Happy Camp: Builds on rich history
Activities include a community center, highway improvement efforts and cycling trails
Happy Camp, California, is a remote community of about 1,200 people, nestled at the base of the Marble Mountains on the banks of the Klamath River. The nearest population centers are Yreka, about 70 miles away, and Grants Pass, Oregon, a two-hour drive over a seasonal road. The former gold rush town is located in the aboriginal territory of the Karuk Tribe of California, which is headquartered there.
It’s a town rich in history, but not in material goods. Happy Camp’s economy has struggled due to changes in the timber industry, and its population and average income have steadily declined in recent years. But that isn’t stopping a dedicated group of community volunteers from launching a bevy of initiatives to revitalize the town and serve its residents.
“Happy Campers have a very frontier mentality,” says 15-year resident Rita Manley King. “We’re used to doing everything on our own, because we know we won’t get help from the outside.”
Abby Yeager has first-hand experience with the challenges faced by Happy Camp residents. When she graduated from Happy Camp High School in 2003, there were about 120 students at the school. Today, there are fewer than 60.
“Happy Camp is a wonderful place to live and raise children but it is a struggling, rural community,” says Yeager, the executive director of Happy Camp Community Action (HCCA), a nonprofit dedicated to youth, community and economic development. “When logging ended in the late ‘90s, the industry wasn’t replaced with anything sustainable, and the community has suffered from the lack of jobs. The people who live here love Happy Camp and support their community in any way they can. More than anything I want to make a lasting difference here, no matter how big or small.”
Yeager, a Ford Scholar, chose to return to the area with her family in 2012, after receiving her master’s degree and working in Redding for a few years.
The nonprofit Yeager leads opened the Happy Camp Community Center in 2017 at the site of the former Family Resource Center, which operated several social services programs. When the center closed, the building, along with a gift of $30,000, was donated to HCCA, which continues to offer several of the same programs. These include work by a behavioral specialist contracted through the California Mental Health Services Act, youth education groups aimed at increasing self-worth and decreasing truancy, and the Why Try curriculum designed for at-risk students.
Residents can come to the center for help filling out applications for CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program, or to participate in the children’s play groups hosted there. And the community center is combating food insecurity with the area’s first certified farmer’s market, which Yeager helped establish in 2016.
The center recently received a regional grant that enables it to provide monthly commodity distributions throughout the year. Previously, residents could only tap that resource quarterly. The grant also enables the center to include fresh vegetables with the food boxes during the growing season.
It hosts monthly Siskiyou County veterans services sessions and a weekly veterans social. The center has also hosted a 10-week budgeting class provided by Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and a weekly Parenting Now series.
The Karuk Tribe received a Foundation grant last year to construct a new health facility, which will provide services to tribal and non-tribal residents.
“Happy Camp is a community of a lot of people with big hearts and big ideas,” says Crystal Aston, the Foundation field coordinator based in Mt. Shasta. “They don’t sit around wishing things would happen — they just dive in.”
Hope for Happy Camp
Other initiatives are being launched under the umbrella of the Hope for Happy Camp nonprofit, led by Rita Manley King. Community organizers are busy right now getting the community engaged in brainstorming ideas for a Highway 96 improvement project being considered by the California Department of Transportation. If approved, the work to create a green space median through town would begin in 2024.
Another effort centers around saving the town’s airport, which is slated for shutdown by the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors.
Organizers are also planning to offer a grant-writing class at the Happy Camp computer center, which is located at the high school and funded by the Karuk Tribe. “That way we can really get some skills and build capacity to get more penetration into the grant market so we can get more cash flow,” says Manley King.
Finally, the Trees-N-Trails project is focused on creating a tourist economy by grooming existing mountain cycling and hiking trails around the valley, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. On volunteer days, townspeople bearing hand tools gather for work and to enjoy a gourmet farm-to-table lunch. This summer, 120 miles of local trails received an initial grooming from crews on standby for fighting forest fires.
It’s a lot of activity for a small town. “We have cowboys, Indians, environmentalists, hard-right fundamentalists, pot growers, but when there is a problem, people will set aside their differences and go for it,” Manley King says. “We’ve got challenges, and we’re addressing them, and doing it in a pleasant proactive way. And it seems to be working.”