Tag Archives: bears

Seeking Counsel of the Wilderness in Summer

May 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spencer Hawkins has encountered bears 24 times in his life.

One encounter happened when he woke up early to fish. Pausing to change his lure, he says, “something felt wrong. I turned over my shoulder, and from where I had just walked, a grizzly bear was walking into the water right at me.” With nowhere to go in deepening river, Hawkins called out for fellow camper Ben Bissell, who immediately came to the rescue, bedecked in nothing but boots, boxer shorts, and a shotgun. Then, the bear picked up a dead salmon from the riverbank and simply walked away.

The vast expanse of nature can be intimidating for some, but for Hawkins, it is his summer home. In the remaining nine months of the year, Hawkins is a counselor at Andersen Middle School. He enjoys telling his students about his travels, enriching their lives with his stories while imbuing them with a respect for nature and its beasts. 

Hawkins’ thirst for adventure started in college, when he and three friends began traveling to national parks in Utah and Montana to rock climb. One friend wanted to fish in the location of the film, A River Runs Through It, which gave birth to their new pastime. This gave way to a rock climbing trip to Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming.

The friends’ first big trip to Alaska was prompted by a friend about to enter medical school. They spent 35 days in the wilderness, relying on nothing but each other and their intuition for survival. Hawkins says, “We were really remote, so we had no help. You couldn’t call on your cellphone, we didn’t have anything that worked, so we just relied on each other, caught and ate a lot of fish, moved camp, got rained on, made a fire, and [moved to a] new camp.” Floating down the river for three weeks, the explorers ate only the plants available and fish they caught, which lead to noticeable weight loss.

Fishing has probably made them more attractive to bears. Once, while Hawkins and his travel companions were sleeping, they heard a rustling outside of their tent, and the sound of something rummaging around the surrounding brush. Hawkins, springing from his tent suddenly, saw a 500-pound black bear that had been rifling through the camper’s equipment take off through the forest, snapping trees in half like they were twigs. Luckily, Hawkins recalls, the bear hadn’t found their inflatable raft full of supplies down at the riverbank, which could have easily been destroyed by the massive beast, stranding them in the Alaskan wilderness with no way to call for help. 

Bears aren’t the only animal Hawkins has seen. While cooking freshly caught fish in the dark one night, Hawkins heard noise coming from the other side of the campsite. He shone a flashlight into the woods, where about 10 pairs of glowing eyes stared back at him from behind the foliage. A pack of wolves had come to investigate the culinary aroma. Following a one-minute stare-down that seemed like ten minutes, the winner of the fish supper was the humans.

Hawkins’ days of asking friends to run after a bear in their underwear may be behind him. These days, his trips tend to be more family-friendly, although he continues to frequent national parks.

“When you are rock climbing you have to focus only on what you are doing and the rocks and trees around you. The worries of the world, your everyday life, you don’t have time to worry about.”


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

High on Jesus

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Getting high on Jesus in the Rocky Mountains, however, is always 100 percent legal.

The Front Range looms overhead as Dan and Dawne Broadfield sip their morning coffee. Towering at a height of 14,259 feet, the snow-capped Longs Peak is the highest point in the adjacent Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Residing at an elevation of nearly 1.5 miles above sea level, the Broadfields live on the forested grounds of Covenant Heights. The year-round Christian camp is located nine miles south of Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, near the base of Longs Peak.

estespark6The parents are career missionaries and together have visited Haiti, Mexico, Canada, England, France, Belgium, and Holland, among others. As assistant director of facilities, Dan helps to maintain the 65-acre Covenant Heights, while Dawne home-schools their three children: 18-year-old Darby, 14-year-old Dakota, and 11-year-old Max.

Their days are filled with hiking, fishing, backpacking, paddleboarding, archery, and kayaking. They have unfettered access to high ropes, zip lines, and a climbing wall—perks of living at a wilderness retreat. The same activities draw campers from across the country.

If the weather is nice, Dan and Dawne say they might go six to eight hours without seeing their offspring, and that’s fine for both parents and frolicking children alike.

In summer, nighttime unveils an infinite heaven of twinkling stars, with the Milky Way shining down on three hammocks arranged in a triangular formation in the trees. Each hammock cradles a Broadfield child, peacefully sleeping.

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Once the weather turns chilly, they gather firewood for campfires. The winter season also brings snow-shoeing, ice hockey, and cross-country skiing.

Wildlife is an integral part of living at the campground, where animals also make their home. Coyotes, moose, and deer frequently wander through Covenant Heights. Herds of elk are common visitors; during the fall rut, the bulls’ high-pitched bugling will echo for miles.

“The other day, an elk walked through the middle of (the triangle of hammocks),” Dawne says. “Our youngest woke up and thought, ‘Uh, oh. This isn’t good.’ But the elk eventually moved along.”

estespark5The free-spirited mother of three does have one rule about sleeping outdoors. Her kids can’t have lipgloss, sunscreen, or other scented items in their pockets. Bears live in the neighborhood, and scented items or food will attract them. Dawne even brings her bird feeders inside at night so as not to attract unwelcome scavengers.

She loves life amongst the animals. In fact, her animal-watching pastime vaguely reminds her of childhood years spent in Omaha. “We went to the Henry Doorly Zoo about every two weeks,” says the one-time Omahan. Dawne’s father served in the Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base for three years, when she was in fifth through eighth grades.

Her adult life unfolded away from Omaha. Before relocating to Colorado in 2015, Dawne and Dan were living in San Antonio, Texas, where they ran an art gallery and online networking platform for artists called ArtLife.

“Here we are now in Estes Park because we felt like we ran out of space in San Antonio. We wanted to become more of a starving artists community,” says Dan. “We want to develop an artists community up here. I want to create a safe space for people to come and hone their skills. It’s the idea of not being in their normal circumstances.”

estespark4Surrounded by natural abundance, the family feels rich. Not so when it comes to the latest technological amenities. They have a satellite television, the only reliable phone is a landline, and mobile internet service is patchy from camp.

Dawne says “there’s a 20-minute window about twice a day” for internet access. An avid photographer, she posts almost daily on Instagram from her smartphone during those limited windows of online accessibility.

Her photo stream documents their neighbors, mostly the wildlife (@adeltadawne). “We have lots of moose that hang out,” she says. “The elk, the deer, the eagles, and then I sprinkle in family stuff.” If it is necessary to check something online, they head to a coffeeshop or the library in town. Dan and Dawne enjoy their wireless existence. “I kind of like the idea of being disconnected,” Dan says.

Christian wilderness retreats have a rich history on the Front Range near Covenant Heights. Even before Colorado was a state, missionaries were spreading the gospel across the landscape.

estespark3Summer encampments for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) date back to the 1890s. The YMCA summer campsite from 1908 remains the site of the modern-day YMCA of the Rockies. Today, the organization hosts Christian gap-year programs for 18-to-24 year olds “seeking personal and spiritual growth while working in a seasonal job at Snow Mountain Ranch.”

On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park into existence, and the nationwide National Park Service came into being the following year (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016).

Covenant Heights arrived on the scene in the early 1930s through the fellowship of the Covenant Young Peoples and Sunday School Conference of Colorado and Wyoming. The coalition of Rocky Mountain churches sought to give “a concerted effort to provide inspiration, Christian fellowship, and evangelism for the young people of the churches in Colorado and Wyoming,” according to its website. Covenant Heights’ current permanent campsite became operational in 1948.

Separate from the YMCA or Covenant Heights, the nonprofit Wind River Ministries also runs the ongoing Wind River Ranch, a “Christian Family Guest Ranch Resort”complete with dude ranch.

Regardless of one’s spiritual inclination, the sweeping mountain vistas are inspiring throughout the vicinity of Estes Park.

In the wake of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, residents of Estes Park voted to block the opening of recreational and medicinal dispensaries within the limits of town and Larimer County. It was a strategic move to preserve the region’s wholesome reputation as a family destination. Meanwhile, federal marijuana laws reign supreme over Rocky Mountain National Park and other federally owned lands.

Getting high on Jesus in the Rocky Mountains, however, is always 100 percent legal.

Visit covenantheights.org for more information.

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