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Chris Thompson: Men’s retreat offered more than fishing

Chris Thompson

Recently, I accompanied a group of men, mostly members of Baxter Road Bible Church, a popular East Anchorage church, on a float and fishing trip down the Gulkana River. Actually, I first heard about the trip when I attended the Beast Feast at BRBC, which I chronicled on my ADN Church Visits blog. The cost was minimal, I was free and so I signed up.

The trip is offered by Copper River Float Ministry of Glennallen. Started by Dave Lemaire more than 12 years ago, it was a major factor in his personal recovery from the kidnapping, rape and murder of his daughter in 1991. Dave’s wife, Michelle, is his onshore facilitator of food, facilities and scheduling. The ministry is staffed by an awesome group of men volunteers, trained yearly to gain or maintain cataraft or rubber raft skills. Ages of the ministry’s volunteers range from the 20s to the 70s.

Lemaire limits the trip to four churches each summer. To take advantage of this experience, churches must book their trips up to two years in advance. Offering three men’s trips and one women’s trip each summer, CRFM also has women volunteers accompanying women participants on their trip.

Originally, more than 30 men from BRBC signed up for the trip but it conflicted with the Luis Palau appearance that weekend and half the men decided not to go. Departing early morning June 6, we carpooled or used the church van to drive to the Gulkana River bridge north of Glennallen. Transferring gear to a bus, it was north to Poplar Grove and a hike downhill to the river where the boats were moored. The ministry volunteers had floated them downstream from Sourdough the previous evening. At riverside, Lemaire introduced his crew, giving us a thorough safety lecture ending with prayer. Pastor Jason Severs of Old Paths Baptist Church in Glennallen presented each trip participant with a Bible printed on waterproof paper, a missionary initiative of his members.

Floating downriver for about six hours, we covered about half of the 36 miles we would float on the water. We pulled into a rocky, sandy beach area and the volunteers made camp, erecting several large tents, a canopy-covered cooking area, laying campfires and preparing for dinner. Guys went fishing along the shore. Some of us fished on the float down, as the kings were just beginning to appear. One of our party caught a nice, bright king but the rest did not score any fish on the trip. A few men were unsettled by sets of extremely large grizzly paw prints while setting up camp. Lemaire guessed they had been there a week or two prior to our arrival.

Dinner and breakfast, overseen and cooked by Lemaire, were tasty. Grace was said before each meal, not an unordinary practice for many Christians today. After dinner, Josh Heffner, a layman from Wasilla, talked briefly with us around the campfire. Using an example of building a house, he detailed clearing the building site and bulldozing to a suitable level before laying foundations. He invited the men present to “take time on the beach to examine your foundation.” He similarly talked before breakfast and after lunch the next day, using related themes. Encouraging the men to create good foundations, he reminded us of Christ’s parable of “The House on the Rock,” so they were secure. These brief talks were not pushy, were by nature reflective and appreciated.

BRBC’s associate pastor John Carpenter took a low-key role on the trip, which I liked as he works with these men regularly. He shared: “It's always been more difficult, for whatever reason, to get men to connect and plug in at church. Men are more willing to let down their guard on the float trip, responding more readily and deeply to the message of the Gospel, taking a more active role upon return.”

Several men shared thoughts.

Adrian Ortiz said: “The Lord is involved in this ministry. I had a great opportunity to draw nearer to God.”

Paul Thiel enjoyed “time on the river with some great guys,” further noting, “I needed a break and would invite others to experience it. The food? I’ve never eaten such good food in the wilderness. The chili and cornbread lunch was totally worth going!”

Carlton Rice really liked Lemaire’s initial statement that “This was not a fishing trip to talk about God but a trip to commune with God and also have a chance to do some fishing.”

Over the course of the trip, Don Hennessey and I established an acquaintance. He enjoyed the trip, liking the solitude of the forest, the sounds of the animals and the river, further sharing: “The closeness of nature helped me draw closer to the Lord. I especially liked the waterproof Bible we were all given at the beginning of the trip.”

Dave Lemaire has experienced more pain than many of us will ever have to endure. Clearly he has a heart for men and an ability to attract volunteers. If you ever have a chance to experience this trip, do so. He recently became a part-time director of men’s ministries at The Crossing in Birchwood, a rapidly growing suburban Anchorage area church. Either way you meet him, it will be worthwhile.

My experience was delightful, drawing me closer to God and nature, much more than any other men’s retreat I’ve done.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.