Written by Rev. Jim Doepken, Pastor at Seward & Moose Pass UMCs.
I know that Alaska might seem far “away from it all” to people in the Lower-48. But even Alaskans sometimes want to “get away from it all” at times. It could be for vacation or different outdoor activities in a new spot. Sometimes it’s for retreats and group-building. Sometimes it’s just because we need a place of quiet.
The Hope Retreat Center is one of those places and it has a long history as a place to “get away” in Alaska.
Hope, on the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 90 miles from Anchorage, was not always a small town. The area around Hope was once bustling with activity at the the height of the Gold Rush. While there were Alaska Native families that predated the arrival of Euro-Americans, it was the discovery of gold in Resurrection Creek in 1893 that brought people in. Miners needed supplies. They built cabins and warehouses for goods. Families started to settle. And by 1897, Hope was officially “on the map.” At one point, there were literally thousands of people in the area.
While gold diminished and the population dropped, the small community of Hope remained. It was in this community that Bertha McGhee led the process of building a church in the town. Bertha had arrived in Seward, Alaska to serve as a house mother for the Methodist-run Jesse Lee Home. And from 1944-1948 she was lay pastor for the Moose Pass-Hope charge and she worked tirelessly on building the church facility here. A log cabin was moved to the lot and another log cabin was added on as an addition. When it was completed they had a two story building with a “parsonage side” and a small “chapel side.”
But even as as various pastors tried, and ministries were started, Hope was running the same course as many other ex-mining towns. By 1956 there were only 24 adults and 14 children in the town. And yet, even as the community got smaller, the old church remained an attractive site for retreats and camps. Construction continued on the buildings and summer programming carried on. Over the years, youth groups, clergy gatherings, United Methodist Men’s retreats, weddings and family get-aways were held here with many people writing in one of the nine journals that tell the story of their visits. There might not have been regular church services but ministry continued. (You can read all about Hope’s Methodist history in a book by Alaska’s Larry Hayden.)
I first arrived in Alaska in 1997 and, even before I saw the church where I was appointed, the “New Clergy Orientation” group was taken from Anchorage to Hope to meet other Alaskan clergy. It is a stunning drive down the Seward Highway, along Turnagain Arm off of Cook Inlet, and through Turnagain Pass in the mountains. It was at Hope were I met some of the pastors who predated me, heard their stories about ministry in Alaska, and walked around this tiny community.
Four years later, after a pastoral move, I was asked to officiate a wedding at Hope for two Alaskans who loved the setting. It was gorgeous. There were only four of us there. The bride and groom wanted to use the “old” Methodist hymnal and have Holy Communion. Their dog was the ring-bearer. And, as far as any of us were concerned, this small chapel in this tiny town was the perfect place for them.
After seeing the Retreat Center once again, I started looking here for some of my own pastoral needs. I have been here for a family vacation, using the church as a home base as we explored hiking trails and took long walks by the water. But, more, I served churches that were within about a 90 minute drive and found Hope to be a great place for retreats—for youth, women, men, and confirmation classes.
To this day, Hope is an active place in the summer. While a little off the beaten path, it’s a beautiful spot for tourists to take pictures and walk among the old cabins. And, when the salmon are running along Resurrection Creek it is a popular spot to reach your daily limit of fish. During this time the restaurants and bar are open, along with the town museum and coffee shop. You’ll find live music most nights. It can be bustling with activity—for a tiny town.
But that’s not the time I like to come to the Hope Retreat Center. I like coming during the late fall and early spring when it’s quiet and it’s a surprise to see a light on in any of the nearby cabins and homes. It’s during these times that loud youth games don’t disturb anyone and the muddy area along the waterfront is particularly fun to explore. The sanctuary serves as our meeting, worship, and movie-viewing space and we know we have a shower to clean off messy kids and a great place to have a bonfire if the weather is nice.
I’m actually writing this blog post from the kitchen table at the Retreat Center. After a quiet walk around the town last evening, I had a night to myself in this place of sanctuary and retreat. There’s not a soul around…at least anyone I’ve seen. I woke up and wrote in the journal. And I can now look out the window and see the water of Turnagain Arm. I have a cup of hot coffee. Life is good.
So whether you’re by yourself or chaperoning an inquisitive bunch of confirmands the Hope Retreat Center remains a jewel for the Alaska United Methodist Conference in this former gold-mining town. Through the door you’ll find a place of rest, community, and history.
This brings back lots of memories. When I was the summer pastor of the Moose Pass Circuit in 1961, I spent a great deal of time in Hope. I had discovered that when the church was built in 1944, the part of the roof that could not be seen from the roof was not stained. (Budget constraints?)
So with the help of some boys from The Jesse Lee Home, we solved that problem. In 1964, 30 youth from the Kenai Parish had a retreat in Hope as a substitute for a trip to Denali Park. A very big earthquake changed our plans. I had planned for the group to spend the weekend staining the church. They finished the task in one hour. Not my finest example of planning ahead. When I was the pastor at East Anchorage, I managed to spend several “days off” at Hope. A highlight was reading a book by Lyle Schaller that explained how ministry was changing dramatically. I would read until sleepy, sleep, then read again. A nearby eatery served wonderful food. My idea of paradise. Thanks to all those who have maintained and upgraded the facility over the years.
The name of the book that described the changes I was experiencing in ministry was “It’s a Different World” by Lyle E. Schaller. One of the big differences that connected with me was the difference in pastoral calling. When I made 900 calls in one year, I could just drop by and connect with members easily. If a farmer was farming, I would hop on the tractor and talk while he was working. No problem. If I was invited to a meal by being asked if I had eaten, I did not lie and I was fed. At the end of my ministry, there was resentment if I dropped by unannounced. It was preferred that I make an appointment and it was never on the day I had available for calling or I should say, the same day I was calling for an appointment. And truth be told, some were happy if I never called. “I don’t have any problems, why would you wish to call on me?” However, I would say that various types of small groups have been helpful in getting to know people, especially in retirement. Whatever one thinks, we do live in a different world.
How does one correct an error? Should have written: “The part of the roof that could not be seen from the road was never stained.”
Thanks John, for your comment and for your years of service
A group of senior hiking ladies from the Kenai, Kasilof, Nikiski, Soldotna and Sterling area have annual trips to the Hope Retreat Center. When we first began going, we brought our own water and used the outhouse. Now the water is safe to drink and the inside bathroom is usable. What a blessing. We use the full kitchen to prepare our meals and hike the area trails for three days. Thank you to all who have contributed and help maintain this special place.
There are so many hiking trails in the area. Once a group of us hiked the entire Resurrection Trail to Juneau Lake and on to Cooper Landing. If you read this (again) did you ever hike beyond the end of the Palmer Road? Dead-end road to some abandoned mining areas. Swetman Mine is what comes to my mind, but I have not checked the accuracy of that memory. I have done four separate hikes in the area, but there are many more I never did. Make that five, as I also hiked up to the Nearhouse Mine.
Yes, our hiking group has hiked the Palmer Creek trail to the lakes above the waterfall. We have also hiked Gull Rock, Bear Creek, Hope Coastal, Hope Point, the north end of the Johnson Pass Trail, the Turnagain Arm segment of the Iditarod National Historic Trail and the beginning of the Resurrection. Lots of wonderful trails in the area and the Hope Retreat Center makes a great base camp.
Back in the 1990’d I went to Hope on a women’s retreat from APUMC & made some good friends, one is my dear friend Beth Knight who’s being ordained soon. Then years ago my family began doing family retreats in July—we’ve done over 10 summers now we will be going again this coming July. We fish, hike, pick berries , read @ have late bonfires. We R happy for some precious family time—usually 4 generations. I am grateful for those times & good memories.
John Shaffer I knew you when I volunteered at KICY in the late 70’s. I was a member of the Covenant church then but joined Nome Community UMC in the 80’s when Debbie I Jon Pitney Pastered