By Stephen Smoot
Gray skies hung low overhead. The waters of the river raced over rocks, slowly eroding the bottom of Smoke Hole Canyon as they had done for millennia. The tortured stone of Eagle Rock rose tall and mighty across the stream.
In a large tent across from those natural wonders, Pastor Donald Judy stirred a huge pot of homemade chili, preparing food for friends and challenged youth who make the trek to Pendleton County twice a year.
For 35 years, minus a few weekends where the weather blocked any chance of enjoying the time, or made travel too dangerous, the group has come to the Pendleton County wilderness to disconnect, then reconnect. Over the years, approximately 1,700 have come out.
Judy explains that “a lot of kids don’t have moms and dads.” The slow degeneration of the traditional family at the same time as the abuse of all manner of drugs has skyrocketed, often leaves children in struggling homes confused, frustrated, depressed, and looking for answers.
Most children, regardless of their home situation, struggle to articulate their problems, which often leads to acting out.
“Some come from the city. Some come from up here in the country,” while others come from as far away as southern Pennsylvania, Judy explains.
The other adults come from different area cities as well. On this day, they came from Capon Bridge, Wardensville, Keyser, and elsewhere.
As he spoke, a young lady and her mother came into the tent, coming from their family campsite across the road. They are also regular attendees and participants.
Both the environment and the fellowship work their wonders on participants of all ages. “Up here slows everything down,” says Judy, adding “it gives them time to reflect.”
He adds that “we’re treating them like they’re part of the guys.”
The “part of the guys” aspect is crucial to the experience. As Jesse Ridings of Keyser explains, “This is the only time we can all come together” to share their lives “and give advice.” He also said, “The brotherhood in faith is amazing.”
Out at Eagle Rock, “even the adults find the answers they’re looking for,” Ridings shared.
While the program comes from the Church of the Brethren, Judy insists that one’s denomination or faith does not form barriers. People from many denominations and also Roman Catholics and followers of the Jewish faith have participated.
As in many church activities, great food forms part of the fellowship. The opening night features chili with cheese and crackers, as well as hot chocolate, s’mores, and more. Campers wake up Saturday morning to a country camping banquet of sausage gravy and biscuits, bacon, eggs, and more.
“It’s all made from scratch,” Judy smiles.
The trips take place during the third weekend of October and the third weekend in April. Because most of the regulars play fall sports, such as football, the April trip usually brings more out.
Judy related that a mother recently expressed appreciation for the effect that the trips had on her son. He explained that the mother shared “he doesn’t back talk anymore. He explained that the trips help to “change them, to put a foundation under them.”
One of the attractions of Eagle Rock lies in its lack of cellular signal. Children on their first trip will often spend the first couple of hours playing with their technology, then they set it down and get involved in whatever the group is doing. That could include fishing, hiking, or just relaxing by the campfire.
And, of course, eating delicious camp food.
The supplies come from generous donors. Ridings stated that “the big chain stores” often do not donate much, but local small business owners give much more. The locally owned Save A Lot in Keyser, for example, gave a tremendous amount of food.
“All the non-profits and businesses who support us are Christian based,” Judy added,
The group’s goal lies in expanding the program to include other churches, other communities, and more children, “using this as a catapult to get other churches to get youth involved,” he explained.
Both Judy and Ridings extolled the value of practicing religion in nature, saying that service in faith has clung too much to “brick and mortar” while the traditions of revivals, for example were disappearing. “You can come and sleep by that river a week and truly connect back to Mother Nature,” Ridings said.