Carlson Family Camp


The upper Boulder River, Hell’s Canyon 2012

This post will stray a bit from the genealogy of my bloodline. I want to look at the concept of family when the defining criteria aren’t about birth order and genetic traits. We all belong to other “families” by virtue of our work, our non-vocational affinities (hobbies, political groups, religious affiliations, etc.), our neighborhoods and other geographical connections, educational experiences, and probably many other demographic factors. One family that I belong has its origins in a specific set of GPS coordinates.

When my siblings and I were young, our parents dedicated one of our family vacations to a gathering of some college friends and their families in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness of southern Montana. We had recently moved from southern Minnesota to southern California and I think they wanted to remain connected to their midwest roots in a major way. I also think that Dad was pumped for a new and larger-than-life experience. I believe both of those goals were achieved!

It was the summer of 1967, the summer of love in the USA. We set sail for the Rockies in a boat made by Pontiac and headed for the Nevada desert. We needed to arrive at the Montana camp on Sunday at or after noon to check in. Dad made a strategic decision to depart in the evening on Thursday and drive through the night so that we could make it in and out of the Mojave Desert during the coolest possible time. Mom had rigged up wet wash cloths to hang from the windows in the hopes of making the air inside the vehicle as humid as possible. I really don’t remember if that helped, but I certainly remember the moment when Dad announced that there was something wrong with the car. It was 10 pm, we were 40 miles west of Las Vegas and smoke was now pouring out of the engine compartment. Driving on the interstate road shoulder, we limped along at about 5 mph until we came to an unlikely oasis, a service station with an adjoining motel. We parked the car and rented a room to wait for morning when the garage could examine the car.

The next day, the resident mechanic declared that the engine was shot and needed to be replaced. However, a benevolent truck driver overheard this conversation and pulled my dad aside out of earshot of the mechanic. “Don’t listen to that guy. I’m pretty sure you just have a leak in your radiator and you can make it into Las Vegas and get a new one,” he said. We followed his advice and drove slowly the rest of the way, stopping often to top the radiator off with more water. Sure enough, we found a shop that could replace the radiator and proceeded on our journey. Disaster averted!

We arrived on Sunday despite all the odds, although we weren’t the first to show up. The 50-mile drive from Big Timber, Montana to our destination near the head of the Boulder River valley was a three-hour marathon. The final 25 miles were on an undeveloped forest service road and were slow, treacherous driving at best. To do this in passenger vehicles was really not the best plan, but we didn’t know that in advance. It was easy to get a flat or lose a tailpipe or muffler along the way and several vehicles did.

In 1967 the Carlson Family Camp had about 80 attendees spread out among 12-15 families. Many were from Minnesota, some from Montana and others from farther away. Our family represented the West Coast and another Carlson family (unrelated to namesake family of the camp) represented the East Coast. Our gathering was at a Lutheran church camp called Luther Lodge, which for this one week of the summer wasn’t in session. Everyone was free to pursue their own interests which included hiking, fishing, overnight backpacking, nature walks, board games, playing music together, swimming, softball and anything else you could think of. Some of the activities were organized and had leaders to follow. Others were just on your own. Meals were prepared by the camp staff and eaten as a group unless you were going to be on the trail midday and then you got a bagged lunch from the kitchen before you left. Sleeping accommodations were largely dormitory style. The only work required of Carlson Family campers was washing dishes after each meal and keeping the dining area tidy.

Luther Lodge 1967  Back: Sue Winholtz, Lisa Carlson, Linda Winholtz, Jana Carlson, Jan Weidenbach, Beth Bergeson, Mark Winholtz, Barb Johnson, Bruce Johnson, Dan Bergeson Front: Berit Carlson, Gretchen Weidenbach, Martha Bergeson, Craig Johnson, Paul Bergeson

In the very early years of the 20th century, Luther Lodge was a dude ranch called the Lazy DA. In fact, all four church camps in the valley began their lives as dude ranches. The history of settlements in the Boulder Canyon is chronicled in a book titled “Jerkline to Jeep: A Brief History of the Upper Boulder”, by Ruth Staunton and Dorothy Keur.  In 1954, the Montana synod of the American Lutheran Church bought the ranch and began using it as a summer bible camp for youth and families. Joyce Qualen Carlson, her brother Oscar Qualen and sister Gene Qualen Carlson (Joyce and Gene married unrelated Carlson men!) grew up in Montana and knew about the Boulder River valley and the church camp. They brought their families to Luther Lodge in 1960 for a week of fun and that was the beginning of The Carlson Family Camp. As the years went by, more friends and relations learned about this opportunity and joined the party.

I don’t remember the year, but at some point in the 1980s, the Carlson Family Camp outgrew the capacity of Luther Lodge moved downstream a few miles to the United Methodist Church camp called “Camp on the Boulder”. By this time another family network, the Thorntons, combined their summer gatherings with the Carlsons to make the economics better for both groups and this pushed the attendance up to 120-150 people during the week.

Two or three years ago, the Methodists decided that they needed the Carlson Family Camp week for their programs, so negotiations began again with the Lutherans about returning to their camp. By this time Lazy DA/Luther Lodge had been renamed “Christikon” and as luck would have it, the management there was open to hosting the Carlson Family Camp again.

Tripp Ryder, Willis Ryder Arnold, Erik Bergeson, Kari Bergeson;  Boulder River Natural Bridge and Falls 1997

In 1997, our blended family had three teens and my sister’s family had one with a couple of teen friends. It was a perfect time to go to the mountains again. One of the highlights that year was a hike that isn’t done every year because it’s somewhat risky and requires an experienced leader. As luck would have it, in 1997 we were able to experience this hike. We went to the summit of Monument Peak, a 10,000 foot mountain that can be summited without any specialized climbing equipment. We set off to climb Monument, led by Roald Carlson, the patriarch of the East Coast Carlsons.

The first part of the journey was a drive in four-wheel vehicles past Box Canyon and then a hike a couple miles up steep switchbacks to Independence, a ghost town that once was a mining community during the gold and copper mining hysteria that defined the Boulder River valley after the Crow Indians left the area in the late 19th century. In it’s heyday, over 500 people lived in Independence. There was a bar and a cookhouse and a brothel.

From Independence the hike continued upward past Blue Lake, a glacial lake bounded by Haystack and Monument Peaks. If you’re lucky, you might get to meet the shepherd that spends the summers up on the lake plateau with his herd of sheep. The day we were there, the caravan trailer was there, but not the shepherd or the flock.

Then began the climb. As far as mountain climbing goes, it’s wasn’t very technical. However, with every foot of elevation, the air became thinner and required a bit more patience. We climbed over rocks, through high meadows, past small snowfields and approached the summit with relative ease. There were several places where the path narrowed and the edges revealed precipitous drops of at least 1,000 feet. Best to stay in the middle of the path!

When we reached the summit, Roald took out the US Geological Survey maps that he had been carrying and spread them on the rocks so that we could pick out the geographic highlights visible for more than 50 miles. It was a perfectly spectacular bluebird sky with excellent visibility. Many pictures were snapped of hikers standing on the summit rocks.

Roald Carlson is gone now (one of the first generation of our family of campers), but I’m forever grateful to him for giving my family and me the gift of that day. I would never have attempted a climb like that on my own, especially not with my kids in tow. I needed to rely on someone who knew the route and the dangers and knew that it was safe if you were properly prepared.

Summit of Monument Peak at 10,000 feet 1997


Blue Lake and Haystack Peak, taken from the summit of Monument Peak 1997


Erik Bergeson standing on the top of the world 1997

I have been to the Boulder River Canyon six times in the 59 years of Carlson Family Camp, twice with my birth family, twice with my first nuclear family and twice with my blended nuclear family. My first visit was in 1967 when I was 15 and my most recent was in 2012 when I was 60. Each time the anticipation of approaching the Rockies and then driving deep into the Absaroka Wilderness is palpable and nearly overwhelming. The majesty of the mountains, the green of the forest and the rushing waters of the river are spellbinding, and the pleasure of seeing dear friends again and making new ones (any guest is welcome to invite their own friends to venture forth in the future) gives me goosebumps every time!

Camp on the Boulder, formerly Hell’s Canyon Ranch 2012

Some folks have attended camp every year since the beginning. Some have only been once or twice. My parents probably went to the mountains a couple dozen times. One of my sisters and her husband are getting close to that kind of a record. My other sister and my daughter have both been to multiple editions of Carlson Family Camp and have spent other weeks at Lazy DA/Luther Lodge/Christikon, participating in church camp with their Minnesota church groups. My sister went to Lazy DA/Luther Lodge as a high school student in the 1970s. My daughter went to Christikon in the 1990s.

Placer Basin Trail 2012

The summer of 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of this amazing heritage. Our ever-expanding mountain family is totally committed to these priceless experiences and to the preservation of this incredibly beautiful region of Gallatin National Forest. We’ve celebrated birthdays and wedding anniversaries together at camp and during the rest of the year there have been celebrations in Minnesota for new babies, new partnerships, and the full and fruitful lives of members of the first generation of mountaineers who have passed. There have been tragic events in some of our lives that the community of campers has supported as well, and more than one threat to the mountains themselves: forest fires! Through it all the spirit of the fellowship has endured and is now spreading to the fourth generation.

Landing a trout on the Boulder River 2012

Breaking News: Just last week, the organizers of the Carlson Family Camp 60th Reunion announced that there won’t be a camp session in 2020. The 60th Anniversary will have to wait until the summer of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, there are boatloads of memories to relive and to share. I am personally grateful for all of the campers whom I’ve had the privilege to know. And don’t forget to Do the Boulder Boogie!

7/17/20 Update: My apologies to Gene Qualen Carlson for misspelling her first name. I fixed that. I learned about my mistake today as I also learned about the death this week of her husband, Oliver Carl Carlson. Oliver was Roald Carlson’s brother and the inspiration for the song that I referenced above, “The Boulder Boogie.” My condolences to all of the members of Oliver’s family. We’ll miss him! Thanks to Margit Thorndal for the correction!

8/11/20 Update: I just learned of another name mistake in this post. Joyce, Oscar and Gene had the last name of Qualen, not Qualley!. I’ve made the changes where necessary in the post. Thanks to Gretchen Weidenbach for setting me straight!

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