The Sitka Fine Arts Camp is a regular participant in the Sitka July 4 Parade. In 2019, campers delivered a message disapproving of the decision to eliminate the State Council on the Arts. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

Fifty years ago, Alaska tapped into one of its most important resources: The creativity and talent of its young people.

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp incorporated on February 9, 1973. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey spoke with Roger Schmidt who, between his years as a student and his years as director, has been with the camp for a quarter-century.

Celebrating the Sitka Fine Arts Camp’s 50th anniversary, Roger Schmidt was not attending a champagne gala. He was home on his couch, recovering from a cold.

Although the Sitka Fine Arts Camp is a summer program, it requires vigilance and effort year-round to sustain. 

“Keeping our camp alive year to year is like keeping a fire burning in Southeast Alaska rainforests,” he said. “You turn your back on it for a second. It’s not even ashes.”

Not even ashes,  just cold, wet dirt.

Over its five-decade history, the camp never was fully extinguished, but it came close. Initially it was housed on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College. When the college ran into financial trouble, the camp moved to Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Year-to-year, there was never certainty about where the camp would be held – or even if it would be held. A former camper, Schmidt arrived on scene in 2000 and realized that the fire had not quite gone out.

“It was on its last legs once again,” Schmidt said. “But what happened is when I taught at it, even though there weren’t a lot of students there, I was so moved by how much they cared about what they were doing. And I realized that it was a much smaller camp than the camps  I’d gone to as a kid, but it was still the same spirit. It had the same value to the kids where they thought this was a spot where they felt like it was their place. And for many kids, the only place to feel like it is their place.”

Now housed permanently on the former Sheldon Jackson College campus (trustees of the college, which shut its doors for good in 2007, donated the core campus buildings to SFAC in 2011), the camp has nearly 700 students registered for this coming summer, from Alaska and all over the country. Schmidt considers this the rebound year, after a full closure in 2020, running at 50-percent in 2021, and a “recovery” year in 2022 when managing the pandemic still loomed large over camp operations.

Beginning at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, registration opened for 2023, and 200 students signed up within the first four days – many in the first few minutes.

Schmidt says this is a student-led phenomenon, and one that he is grateful for.

“The thing is we never made anybody do it, the kids did it,” said Schmidt. “Meaning we have all these teenagers that the first thing they do in their year is they sign up for camp. And to me that is so touching, so motivating, and so inspiring. To think that there are over 200 students out there that decided that the first thing they do in year 2023 was sign up.”

As of press time, there was only one opening left in the high school camp dormitory, and three places in the middle school camp dormitory, and a few places in the musical theater camp. There is more availability for day campers.

Schmidt doesn’t overlook the fact that reaching a 50th anniversary, though very significant for an Alaskan Arts institution, necessarily means things will get easier. There will always be battles, challenges, and obstacles. He credits everyone involved in the camp for their help making it this far. When asked what the secret to success was, to fanning that flame, Schmidt didn’t hesitate: “It’s willpower,” he said. “It’s people who care, and who care a lot, who are keeping it alive.”