“Family” reunites at camp year after year

Every year, a group of 40 individual families gather for a reunion in a location easy to fall in love with

Nestled deep into Seabeck is where one family retreats each year. In fact, the “Seabeck Family” as they call themselves, have been meeting at the same secluded location in Seabeck for the past 99 years.

“We think we can trace the origins to the very first summer,” said Seabeck Conference Center Executive Director Chuck Kraining. “It was a ‘Y’ family camp and it progressed through and eventually became independent from the ‘Y’ in the (19)60s.”

According to the center’s website, the area used to be a logging community and mill town. After a fire claimed part of the town, it became a desolate piece of land. Soon after the fire, two prominent Seattle men, Laurence Colman and Arn Allen partnered up and started a conference center for YMCA and YWCA groups. It was then that the area now known as Seabeck Conference Center was born.

Every year, a group of 40 individual families gather for a reunion in a location easy to fall in love with because of its breathtaking water views and looming mountains that cradle the Hood Canal. The conference center only allows non-profits to utilize its property which includes 25 guest houses and a dining hall, making it an idyllic spot for families to reunite. This “family” formed as a non-profit in order to use the camp.

“It’s quality time that you’re putting into your family,” said Bruce Compton, who has been attending the camp for the past 27 years. “We haven’t grown up yet … I hope I can continue playing and participating. It’s going back to camp.”

It is the “going back to camp” part that most families truly enjoy. There’s jesting and laughter, games and more games. There’s never an excuse to be bored, according to what may just be Kitsap County’s largest “family.” Active athletes can jump in on a game of tennis. More laid-back folks can opt for a coin toss. Then there’s the leisurely dose of swimming and sunbathing. It seems there is always a game of cribbage or Trivial Pursuit splayed across tables throughout the campus.

“This can be a pretty competitive bunch. There’s a lot you can do,” said Stephen Whyte, who enjoys tennis, Trivial Pursuit and backgammon. Whyte also acts as the campus safety officer to make sure everyone is free from harm. As someone who has been attending the camp since he was 4, he finds the site to be a place of memories, joy and family- friendly activities. This year, Whyte brought his son. Throughout the day, he sees various cousins and other relatives of his as well.

“For me, it’s a way to stay anchored. It’s a reminder of what’s important. It’s a reminder that no one’s around forever,” he said. “You get to see these full generations which is very satisfying.”

The “family” is from all walks of life and backgrounds, Compton said. Doctors, nurses, educators, lawyers, construction workers and others join in on the fun every year without fail, he said. Some folks live in Washington State. Others travel from places like Boston, New York City and Minneapolis. The trip, it seems, is always worth it to this group of 250 people from all over the country.

Jane Cancro, now 65, has been coming to Seabeck every year since she was five.

“It’s a place that’s fun and has friendships. It’s just profoundly wonderful,” she declared.

Thinking about the past makes her tear up, but she’s grateful for the memories, she said. Her widowed mother used to bring Cancro and her sister to the camp every year. Back then it was more formal, she said. Children called adults “sir” and “ma’am” and everyone dressed up for dinner. Her mother used to iron dresses behind the dining hall to make sure they were dressed properly for the occasion.

Despite the fact that most of the Seabeck “relatives” don’t see each other except once a year, Cancro recalled the kindness of her new family when her mother fell ill with Alzheimer’s. It was the Seabeck Family who came to visit her mother. It was the Seabeck Family who came to visit her when she herself became sick.

“People are very loyal and devoted,” she said, choking back tears. “There’s a spiritual part of this too. We try to model for our grandkids.”

Although the Seabeck Conference Center lot is massive­ — a sprawling 90 acres — families feel safe letting their kids wander around on their own. It isn’t uncommon for children to say “hello” to their parents at breakfast and take off for the rest of the day only to return by sundown.

Cancro recalls her own childhood explorations along the trails that are spread out through the camp. One particular dentist would round the kids up to go hunt “lions,” she said. He’d grab a butcher knife and lead the way into the woods, kids in tow. Upon finding a dandelion, the dentist would slay it with the knife, killing any threat of a lion, and thrilling the children to pieces, Cancro said.

“There’s a certain amount of safety,” she said of the location. “There’s (always) another caring adult (around).”

One of the reasons the center is so appealing is because families don’t have to cook meals. There’s a cooking staff on site that takes care of all the family’s needs when it comes to mealtime.

Dining in the 1869 “vintage hotel” is like no other experience. The chatter of the campers gathering is so loud that it rattles the windows of The Historic Inn. Like clockwork, campers are expected to come when the outside bell clangs five minutes before meals are served at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. daily. For snackers, a little general store sits across the road on the waterside of the area.

It is the familiar ways of Seabeck Conference Center that are so endearing to the people who attend the camp every year.

“It just doesn’t change,” said Whyte. “That provides a comforting regularity.”

The executive director has seen many of the same faces over the years, and knows that there are no age restrictions when it comes to the Seabeck Family. For the 2013 gathering, he knows there are babies and elderly sleeping in beds across his camp.

He’s worked at the camp for 23 years and has loved working with the Seabeck Family in particular because of their enthusiasm and spirit.

“I always enjoy family camp coming in because it’s like a big family reunion and we get to see friends,” he said. “My favorite part of working with family camp, I would say, is their dedication and love of this campus. They hold it dear like no other group.”