By Paul Fattig
Applegate Valley resident Julie Fossen Wheeler arrived at her family’s old elk-hunting camp near Joseph in northeastern Oregon with the intention of cleaning it up and putting up a “FOR SALE” sign.
The log cabins she helped build with her parents, Jim and Rita Fossen, on the 40-acre parcel in the late 1960s were dilapidated.
Gone was the laughter she once heard emanating from the cabins deep in the Wallowa Mountains. The last tall tale over a breakfast of backstrap and cowboy coffee was told long ago.
But an idea began to form as she lingered one last time on a cabin porch before beginning the long drive home to southwestern Oregon.
“Even though it is a 12-hour drive and the generators weren’t working, the rats had taken over and the range cattle had been all over the place, I had this vision,” she recalled.
Her dream was to turn the family’s old hunting camp into a retreat for wounded veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to help them mend physically and psychologically.
Since that 2010 revelation, Wheeler, 61, who bought the property from her mother, has been working to make the nonprofit Divide Camp Inc. a reality. Her father died in 1991 but her mother, now 82, was delighted with the idea of creating a sanctuary for wounded veterans.
Divide Camp had been used by the Fossens as an elk-hunting and fishing camp for many years after they bought the property in 1968. They built five structures on the parcel, and used pack horses for excursions into the nearby Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Wheeler has applied for nonprofit status with the IRS, an application still being processed. The board includes Applegate Valley resident Carl Offenbacher, who’s working as a welding inspector in Afghanistan, and Portland area resident Phil Moyer, a longtime elk hunter with experience as a secretary-treasurer for a nonprofit group.
A 1970 graduate of Medford Senior High School, Wheeler is a retired resource manager who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Fire Service.
Noting she has a lot of gratitude for veterans, Wheeler stressed the camp is about supporting veterans, not war.
“I know a lot of people who don’t want war at all, and I get that,” she said. “But it breaks my heart what a lot of these young people are going through now to get their lives back together.”
She envisions a camp where young veterans can experience outdoor life to the fullest.
“They can hike or hunt or fish,” she said. “They could ride horses or do photography. Or they could just relax there.”
Her goal is to open Divide Camp in August. The camp consists of the main lodge, an A-frame and three cabins dubbed Papa, Mama and Baby Bear.
“Each cabin has a kitchenette and a little wood stove,” she said. “The plan is to have an outdoor eating area. We would pull everyone together for at least one meal a day. I don’t envision big groups unless it was a special event. This would be four or five guests at a time.”
But the nonprofit group is looking for help in sprucing up the old camp.
When her father became ill in the late 1980s, Wheeler took him for his last hunting trip to the camp he loved.
“After he passed in 1991, I kept trying to keep things going,” she said. “I kept the elk hunters coming back every year.”
But when she moved to Alaska in 2003 for work, the hunting camp sat idle.
“Things started deteriorating pretty fast,” she said.
She spent some six months working on the camp last year, installing new floors, installing water lines and chinking cabin walls. She plans to return to the hunting camp later this month, and will be joined by other volunteers as well as Offenbacher and Moyer.
“We do need help with the building part,” she said, noting that help from veterans is especially appreciated. “If someone wants to go over there to volunteer to work, we would welcome it.”
That includes anyone with experience in installing a solar system, she said, noting that would dispel the need for generators.
“We also need the kind of help that can be done virtually, like fundraising and making contacts with other organizations, and eventually grant writing,” she added. “By far our greatest immediate need is financial support.”
She has met with representatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ groups. “I want to make sure the veteran who wants to go to Divide Camp is truly a combat wounded vet,” she said, including those who have suffered physical as well as psychological injuries from the two wars.
Wheeler, who acknowledges she was a bit reluctant back in the late 1960s to spend her teenage summers at the hunting camp, said the work at the camp has brought back memories she now cherishes.
“I was 16 when we hand-peeled the logs for the lodge,” she said. “I found the wood-handle draw knife in an old shed when I was cleaning out last summer.”
The draw knife is now hanging prominently on the wall in the Divide Camp lodge.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.