"All I need is 200 people to donate $100 each," announced a petite woman in a bright green t-shirt, perched atop a wooden bench, smoke rising from the fire pit in front of her.
Our host for the day was Deb Burgess, owner of the general store and lunch spot Adam's Pack Station, at the Chantry Flats trailhead at the Big Santa Anita Canyon area of the Angeles National Forest. Seventy of us arrived by 7:30 on a Sunday morning for what was advertised as a "Hike Into History" (co-hosted by ModernHiker.com founder Casey Schreiner), but the real purpose of our early morning gathering became abundantly clear: Burgess is raising money to buy Sturtevant Camp, a historic resort founded by Wilbur Sturtevant in 1893. It's one of the only preserved reminders of the Golden Age of Hiking when women in long Victorian dresses once climbed the San Gabriel Mountains.
"We are here to save this beautiful camp," proclaimed Burgess.
The United Methodist Church has owned Sturtevant Camp since 1945, long after hiking passed the heyday of its "Golden Age" with the advent of car culture. Even though it is the only place in Big Santa Anita Canyon where you can rent a cabin (the 80 or so other cabins throughout the canyon are privately owned), there hasn't been much business up there. Even today, the only way to reach Sturtevant Camp is by hiking in at least four miles on foot. And now, after 70 years of ownership, the Methodist Church is looking to sell.
Burgess doesn't have competition in the real estate market for Sturtevant Camp, despite its rock-bottom pricing: to buy the whole thing and cover two years of operating expenses (a requirement by the U.S. Forest Service) costs $55,000. But according to Burgess, there aren't competing prospective buyers for Sturtevant Camp (from groups like the Sierra Club or the Boy Scouts) because camps like this just don't make money.
"The reality is, this won't be a moneymaker either," laughs Burgess.
This is one of the reasons why Burgess has chosen her non-profit organization, Friends of the San Gabriels (for which she serves as CEO), to make the purchase. If they are approved by the USFS at a hearing on January 27, and if they can raise enough money, Friends of the San Gabriels will use any revenue to cover operating costs and to host select groups in need (e.g. disadvantaged youth) at no cost.
As of last week, Burgess had raised $20,000 merely through grassroots outreach -- without any major publicity or a Kickstarter campaign. She personally has secured an anonymous donor to match anything above that amount, and she feels that she's well on her way to raising her goal of $75,000, which would cover three years of operating expenses, plus a few improvements such as repainting and carpeting. But she still has another $20,000 of fundraising to go.
And what happens if Burgess doesn't get approved by the USFS, or doesn't buy the camp for some other reason?
"It could continue to flounder the way it has been," Burgess says.
But there is a greater concern of preservation here. Sturtevant Camp -- which contains the country's oldest surviving USFS Ranger Station in its original location and a historic main lodge built as the open-air Swiss Dining Pavilion in 1897 with all original wood -- is the last of five resorts that once flourished in Big Santa Anita Canyon but has since been lost to floods and fire (including Hoegee's Camp, Robert's Camp, and Fern Lodge). There was at one point over 200 cabins just like the ones at Sturtevant. But despite its historic significance, Sturtevant has never received landmark status. Although Angeles National Forest is protected from being developed, there's nothing preventing Sturtevant's structures from being demolished or languishing in disuse.
If Burgess does buy Sturtevant Camp, it will be the beginning of a 20-year lease from the USFS. During that time, she hopes that she can rejuvenate the site in the same way that she brought new life to Adam's Pack Station when she bought it in 2006. (She calls it "My multi-hundred-dollar business.") In addition to making some renovations and structural improvements to the camp, she also plans to institute theme weekends, which might include board games, dancing, art retreats, and wine tastings. She also plans to allow both dogs and alcoholic beverages on the premises, both of which are prohibited under the current ownership.
"That will be a great way to get people up here," Burgess says.
There isn't a shortage of public curiosity about the site, but it could use a lot more awareness. Its remote location and low profile have made it one of Southern California's hidden outdoor treasures. At the fundraiser, hikers came from far and wide -- L.A., the San Fernando Valley, Orange County -- many for the first time.
Despite the donations coming in and the community support, the future of Sturtevant Camp still remains uncertain. In October 2014, President Obama designated 346,177 acres of the Angeles National Forest as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and Sturtevant Camp falls just inside the southern boundary (though its main access point, Chantry Flats, does not).
"How will it impact us? We have no idea," Burgess says, noting that the Monument status does exclude some "special use areas" (man-made developments that require active management) which Sturtevant Camp would technically qualify.
"People are concerned that places like this might not be allowed to operate," adds Schreiner, who has done extensive reporting on the topic -- one he describes as "very controversial."
"The purpose of a monument is to save history," Burgess says, but she's not optimistic about any federal financial support. "We do not believe we will see funds coming in."
Burgess is used to running things on her own, though: she notes that a lack of available law enforcement staff in this area is common. "There are no rangers up here, and there's no visitor's center. I'm it," she says.
An added complication to the long-term survival of Sturtevant Camp is the fact that it relies heavily on its natural water supply, which has not been so abundant during California's record-breaking drought. Although the camp offers running hot water, that's only when there is water. And it also runs on a form of hydroelectric power, which uses the natural flow of water. If the water level gets low enough over the summer, the camp may need to shut down temporarily.
There's plenty of charm to this historic site, whether you decide to stay overnight or not. Even just a day hike can be quite a thrill. On Sunday's fundraising event, which began at Adam's Pack Station and continued through a mule-led donkey caravan up the canyon to the campsite, we passed by call boxes containing the oldest operating telephone in the U.S. -- a magneto-type crank phone system -- still in working condition, proven by one hiker who decided to crank and test it and got Adam's Pack Station on the line.
Under the shade of spruce trees, with the sound of running streams and the occasional waterfall, there isn't any cell phone signal or wi-fi. There are, however, showers and toilets, an indoor communal kitchen, an outdoor chapel, a rope swing, and a zip line. You can experience a romantic getaway in the Honeymoon Cottage, a family vacation in the Retreat Lodge, or a school field trip in the four bunkhouses.
For now, Adam's Pack Station is taking reservations for the cabins at least two weeks in advance. In addition to the per-person, nightly rates, the pack station also charges a per-pound fee each way for their donkeys to carry in visitors' food, baggage, and other personal belongings.
The Forest Service has three years to develop a final management plan for the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. So, if all goes as planned, Sturtevant Camp's new ownership and management will be well underway, and it will be that much closer to being preserved.