Sadness, then hope: Jason Onks leads Buffalo Mountain through challenging year

Sadness, then hope: Jason Onks leads Buffalo Mountain through challenging year

Camp director Jason Onks looks over a map.

The heavy rain that forever changed Buffalo Mountain Camp started at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 5.

Camp Director Jason Onks watched in awe as a fresh stream trespassed across his front yard and emergency workers rescued neighbors from their flooded homes. When the power in his house went out, it seemed to magnify the roar of water, of boulders and trees as they were unearthed and carried down the mountain.

By 9:30 p.m. the rain had stopped. But the event was just beginning for Onks, who has lived and worked at the United Methodist camp near Jonesborough, Tenn., since 2006.

“When I had a chance to look around, it was so devastating,” he says. “I began to realize this was never, never going to be the same way that it was.”

Today, there are signs of hope. Onks and other camp leaders recently learned that a federal agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, will assist with clean-up of the eight landslides and Ramsey Creek. “That was $250,000 of work we were going to have to do on our own,” he says.

The new pool has been cleaned up and Washington County repaired the camp’s main road. About 300 have signed up for volunteer work in the future, and office staff member Tammie Richardson says donations for the recovery effort arrive in the mail or online “every day.”

A task force is studying the long-term future and re-creation of camp structures and property, and a program committee is re-creating and planning the ministry.

Despite the possible loss of Allison Lodge and the closing of three cabins and the upper camp area, Buffalo Mountain Camp will be open next month to retreat groups, camp leaders have announced.

On Facebook: See camp photos before and after the flood.

Last week, Buffalo Mountain staff also sent out a postcard to campers of the last two years, reassuring them the summer 2013 season is still on. This year, Buffalo Mountain hosted 599 summer campers.

I know you’ve heard that we’ve been through quite a big ol’ mess, the children’s postcard reads. We’re working hard to clean up this place that you love so much … We’ll be singing ‘round the fire again when this cleaning is all through.


“We’re going to have to be creative,” Onks said of the next summer season. “This actually could be a great opportunity for us.”

Among the ideas leaders are considering are “trip and travel” camps and expanded day camps. For trip and travel camps, campers would check in at Buffalo Mountain and then take off on an adventure such as canoeing, climbing, or rafting. Day camp has long been an option for 1st through 3rd graders but could also work well for older campers.

The directors of Holston’s other camps – Wesley Woods, Dickenson, and Lookout – have been a “great resource” of ideas and support, Onks said. They met recently for their traditional post-summer gathering to debrief and swap suggestions.

The Aug. 5 flood happened just three days after the last day of Buffalo Mountain’s summer season, so the camp-director gathering as well as an upcoming beach vacation were much needed, Onks said. He delayed his previously scheduled August vacation with his wife and 2 ½-year-old son to take care of the camp.

“I’m very tired,” says Onks, age 37. “There is a time of exhaustion after every summer season, anyway, so there’s definitely a mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion now … I’m looking forward to taking off my watch for a week and not worrying about the time.”

Life at Buffalo Mountain has been depressing the last few weeks, Onks admits, “even more so without the sounds of activity. Without the people here, it’s a little bit sad and incomplete.”

The lowest point came a few days after the flood. “I remember looking around and there was so much to do, I just didn’t know where to start.”

He receives hope from the people who have offered donations, resources, and encouraging words in person and through social media.

“There are constituencies from decades, from the last 30 years, who have been involved in this camp, who are posting their memoirs,” he said. “That gives me hope and helps me to keep looking forward.”

From one supporter, the camp director received comfort in the form of scripture from “The Message.” He refers to the words from Isaiah 43 often -- and in this temporary makeshift office that was relocated into the Retreat Center after the flood, Onks stands and reads aloud:

Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.



See also:

Buffalo Mountain's Facebook page


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.