It was a warm and sunny summer afternoon as the camper approached the sleek, red canoe. Excited and a little nervous, I watched as he jumped into the boat for the first time. He cradled the wooden paddle in his hands and could feel the warm breeze on his cheeks.

His counselor pushed him and his new friend off from the shore. The boat rocked as he put his paddle into the murky lake and used it to swirl the water behind him. He paddled again, alternating back and forth from each side of the canoe. 

Once they reached the center of the small lake, he closed his eyes, tilted his head up toward the sky and smiled.

Campers canoeing on Lake Jake
Camp Gray campers and counselors cheer as the strong Settlers (ages 7-11) play tug-of-war, determined to bring their blue team to victory during the Olympics-style Cassidy Games. Photo by Alexis Bakken.

I witnessed these kinds of moments often as I worked as a photographer at Camp Gray, located in Reedsburg, just 16 miles southwest of the Wisconsin Dells. Over the past 70 years, Camp Gray has presented thousands of campers with the opportunity to experience reality through Christ-centered community and the thrill of outdoor adventure. 

According to Camp Gray executive director Tim Chaptman, this is just one of the many “formative” and “tangible experiences of reality” that campers encounter when they come to Camp Gray. 

Surrounded by the camp’s expansive 225 acres, campers not only engage with nature’s beauty but also experience the profound impact of the Catholic faith through the lived experience of their counselors. This fosters an environment where campers are not merely spectators but active participants in a faith-driven exploration of life’s adventures. 

Camp Gray acts as a home away from home for many campers. Spanning over 10 weeks, the coed overnight summer program accommodates more than 1,400 campers ranging from second through 12th grade.

During the off season, Camp Gray acts as a retreat center for schools and churches. 

Becoming a camp director

Jeff Hoeben, who was the executive director prior to Chaptman, originally found out about Camp Gray from a water bottle at a young adult conference. This sparked his interest and led him to do a quick Google search. There, he discovered that Camp Gray’s environmental stewardship program was hiring missionaries to share the Catholic faith through experiences of outdoor adventure. This was right up his alley. 

During that year of leading outdoor trips, Hoeben met his now-wife, Rebecca, who was also working on staff. In 2005, they got married and eventually stepped into the role of co-executive directors in 2008. After serving together for 10 years, Rebecca decided to step down from the position to spend more time with their three kids. 

Shortly after that, Chaptman joined as summer camp director, and together, he and Hoeben strengthened the mission of the camp, continuing to make it a place for growing in spirituality through the great outdoors. 

To Hoeben, this combination of the Catholic faith and the outdoors is “the most natural fusion.”

“When you look at all of creation, you say look what God made, but yet, look at how he made me to be even more beautiful than all these other things that are also true, good and beautiful,” Hoeben says. 

After living at camp for 20 years, Hoeben and his family transitioned away from Camp Gray in May 2023 to pursue other opportunities. Even though the transition is bittersweet for the family, Hoeben says he trusts in where God is leading him and hopes Camp Gray will “continue to be a home for kids where they encounter our Lord in creation, in each other and in themselves.”

Chaptman hopes to continue this legacy of Camp Gray as he steps into his new role as executive director. Like Hoeben, Chaptman was also introduced to camp at a young age. 

“It had a really profound effect on me. It was the first time that I had really seen the faith lived with great joy,” says Chaptman, who came as a camper in high school in 2001.  

After being a camper for three years, Chaptman returned to work on staff as a counselor for seven summers. While on staff, he met his wife, Lauren, and together they left Camp Gray to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. However, the dream of working full time at the camp was always in the back of their minds, so when the opportunity came, it was easy for the family to say yes. 

Chaptman started as assistant director and became summer camp director nine months later. Over the years, he helped carry on the mission of Camp Gray to “invite people of all ages to encounter Jesus Christ in all creation, experience a fun and vibrant Catholic community, and be challenged to ever more deeply know, love, and serve God and neighbor.” 

A day at Camp Gray

Throughout a day at Camp Gray, campers rotate through different outdoor activities with their counselors. They have the opportunity to do all sorts of adventures such as archery, fishing and rock climbing. They also take part in several traditions, such as capture the flag and the Olympics-style Cassidy Games, which combine activities like tug-of-war and a canoe race across Lake Jake. 

Because these fun-filled activities take up the majority of the week, faith at camp is “more often caught than taught,” Chaptman says. 

“Kids have the opportunity to see the lived faith experiences of their counselors and other staff members,” he says.  

Chaptman puts a lot of time and effort into hiring about 55 counselors each summer. Almost all of them are college students striving to live out their faith in their university communities. 

Mitch and Jen Dhein witnessed the power of this mission when they sent their 10-year-old daughter to Camp Gray in 2021. 

“She was just overjoyed. She did not want to leave. She was just on fire in a way we hadn’t ever seen her before,” Jen Dhein says. 

The couple was first introduced to Camp Gray through a promotional video they saw at their parish in the Madison suburb of DeForest. They were amazed by the fun energy of camp and immediately wanted to learn more. 

They decided to attend family camp, which takes place on the last weekend of the summer program and gives families the opportunity to stay at the camp for the weekend and participate in activities led by the counselors. 

“At Family Camp, we’re there seeing the counselors and seeing what we want our kids to grow up and be like, the kids are there looking up to the counselors and then the counselors are looking up to the families,” Jen Dhein says, calling it an awesome environment of learning from each other and gaining energy from the spirit.” 

Witnessing the Catholic faith 

Along with the witness to the faith from the counselors, Camp Gray holds an outdoor Mass on the last day of each week. This Mass is celebrated by Father Luke Powers, the chaplain of Camp Gray who was also impacted by the spirit of camp at a young age. 

After being accepted into Catholic seminary right after high school, Powers served as a counselor for two summers. 

“I was able for the first time to meet other Catholics my age, who were desiring to live a virtuous life and have fun as well,” Powers says. 

When he was ordained a priest in 2021, the Bishop of the Madison Diocese placed him at a parish near Reedsburg so he could also become the chaplain at Camp Gray during the summer season. 

His job as chaplain is to administer the Catholic sacraments and provide spiritual guidance to the staff. 

According to Powers, Camp Gray has grown a lot in providing these resources to staff. When he worked there, Mass wasn’t offered at all. 

“Very few people are intentionally spending time in quiet in the presence of our Lord every day,” Powers says. “It’s not easy, but it does begin to take over in someone’s life.” 

According to Powers, this time the counselors spend in prayer overflows into everything they do, which is something he wants all the campers to take away as well. 

“Their spiritual lives and their normal lives are not dissociated,” Powers says, “God is with you at every moment and throughout the day, too.”  

Sharing a common aspiration with Powers, Hoeben hopes for a seamless integration of campers’ spiritual lives and daily routines.

“We don’t want camp to be the best week of the year,” Hoeben says. “Camp should be a week that affects how you live the other 51 weeks of the year.”

As Hoeben wrestled with the decision to leave Camp Gray, Saint John Paul II’s words as pope continuously crossed his path, affirming him that “life with Christ is a wonderful adventure.” 

“That’s something we’re able to showcase at camp,” Hoeben says, “It’s a wacky, unpredictable, awesome adventure.”