.

“I stumbled into this job and it’s been the most rewarding and amazing life I could ever imagine. God knew if He got me here that He’d keep me here, and it would be good for me.”

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A few years ago on the fourth of July, Dave Phillips received word of a major gift to Castaway that would nearly complete the fundraising for one

of the recent major developments at the camp. Unable to contain his joy, Dave overlooked the holiday and called a longtime Young Life staff member in Minnesota to share the good news. As he told the story, he admitted to the staff member that, in reality, they were still $3,000 short of the goal. They ended their call and Dave’s phone rang just a few minutes later. It was the same staff member,

explaining that he’d just told the good news to his son and his son had surprised him by saying, “Dad, I’ll give that $3,000.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” the staff member remembered. “My son was 27 at the time and had no money. He and his wife had two young children. But he wanted to give that gift, because he’d grown up at Castaway and the place had made such an impact on him. And over the course of a couple years my son and his wife completed that pledge.”


Denny Rydberg / “As a mission, we have witnessed tens of thousands of lives changed over 50 years. We have also seen this sacred

place transformed; it is poised to welcome and bless future generations of campers, leaders and staff with the grace and truth

of Jesus Christ. I am grateful for those on whose shoulders we stand – Jim Rayburn, Sid Smith, Phil McDonald and so many others

– and for those who continue the legacy of Castaway Club.”

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Rich Ellerd visited Castaway for the first time as a high-school kid from Bozeman, Mont., in 1966. He spent parts of the next 19 summers at Castaway. After a 24-year hiatus, he visited Castaway again in 2009. “I hardly could believe it was the same place,” Ellerd said. He is now based in Oregon as coordinator for Young Life’s camps in the Pacific Northwest. “Castaway was a special place when I first visited in 1966. What it is today is almost unbelievable,” Ellerd stated.

Bob Mitchell, the third president of Young Life, first visited Castaway with Jim Rayburn in 1963. He served several assignments at Castaway in the early days of the camp. “I just have always liked Castaway,” Mitchell said. “I can still see Phil McDonald carrying a bag and hearing someone ask him, ‘What have you got in that bag?’ ‘Milk,’ he’d say. ‘You can’t carry milk in a bag!’ ‘Why not?’ he’d say. ‘A cow does.’” With that, Mitch breaks into his wonderful grin, revealing the warmth of his memories of the camp.

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Who doesn’t smile when thinking about the 50 years of changed lives at Castaway?

As Denny Rydberg reflects on the story of Castaway he sees a story of transformation. “As a mission, we have witnessed tens of thousands of lives changed over 50 years,” he said. “We have also seen this sacred place transformed; it is poised to welcome and bless future generations of campers, leaders and staff with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. I am grateful for those on whose shoulders we stand — Jim Rayburn, Sid Smith, Phil McDonald and so many others — and for those who continue the legacy of Castaway Club.”

Lauren became a Christian at Castaway in the summer of 2012. We can’t know what direction her life will take. But we do know that as a sophomore at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., her school year is beginning differently than any year before. She’s hosting Young Life club at her home and is excited to be part of what God is doing at her high school. Lauren is one of about a thousand kids who found new life at Castaway in the summer of 2012. Kids from Wichita, Denver, Dallas, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, Chicago, Iowa City, Detroit, St. Louis, Bismarck, and even the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska were among those welcomed to Castaway and invited to consider the source of real, abundant and eternal life.

Kirsten, Addie and Mariah from Appleton, Wis., each accepted that invitation and became Christians at Castaway in the summer of 2012. They were encouraged to attend camp by their Young Life leader, Paula. It had been quite a year for Paula. She’d been diagnosed with cancer and had finished her chemotherapy treatment six days

Vern Hill / “Castaway has always adapted to the needs of kids in a quality way — and it

gets better every year.”

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before the Appleton kids were to leave for Castaway. Paula and her husband, Dave, had prayed for months that Paula would be able to make the trip. She did.

Despite her illness and the chemo’s side effects, Paula wanted to go to witness how God would use a week at Castaway in the lives of her girls. Paula’s prayers were answered when these girls found new life on Minnesota’s Pelican Lake. Again and again, week after week, year after year, Castaway is a special and sacred place where lives change.

“I became a Christian at Castaway.” Add Lauren, Kristen, Addie and Mariah to the list of those who now say that about Castaway.

Vern Hill smiles at the mention of Castaway. He’s seen 45 of Castaway’s 50 summers. “It’s a special place where God is actively moving,” he said. “Castaway has always adapted to the needs of kids in a quality way — and it gets better every year.”

That’s what we celebrate — a rich history anchored in the singular purpose of introducing kids to Jesus Christ. And a future — the next 50 years of welcoming kids to this beloved camp and rejoicing when one more leaves it with a new story — one that begins with the familiar refrain: “I became a Christian at Castaway.”

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Pelican Lake


Sea Breeze

Soccer Field

Co Hwy 31

Little Pelican LakeDry Dock



Sloop Schooner

Tennis Court







Climbing WallZip Tower


CASTAWAYCelebrating 50 years of Young Life on Minnesota’s Pelican Lake

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