Bill Ouimet trudged through waist-high snow and reached a 16-by-20-foot cement building that would be, for the next quarter decade, his home.
It was 1977, and Camp Stidwell, on the south end of Mirror Lake, was in need of a caretaker. Vandalism had creeped in, so his presence was going to stave it off.
“I came here in January, and the old guy that hired me … we went around back, opened the door and I walked in. Cement floors, tin roof, no insulation,” Ouimet said. “He goes, ‘See you in the spring, son.’ I turned around and he was gone.”
The next morning, Ouimet—pronounced “wee-met”—cut a path down to the lake, chopped a hole in the ice and carried back some water to heat on his front-porch stove.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said.
Nearly 43 years later, Ouimet is still there, albeit in a much nicer home, but even that wasn’t built until 2005. But he is still the caretaker—er, superintendent, the title that Dick Vail gave him when he became Kiwanis Club president four years ago—and he has no intentions of doing anything else.
“Gosh, it’s beautiful,” Ouimet said, overlooking the lake from just about the spot he first cut through the ice in 1977. “I realize how fortunate I am. Every time I ever thought of (leaving), I thought, ‘Where am I gonna go?’ I’m not an ambitious person, although it takes a lot of ambition to keep this place maintained.”
Ouimet’s jobs at Camp Stidwell are multitudinous, obvious and regular enough that he really doesn’t consult a list. He just does the next thing that needs to be done, he said. Much of it involves simply being a helpful host for the groups that utilize the camp.
For 21 years of his time living at the camp, Ouimet worked at a North Idaho mill, and that helped pay his living expenses. But he is technically a volunteer at the camp, allowed to live there for free.
Camp Stidwell was deeded to the Kiwanis Club in 1964, the idea being that it would be a good steward of it, Vail said. It contains two campgrounds—Camp Angell and Camp Ouimet—and is expected to have a third, Camp Wilderness, open next summer. The total acreage is 160, and no one knows it better than Ouimet, Vail said.
“We don’t ever want him to retire,” Vail said of the 79-year-old Ouimet. “I don’t know how you would ever replace him. He has forgotten more than we’d ever be able to train anybody else (to know).”
The partnership seems to have borne plenty of fruit since Vail came on board as president four years ago. Where Ouimet sees a need, Vail is able to find someone to do the work.
“I’ve had a list for years,” Ouimet said, “but he gets them done.”
The evidence is all across the camp. There’s the new electrical wiring that was done by an appreciative church group from Spirit Lake. There’s the bridge over a small creek that allows passage to the smaller Shooting Star camp on the southeast side of the lake, a camp that was itself the product of an industrious troop of Girl Scouts.
Other Eagle Scout projects are here and there, and the recently finished Golden Rule Trail is one of two Gold Star projects at the camp that were completed by girls from the region. Seeing young men and women working on the projects is a reward in itself to Vail.
“Here I get to see young people who are really working, and enjoying it,” he said.
Walking an undeveloped section of the camp, Vail and Ouimet built ideas about how to utilize another space, one that is near a creek and a marsh. The goal is not to over-develop but to offer more opportunities for the rustic, primitive camp to be used as it was intended to be, they said. It is a rare piece of property, Vail said, one that hasn’t been built up and still has lake access.
“We do not want it to be anything other than what it is,” Vail said.
Through mid-September, Camp Stidwell had hosted 4,479 user days, and Vail expected it to easily clear 5,000 later this year. The one stipulation on the Sandpoint Kiwanis Club’s deed for the camp states, "It is the hope of the grantor that the grantee shall manage and maintain the property as a public park devoted primarily to the benefit of Bonner County youth groups and associations," and so the space is primarily utilized by youth groups of various sorts. After such groups have claimed space for the coming year, Mary Vail—Dick’s wife and scheduler for the camp—fills the calendar with other events. This year they hosted two weddings, Vail said, and some families come back just about every year.
“I’m like a member of all these families,” said Ouimet, who has never married, never had children.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Ouimet said he was never particularly driven by a desire to make money. His parents urged him to be more like his brother, and to appease them Ouimet applied for a job in Los Angeles as a fire inspector. Unexpectedly to him, he got the job, and he did it for a year. But he didn’t like it, especially working with insurance companies.
He’d had a bad experience with them as a kid, when his parents took out hurricane insurance but refused to defraud the company when given the opportunity: A hurricane devastated the small hotel that his parents owned when water came in through the air conditioners. Their insurance adjuster, a family friend, told them their claim was invalid because they had failed to put covers on the AC units, but the friend suggested that if they broke a few windows, the claim might be more successful.
Ouimet said his parents refused and instead took out a $100,000 loan to fix the damages. Telling the story nearly 60 years later, Ouimet still got goosebumps.
Back in Los Angeles, Ouimet worked other jobs but eventually got a call from a friend who had moved to North Idaho. The friend told Ouimet that there was a job through the Kiwanis Club, “and they have this pristine mountain lake. I told him, ‘I’ll be right there.’”
Ouimet said that later in life, his father had a change of heart about his sons’ varying levels of ambition.
“My dad used to spend his last years in front of his TV watching all these wilderness shows, and he’d tell people, my son Bill, that’s the way he lives,” Ouimet said. “And he told me, ‘You’re the smart one, Bill.”