Napa County's Enchanted Hills Camp plays host to corporate conferences, yoga retreats, arts symposia -- even weddings. But its founding purpose, and main function for nearly 70 years, is to serve as a summer camp for the blind.
“We in the Bay Area have this special place where if you’re blind or have low vision you can have big fun," says Bryan Bashin, CEO of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the San Francisco nonprofit that runs Enchanted Hills Camp (EHC). Summer offerings run the gamut from chemistry camp to a music academy, which provides blind musicians and composers with the tools and training to take their practices to the next -- possibly professional -- level.
In August, participants in this year's music academy performed in the camp's Redwood Grove, a natural amphitheater surrounded by stately trees and intricately hand-carved benches. The Steinway Company paid to have a full grand piano brought all the way up winding Mt. Veeder Road. The concert was, Bashin says, "tremendous."
But then the Nuns and Partrick fires converged on EHC's 311-acre property, ripping through the lower camp as Cal Fire crews fought to contain the blaze.
Less than a month after EHC was evacuated, site manager Donny Lay stands next to the pile of white ash that was once the amphitheater's wooden stage. He points to a metal pole. “There’s my rake,” he says. “I’m still looking for my leaf blower.”
Founded by Rose Resnick in 1950, the camp was the first of its kind on the West Coast, providing blind children (and now teens and adults) with opportunities to explore a natural environment, gain confidence, meet friends and have quintessential camp experiences. Campers can paddle around a small lake, hike miles of trails and play on a sensory jungle gym.
Resnick herself was a professional piano virtuoso -- she raised the money to buy the property by teaching piano to the daughters and sons of San Francisco’s elite. “For the first 10 years, camp was just nonstop dancing and singing, with Rose playing the piano," Bashin says. "It really was very musically oriented.”
That embrace of the arts continues today, in the music academy and with woodworking and art classes taught by master woodworker and camp construction manager George Wurtzel. Just two weeks before fire, the camp hosted a tactile arts symposium organized by the National Federation of the Blind. In the Tactile Art Gallery, at the opening of Touch This!, artists, educators, curators and EHC neighbors abandoned standard protocol to run their hands over sculpture and installation work by Wurtzel, Ann Cunningham, Jennifer Justice, Ramiro Cairo and Debbie Kent Stein.
“It’s drilled into people from childhood,” says Georgina Kleege, a lecturer in English at UC Berkeley who writes on visual art and blindness and attended the symposium. “Don’t touch the art. But touch sensation is very complex and multidimensional. Just as looking at a painting isn’t about saying what it depicts, touching art is not just about figuring out what the object is.”
It was the type of gathering that happens regularly at EHC, where blind and visually impaired people with common skills and interests convene to challenge societal conceptions of what they can and can't do.
Cal Fire crews managed to save a number of the camp's structures -- the director's residence, the lakeside cabins, the Tactile Art Gallery inside the art barn.
Also spared: the home of site managers Donny and Janet Lay. When I visit EHC nearly a month after the fires first broke out, during a community gathering organized by Napa County Supervisors Ryan Gregory and Diane Dillon, Donny drives me down to what remains of Redwood Grove: the stately trees, Wurtzel's hand-carved benches, and the grove's sign. (Upon the staff's return to camp after the fire, they found a post-it note attached to the slightly singed sign: “LAFD Engine 98. We saved this, wish we could have saved more.”)
The day before the camp’s residents evacuated, Lay cleaned up the redwood needles around the amphitheater and a gathering space called the “Half Moon Circle.” He attributes the survival of those areas to his unknowingly prescient fire abatement.
EHC has been diligent over the years about clearing brush and reducing the site's susceptibility to fire. Their spacious and still-standing dining hall, where members of the community (many covered in ash after days of sifting through their ruined homes) gathered on Nov. 2, was recently re-roofed with Class A fire retardant shingles.
But the 10 cabins, capable of housing 120 kids -- some returning year after year -- are completely gone. In the bathrooms, the porcelain toilets exploded from the heat. The six double bunk beds in each cabin are now twisted piles of metal and springs. Outside one demolished cabin in the “Girls Town,” a fire extinguisher, once affixed to the building’s exterior, lies in the ashes.
Around the pool, partially drained by fire crews who exhausted the camp’s water tanks in their efforts to douse the flames, new decking, a shade structure and a bathhouse are all destroyed. Lay was particularly proud of the work he’d done around the pool, saying it was in the best shape it had been in years.
Neighbors at the community meeting all had memories of or ties to EHC. One couple apologized to Wurtzel that a piece of wood they’d been saving for him was gone, along with their house. A son’s boy scout troop did years of service projects at the camp, though much of the evidence of that work was lost to the flames. Decades ago, one man had his wedding reception in the camp’s dining hall.
“It is a well-loved space,” Bashin says. “I can’t go to a gathering and not find somebody whose kid went to camp or whose friend did work at the camp.”
Now Enchanted Hills is empty of guests. Even during the winter months, the camp was rented for corporate events, training sessions or group retreats, all of which helped fund the summer programming. While they mourn the loss of nearly half the camp’s buildings, including a cabin that housed five staff members, EHC and LightHouse staff approach their next steps optimistically.
“The most encouraging thing is that we get to reimagine what will be a wonderful space,” Bashin says. “We can take advantage of 70 years of learning about blind people and how we like to be in nature.”
Rebuilding will give EHC a chance to incorporate greater accessibility into the camp, so those with multiple disabilities can have more freedom on-site. Bashin envisions using natural materials to line trails; a cane can detect boundaries that might look ordinary to a seeing person.
Fresh off the three-year process of acquiring, designing and building LightHouse’s new headquarters on Market Street, Bashin welcomes these less right-angled design challenges. “How can we design a space where people can dare to walk in the woods in a place they don’t know -- and survive?” he says.
Besides rebuilding cabins, bathrooms and a stage during a time of unprecedented labor shortages and billions of dollars of structural damage throughout the North Bay, the camp grounds will need reseeding to prevent erosion, a mile’s worth of electrical wiring, new furniture and picnic tables. Surviving structures reek of smoke. Twelve refrigerators went a week without electricity and need to be replaced. LightHouse is accepting donations to help fund the years of rebuilding they have ahead of them.
But Bashin is undaunted -- the legacy of Enchanted Hills only makes its speedy recovery that much more important. “I’ve seen the miracles that happen when kids who think they’re the only blind kid on the earth or parents who think they’re the only parents with a blind kid come together,” Bashin says.
I ask Lay if he will miss the campers as they rebuild. “Well, they’re coming back!” he says, surprised at the question. “We’ll get this place ready as fast as we can.”
For more information about LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and their Enchanted Hills Camp, click here.