Most everyone agrees that San Francisco is a small town, so it might surprise you that its eastern border is 180 miles away.
That would be the area that houses The City’s oldest building, a magnificent outpost that is home to bears, coyotes, lush meadows, dramatic waterfalls and some of the best hiking trails in the West.
Five generations of city natives know the place as Camp Mather, a favored vacation getaway for tens of thousands of San Francisco residents that serves as one of the town’s dusty civic jewels.
That Camp Mather has been a city recreation facility for nearly 90 years is a testament to San Francisco’s visionaries who correctly saw its potential as a family paradise. That it still remains a secret to some is a marvel to all those who have been flocking to it for decades. How can you not know about a stunning 350-acre camp that offers virtually every sporting activity known to man? You would simply not have to get out much.
But if you saw it once, you would return as quickly as you could — or as soon as The City’s complicated lottery system would allow it. Camp Mather is not just beautiful — it’s historic, reflecting as much about San Francisco’s traditions as the Golden Gate Bridge.
You have to be a resident of San Francisco to rent one of the 90 cabins or 20 tent cabins each summer, which will explain why parts of the Sunset and Richmond go quiet each August.
Phil Ginsburg, the head of the Recreation and Park Department that runs the camp, discovered it for himself a few years back and is now an unabashed convert. He wants to make improvements to Mather without sacrificing any of its rustic charm, no small feat at a time of severe budget deficits.
While the camp’s regular patrons embrace the bare-bulb cabins with metal-spring cots — and the sameness that has greeted visitors for years — Camp Mather won’t continue to flourish without an infusion of capital. If city leaders are smart, they’ll include a separate outlay for the camp in a park bond that is expected to be on the November 2012 ballot.
Still, there is no denying that the site’s rough quaintness is a considerable part of its appeal.
“Of all the things in our department,” Ginsburg said, “Camp Mather may be the most special thing we do.”
That may be because the camp is something of a miracle at 4,500 feet. As dry as the camp can feel during summer, it owes its genesis to a growing city’s thirst for water.
Back in 1913, as San Francisco continued to rebuild from the great earthquake, city leaders saw the need for a new water source and they found it in the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley, a move that remains almost as controversial today as it was nearly 100 years ago.
City officials quietly began buying acres of land around the valley and after securing the rights to dam Hetch Hetchy by way of the Raker Act, the flat, meadow-rich area that is Mather today served as the timber mill and railway station used to build O’Shaughnessy Dam, named for The City’s visionary chief engineer.
The fight over the dam, led by John Muir, essentially launched this country’s environmental movement. But its completion also led to the formation of one of Yosemite’s first municipal camps, and it was the first woman ever elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Margaret Mary Morgan, who championed the cause.
If it took a woman’s touch to turn a former men’s camp into a Sierra playground, it’s taken a cast of characters to provide the continuity that has made the trip here a yearly ritual.
There’s Jay Barnes, the man who runs the horse and hayride operation, inheriting it from his father Joe, who started it in 1929. About the only thing that has changed over time is the cooking utensils Barnes uses when he sets up his chuckwagon to cook breakfast for morning riders on one of Mather’s voluminous trails. Barnes looks and talks like a horseman out of central casting, using “cowboying” as a verb and says things like “when the snow’s flying” to talk about the seasons.
At one point the new owners of the refurbished Evergreen Lodge made a bid to take over the stable concession from Barnes. That turned out to be about as popular as a snake bite.
There’s Neal Fahy, one of the camp’s naturalists, who at 84 still outhikes people half his age. Fahy, a geologist by trade, first came to Mather in 1944, and over that span has studied just about every rock, plant, animal and stream within its confines.
“I was doing this for fun back in 1944, so I guess I haven’t progressed much,” Fahy told me.
The camp’s chef, Mike Cunnane, started cooking at Mather in 1970, and got the top job eight years later. That means he’s spent the past 41 summers cooking three meals a day for the visitors.
“It’s like the circle of life up here,” Cunnane said. “You see the grandparents with the kids, and then years later, you see those kids with their kids.”
A lot of city traditions have faded over time. Every summer, families from every corner of San Francisco are grateful Camp Mather isn’t one of them.