Opening for the season May 5, 2023. Spring hours: Friday-Sunday 11-3
Brother Jack Henderson, FCS | Huntington Lake
Oral Interview with Kristin Telles
I am Brother Jack Henderson. I’m a De La Salle Christian brother. I have been since 1980, shortly after I graduated from high school. I was director of Camp La Salle for 22 years before we sold it two years before the Creek Fire [to Kennolyn Camps]. I’m also a Huntington Lake Volunteer Firefighter. The story that I’m going to tell is one of miraculous survival–you wouldn’t have imagined it.
As we all know the Creek Fire started on Friday of Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, the firefighters were working on getting everybody evacuated, not because we ever thought the fire would reach Huntington, but because we’d already planned and we knew that a fire starting in that area would cross Highway 168 and block off evacuation routes. This was the only Labor Day [at Huntington Lake] that I have missed in 25 years because of COVID. Because of COVID I was still in Tucson when the fire broke out and I continued to stay in Tucson until a week, or so later.
But, as I said, the story that I’m going to tell is one of miraculous survival. We had a carved bear that sat on the Camp La Salle office porch for almost all of the time that I was director, I think I got it my second year. I’m pretty sure we got it from the guy who was in the barn next to Cressman’s who did chainsaw carvings. It was a bear, probably 18 inches tall, and it held a little sign that said “Welcome.” It sat on a stump on the porch office for many, many years. The other side of the sign said, “Go Away!” and so you always know it was a bad day when somebody had switched it to “Go Away.”
I hired my mom my first year up at camp to help me out by doing the cooking. I about killed her, all my siblings about disowned me–she was working 16 hour days! People loved her cooking, but it was a lot of work for my mom. So, shortly after that, we got a new chef, Betty who became our chef all the way through, and my mom became the office manager. She worked in that office for 22 years, doing reservations, doing housing, taking care of stuff during the winter and that bear was always a part of it. We had lost and found sunglasses– that bear wore those sunglasses for quite a while and then one of the kids came up and said “Hey, those look like mine that I lost a couple years ago” so the bear ended up with a pair of dollar store sunglasses after that.
People kind of loved the bear. It greeted families that were returning every year to camp– people would be talking about the bears as they were checking in. Kids would be playing with the bear and switching the sign around, changing the glasses –all that stuff.
When the Creek Fire happened we didn’t know what happened to the camp, just as most of the people up here did not know what happened with their cabins. I had been following things from Tucson– I listened to radio communications straight for almost 90 hours. I was the one who was basically posting on Facebook and posting in different places for HLVFD. The HLVFD guys lost all cell coverage at the lake. The only time I’d get information from them was when they went down and were able to get cell coverage off a point near Shaver. So that was the only information I was getting that was “official.” That information painted a picture of a lot of devastation up here. I kept up with the postings from a distance.
About three days after the main part of the fire came through, Captain Lisa Coleman, Chief Brother Chris Donnelly and firefighter Peter Allbright came up and walked every single tract–it took them two days to do it. As they’re walking through the tracts they’ve got fire still burning, they’ve got smoke everywhere. They’re all in their gear, wearing wet bandanas and trying to keep smoke out. They were trying to get information for all the cabin owners because we had so little information coming out of there. I’d been watching heat signatures and it looked like everything was gone. So they went through each day, came out each night, got information to me and I was able to get some of that information out to others.
On the second day that they were doing their survey, they came into camp through the back way off of Bear Paw. They could not come in the main route because there were so many trees down. Me, being a distance away, could not even imagine the devastation that I saw about a week later. They said, “There are trees down on the road.” I said, “Just step over the trees, climb over the trees.” Well, the trees were piled up 12 feet high and more in a lot of places! It was utter devastation, where the firenado (tornado of fire) went through and took out these massive trees. Some of the trees that went down had root wads that were 15 feet up in the air and there’d be an eight foot hole where that root wad had been.
So they came in through the back way. Lisa had video going as she was coming in and everything was unrecognizable. They’re looking and they’re trying to figure out “What’s this? What’s that?” It wasn’t til Lisa saw the chimney of the lodge that was still standing that she knew where she was. She says, and this is a quote from her video, “Oh my gosh, that’s the lodge.” As soon as she recognized that she was able to start placing the other buildings.
They were walking along, still videotaping, and Lisa says, “Oh, there’s the office.” She said something about my mom, Ann, at that point and commented on the loss and they continued walking. Then Peter stopped all of a sudden and said “Look!” Down in one of these eight foot tree wells where the tree had gone over there was the bear with a little singeing on it. What we think happened is that when the firenado came through that tree came down and the bear was blown into the hole where it was protected from the fire that then went through!
As I said, when they were doing the survey there was still fire burning all around them, but there was the bear so Peter climbed down in and recovered the bear! It had a little bit of singeing on it, but he was able to save it. They carried it the rest of the day and got the bear out. They were able to get a complete survey and we were the first ones to kind of get information out to our people about whether their cabin was still standing, whether their cabin was damaged or whether their cabin was down. But they brought the bear back…. Lisa had it at her cabin for quite a while.
This last summer was my mom’s 86th birthday. I brought the bear down from Huntington and gave it to her–it was Lisa’s suggestion. My whole family was there–camp had been a central part of our family for many, many years. I had it boxed up and wrapped. Mom opened it up and as soon as she saw it, she said “This is it. This is the bear” and she broke down in tears. So did a couple of my siblings.
So the bear survives and the tradition continues. The bear is on the front porch of my family home and now greets people. When they found the bear, the “Go Away”/”Welcome” sign was gone but a new one has been made. It doesn’t have a “Go Away’” side anymore. It just says “Welcome.” And so the bear has his new home and he miraculously survived the Creek Fire.