Kicking Back at Karate Camp

Story by Riley Haun

Photos by Kevin Munstermann

Campers bowing in rows
Each day is filled with team-building exercises, competitions, outdoor life, and lots of karate instruction.

For as long as Ryan Groseclose can remember, he’s been going to the cabin. The little log house in the woods, near Avon, Idaho, sits on land Ryan’s family has owned for five generations. He vividly recalls helping turn the bare land into a home for his grandparents, an 8-year-old kid digging the pond in the front yard where fish and frogs still splash today.

Ryan didn’t grow up in the cabin, but he may as well have. As a kid in the 70s, his mom would send him from their home in Lewiston to visit his grandparents via the mail truck, tucked among the packages and letters. Family photos document the countless birthday parties and reunions held there over the years, and even after his grandparents passed away, Ryan dreamed of the day he could return to the cabin and once again take part in making it a glorious place to spend a summer.

Alongside his wife, Jill, and their children, Ryan now shares his cherished childhood memories of the cabin with a new generation of kids during a yearly summer camp for martial arts students. The kids and their parents flock to Avon from Lewiston and beyond to spend a weekend sparring in the grassy fields and sleeping under the stars just like Ryan and his cousins once did.

“I grew up fishing from that pond, caught thousands of fish over the years,” Ryan said. “I was grabbing snakes and frogs out of the mud all the time, and it’s nice to see just how much these kids appreciate that like I did.”

When the cabin was passed down to Ryan from his mom 5 years ago, he and Jill set about making some much-needed repairs to the old property right away. Each weekend, they’d drive out from their home in Juliaetta to spend a couple of days working on the project. They modernized the kitchen, installed bunk beds in the sleeping porch, installed a fire pit and tore down teetering ancient pine trees. And each morning, Ryan and Jill would sit on the front porch outside the old wooden A-frame and watch the birds begin to chirp as the sun rose, savoring each sip of their coffee in the crisp early air.

Campers swimming in the lake and practicing martial artsAs the cabin came together at long last, the pieces for the karate camp fell into place too. Ryan, who’s practiced martial arts including karate, taekwondo and jiu jitsu for over 30 years, had been training with Steven Smith of Valley Karate School in Lewiston, and the two formed a fast friendship. When Steven mentioned he’d been thinking of putting on a camp for his students, Ryan immediately knew the old family cabin was just the spot. The family set to work making the cabin an idyllic spot for summer memories.

Hours and hours were spent mowing the vast lawn for kids to pitch their tents on, and Jill and Ryan’s adult children jumped in to assist with cooking and serving as camp counselors. Around 40 students from Steven’s school in Lewiston and a sister school in Selah, Washington, descended on the property. There was a bit of a learning curve that first year, Jill admits - it was no small feat to feed a herd of hungry kids after a day of sparring, using the cabin’s small kitchen - but it was a hit, and they knew right away the tradition would carry on for years to come.

“Some of the kids had never spent that long sleeping away from home before, plenty had never been to camp before,” Jill said. “So it was a scary experience at first for some, and then as they settled in and got the chance to play and explore and learn together, they grew to love it as much as Ryan did when he was little.”

Since their first year in 2017, Jill and Ryan’s cabin has hosted the martial arts camp every summer, with the exception of 2020. The event has grown in numbers and added more activities and unforgettable experiences for the campers each year, with Jill estimating about 60 kids would be coming for the 2022 event in July.

The weekend is structured enough that the kids always have new techniques to learn or games to play, but it offers them enough autonomy to get their first sense of true independence and self confidence, Ryan said. A perennial student favorite is a game where Ryan sets up a huge floating mat on the surface of the pond, and the kids duke it out karate-style to see who can claim the title of king of the mountain. Parents and counselors are on standby to pull the littler kids out when they hit the water, but without fail, they’re laughing when they come up and want to go another round.

Jill clearly remembers the time when, despite the 50-plus campers gathered around the pond, a moose and her calf emerged from the woods to take a leisurely drink at the pond. The kids stood enraptured, many of them seeing such a huge creature for the very first time. The cow hardly seemed to notice them, but Jill knows that moment made a lifelong impression for the kids.

“Putting on an event for 50 kids is overwhelming, to put it bluntly. It is exhausting and taxing and hard,” Jill said. “But we enjoy being a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. Some of the kids say this is the only camp they get to attend; for some of them, it’s the only time they have ever slept in a tent. Still others say it’s their favorite camp. [The leaders] have huge hearts and want to make it a great experience for all of the kids, and their desire to do that is the biggest part of why it is successful.”