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Area rod-builder and a handful of other locals making a difference at unique Alaska wilderness camp

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Kris Kristufek specializes in, well, specialized fishing rods.

Kristufek, owner of LakeLady Custom-Crafted Fishing Rods in Breezy Point, teaches rod-building classes in the Brainerd lakes area. Has for years.

There are rods especially for muskie fishing, walleye fishing. And, starting in 2011 and continuing this summer, spinning rods to be completed by father-son tandems, then used by the duo to fish salmon in a glacial-fed creek that empties into the ocean in the Alaska wilderness.

Now that’s specialized.

And a special opportunity for Kristufek and a handful of others from the Brainerd area.

In late June, Kristufek, 67, and Ron Nelson, 65, of Pequot Lakes will return to the Echo Ranch Bible Camp near Juneau, Alaska, where they again will help fathers and sons bond through rod-building and, ultimately fishing.

Kristufek and Nelson, who does rod and reel cleaning and repair, talked Thursday at Kristufek’s home off Pelican Lake in Breezy Point about the trip and their hope of getting donations to cover the costs of rod parts and airfare. But mostly they talked about the experience that is Echo Ranch — for the fathers and sons who attend these wilderness camps and the many volunteers whose lives are forever changed by the experience.

While the camp has been in existence since 1964, Kristufek said, he and his rod-building talents were added to the curriculum just last year at the father-son wilderness camp.

“Paul and Stephanie Ouren (of East Gull Lake) had gone up there the year before last and befriended the camp director,” Kristufek explained of how he found Echo Ranch. “During a conversation, (the camp director) asked if they knew anyone who would work in a father-son wilderness camp. They both had taken my rod-building class and said they know a guy who teaches rod-building, and Paul called and asked if it made sense. It didn’t take me long to jump to the conclusion that, yeah, this is cool.

“I was teaching a rod-building class just over a year ago and Ron (Nelson) was in the back taking the class. During a conversation, I was saying we need to make rod wrappers (for the camp rods) and Ron overheard and said, ‘I can do that.’ Then it didn’t take Ron long to say, ‘Can I go?’ They need help. It’s all volunteers.”

Last year, Kristufek and Nelson spent two weeks at the camp in their “maiden voyage.” The first week was spent as part of a work group, doing repairs at one of the two camps — there’s a traditional camp with cabins and a dining hall and a rustic camp that hosts the wilderness camp.

Over the past couple of summers, Dick and Donna Todd of Baxter also have helped at the camp, Kristufek said. A group from the area will bring supplies, as well as the mostly completed rods to the camp later this month in preparation for two four-day rod-building sessions — one from June 29-July 2 (for boys ages 11-13) and the other from July 5-8 (for boys 14-17) — where 20 father-son teams will finish the rods, then use them to fish for salmon in nearby Cowee Creek. And the rods — valued at about $300 apiece — are theirs to keep.

It’s one of many activities meant to get fathers and sons to bond in a wilderness setting. Kristufek said that of the 10 father-son pairs who completed rods last year, about half were from Alaska and half from the lower 48 states. To attend the camp, fathers and sons need only provide transportation to Juneau and a $20 “stipend” per individual per day, Kristufek said.

“Twenty young boys and their dads will walk 2-1/2 miles into camp from the end of the road 40 miles north of Juneau, through the rain forest and brush into the wilderness off of Berner’s Bay,” Kristufek said in an email Wednesday. “They will spend the week learning how to survive with each other, which is very important, but also learn to build fires, cook, find their way using various methods, build a fishing rod, catch ocean salmon that are entering the Cowee Creek to spawn and a lot more. The bonding between a dad and his son occurs to build solid relationships between them for life. While this is a church camp, religion is not the main focus, but rather relationship building.

“The camp is the only full-service, fully programmed Christian camp in Southeast Alaska. The camp can accommodate about 3,000 people during retreat season and 1,000 young people during the three months of summer camps.

Last year, Kristufek said he and Nelson “bit the bullet and dug in our own pockets for (rod) parts and airfare.” This year, they hope to raise $4,900 to cover those expenses.

“There are only two paid people at the camp — the director and the cook,” Kristufek said. “The rest are volunteers and raise their own funds.”

“The camp needs 20-plus college kids as counselors to raise their own funds,” Nelson said. Adding of the draw of the camp: “You change your priorities. ... What makes the whole thing work is it’s a program that bonds father and son. I don’t know of a program where they’re put together for the whole week with no electricity or video games. Just dad and son in camp for a week. They’re putting them together and making them do things together. It bonds them.”

“To the point where they have to depend on each other to survive,” Kristufek added. “That’s the kind of thing that’s going on here.”

For more information or to help defray costs of the trip, call Kristufek at (218) 562-4512. For more on the camp, go to

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to For his blogs, go to