Remembering Sunny Knik Bible Camp

By Vic Kohring, February 9, 2015

Very few people are aware there once existed a special place outside Wasilla called Sunny Knik Bible Camp. Over a half-century ago, this gem was built on the south shore of Knik lake and was run by a man named Chet Burden and his wife June. As a young boy, I attended the camp and still have vivid memories of my experience from so long ago.

Back in the 1980's, out of curiosity, I walked through the woods of the old campsite, which by then was shut down. All that remained were abandoned, deteriorated, ghostly buildings. It was sad. Today, no evidence of the camp exists except for a couple of old structures and the property has been subdivided with new and expensive homes in its place.

I was only six years old the first summer I attended Sunny Knik in June 1965. It was my first extended time away from home and I remained strong for the first three days until homesickness set in. Chet managed to convince me to hang tough once I finished bawling my head off on my bunk bed one afternoon.

After I settled down, I got into the serious business of camping. I was taught how to launch and maneuver a boat on the lake, although once got in trouble for forgetting my life jacket. I learned about plants and wildflowers including rose hips and bluebells. I remember visiting Knik's native graveyard with the traditional colorful huts.  

Chet took us on hikes in the area, showing where Tanaina Indians once lived a century before. All that remained of their homes were large depressions in the ground overgrown with alders and birch. We also beach combed along empty stretches of beach at nearby Knik Arm and pulled salmon from a set net. I found driftwood from which I made a candle holder centerpiece as a gift for my parents.

Chet explained how he grocery shopped in Anchorage using the tides of Knik Arm, launching his small wooden boat and timing it with the outgoing tide that would take him the two-plus miles across the silty, turbulent water to town. When he finished shopping, he let the tide bring him back to the Knik side. The unique method of travel sounded dangerous but fascinating. 

The camp was in a beautiful location, nestled among a thick stand of birch trees with a collection of a half dozen rustic log buildings constructed from local spruce. My favorite was the 25-foot tall "prayer tower" with winding steps leading to the top where people would pray and meditate. The tower was meticulously hand-crafted with a nice log oil finish that glistened in the sun. Several area churches built Sunny Knik in the early 1960's with volunteer help.

One of them was Church in the Wildwood of Eagle River where my family attended and were members. We lived in Chugiak at the time on Birchwood Loop Road. Traveling to Knik from our house was a long endeavor and an adventure in itself. There was no highway across the Palmer Hay Flats (a two-lane gravel road opened in '65), so you took what today we call the Old Glenn along the base of the Chugach Mountains to the Butte, through Palmer, west to Wasilla and on to Knik. It was about 60 miles one way, but took nearly two hours on winding stretches of narrow paved road. Today the drive takes about 50 minutes.

I can still smell the burning wood and feel the heat from a big cast iron stove in the camp's kitchen where I was assigned to dishwashing and keeping the fire stoked. Oddly, I also remember the smell of canvas duffle bags and musty sleeping bags inside my cabin. And to this day whenever I get a whiff of an Irish Spring soap bar, something my mother packed in my gear, I have a flashback to my camping experience from decades ago. "Off" bug spray too. And I can still hear the sound of Chet, the camp's director, banging on a large chunk of steel pipe hanging from a tree early each morning, which served as the wake-up bell for campers.

On my last day of camp, a big family picnic was held. As parents arrived by car one at a time down a steep hill on the rutted dirt road into camp, I anxiously looked to see if it was my family. Finally, after the picnic ended and the place nearly deserted, my dad and brother Jim rolled up in our white '63 Ford Econoline van, the last to show up. My dad was a drywall contractor and was working on a house in Palmer on a tight timeline, so he was late arriving which was no fault of his. It didn't matter as I was thrilled to see him and to know I wasn't abandoned! It turns out I had so much fun at camp that I attended again the following summer.

Sunny Knik Bible Camp is where I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. It's also where my father and mother were baptized, so it was a very special place for my family. I remember one evening in the camp's dining hall when Chet was holding a church service and explained the story of salvation in terms I could understand as a little boy. At the end of the service, I raised my hand, asking for counseling and prayer.

My mother was so pleased with my decision to follow Jesus, that she stood in front of our church congregation the following Sunday to proudly announce that her son had accepted the gift of salvation. That was exactly 50 years ago this June. Hard to believe.