Written by Rev. Jim Doepken, Pastor at Seward & Moose Pass UMCs.
I know that Alaska might seem far “away from it all” to people in the Lower-48. But even Alaskans sometimes want to “get away from it all” at times. It could be for vacation or different outdoor activities in a new spot. Sometimes it’s for retreats and group-building. Sometimes it’s just because we need a place of quiet.
The Hope Retreat Center is one of those places and it has a long history as a place to “get away” in Alaska.
Hope, on the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 90 miles from Anchorage, was not always a small town. The area around Hope was once bustling with activity at the the height of the Gold Rush. While there were Alaska Native families that predated the arrival of Euro-Americans, it was the discovery of gold in Resurrection Creek in 1893 that brought people in. Miners needed supplies. They built cabins and warehouses for goods. Families started to settle. And by 1897, Hope was officially “on the map.” At one point, there were literally thousands of people in the area.
While gold diminished and the population dropped, the small community of Hope remained. It was in this community that Bertha McGhee led the process of building a church in the town. Bertha had arrived in Seward, Alaska to serve as a house mother for the Methodist-run Jesse Lee Home. And from 1944-1948 she was lay pastor for the Moose Pass-Hope charge and she worked tirelessly on building the church facility here. A log cabin was moved to the lot and another log cabin was added on as an addition. When it was completed they had a two story building with a “parsonage side” and a small “chapel side.”
But even as as various pastors tried, and ministries were started, Hope was running the same course as many other ex-mining towns. By 1956 there were only 24 adults and 14 children in the town. And yet, even as the community got smaller, the old church remained an attractive site for retreats and camps. Construction continued on the buildings and summer programming carried on. Over the years, youth groups, clergy gatherings, United Methodist Men’s retreats, weddings and family get-aways were held here with many people writing in one of the nine journals that tell the story of their visits. There might not have been regular church services but ministry continued. (You can read all about Hope’s Methodist history in a book by Alaska’s Larry Hayden.)
I first arrived in Alaska in 1997 and, even before I saw the church where I was appointed, the “New Clergy Orientation” group was taken from Anchorage to Hope to meet other Alaskan clergy. It is a stunning drive down the Seward Highway, along Turnagain Arm off of Cook Inlet, and through Turnagain Pass in the mountains. It was at Hope were I met some of the pastors who predated me, heard their stories about ministry in Alaska, and walked around this tiny community.
Four years later, after a pastoral move, I was asked to officiate a wedding at Hope for two Alaskans who loved the setting. It was gorgeous. There were only four of us there. The bride and groom wanted to use the “old” Methodist hymnal and have Holy Communion. Their dog was the ring-bearer. And, as far as any of us were concerned, this small chapel in this tiny town was the perfect place for them.
After seeing the Retreat Center once again, I started looking here for some of my own pastoral needs. I have been here for a family vacation, using the church as a home base as we explored hiking trails and took long walks by the water. But, more, I served churches that were within about a 90 minute drive and found Hope to be a great place for retreats—for youth, women, men, and confirmation classes.
To this day, Hope is an active place in the summer. While a little off the beaten path, it’s a beautiful spot for tourists to take pictures and walk among the old cabins. And, when the salmon are running along Resurrection Creek it is a popular spot to reach your daily limit of fish. During this time the restaurants and bar are open, along with the town museum and coffee shop. You’ll find live music most nights. It can be bustling with activity—for a tiny town.
But that’s not the time I like to come to the Hope Retreat Center. I like coming during the late fall and early spring when it’s quiet and it’s a surprise to see a light on in any of the nearby cabins and homes. It’s during these times that loud youth games don’t disturb anyone and the muddy area along the waterfront is particularly fun to explore. The sanctuary serves as our meeting, worship, and movie-viewing space and we know we have a shower to clean off messy kids and a great place to have a bonfire if the weather is nice.
I’m actually writing this blog post from the kitchen table at the Retreat Center. After a quiet walk around the town last evening, I had a night to myself in this place of sanctuary and retreat. There’s not a soul around…at least anyone I’ve seen. I woke up and wrote in the journal. And I can now look out the window and see the water of Turnagain Arm. I have a cup of hot coffee. Life is good.
So whether you’re by yourself or chaperoning an inquisitive bunch of confirmands the Hope Retreat Center remains a jewel for the Alaska United Methodist Conference in this former gold-mining town. Through the door you’ll find a place of rest, community, and history.