Last Saturday, when the skies were blue, but the ground was cold, about 50 volunteers planted 2,000 small ponderosa pine seedlings into a fire-scorched area near Yosemite.

As they dug holes into the ground to put in the plants, most about a foot tall, the volunteers were making a bet against the future: that these tiny saplings would grow into magnificent trees that would one day shade the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp.

Seven and a half years after the devastating Rim Fire destroyed the camp, that was built in 1922, it is coming back to life, some say better than ever with more access for those with disabilities. With $57 million in insurance and FEMA payments and $3.3 million in city funds, construction is well underway to rebuild the 120 structures that the fire consumed. The camp is set to reopen in June 2022.

Volunteer holding shovel aloft at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp.
Berkeley councilmember Rigel Robinson holds up a shovel at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. Photo: FOBTC

But the insurance money wasn’t quite enough to restore the popular family camp to its previous verdant condition. The Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp (FOBTC) launched a successful $1 million fundraising campaign to pay for rebuilding trails, erecting shade structures over cabins and play areas — and planting as many as 18,000 trees to restore the tree canopy, according to Scott Gelfand, executive direct of FOBTC.

“To know it’s coming back is so delightful,” said City Councilmember Kate Harrison, who went to the camp for the first time on Saturday. She and her husband, James Hendry, along with City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, helped plant the saplings.

Gelfand said it was a “miracle weekend,” and not just because that week’s snow and rain gave way to blue skies and temperate temperatures. There almost weren’t any saplings to plant, he said.

The hundreds of thousands of one-foot plugs the U.S. Forest Service had in its nurseries turned to “mush” when the COVID-19 pandemic delayed volunteers from getting them in the ground, he said. That disaster left a state-wide shortage of one-foot pine trees.

“No one in California could get one or 10 of these seedlings to plant,” said Gelfand.

Luckily, Mountain Sage Nursery in Groveland, FOBTC’s partner, found a vendor that week with 1,000 leftover saplings they could spare, he said. When the nursery delivered them, there were actually 2,000 saplings.

Saturday’s effort means that Berkeley camp volunteers have planted 12,000 trees since 2014.

There’s more to come: FOBTC intends to plant about 6,000 taller trees in the future, adding white fir, white alder, big leaf maple, incense cedar, black oak and giant sequoia, to the fledgling ponderosa pine saplings. The Forest Service has set a goal of planting about 21 million trees to reforest the burned area.

Hope for a 2022 reopening, the camp’s 100th anniversary

Berkeley Tuolumne Camp will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2022 and that’s when the city hopes to reopen it. When families return — and 4,000 used the camp in 2013, meaning there are tens of thousands of alumni — they will see a place that seems familiar, but different, said Gelfand.

The old camp was 22 acres; the new camp will be 30 acres after the Forest Service determined that Berkeley camp could occupy more land. All the buildings will now be 10 feet apart to provide additional firebreaks. The same structures are being rebuilt and will look the same. But the pipes and infrastructure will be completely new and there will be some extra bathrooms.

Most importantly, the new camp will be fully ADA compliant, making it easier for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices to get around, said Gelfand.

“We’re going [to be] the best publicly owned camp in the state, perhaps in the country, in terms of accessibility.”

Scott Ferris

The old camp had virtually no access for people who needed accommodations, said Scott Ferris, Berkeley’s director of Parks, recreation and the waterfront. Now, about 10% of the family and staff cabins will be wheelchair accessible as will the archery range, beach, island in the middle of the lake, nature center, the recreation and dining halls, common areas and the pathways around the camp, he said.

“It’s an amazing difference,” said Ferris. “The old camp was built in 1922. There was no access at all. We’re going from that to the best publicly owned camp in the state, perhaps in the country, in terms of accessibility.”

Berkeley is also working on a plan to attract a broader array of families and offer scholarships. Gelfand said that in the past, many of the families who attended for generations were white and well-to-do. Ferris said Berkeley had to delay its planning on this issue because of the COVID-19 virus but will return to developing an outreach plan soon.

group lined up between trees
Campers among trees at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in the 1920s. Photo: FOBTC

“We’re working on making the camp more inclusive and more equitable,” said Ferris.

While construction will be completed by 2022, it will take time for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp to return to the green, forested state it was before the fire. Ponderosa pines grow about one and a half feet a year and trees before the fire some trees were more than 100 feet high.

It gets hot in the Sierra Nevada during the summer and the lack of a tree canopy could make the camp uncomfortable, said Gelfand. So FOBTC will be erecting shade structures over the family tents, the play areas and elsewhere, he said.

Gelfand attended the camp for 37 years. Hundreds of Berkeley families have spent their summers in the mountains and have formed lasting friendships. The kids from those families have gone from playing at the camp to serving as counselors and staff. The Rim Fire interrupted those rhythms, but many of those connections have continued through FOBTC, which has about 10,000 members. From a vigil to commemorate the loss of the camp to gatherings (pre-COVID) to fundraising drives, the camp lovers have rallied to preserve the camp’s traditions, those that have served Berkeley’s families since 1922.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...