A flood led Camp Gray to build the Ark.
On Sunday the Catholic summer camp and retreat center will dedicate its new gymnasium. Campers and staff call it the Ark, because it’s made of pine milled on the grounds. And also, camp Director Jeff Hoeben said, because “it’s where all the crazy animals go when it’s raining.”
The 11,000-square-foot facility is anchored by a full-size gym featuring basketball and volleyball courts, a heated floor, a video screen, a concession stand and a climbing wall. Like Noah’s ark, it’ll be a godsend in a rainstorm.
“You can keep a good number of kids busy for a good amount of time in here,” Hoeben said.
It was 2008 flooding that prompted camp leaders to embark upon an ambitious capital campaign. During that event, campers and staff were cooped up for hours in a confined area with no restroom facilities. Camp Gray’s new gym building and a dining hall that opened last year feature multipurpose rooms ideal for waiting out a storm.
With support from individual donors and the Diocese of Madison, the camp has raised about $5 million toward a $6 million goal. Camp Gray didn’t even announce the campaign until the $3.5 million dining hall opened in May 2017.
“We’re not a little summer camp anymore,” Hoeben said.
Camp Gray caters to student groups and adult retreats year-round at its campus off Shady Lane Road between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells. Now it its 65th year, it attracts 1,400 campers each year, primarily from Catholic groups based in Wisconsin, Chicago and Minneapolis.
The camp was founded by an Irish priest, Monsignor Francis Gray of St. Joseph’s Parish in Baraboo. Owned by the diocese, the 225-acre campus features a lake, bunkhouses, a ballfield and training grounds for archery and horseback riding. Prospective staff members flock to the camp, with last summer’s staff of 55 representing 14 states. Campers face a waiting list 200 names long, as Camp Gray strives to keep its groups small.
“We like to know our families,” Hoeben said.
Gym construction started a year ago on land formerly occupied by decrepit tennis courts. It was open by mid-summer. The camp’s old gym — built in 1964 for $2,500 — was burned down in a Lake Delton Fire Department training exercise.
Hoeben said the facility gives the staff greater versatility in designing programming, and offers new options such as “Paul’s Wall,” a 40-foot climbing wall named for late staff member Paul Coakley.
“It’s such a confidence builder, and that’s what we do at camp, build confidence in kids,” Hoeben said.
Some work remains to be done. There’s still money to be raised, and once that’s accomplished, Hoeben and wife Rebecca, his co-director, will turn their attention to improving the campus’ roads and the ballfield.
Hoeben said the dining hall and gym were built with future growth in mind.
“I told the architects, ‘Don’t design what we can afford, design what we need,’” he said. “Everyone says you get one chance to do it right.”
On Sunday afternoon the campground will host Mass led by Bishop Robert Morlino, a dedication ceremony at the gym and a picnic dinner in the dining hall.
“We want the camp to be around for another 65 years,” Hoeben said. “Campers have loved it, so that makes it worthwhile.”