For just over ten years, Ryan Wanamaker has led Camp Stevens’ efforts in environmental stewardship and transformation. As the director of the farm and garden programs, the Camp Stevens community has watched our small kitchen herb garden grown into a comprehensive program encompassing two gardens, the orchard, and a two-acre farm, and the integration of chickens and pigs for egg-production and culinary use in the kitchen as well as an educational piece for guests and campers. As Ryan departs from his position to begin new adventures, we look back on his time at Camp Stevens and his positive impact on our community.
While ten years is a significant time investment, Ryan’s commitment to Camp Stevens spans most of his lifetime. Starting as a young camper in the late 1980s, Ryan spent most of his summers at camp all the way through his college years, transitioning from participant to summer resident intern. While he always thought it would be interesting and fun to work at Camp year round, the opportunity didn’t present itself right away so Ryan embarked on other adventures. For a while, Ryan worked as a commercial fisherman, bringing with him the lessons learned at Camp Stevens about environmentalism and our place in the world’s ecology. However, during this time he began to feel as though he wasn’t being a steward of the environment; fishing is mostly about taking from the environment, and not giving back. It was then that his interest in farming grew, for he saw this endeavor as an opportunity to fully live in and contribute positively to the process of cultivating and reinvesting in the earth’s bounty.
Ryan began his career in farming on the central coast of California, eventually moving to Montana. Around the same time, Camp Stevens began a small garden program, opening a position which appealed to Ryan. The introduction of the Camp Stevens garden not only fulfilled Ryan’s desire to return to this place which he held so dear to his heart, it also aligned with his desire to further develop his interests and skills in his new found passion: farming. After spending some time wandering, traveling, and living a nomadic lifestyle, he was ready to commit.
“This place was foundational in my life,” Ryan explained. “After spending most of my childhood, teen, and early twenties here, it felt natural to come back to Camp Stevens after exploring and growing in other places. I left for a while but knew that I could still contribute something valuable. It was the closest thing to ‘coming home’ that I could experience.”
When Ryan first returned, the garden would yield a few precious fruits and vegetables, and the guests’ ability to participate was limited and seasonal. He held a strong belief that expanding the program would be mutually beneficial to the camp and the guest experience; with a year round schedule, the farm would have a variety of crops to plant and harvest, producing more food for the Dining Hall and additional opportunities for guests to be a part of the process. He wanted to provide significant food contributions to the food service program rather than using the gardens as a showpiece.
“The program has grown from a handful of herbs to a thriving program that contributes to the ideologies of Camp Stevens. The concept of gratitude has incorporated the gifts of creation, establishing a stronger connection between our guests and those gifts.”
With most of his time dedicated to the actual farming process, Ryan saw the need for incorporating more staff support for garden programming. “When the gardens are changing week to week, it’s hard for program staff to know everything that’s going on. Without core knowledge of the plants and the growing and harvesting process, it’s difficult for them to fully educate the guests and answer questions.” To bridge this gap, Ryan introduced a new position to the camp community, the garden program manager – a position currently held by Ian Schmmelfennig.
Ryan’s hope is that the garden will continue to grow and provide activities for guests to actively participate and experience what it is like to work with the land. “Our community provides a unique perspective for guests. We are a group of people that tries to live with a love for and balance with nature and other humans. We want those who visit this community to not just observe, but to be contributors to this system.”
While Camp Stevens has experienced significant change during Ryan’s ten years as staff, and even more change from when he first started as a young camper, he believes the core of what makes Camp Stevens special has remained consistent.
“This is a place that is super open to individual expression, visioning, collaborating, and changing things to improve Camp. This place isn’t static – while the buildings might get nicer and there are these little changes here and there, it still holds true to the spirit from when I was a kid. We foster growth, tremendous growth, in the campers and staff, and even the guests. As a camper, I remember sleeping out under the stars, cooking meals, getting to know new people… it was all very exciting. As a staff member I’ve had the freedom to dream – to implement and create change. That’s what kept me involved – we still do what we’ve done for the past thirty years, now we just do it better.”
When reflecting on his favorite part of the job, Ryan discussed the beauty of Camp Stevens, being on the cusp of the desert in the unique ecosystem of Southern California. He shared enthusiasm about all of the people he’s met over the years and how they’ve become some of his closest friends. “There is a special bond when you live and work in this environment. Because of the mission, people are passionate about connecting and cultivating gratitude.”
“I am super grateful to have this opportunity. It’s so unique to come back to the place that has been so important for most of my life. The support I received from Peter and John, and now Beth, and to have the ability to run with ideas and build this farm and garden program… I’m leaving with a lot of hope for this place, and it is easy to let go of my ideas and believe that it’s going to continue in a positive way. I’m putting my faith back in the system, much like nature. We have to put faith in nature and the natural process, believing that things will be abundantly healthy and productive. They are all meant to be here and thrive and we must put faith in that. The same goes for camp. It’s not about one person; it’s about this core idea of people coming together and dreaming of a world that is more loving and balanced, and going about your work with compassion, consensus, and new ways of being open. I have faith that everyone will stay committed to those core values.”
While it will be sad to see Ryan leave, we are excited about his future prospects. He will be working for Kayak Adventures Worldwide in Alaska, a wilderness adventure program owned by another former Camp Stevens staff member Trent Gould. For Ryan, his departure is about reclaiming a bit of wild adventure and returning to the nomadic life he experienced ten years ago.
“When you spend so much time with a garden, you become very rooted and grounded – excuse the puns – and in a way you are physically tied to the land and the place. You’re fixing fences and weeding and harvesting. And that is enriching and good for me at times in my life, but now I’m looking for and excited about a time of exploration. It’s a different kind of fulfillment, and I’m excited to find new avenues of outdoor education and perhaps see how other farms do things. I believe I will always be interested and committed to continuing to finding different forms of outdoor education, to help people find connection with themselves and to create connection with nature. The garden and agricultural realm is a huge space to foster that connection, but right now I’m interested in the concept of connecting with wild nature, to cultivate my skills in sharing the wilderness with other and to experience it myself.”
Ryan’s contributions to Camp Stevens can be beautifully summed up with this quote from John Horton, the administrative director for the past 40 years: “Ryan has always brought passion, concern and love to the things he has done at the camp. But with that has also been courage: the courage to ask tough questions, encourage tough discussions, and confront beliefs that create comfort but which may not be in the best interest or best practice for the camp or the individual. To me, this quality will be the one that is missed the most.”
For your passion, courage, and commitment to the Camp Stevens mission,
we thank you and we wish you the best of luck and happiness in your new endeavor.
You will be missed!