AHWAHNEE–Camp Pacifica could be one of the least-known landmarks along the drive from Oakhurst to Mariposa. It resides at a sometimes-hard-to-see turnoff on the north side of Highway 49 almost at the end of the four-lane, just before the highway dips down to the bridge crossing the east fork of the Chowchilla River. If you aren’t watching for the driveway, odds are you’ll miss it. But that driveway leads to nearly fifty acres of forested grounds that since 1991 has been the site of a Lions Club International camp for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
It’s no secret to thousands of children who’ve had the joy of spending time at the Lions Club-sponsored location. Russ Custer, past District Director of Lions 4A1 (2001-2002) as well as a veteran twenty-four year member of the Camp Pacifica board of directors, spoke about the origins of Camp Pacifica. He related that the camp came into being in 1978 in Avery, CA. When that rented site was sold, District 4A1 Lions started looking for a new location.
Enter Camp Pacifica.
Per Russ, the Lions District 4A1 rented the facility for a short time in 1991 to see if it would be viable then went on to purchase the camp in 1992 with a $150,000 down payment and a thirty-year mortgage. Due to the dedication of its board of directors and the generosity of members, they paid off the loan in seven years and took full ownership.
The last Lions campers to enjoy the facilities occupied the space in 2018. The camp sat fallow after that until the district made the difficult decision to put the place on the market during 2020.
This decision would prove providential for Camping Unlimited, whose flagship location in the Santa Cruz mountains—called Camp Krem– burned to the ground in August 2020, a casualty of the CZU complex fire. Tragically, the CZU wildfire ranged over 86,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. See the Camp Krem story here and here.
The official name of the organization, which has just closed escrow on the former Camp Pacifica, is Camping Unlimited for the Developmentally Disabled,. A registered California charity with 501(c)(3) status, it was established in 1957 to provide recreation to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).
“In the last 64 years, Camping Unlimited has provided independence-building experiences for more than 200,000 days and nights to over 30,000 people with I/DD. In 2019 we had more than eight hundred enrollments over the summer at Camp Krem, our 100-acre flagship property in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains,” Alex Krem stated. “We hosted another 400 on weekend trips, which have included weekends at Camp Krem, trips to Disneyland, a cruise to Mexico and a trip to Hawaii.”
Their program also provides much needed respite to families and caregivers, and a place for high school and college aged counselors to discover the depths of their own hearts and souls.
Camp Krem’s Santa Cruz site will be rebuilt, and they are eligible for state and federal public assistance (a very mixed blessing, Alex says) but now face a five to ten year rebuild. “Since we cannot force the pace of rebuilding and simply cannot wait to resume our vital program, we purchased Camp Pacifica.”
Camp Pacifica was built over many years by more than 1,700 Lions in 70 Central Valley Lions Clubs as a camp for deaf children. That makes Camping Unlimited and Camp Pacifica’s missions quite compatible. We are exploring ways to accommodate their wonderful program as well.
According to Russ Custer, Camp Pacifica during its Lions days could accommodate up to two hundred campers, counselors and teachers, which is slightly more than Camp Krem). Its features include a swimming pool, full sized basketball court, baseball and football fields, playground, challenge course, small lake, shooting range, lodge, nurse’s station, arts & crafts buildings, and much more.
“We intend to use it all summer and many weekends during the year, as we did Camp Krem.” According to Krem, “We are also willing to rent it to large and small groups, as well. At Camp Krem in Boulder Creek, we hosted many groups, some for decades, including music festivals, school science camps, live-action role players, the Man Kind Project, home-school groups, weddings, corporate events, and similar. Once we get our feet on the ground at Camp Pacifica, we intend to do the same.”
Alex Krem’s daughter, Christina, serves as Camp Director. She, her husband and two little girls now call Camp Pacifica/Camp Krem home, a long way from where Christina and her sister grew up on New Zealand farms with horses and other animals, and where she competed in equestrian events for many years (in jumping, cross country and dressage). While Christina and her family will enjoy the beauty of the Camp Pacifica/Camp Krem countryside, Alex says, “Like the donkey between two bales of hay, I will commute between Camp Pacifica and Camp Krem for the foreseeable future, and I look forward to meeting people in the area.”
See if you can watch this video without smiling.
All photos courtesy of Camp Krem, except as noted.