“We who have been before …”
The shortest story you can tell of the camp’s history is this: in 1953 a camp on the shores of Koshlong Lake was founded under the name Wanakita, and it’s been there ever since.
Scratch the surface any further, though, and things either get more blurry or, in another light, more interesting. Camp Wanakita was initially designed as a replacement for Erie Heights on Lake Erie which was itself a replacement for Camp Tekahoinwake on the Grand River. Both of these locations were considered too developed, so George Jones and co-workers from the YMCA chose Koshlong Lake as the site for Wanakita in 1953.
Though the location was new, the camp continued in the same traditions of Camp Erie heights and Tekahionwake before it, traditions instilled largely by Taylor Statten, a camp director whose imprint in camping is still felt keenly today. In 1906 Statten, a Boer War veteran, become the full-time Boy’s Work Secretary for the national YMCA. His work was celebrated by parents across the country and he soon established the Canadian Standards Efficiency Training program. This program gave children an opportunity to be rewarded for the development of their intellectual, social, physical, and religious skills.
As he built his children’s training programs, he distinguished them–this was a time when other youth programs were gaining popularity, including those of Lord Baden-Powell who founded the scouting movement–with a focus not in a military model, but rather in a First Nations’ model (at least as far as Statten understood first nation cultures, which he highly romanticized and experienced only in the third-person). Statten, at the private camps that he later established, was known as the Chief, and used a loosely “tribal” (again, as filtered through Statten’s imagination) structure of organization. Camps were given names from First Nation languages, and programs were built around teaching woodcraft, nature lore, and an appreciation of self-sufficiency, personal skill development, and the natural environment.
One of those camps was Tekahionwake, opened just outside Paris, Ontario. The camp took its name from the poet Pauline Johnson, whose Mohawk name was Tekahionwake. Johnson wrote and performed poems, the majority of which were based in a romantic reading of her cultural heritage (she was born to a Mohawk father and an English mother). Like Statten, if we want to be frank, her presentation of that culture clearly bore the imprint of her own imagination, and her theatrical readings as well as her writing were intended for non-aboriginal audiences who, for one reason or another, ate it up.
It was that milieu which added so much fuel to the camping fire, both implicitly and overtly. Early camps in the Statten format used real words from real languages as their names, including Ahmek, a camp in Algonquin that is the Statten standard. Soon, however, the links to true first nations culture became more tenuous. The name “Wanakita” was chosen by Keith Smith, though then, as now, the real meaning of the word is pretty much up for grabs. The original documents for the camp included a meaning for the word, though it’s not one that can be confirmed elsewhere.
In any case, it’s interesting to remember that Wanakita was not born in a vacuum; it likewise wasn’t born truly at any specific, utterly identifiable moment. It’s one of the branches (or perhaps a few of the branches) of a pre-existing tree.
The Lagakelo years
“The great expanse of forest and several nearby lakes at once bring to mind possibilities of exploration with the accompanying opportunities for camp craft, wood lore, overnight hikes and outdoor cooking.”
In 1952 Keith Smith, the camp’s first director, was commissioned by the Hamilton YMCA to search for a ‘Northwoods property.’ He travelled all through Central Ontario looking at a number of locations. He found what he was looking for in Camp Lagakelo, a family-operated camp on the shores on Koshlong Lake. He bought the property—all 30 acres of it, including 500 metres of shoreline and two sand beaches—for $50,000.
The property that Smith bought had been running for years as an active and successful children’s camp. Called Lagakelo, it was privately owned and run by the Kayes, a couple from Scarborough, Ontario. W. Alvin Kaye was born in Port Carling in 1898 and attended the University of Toronto, where he gained a teaching degree. In time he became principal of Birchcliffe Heights School in Scarborough, though the idea of owning a wilderness camp for boys and girls had been a cherished dream. In the latter part of the 1930s, Kaye turned that dream into reality when he bought 20 acres of woodland at the north end of Koshlong Lake from Hamilton “Ham” Harrison, a local man who also had rental cottages on the lake. Selling price: a whopping $3,500.
The property was an ideal setting for a kids’ camp. As the Kayes noted in an early brochure, “Koshlong Lake with its islands, bays and inlets, its pine-covered points and bold rocky shores can well be considered one of the most beautiful in the Laurentian Area … The great expanse of forest and several nearby lakes at once bring to mind possibilities of exploration with the accompanying opportunities for camp craft, wood lore, overnight hikes and outdoor cooking.”
The family worked hard that first fall, winter, and spring. By the summer of 1938, almost half a kilometre of road had been cleared; cabins and an assortment of other buildings had been built. The camp also had a name: Lagakelo, a word created with letters from the family members’ first names. The Kayes had three children, Garth, Kelvin and Lois, hence: Lillian Alvin GArth KElvin LOis. With a road, some cabins, and an name that was in keeping with the camp traditions as they had been developing in the province, the Kayes were ready to launch their first eight-week camp session.
By all accounts, that first summer was a great success. According to camp literature for the following summer, it was “a glorious summer of camping enjoyed by all.” More telling, enrolment for the 1939 summer season doubled, largely due to the enthusiasm of campers from the first summer who spread the word.
Unlike Wanakita, Lagakelo accepted girls as campers virtually from opening day. That first summer the boys’ camp was slated for the first six weeks of the summer, followed by two weeks of girls’ camp. “As the end of the boys’ camp period drew near,” Garth Kaye later wrote, “some of the counsellors and senior boys asked if they could stay on for the other two weeks. Dad thought that this would be a good experiment and agreed.” It was a bold move, to be sure, given the culture at the time. The trial run worked and the camp remained co-ed until it was sold in 1953. Boys stayed on one side of the swamp, girls on the other, and they all gathered together for meals in a common dining hall.
Accommodations at Lagkelo varied. Junior campers slept in cabins while older campers used cabins or tents. The original cabins were log structures, some of which are still in use today (one of them served as the canoe shed until it was finally replaced in 2018) and boasted modern-day comforts—at least by 1930s standards—such as screens and spring bunks. Programming was also varied, and campers could take part in a wide assortment of activities, including archery, astronomy, boating, swimming, crafts, camp craft, canoeing, drama, folk dancing, music, and tennis. Horseback riding was added in 1939.
The food at Lagakelo, at least as described in the brochure, was fit for king. “Lagakelo campers know that food is given first consideration in terms of both quality and quantity. Fresh meat, fresh vegetables, and pasteurized milk are included in the daily menu. Chicken dinner and ice cream are served at least once a week.” What the brochures didn’t tell you was that the chickens were raised on site. Perhaps that wasn’t remarkable for the time, so not worth mentioning. In any event, each Saturday, brothers Garth and Kelvin accompanied a member of the kitchen staff to the chicken pens to catch, kill, pluck and clean thirty to forty chickens for dinner the next day.
And what did the all that great food and great outdoors cost in the late1930s? A staggering $8 per week. Parents had to cough up a little more for extras such as horseback riding, laundry, craft supplies and, of course, tuck. Unless you were actually receiving instruction, you had to pay a little extra to use the canoes.
It worked well and the Kayes quickly built Lagakelo into a thriving operation. The camp was soon bursting at the seams with about 90 female campers, 60 male campers, and a staff of 50. By 1941, Alvin Kaye had given up his teaching job to focus his energy on running the camp. “The camp was growing quickly,” wrote Garth Kaye, “and had strong signs of producing enough income for the family, so [my father] decided to stop teaching and spend all of his time developing the camp.”
The Kayes set aside a section of the camp with a couple of cabins that parents could rent by the day or week. These cabins, which were equipped for two people, rented for $1.50 per day or $8.00 per week. (The Old Director’s Cabin near the government docks is one of those early cottages.)
The Kayes then extended the camp season. After spending Thanksgiving and Christmas on site, they realized that there was an opportunity to offer weekend camps during the fall and winter. Of course, moving to year-round operations required some preparation. The only building that was insulated was the hospital, so two of the log cabins that were outfitted with stoves and living quarters next to the dining hall were winterized. Thanksgiving weekend at camp became a regular event for about 10-15 people. Eventually, the Kayes offered a winter week from Boxing day to the day after New Years. It can sound bucolic, thought those first winter camps presented some very real challenges, not the least of which was transportation. The road to camp wasn’t plowed in those days, so campers arrived by train and were met at the Donald train station by sleighs which took them the four kilometres to camp. Supplied, too, had to make the same trip.
By 1949, the Kayes had sold their home in Scarborough and were living full time at the camp. As Garth recalls, “Mom was not happy in this situation.” She had little opportunity to chat with other women, and the bush was no place to garden, something she loved to do. Whether it was concern over her happiness or simply the work of running a growing camp, the Kayes decided to sell the property in the early 1950s. Strangely, they didn’t ultimately go all that far. Alvin Kaye bought the Standard Chemical property in Donald, where he opened a prefabricated plank-wall cottage factory, a business he operated on the site until he retirement. He went on to serve as the third president of the Haliburton Rotary Club. Alvin Kaye died in 1981. When purchased by the Hamilton YMCA, Keith Smith moved up to become the camp’s first director, a position he would hold for seven years.
Donald: the lore and more
These days, the town of Donald doesn’t look like much. There are a few scattered houses, the concrete skeleton of the old chemical plant, a bridge, and one business: the tart shop. But in the first half of the last century it was a very different place. Back then, the Wood Products Company Ltd. was in full operation. The plant, which opened in 1908, produced wood alcohol and charcoal, two key ingredients in the production of liquor. It also produced acetate, which was used to make explosives.
Up to sixty men worked inside the plant stoking the ovens, manning the boilers and tending the giant stills. As many as three hundred others fought off the black flies, mosquitoes and cold in the surrounding forests to cut and haul the massive quantities of wood needed to keep the facility running. Fifty bush cords of wood were needed each day to keep the place running. At times, as many as 16,000 cords of wood lay stacked and ready in the plant’s sprawling yards.
The plant was the brainchild of R.A. Donald, the town’s namesake. To build the plant, Donald bought 184 acres of land adjacent to the Burnt River and straddling the Grand Trunk Railway right-of-way. After two years of construction, R.A. Donald had built—and owned—the entire town, including the factory, dormitories, houses, a general store, a post office and even an opera house that was used for entertainments and community events. Close to one hundred people were permanent residents in the thriving metropolis that he had created, and many others commuted to the factory from the surrounding area.
In 1915, Standard Chemical rented the plant and ran it for the next thirty years. But as the surrounding wood supplies were used up, the plant became less viable. It was closed in 1937, re-opened again during the Second World War to produce explosives, and then closed for good in the mid-1940s.
Part of the plant was resurrected during the 1970s for a short-lived tire re-treading business. But much of it has simply fallen into ruin. Today, all that remains is one dilapidated building and the concrete skeleton of a second—an eerie reminder of things that were.
For some very detailed and fascinating information about the Wood Products Co., see Andrew Hamilton’s paper, “Modernity, Metaphor, and Maples: The landscape created by the Wood Products chemical plant in Donald, Ontario.”
The Lady in Red
Although Donald is no longer a bastion of business, it remains etched in camp lore. Over the years, many cabin groups trekked to the Donald store to scarf down ice-cream or play a round of mini-putt.
And then … there’s the Lady in Red, or the Woman in Red, or the Bride Widow. As any good story, it’s changed over time in the telling, gaining something here, losing something there. But it’s a story that once terrorized campers, in a good way, and which began with Charlie Hogg. In all versions, there is a fire–perhaps it was set, and maybe it’s best to assume that it was–at the old factory in Donald. Maybe they were making paint thinners, or maybe something top secret, but that’s not the detail that everyone remembers. Instead, it’s this: at the height of the conflagration, a woman emerged from the fire, walking casually, untouched by the flames. She wore a flowing red dress. And then she disappeared. It was a ghost, that to this day, some say, is looking for someone … to, you know, do something … and again the details get sketchy.
But there is a protection from the Lady in Red, and there are people from the 70s and 80s who maintain it to this day: you must never leave your feet on the floor of the car (and maybe you should close your eyes, or touch a screw) as you drive across the bridge partway up the camp road, the one that crosses the Burnt River. (Get it, “burnt” as in the Lady in Red, burnt in the fire … ahhh!)
The early years
“Nothing can match the educational and recreational values that a camp experience provides for any boy.”
Keith Smith later wrote that “in due course, the dream became the reality. And reality became Camp Wanakita—a camp to fulfill the imaginative, adventurous dreams of many boys in the years to come.”
Just six months after buying the property, Wanakita welcomed its first campers. The name derived from Smith’s experience at camp Kitchikewana, which had been founded in 1919. When Smith attended, as now, Kitchikewana was home to Wanakita Beach, and the new camp was named in tribute, perhaps, or simply as a means of creating a thread of continuity among the growing number of Y camps in Ontario.
In Wanakita’s first season 373 boys attend and were managed by 38 staff, all of which came from the Hamilton YMCA. The total operating budget was $18,882.
Interest in the new camp was immediate, and full registration was reached well ahead of schedule. There were two weekend groups that first spring and three two-week sessions. Forty-two of the summer campers were senior boys between the ages of 14–16. Smith felt that attracting a good complement of older boys was an important goal, as it validated the decision to establish a northwoods camp and, equally importantly, it would provide the leadership potential it would need in the years ahead. “This camp,” wrote Smith, “will retain campers through the years until they are ready for counselling responsibilities.”
Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. On the very first trip to camp one of the buses slid into the ditch on the final stretch of road from Donald. For the rest of the summer the bus company would not allow its buses to go any further than Donald, four kilometres short of the camp. Campers had to walk the final leg of their journey while a hired truck carried their luggage.
In camp, the staff struggled with facilities and equipment that were unfamiliar to them. There was no electricity on Koshlong, and what power there was came from a generator that, Smith wrote, “caused an endless amount of trouble and concern.” The one camp vehicle was an aging Jeep that spent more time in service that summer than it did on the road. Food deliveries were often days late, and the cooking was all done on a single wood burning stove. This for a camp population of nearly 400.
If the staff were struggling, the campers likely failed to notice it. By all accounts by the campers, that first summer was a glorious success. “The general camp spirit,” Smith wrote in his report, “was at a very high peak throughout the summer. Many of the boys had not even envisioned all the activities and experiences which they found at their new northwoods camp.” The summer was idyllic, filled with boating, canoeing, swimming, canoe tripping, and campfires. “What a wonderful thrill it has been to initiate camping at a new northwoods campsite and at a camp that we can certainly state, within a few years, as being the finest in terms of facilities, equipment, site and program.”
Distances in the 1950s were greater than they are now. A drive north of a few hours today, then it was a haul most often made by train. That underscored the concept fo the “northwoods” that crops up continually in the literature of the time. Camp was maybe a bit exotic, new, and played into the adventure aesthetics of the day. It’s hard to appreciate now, given that we see the camp concept as established, old, traditional. Then, it was an amalgam of cultural influences, including popular ones—this was the great heyday for the Hardy Boys and Tow Swift—and once you got to camp, you felt that you’d arrived somewhere remote. And, given the realities of travel, you had.
The momentum from that first year carried into 1954, a year marked by growth and development. A building interest in the camp, due largely to “the satisfied, happy campers” of the previous summer, prompted the addition of a fourth two-week period. That second summer, Wanakita logged 8,512 camper days, a 26% increase over 1953.
Weekend camping also grew in popularity. The camp hosted five weekend groups in 1954, including two father-and-son groups. To further help boost enrolment, Wanakita got serious about promotion. A 16mm colour film, called “Buddies,” was made by Lloyd “Westy” Westmoreland, a key figure on the Camp Committee. The film depicted life at the camp and was shown to groups in the Hamilton area and as far away as Ingersoll. Christmas cards were also sent to every camper, and a camp reunion was held during the winter to renew friendships and kick off registration for the 1954 season.
The Wanakita Totem at the front gates was carved by George Stohacker, a camp committee member, and was erected in the summer of 1955. The totem is carved from a single piece of B.C. cedar. Quoting from Keith Smith, the camp’s first director, “it was a labour of love for George who took a full year to carve it.” In the photo is staff member Bruce Margetts.
Smith firmly held “that a sound and successful program” was the best way to guarantee future participation. Boating, canoeing, swimming, and canoe tripping continued to be the mainstays of the summer program. During the summer of ’54, more than 40 groups embarked on wilderness canoe trips of two to five days. Within camp there were a variety of all-camp programs, including musicals, regattas, amateur nights, Christmas parties and Indian Pow-wows.
When Charlie Hogg arrived at Wanakita in 1962, the First-Nations-inspired ceremonies were, without a doubt, a cornerstone of the camp experience and something he worked to develop even further when he grew into a leadership role. “It was done with great pomp and ceremony,” says Hogg. “We took great pains to do all these elaborate shields with kerosene torches, and we did our own costumes. One year, to add authenticity, we got the Jimmy Sky Dancers from six nations to come up … it was unbelievable in that stockade.”
The stockade was created from the pen that the Kayes had used to house the chickens, the same one where Garth Kaye went to slaughter dozens of chickens each week. Hogg recalls that Smith was the one who masterminded the creation of the stockade as a centrepiece for programming.
The programs worked in the way that they were intended: to create a sense of place and shared purpose. And it was, in a word, elaborate. Says Hogg, “There used to be an entry platform over the entry to the stockade and the camp had a huge drum, a log drum, that was played. Somebody would be up there playing the log drum, and the campfire is in the middle, and sometimes it wasn’t started. But the torch lights all around it, and the light play in the trees again added to the magic, the mystery of it, the suspense with the whole thing, the atmosphere. As you came in dressed in your Indian gear or the robes and took your place by the shield for your particular [tribe]—Algonquin, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Onandagas, the Six Nations and so on and the neutrals—you were already hyped by what was going to come on. And then as the great chief came, you know, you’d turn to the great west wind and say [something like] AY-YA-KINWA-NUN-WAY, ‘sprit bless this,’ spirit descend upon this.’”
“I remember we had a trick for lighting fires,” says Gary Furness. “We had some guy sit up in a nearby tree and he would have a toilet paper roll that had been soaked in kerosene. Charlie Hogg would get the campers going and they’d be yelling to the fire gods to light the fire. It would be pitch black and nobody could see anything. Suddenly, up in the tree the guy would light the toilet paper. Then he’d let the thing slide down this wire. Of course it hits a pile of wood that also been soaked in kerosene and poof, instant fire. The kids would go ballistic. They’d all be going ‘Wow!’ Of course, the guy up in the tree had to sit there all through the campfire so nobody would see him hoping he didn’t light himself or the tree on fire. Those are some of the neat things we did. We used to try to impress the kids with all kinds of stuff.”
While it takes a different form today, from the very first year on there was a spirit that was established. “It’s the place, because there’s history with the location, but it’s also the property itself. There’s a draw to it,” says Hogg. “It’s the attraction of the community, of the people who are there. some colleagues at other camps I know didn’t have the same experience. And there was a couple years I worked at Camp Candalore and … and it was an entirely different mood.”
Canoe trippers we’ve known
by Don McCreesh
Canoe tripping really became a core activity and a goal for most senior campers during the mid to late 60’s. While “in camp” programs were always at the heart of Wanakita, gradually canoe trips, for many of the senior campers anyway, became the “goal” and reason for coming to camp. From the early 60’s when the trips I was involved with as a camper focused on the Gull River (West Guilford to Minden to Fenelon Falls) and the southern tier of Algonquin Park, by the late 60’s trips ventured throughout Algonquin and by the time my three sons, Chris, Tim and Mike were canoe trippers in the 90’s the trips had moved on to Kilarney, Temagami and northern Quebec. But not only had the destinations evolved, but canoe and camping gear had as well. No longer were campers dealing with waterlogged seventy-pound canvas cedar strip canoes, tents with no floors and limited mosquito netting. Now forty-pound aluminum canoes, waterproof tents with floors and stoves to cook food were standard!!! May I never have to go back to the good old days!!!
I was a senior counselor/canoe tripper in the late 60’s. Some of the other memorable “trippers” were Ed Gordon, Gav Cooke and Mike Tilson. These were leaders who were excited about exploring new routes, taking longer and longer trips and going where others at Wanakita had not ventured to date. I can recall three of those trips in particular, two of which occurred in 1967.
In one, Mike Tilson’s cabin, including future staff member Don Lancaster, was joined by a photojournalist to record a canoe trip down the Ottawa River that went on to be front page story on a Canadian national magazine to celebrate Canada’s centennial.
The second 1967 trip was one in which I was a senior cabin counselor for a cabin group that including future staff member Russ Thompson. This trip established a new breakthrough as we trail blazed a route that started at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park and came all the way back to Wanakita. For a group of one staff and 5 campers it was an amazing adventure that we thought would take up to 10 days but we completed it in 3 days. On four stretches we literally had to bushwhack between lakes and rivers where there were no portage trails – on the first one in the Park why was I was not surprised to find a carving “Ed Gordon was here” on a sign – and, of course, we had the eight mile portage from Lake Kashagawigamog, through Lochin to the old store on Koshlong on the final day. We wanted to surprise everyone back at Camp so we camped the last night on Umbrella Island and in the morning snuck up to the government dock to wait until flag raising ceremony. Much to the shock of all the staff and campers who weren’t expecting us back for another week, we emerged out of the morning mist to give a “salute” to the flag just as the camp was finishing singing “O Canada”. While I enjoy thinking about what we accomplished, I continue to be amazing at the impact that trip had on the campers. To this day Russ Thompson still relates to the trip as being one of his significant life events and another participant, John Chennery, came to his first Wanakita reunion 45 years later with the sole purpose of finding me, telling me what an impact that trip had on him and showing me a photo that he took on that trip. His wife, who also came to the reunion, then related how she “had been listening to the stories about that trip for the last 45 years, now hopefully he’ll finally shut up”. All from a three day canoe trip.
But that’s not the end of the “Canoe Lake to Camp” story. The following summer we had an extremely accomplished group of Student Counselors who in the view of many of the senior staff needed to be “pushed” to be their best. Included in this group were Don Lancaster, Dave Glennie and future camp director Rob Heming. I was “volunteered” to take them on their “graduation” canoe trip during which I would evaluate them for future staff roles. They had heard about the Canoe to Camp trip of the previous summer and wanted to go one better. So for this talented group we put in at Kiosk, the north end of Algonquin Park – way up past North Bay. We made it through the Park to Canoe Lake in 4 or 5 days, but now they were tired and weren’t sure if they were up for the final stretch back to camp. Fortuitously we bumped into Russ Thompson, he of the previous year’s trip, as we paddled down Smoke Lake. And Russ lay down the challenge that they weren’t up to finishing what a group of senior campers completed the year before. Well not a group of individuals to back down, they took up Russ’ challenge and, I’m proud to say, made it back to camp in an unbelievable two days, stopping only overnight at a campground on Hwy 35 just north of the Ranger station on Lake St. Nora. All of those future staff members on that trip still tell stories of that adventure to this day.
I don’t believe either one of those trips have been replicated to this day by anyone at the camp.
Many of the counselors and campers of those days continued canoe tripping after leaving Wanakita. It the case of my family I had the pleasure 35 years after leaving camp of taking a 14 day canoe trip down the World Heritage Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories with my three sons, Chris, Tim and Mike, who experienced their first canoe trips at Wanakita in the 90’s.
A memory that lasts a lifetime
This memory from Harvey Chapple is a reminder of just how vivid, and important, camp memories can be:
I started as a Junior camper in ’55. You used to cross over the swamp on what used to be a bridge. There was a tiny little cabin just on the other side place called the Doghouse. It only had room for six people — five campers and one counselor. I was in there my first year. The other four guys all had their white dog tag, which was for excellent swimmers. They could swim out and around the raft and back in. I only had a blue dog tag. Before camp was over, I got my white dog tag. I got to stand up in front of the whole camp to show that I got my white dog tag. We were the only cabin in camp to all have our white dog tags — that included juniors, intermediates and seniors.
“The future looks bright, especially with the greater interest being shown by interest groups, parents and campers.”
–Keith Smith, writing in the 1954 annual report
Smith was pleased with the progress that had been made, though he felt the facilities hadn’t been properly maintained by the Kayes. The dining hall floor was rotting under campers’ feet. The location of the hospital was still considered a health risk. There was no open space for field sport and the rope bridge across the swamp was precarious at best. A stream ran through the middle of camp. When water levels were low, the stream was small enough that you could almost jump over it, but in the spring and early summer, when water levels were high, a 15-metre stretch of water divided the camp. A bridge that had been built by the Kayes to span the divide was now rickety and in need of replacement. In the fall of 1956, the camp committee reviewed its options. It could replace the existing bridge, fill in the stream (eliminating what is now the swamp) or build a causeway. The most satisfactory solution was to build a causeway. The Prentice Excavating Company was hired to build the causeway and put in a culvert for $500 (although the project ended up coming in over budget by about $150). It’s still there of course, though has been washed out and built back up a number of times over the years.
To bring the camp back up to what Smith considered a proper standard would take a considerable investment. Donations from groups, such as the Y’s Menettes Club and the Y’s Foremen’s Club helped to cover the cost of some improvements but the initial influx of donations for big-ticket items quickly started to wane. Recognizing the gap between what needed to be done and available resources, Smith started calling for a long-term plan to cope with capital improvements.
Enrolments continued to hit their maximum, and campers’ fees helped with some of the early site development, which in turn allowed for development of the core program. A new dock system enhanced waterfront programming and 1955 saw the introduction of boating and canoeing tests. Certificates were presented at the closing ceremonies to those campers who attained certain skill levels. Sailing began in 1956, and that same year a portion of the swamp was back filled to helped to eliminate a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and create a much-needed playfield.
Traditional programs continued to be a must in the minds of campers. Regattas, aquatic meets, pageants, field meets, Olympic days and lumbermen suppers created opportunities for all-camp participation and excitement. Sunday evening “musicales” were launched as a regular event and many campers went home with a new appreciation for music.
Then, as now, the closing ceremony complete with blazing triangle was an important part of the camp experience. As Smith wrote in the annual report for 1954, “The closing ceremonial with its underlying religious theme, and blazing triangle on the waters, will stand uppermost in a boy’s memories as he reflects back on his summer’s experience.”
One thing that probably didn’t remain uppermost in their minds—a least not in a good way—was the dining experience, which Smith called “pathetic.” Not only was space in the dining hall a problem—there wasn’t nearly enough space to accommodate everyone—there were also concerns about safety. Smith reported to the camp council that the dining hall was a “death trap” that should be condemned due to risk of fire and collapse. In kind, in 1957 a camp inspection report by committee member Stan Wood provided a written detailed report on the poor condition of the camp buildings overall. Wood concluded that the present buildings provided only one-third of the space requirements stipulated in building regulations of the day. Specifically, he noted that most of the cabins and the hospital were inadequate for their intended use.
While other buildings were needed, Smith understood that site development hinged on the placement of the new dining hall; until a new dining hall went up, or at least a site for it was determined, it would be difficult to know how to proceed with new cabins. The camp committee set up a sub-committee, chaired by George Strohacker, to develop a master plan for rebuilding the camp. The committee did its best to force the hand of the ultimate decision-makers, the Hamilton Y’s Board of Directors. At its January 9 meeting, the committee passed a motion stating that it was “deeply concerned” about the “serious condition” of the building and implored the Y’s Board of Directors to take action. The motion went on to say that the Camp Committee did not feel it could accept responsibility for the building “from the standpoint of the safety and practicability” during the upcoming season. The outcome was that the board agreed to visit the camp to see the buildings first hand and, at the same time, to get better acquainted with the needs of the camp.
In the meantime, the camp committee acted where it could. Working at a feverish rate that spring, the committee came up with its Master Rehabilitation Plan, complete with a detailed site map proposing building locations. Committee member George Hemingway suggested that if the hospital could be built in 1957 and financed over several years, he felt a group could be found to provide the funding.
In the event, he was right, and Hemingway was able to spark the interest of the Mount Hamilton Y’s Men’s Club. The club even agreed to supply a work crew.
The committee determined that two new sleeping cabins were required – one to replace a run-down cabin that was already 30 years old, and one to eliminate the need of housing two cabin group in the upstairs of the recreation hall (Onalea). In March 1957, three members of the Camp Committee went to The Sportsman Show to look at camp equipment. They ended up being singularly impressed with a new type of pre-fabricated log cabin produced by Pan-Abode.
As a result, over the next few months things began to move quickly. By the end of the year a new cedar log hospital, with three bedrooms, a sitting area, a small kitchen/dispensing area and indoor plumbing was erected and stained. Today, its the Bayer Den, and indeed many of the other cabins from that period are still standing.
The work of many hands
“ Building Fenton Hall changed the world … “
“It’s amazing how many years Wanakita has survived because of the volunteers” says Ted Reid, a former assistant camp director from the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the volunteer effort came from members of the camp committee, which remained the primary decision-making body for the camp. This was a group of men who were active in the Hamilton Y and shared a personal commitment to the camp and what it represented.
Says Reid, “Without those guys, this place would not have existed because they could not have kept the facilities in the shape they had to be in … [they] came up and did major projects. These were men with families who’d come up on weekends—in horrible weather, black flies and mosquitoes—they came even though they didn’t go to camp or have kids who went to camp.”
In addition to supplying brain and muscle power, the camp committee also managed to scrounge a lot of the supplies and materials they needed. That meant the YMCA didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money to keep the camp going.
“At that point,” notes Reid, Wanakita was “a little bit mystical” to anyone who hadn’t attended it. Because the camp was so far from Hamilton, the personal connection needed to build financial support for Wanakita was lacking.
But, time marches on, and toward the end of the 1950s, the role that had been assumed by the camp committee brought as many problems as it did benefits. Says Rob Heming, “The problem with a lot of the 60s issues for Wanakita, I think, was that camp committee ran things. They were operational. And that’s not good” in part because it took responsibility for the camp away from those who had the greatest interface with it: the directors and staff.
The camp also had a growing base of alumni to draw on for volunteer labour. And the camp budget was growing as well, allowing for the purchase of badly needed equipment. The construction of the old Health Centre in 1957 marked the end of an era for the camp committee, says Reid. The committee played an active role in this project, but it would be the last building they were involved with. Nevertheless, their legacy remained. “It was those camp committees,” says Reid, “that kept Wanakita going and helped the camp survive long enough until it became more independent.”
By 1960 Keith Smith had moved on, though many of the traditions he established are still present in the Wanakita of today. But, with his departure, the camp lost a continuity of leadership. In the decade to follow, there were five directors in fairly quick succession: Mearl Thompson (1960-61), Dennis McClelland (1962-64), Dick Woods (1965), Al Moffat (1966-1968), and Earl Davis (1969). Each arrived with his own personality, camping philosophy, and leadership style. Says Don Hambley, a counselor during that time, “The staff of the 60s were called the ‘lost boys’ because there was never any continuity in programming.”
Site development reached a standstill. Syd Stone, Chairman of the Finance Committee, noted in his 1964 report, capital improvements were put on hold awaiting the report of the Long Range Planning Committee on the Dining and Kitchen Facilities and a “plot plan.” In the meantime the staff turned to smaller projects such as painting the floor in the Recreation Hall, putting down linoleum in the hospital, beautifying the area around the hospital, adding shelving units to cabins, and upgrading the out-tripping equipment.
Development of the dining hall, too, was in a holding pattern. The same building that Smith described as “pathetic” and a “death trap” was still being used ten years later, and it would still be used for two more years until, at long last and after endless debate, the ground was broken for the new hall. Work began on the west side of the swamp adjacent to the old dining hall and, in time for the beginning of the 1967 season, Fenton Hall was completed. With its church-like arched beams and spectacular lake view, the new hall was major achievement. It could easily seat 250 campers and staff. For the first time in several years, the entire camp could gather under one roof for meals. The building also provided a spacious new venue for camp programs such as dances and skit nights.
Says Don McCreesh, “the arrival of Fenton Hall (early 60’s) was a huge surprise the year it was built. When I became a member of the Camp Committee in the 70’s I learned the story of why it happened so fast and why it is designed as it is. Don Hall Construction had been contracted to build a church in Hamilton but the congregation went broke and the arching beams had already been purchased. Don Hall was a Y volunteer and donated the materials and his labour team to complete the construction in a matter of months … [it] allowed those of us on staff to participate in the demolition of the old dining hall the following fall. I remember a group of us tying a cable to the main uprights and then to the bumper of the camp pickup. We then took off at full speed across the tennis court and coming to an abrupt stop. Effective but not sure how healthy it was for the pickup!”
Having a building like that in 1967 allowed the camp to get on with expansion, including developing into the thirty acres of land on the other side of the causeway. Says Steve Heming, “building Fenton Hall changed the world.”
A wrong turn
Sometimes, thankfully, all that you get out of a dicey experience is just a really good story. Let’s hope that that kid thinks so too …
by Ed Gordon
On one canoe trip, we made a wrong turn. It wasn’t that long of a trip – maybe four or five days. But on this one lake we’re headed for this point because there is supposed to be a portage, but we miss it. We end up going down a little river. It seems all right to begin with it. It was going in the direction the portage was supposed to go, so we just go with it. But, of course, the portage was there because this river wasn’t really navigable.
We now get to a part that’s looking pretty dicey. Because all our canoes were canvas-cedar strip, I was never attempting to run anything that looked at all like rapids or whitewater. I just felt we didn’t have the practice or the expertise. If we made mistakes the canoes were going to suffer. Anyway, we were approaching that kind of water and thinking, ‘Oh wow, we can’t do this.’
This guy Rick Hall, a student counsellor, is in the lead canoe and he’s got a young camper with him. We pulled over while they go ahead to determine what we are going to do here. So, at first, they figure they will just get out of the canoe and walk it by the painters just along the shore to see if you can do it, to see if you can get through.
Suddenly, the water grabs the canoe and pulls it. Rick lets go, but the camper doesn’t. He’s hanging on tight. I’m sitting back in the next canoe watching as this kid and the canoe start going. The water was deep at this point – it wasn’t low water rumbling over rocks. Suddenly, the canoe does an end-O. The stern goes right up into the air. Then it dives down and goes underwater, right out of sight – and so does the kid. One thing we were always good about was lashing our gear into the canoe – we were never lazy about that.
Finally, everything surfaces – the canoe, the kid and all our gear. The kid just lost one shoe. There was no damage to the canoe. We got off as lucky as could be. In a situation like that, it could have gone so wrong.
Of course, we knew then that we had to portage.
Canoe Trippers we’ve known, part 2
Remember the trip staff? Here Charlie Hogg remembers some of the colourful characters who have taken out trips from camp.
Whilst I was a neophyte at Camp Wanakita we had several senior staff members who were Canoe Trippers Extraordinaire. One individual stands out amongst all the others. His name was David Ingham. David, you see, was enthralled with things English and even brought a silver tea service to camp. It was his marked propensity to stop every afternoon at the correct time for “Tea” even if he was leading a canoe trip from the Brent to Canoe lake or the Opeongo.
Another memorable tripper was the Canoeing director in those early times. His name was Jim Kellum. He played for the Varsity Blues as he was a med student at U. of T. Jim was often to be seen and heard as he practiced for the “Season” by doing wind sprints up and down the camp path in front of Bill Van Gorder’s cabin (later the site of Fenton Hall) in the old Junior section. This done after the kids were in bed and asleep. His canoe trips were known for making land fall well ahead of the time required for the trip and then the lads had time to relax either at the Canoe Lake store or the landing at Opeongo. Word on the street has it that Jim became a renowned brain surgeon in Montreal.
It was people like this that forged the ethos that became Camp Wanakita in the early formative years.
Coping with change
“ I have friends that I grew up with at Wanakita who still won’t talk to me because of the Dick Woods year … “
Until the mid-60s, the kids time at camp was planned for them from sun up to sun down. The 60s being the 60s, that authority was questioned out of a growing belief that campers should be free to participate in the decision-making process. Through their participation in scheduling and programming, it was believed, campers would enhance their personal and decision-making skills.
Of course, that meant a fundamental shift in the role of counsellors from leaders to facilitators. To enact the change, Dick Woods was brought in as camp director in 1965 and Ted Reid, a long-time camper and staff member, was appointed assistant camp director.
“Dick and I were brought in because of our background,” recalls Reid. “I didn’t have the training Dick Woods had—I had some training—but I was the guy from the past who [the camp committee] felt would be accepted as assistant director.” From the beginning, it didn’t go well. “In a sense, that was Dick’s fault and my fault,” recall Reid. “We were both pretty green.”
What they didn’t prepare for, more than anything that summer, was the intense emotional attachment that the staff had to the past, a deep-seated desire to maintain things as they were when they were campers. “I should have realized that when you are taking away from people something that they have been comfortable with all of their lives, and try to introduce them to something new, there is going to be a real emotional explosion. Dick and I weren’t ready for it and it hit us.” Whether they lacked the maturity to adapt—or simply refused—many of the staff took the hands-off approach to an extreme. Rather than help the kids plan their day, they would just lie on the beach all afternoon letting their campers run rampant.
Says Reid, “I still remember standing up on the fireplace stoop and saying: ‘That will not happen again and if I see it, somebody will be going home. You know what you are supposed to be doing and are just playing games with us. So get back to work and get it done.’“
Undaunted, staff were riding the camp buses back to the city between periods telling anyone who would listen that the new approach was a disaster. Before long the Y leadership in Hamilton caught wind. It all made for a very difficult summer. “I have friends that I grew up with at Wanakita who still won’t talk to me because of the Dick Woods year,” says Reid.
“I felt good by the end of camp when I went home,” says Reid. “Things were starting to come together … [and] the counsellors were having a good time because they began to feel the advantages of the new system.”
But while the negative feedback had reached the Hamilton Y, news of the turn-around did not. Woods was fired and Reid was asked to take over the directorship, a position he declined. He would return to camp, but not until years later. The idea of camper-centered programming was abandoned for a time, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the concept would be attempted again.
The Summer of ’65
by Don McCreesh
I definitely remember that “nightmare” of the summer of 1965. It was my first year as a counselor and during pre-camp when we heard all this strange talk of camper driven / centred programming we were not sure what it meant or how to counsel under that concept.
I remember being frustrated by how to carry out this new philosophy and the talk of rebellion by many of the more senior members of staff. I also clearly remember Ted’s “rant” from the fireplace as it was so out of character for him that I knew this was serious situation. While I agreed with aims of this new philosophy, the problem was as a first year 17-year-old counselor, I had not been trained to operate in that environment. So when camp started and we had no centrally driven programs to fall back on, I was lost. I stumbled through that summer and by the end was pretty down and frustrated and so took the next summer off from Wanakita to work in Banff National Park, but returned in 1967 when Al Moffat arrived to start a gradual transition to this concept but with training and support to implement it.
Ted, who was one of my early mentors at camp, had a terribly challenging summer being the bridge between Dick Wood and the rest of the staff, but I and many others still regard Ted as one of the great leaders and colleagues who did a great job of salvaging what he could from the summer.
Nursing at camp
The work of the camp nurses wasn’t just limited to just nursing at camp.
by Charlie Hogg
Especially in the early years, Camp Wanakita was the lifeblood of Koshlong lake. It was the only access, but for the marina down the road, into the lake. For cottagers to gain access to their summer retreats they had to park on the government road outside our Totem pole entry that boasted a glass topped Gas pump. There were many times when staffers would be pressed into service to take visitors out to one of the cottages around Koshlong. Of course if a tip was offered it was gratefully received and thankfully applied to Y.M.C.A. World Service (… at least that’s what the cottagers were told).
The nurses, however, were a different story of respect and devotion for all who lived summers on the lake. The first nurse I remember was Heather Clarke. The Hospital, right there by the Canoeing area on what is now known as the main site or the original Kaye Lagakelo Camp, was the medical center for the entire lake. Never mind the Marina, anyone who needed medical attention came to the nurse at the Y camp.
There were a number of calls for assistance on the lake too. Various cottages, especially in Telephone Bay, would often try to duplicate the trials and accomplishments of the likes of Paul Bunyan only to their damage and chagrin. It was then that the camp nurse was called to render first aid and any other assistance she could give.
The Camp Wankita nurse was the first stage in triage in the Haliburton medical system even back in the early days. Dr. Good (who became the Haliburton county coroner) Often said that “When a case comes in from the Y camp. Give it to me first priority as they have the best nurses in the area.”
He eventually gave the camp Nurse a supply of sutures to help with the over load at the local hospital in town. Heather had to deal with severe axe wounds, cancer -patients who were hemorrhaging, severe cases of gastroenteritis, severe burns and ruptured stitches. On several occasions the cottagers had such confidence in the nurses of the Camp that they had her take out their stitches from earlier surgeries.
The Camp of the early years was indeed an integral part of the community that was the summer world of Koshlong lake. There have been many nurses since that time but they have always played that important role for the residence of Koshlong Lake.
I well remember when nurse Pauline Goolkasian was called upon to render assistance to a failing Mary Caruthers. Dr. Picket was also called in to help out in true Koshlong family style. Pauline, and her trusty sidekick “Aunt Audrey” were fixtures for many years at the Y Camp. They both dealt with many calls from the Lake and from the campers and the staff too. These are the unsung pillars of the camp. Campfires and staff can, at times, come and go at a surprisingly fast rate. However the Camp Nurse is that person who endured. Endured because she was the constant, the continuing entity that was the Camp.
Those nurses that did not have the Camp Ethos in their blood did not last long. They were there with their agenda and imposed it on all. That was their undoing as they often left within a year.
Many’s a time the camp nurse had to deal with plagues that infected many of the camp staff and campers… More especially the Staff when they claimed that they were dying… this after their time off and the evening to boot when they had partaken of too many beers at the Rockcliffe Hotel in Minden, or the local watering hole just out of Haliburton on the way to Bancroft. In every case she valiantly cared for the afflicted with some wholesome advice and a few Tylenols to help with the Head Squeeze.
Nevertheless, the whole concept of camping was changing. By the end of the 60s, the city of Hamilton began running more elaborate day programs at local parks. With them, parents began asking “Why should I send my kid all the way to Wanakita when I can send him down the street for a lot less and my kid can be home at night.”
Specialty camps, ones with specific skills on offer, were also popping up. “When hockey camps started to build and baseball camps started to build,” says Reid, “the interest in the wilderness camps started to fade. And that’s when Wanakita started to die.”
“It is my duty to point out to you,” Syd Stone reported to the finance committee he chaired, “that we are slowly using up our reserve fund and, unless we exert every effort to increase our camper attendance, our financial picture will not improve.”
The staff fought back by changing the focus of the programming. In addition to the traditional activities, there were soon Gold Rush Days, Pioneer Days, and other all-camp events. And, in the fall of 1968, they did something that even a few years before would have been beyond consideration: they invited girls. For some it was a bit of news that trumped the moon landing. In the summer of 1969, forty-seven girls entered a territory where (at least in the recollection of the campers and staff) there had never been girls before.
The Hamilton Spectator ran the story, and quoted one camper as saying that “We missed our skinny dip in the morning. And they put girls on the wake-up call, so we had to sleep decent.” Another slightly more enthusiastic camper admitted the girls added “zip” and improved the sightseeing, “but not much.”
“Initially there was a lot of resistance,” recalls Don Hambley. “The guys didn’t want to have girls invade the camp and be part of it—it was kind of like a men’s club. It took awhile, but slowly everyone realized it was the way to go just from a financial perspective—to keep things solvent. … the girls added an interesting balance and chemistry to the whole mix.”
In any event, the change was one that the campers and staff would ultimately embrace, some more enthusiastically than others. In 1971, Wanakita sent its first girls’ trip into Algonquin Park. In his annual report of 1971, outtrip and campcraft director Ted Black called it “one of the greatest developments in outtripping, as we know it.”
The trip was lead by counsellor Jo-Anne Beveridge. Due to concerns about sending girls out into the bush alone, the camp decided to send along a male junior counsellor, a hulk of kid named Mark Sazio. Whether it was because of Mark, or the bugs, or a desire to stay in camp, the campers by and large didn’t want to go. So, the ones that did went with the boys trip and—voila!—co-ed tripping was born. Ted Black was a fan and reported that, “I believe that the establishment of co-ed tripping at Wanakita would be the most powerful tool we could find – helping us reach our goals as a co-educational camp.”
It didn’t last long. Trip recruitment picked up, and campers quickly demonstrated that they could handle themselves just fine without the assistance, ahem, of their male counterparts. In time, all-girl trips became the norm rather than the exception.
The best day off … ever
Gord Parsons thinks he took part in the best day off ever. And, frankly, he’s probably right.
Memories of “Day Off Adventures” are often the first to be discussed when Wanakita Alumni meet up. There are certainly some crazy things that went on when staff blew off a bit of steam away from camp. However, I don’t think there was ever a more unique “Day Off Adventure” than the one that I was part of in the Spring of 1988.
During our yearly spring visit to Kilcoo to play ball hockey, somehow a little idea of a road trip to the ocean was hatched and then morphed into some sort of challenge, dare or bet between Lub, the director of Kilcoo, and Steve Heming. Not to back down to a challenge, the notion of a road trip to Cape Cod was born.
Given some time off work from a Friday night to a Sunday morning, five intrepid travelers, and a special kidnapped guest, embarked on a whirlwind trek to the U.S. East Coast with the sole mindset of jumping in the ocean and heading back to camp. Jeff Davis, Cody Gaynor, Chris Moore, Darryl Hargot and I piled into J.D.’s car and left camp at 5:30 Friday night.
Crossing the border at the Thousand Islands Bridge was the first real challenge of the trip. The US Border Patrol was not too keen on admitting five young guys whose purpose for travel in the US, when asked, was “to jump in the ocean.” We were quickly sent into secondary inspection, in the “hanger,” for a full car search and interrogation. We had attracted quite a bit of attention to ourselves and things got really dicey. Our situation went from bad to worse when first the officers inspected Cody’s ID, a Student Card that had a picture of him looking quite like Charles Manson, and then made chase after Chris as he bee-lined it to the bathroom on the way in for questioning. Although he really needed to pee, his timing was really poor. How we ever got through is a mystery to this day.
Travelling through the night down I -81, I – 90 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, we arrived in Provincetown on Cape Cod early on Saturday morning. Provincetown is right at the tip of the Cape at the end of the road.
True to our goal, we quickly stripped down into our underwear and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. After taking the obligatory photos of ourselves jumping in the waves, and in front of signs that showed we actually made it to Cape Cod, we desperately needed a place to lie down and have some sort of sleep. J. D. had been driving almost non-stop, and none of us had caught more than a few winks of sleep during the ride. A grove of trees on the nearest sand dunes served the purpose. I’m sure we caught the attention of a few early morning beach goers who would have seen our underwear hanging to dry on the branches.
The last thing to do on the beach was snap some shots of our special guest traveller at the ocean. You see, we had kidnapped the Oopick to take on our trip. For those of you who remember, the Oopick was the coveted prize of the cleanest cabin of the day. Although that little bird was well travelled, I don’t think it ever had been out of the country before.
The trip back to camp followed immediately after our purchase of souvenir t-shirts and was mostly a beeline back to camp. Our one stop was to a seafood restaurant right next to the original Mayflower ship, which is a story onto its own. All I will add is that none of us will ever order Deep Fried Scrod from a menu ever again.
After reading this tale, you might ask about whether we made it back on time for work. The answer is yes. With the sun about to rise, we climbed into our own camp beds and got about an hour or two of sleep before the neighborhood woodpecker started banging on the tin chimney of our cabin. All of us made it to breakfast on time.
What people wanted from the camp experience was becoming more sophisticated and the camp rose to the challenge. The cabins had been updated and expanded, the programming including arts and sports alongside the traditional camp craft, and the camper population was co-ed.
As well, the camp started to think not just of children, but of families. The idea was to make more use of the growing facility, but there was also an understanding that Wanakita was well suited to offer further opportunities to the members of the Hamilton Y.
So, in the summer of 1969, family camp was inaugurated and a one-week family camp was offered at the end of August, the week just after period D. The idea had immediate appeal and was fully booked well in advance. During family camp, the usual camp activities were arranged—both kids and parents were welcome to join in on the activities, but parents weren’t obliged to participate. Certainly, no one knew at the time how the concept would grow, develop, and ultimately add to the culture of the camp.
Part of the vision of Wanakita, even from the early days, as to expose campers to ideas and experiences that they may not otherwise have access to. In the 1980s, campers from Soviet Russia came, opening the eyes of everyone to the similarities that people share. An even braver program was an exchange program with Jamaica in the early 1970s. Scott Baldwin counts himself among the lucky CITs who were chosen to take a bit of Wanakita to a number of kids who, in many ways, truly needed and appreciated it.
by Scott Baldwin
In the 1960’s the Hamilton YMCA had an exchange program with the Kingston Jamaica YMCA. About 12 people from both Hamilton and Kingston took part in the program for about two months every summer. I don’t know how long this program lasted, but I would think that the civil war that crippled Jamaica in the 1970’s probably put and end to it. After working as a CIT at Camp Wanakita in the summer of 1969, I was chosen to take part in this exchange in the summer of 1970. The name Jamaica conjures images of beautiful beaches, hotels and palm trees, and that is generally true on the north shore where the tourists go, but we saw very little of that part of Jamaica. It is the most densly populated country in the western hemisphere, and Kingston one of the poorest cities in the Caribbean. It was a teeming city of color, motion, and music, unlike anything we knew in Canada.
The group that I was part of from Hamilton spent a weekend together in a training session before we left so we could get to know one another, but we were dispersed to various YMCA facilities all over the Island and actually saw very little of each other during the summer. We were white kids from a very non-cosmopolitian area in Canada, and we were little prepared for the culture shock of being dropped into this country which was 98% black.
The Kingston YMCA was the main facility in Jamaica and consisted of a run down former plantation house, with a small swimming pool, located at 21 Hope Road. The director was a man by the name of Carl Dalhousie, a man of extrodinary energy and vision. I had the upmost respect for this man and the effort he put in to keep the Y going on less that a shoestring budget. He had a large positive influence on this young and impressionable teenager from Canada.
As I mentioned there were various YMCA facilities throughout the Island, and we rotated through these, usually 1–2 weeks at a time. I started at the Y in Kingston, as a day camp counselor, and I lived with a family on Border Ave. I had to take the bus into the Y every day, which was an adventure in itself. The fare was 3 cents, and the buses were always packed far beyond anything resembling a legal limit. Each bus had a conductress in addition to the driver, usually a very large woman, who collected the fare and then would push everyone waiting at a stop onto the bus. It mattered little that there was no room on the bus. She would keep pushing until everyone was on. This was repeated at every stop. The buses were not air conditioned, (nothing in Kingston was) and it was in the 90’s with 90% humidity all summer.
I would get off at Half Way Tree, a small public square, and walk up Hope Road to the Y. I was always the only white person on the bus. Jamaicans at the time referred to white people as “pork” (as in white meat). I occasionally heard this term directed towards me on my way to the Y, and decided to take as a term of endearment rather than derision.
Goats wandered freely throughout the city, and we had curried goat and rice for lunch virtually every day at the Y. Ackee and saltfish was another common Jamaican meal we were all familiar with. The legal drinking age was 16, so most of us were introduced to Redstripe beer and rum as well.
Small shops all over the city would have big old horn type loudspeakers outside their businesses, blaring reggae music day and night. It was impossible to walk anywhere in Kingston and not hear it. Subconsciously you would start walking with a “shuffle” to the reggae beat. To this day I love reggae and have a large collection of reggae CD’s.
My second rotation was at Boy’s Town. This was a walled facility in the worst slum in Kingston: Trench Town. Boy’s Town was sort of a DMZ in the middle of Trench Town, and the local gangs left it alone. We were driven here every day, but we were not allowed to leave the compound. As in so many places in the third world, people were constantly wandering in and out of the place. One day I was talking with a guy about my own age who had wandered in, who told me, matter of factly and without malice, that if I should ever appear outside the wall of the compound, he would have to kill me because if he let a white person live in Trench Town, he would be killed for doing so. Heady stuff for a naive 16-year-old from suburban Burlington.
Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed working here as the kids who came were fantastic. They had an energy and vitality the likes of which I had never experienced before. We played a LOT of cricket here. There was a steel band which practiced here during the day, so the place was always filled with music.
Trench Town was the center of some of the worst fighting during the civil unrest of the mid 70’s. This civil war was little reported in the North American press, but tore the country apart. It saddened me so to hear of the strife, because the Jamaicans I knew had such a lust for life and had the largest hearts of any people I have ever met. To know that there was killing in the streets was heart wrenching.
I have since met Jamaicans who refused to believe I worked in Trench Town.
The Y also had a sleep away camp out in the countryside, where I spent a rotation. A VERY meager facility, we slept in hammocks under a crude tin roof, with the sides open to the air. Mosquitos ruled here, and I don’t think there was a single square inch of my skin without bites. There was a stream running through the area which was our swimming hole. It seems to me we spent more time digging a ditch for a new water pipe than we did doing camp activities.
After that I was sent off to Spanish Town to work at a day camp there. Spanish Town was the Capital during the period of Spanish rule, and there were a number of Spanish colonial buildings there from that time, unfortunately all in ruins. I went off on this assignment with a very nice Jamaican girl, who I wish I had kept in touch with. We had to take a bus to Spanish Town. What is it about buses in third world countries? This bus was right out of a Hollywood movie. Packed with people, boxes crates of vegetables and yes, live chickens in cages! The top of the bus was piled high with luggage. We were met in Spanish Town by a man with whom we were to stay with during our time there.
The next morning, he dropped us off at the school where the camp was to be held. We both assumed we would just be counselors and someone else would be running the camp, but we quickly discovered the two of use were the entire staff. The man dropped us off, handed us some keys, a list of the kids enrolled, said someone would deliver lunch later in the day, and left. The keys opened some cupboards where we found some arts and crafts supplies and sports equipment (cricket bats and balls!) 20 mins later the kids started to arrive and we improvised the entire week.
We did do some group activities throughout the summer. The best of these was a trip offshore in a small boat out to the tropical reef which runs for miles along Jamaica’s south coast. We landed on a small island (large sandbar) and spent the most wonderous day snorkeling and spearfishing in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was magical. Unfortunately, I understand that this reef is now badly bleached out from ocean acidification due to the increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
We also took an overnight hike up Blue Mountain (highest peak in the Caribbean) where the view of the Caribbean is supposedly amazing. The hike up passed through little villages which time forgot. You felt like you were stepping back 100 years in time. Unfortunately, we never got to see the view as the weather was bad and we had to immediately descend due to an encroaching hurricane, which eventually veered off on another course and didn’t hit Jamaica.
It is impossible to convey just how meaningful this trip was to my growth as a human being. It was an extraordinary experience, and if it hadn’t been for Wanakita, I would never have had the opportunity.
The beginning of a new era
“We wanted to make more moves … “
Despite all the growth, as the new decade dawned Wanakita was in trouble. The camp was struggling with declining enrolment due principally to a succession of directors that had left the camp without the a clear sense of purpose. If they were going to stem the tide, the camp committee knew that they had to act quickly, and that the first task would be to find a strong leader who could breathe new life into the operation. They found one in Al Knox.
Knox was a well-respected and intellectual individual who held progressive ideas about camping. As the director at Camp Wakonda, in Saskatchewan, he had established track record as an effective leader. When the committee hired Knox they gave him a clear mandate: turn the declining enrolments around. Says Ted Reid, the situation was such that Knox was basically told that if he couldn’t do something with the camp in two years, the camp would be sold.
Knox met his goal and then some. Over a period of three years, he would introduce camper-centered programming, launch a highly successful two-year student counsellor training program, and plant the seeds for Wanakita’s move into outdoor education. Most people don’t realize it, says Reid, but the initiatives of Knox helped save the camp and make Wanakita what it is today.
From the outset, Knox was a strong supporter of camper-centered programming. Well aware of Woods’ flirtation with the same approach five years earlier, he was able to learn from the mistakes that had been made. He took camper-based programming and tried something Woods had not: he imposed a bit of structure. Skill groups were offered in the morning, and campers signed up for the camp activities of their choice, everything from canoeing to outdoor cooking. Afternoons were left open for cabin programming, allowing counsellors to work with their cabin to plan group activities. Evenings were filled with either cabin programming or section programming.
“The staff felt there was some structure,” recalls Reid, “but the structure was elastic. In fact, you could even make it transparent.” If for example a cabin group wanted to forgo a section program and do something else, they had that option. “They were not bound by the structure.”
To help with the introduction of camper-centered programming, Knox re-hired Ted Reid. “Al hired me not as an assistant director, but as a section director,” says Reid. “I would go in and run a section based on the new philosophy. And he would use me as the facilitator to run an all-camp program.” If the kids came to Reid and asked if they could have an all-camp program, Reid would work with them to organize the day. “Those kids and me would pull that program together and run it.”
Knox also played a very hands-on role. Because the camp was still relatively small, he was able to meet one-on-one with every camper on orientation day. “Every kid would walk through his office and talk to him about what they wanted to do in skills,” recalls Reid. The kids got to know Knox and he got to know the kids.
The combination of structure and flexibility was a winning formula. It didn’t take long for camper-centered programming to take a firm foothold. Notes Reid: “It began to work really, really well.” Knox and Reid, bolstered by their success, returned in 1971 with renewed enthusiasm. This time, Reid returned as assistant director.
“We wanted to make more moves,” says Reid, and one of the most obvious was the creation of a two-year student counsellor program. At that time, many camps offered councillor-in-training (CIT) programs, one-year programs that tended to focus on a combination of skill and leadership. But there was a growing recognition that there was a lot of ground to cover in just one year, and that a two-year training program would be beneficial.
As the program took shape, it was decided that in the first year kids would be taught basic camp skills, including canoeing and swimming. During the second year, they would focus on leadership skills and theory. It wasn’t an entirely new idea—a two-year model had already been tried with success at a number of other YMCA camps across the country—but Knox was eager to apply it at Wanakita.
To help develop the two-year SC program, Al brought in Wayne Perkins. Al and Wayne had worked together for several years back Camp Wakonda, where Wayne had also been Knox’s assistant director.
“Al called and said we have a leadership program that’s a one-year program and we want to turn it into a two-year program,” recalls Perkins. “That was a fabulous opportunity for me. [It was] a perfect fit … It was all about taking the things I had learned as a program staff person and director in Saskatchewan, and as a teacher, and translating it into a program for young people interested in camp leadership.”
The chance to work again for Knox was also a real plus, says Perkins. He had learned a tremendous amount working under Knox at Wakonda and welcomed the opportunity to re-establish the relationship. “I knew how he operated. We seemed to be able to find a line. I was happy being the up front delivery person and he was happier being the back-of-the-house planner and thinker.”
While Al Knox hired Ted Reid as a section director his first summer, he also hired Don McCreesh as the assistant director essentially to play the same role as Ted played five years previously as assistant director to Dick Wood–the “liaison” between the new director and his new ideas and the rest of the staff who had grown up in an environment of traditional programming. While it was nowhere near the challenge of the Dick Wood year, it certainly had its moments and Don recalls delivering his own scaled down version of Ted’s “fireplace rant” (actually in front of the same Long House fireplace) early on in that summer. But by the summer of 1969, the training of the staff, and society as a whole, (looking back this was clearly part of the 60’s transition from the structured 50’s and early 60’s to the focus on individual freedoms of the late 60’s) had moved forward and the Wanakita team gradually adapted to the change. “Looking back,” writes Don, “this was clearly part of the 60’s transition from the structured 50’s and early 60’s to the focus on individual freedoms of the late 60’s.”
From the outset, the two-year SC program was a great success. It created a natural progression from camper to first-year SC to second-year SC to staff. By the time kids made it on staff, they would have the camp and leadership skills required and would be well-acquainted with the camp philosophy. From the camp’s perspective, it provided an important mechanism for ensuring a constant supply of properly trained staff. “By the time Wayne [Perkins] left, there was a real good staff development program in place,” says Rob Heming, who served as camp director during the first half of the 1980s. “I was a real benefactor of that … I was really lucky to have good staff.”
More than 30 years after its launch, the two-year SC program continues to pay dividends for Wanakita. Both Heming and Perkins can, with pride, rhyme off a long list of SC graduates who went on to be key players in the further development of the camp.
From Wanakita to an audience with the Queen
by Don McCreesh
My first step on what has turned out to be a nearly 60-year journey with YMCA started as a junior Wanakita camper a few years after immigrating with his family from England. With the exception of one summer spent working in Banff, continued as camper and then SC / CIT, counselor, senior section tripper, canoeing director, waterfront director and finally assistant camp director in 1970 at which point I had to go a get a “real job”. However, due to two events in my final years as a staff member I was launched into a 50-year YMCA “volunteer” career.
In the late 60’s the YMCA across Canada had embarked upon a “youth leadership” drive and as part of that, the Camp Committee wanted the staff to elect one of its own to be a member of the Camp Committee. I recalls being elected “more by default than anything else as I was the only member of senior staff who was living in the Hamilton area during the school year” (attending McMaster University) – everyone else was going to Western or Queens and wouldn’t be able to get back to attend the meetings.
The other event occurred when I applied to join the YMCA full-time following his 1970 summer as assistant Camp Director. I was turned down in my application to join a small YMCA in southwestern Ontario, primarily due to their strict adherence to the Paris Basis of the YMCA, something that we had evolved from at Wanakita, and chose to embark on an HR career in the corporate world.
As I was now married and had a “real job” and couldn’t attend camp during the summer being a part of the Camp Committee certainly helped ease the transition to the real world. I recall working with Al Knox on program philosophy and staff training ideas during the first couple of years. Then I at age 23 or 24 I was elected Chair of the Camp Committee and had legends like George Thompson and Jim Fenton (he of Fenton Hall fame) looking to me for leadership. What a shock that was.
Around the same time the Hamilton Y was looking for youth members of their Board and picked myself and a downtown youth leader Roy Male to join the Board.
This was the same time that Wayne Perkins took over as Camp Director. Wayne and I bonded quickly and spent many hours working on strategies to position the camp as a priority for funding within the Hamilton Y family and as a result were able to fund the initial winterization projects that moved the camp to a year-round operation and to introduce the multi-year staff training program as a core part of Wanakita’s mission. Substantive leadership development, that only happened through on the job mentoring during my SC / CIT training, became a prime objective not just a secondary spin off. A few years later my term on the Hamilton Board was to come to an end but Wayne submitted his resignation to move to the Calgary Y and the Hamilton Y CEO wanted me to stay on the Board to help bring along a new director, one Rob Heming, who I had mentored a decade before as a young camper, SC and counselor.
I eventually stayed to become Board Chair of the Hamilton YMCA, but not before getting frustrated by some of the activity I saw happening at the national level and put my name forward to participate on a national task force. Within two years I was on the National Board and eventually served two terms as National Chair of YMCA Canada. Core to my success here was using those leadership skills developed at Wanakita and to my surprise found that many of the national Y leaders (volunteer and staff) also had their leadership roots in camping. Although resident camping is likely only 10% of what the Y does across Canada it produces a hugely disproportionate percentage of its national leaders.
Based on large part on my Wanakita foundational leadership skills I was asked by the national body to take on the challenge of serving at the world level of the YMCA and to attempt to drive change into the World Alliance of YMCAs. Little did I know this would become a 15-year mission, but was rewarded at the end with being able to lead a change to the constitution of the World Alliance and fundamental changes to the way the global and regional bodies work.
When elected Chair of the Global Refugee and Rehabilitation Committee I recall having a flash back to my days as a Wanakita camper when we passed the “World Service” collection boxes around the Sunday chapel services while Charlie Hogg played a hymn on the pump organ. I was struck by the fact that I was now responsible for the management all those funds being donated in 140 countries around the world by young people like us at Wanakita and thinking what an awesome responsibility to make sure their donations were being spent effectively and efficiently.
While I attended 6 World Council meetings (twice as leader of the Canadian delegation) at venues stretching from Denmark to Korea to Aruba to Cologne and Mexico during my time at World Alliance, I particularly remember the World Council meeting held in England when I was introduced to the Queen as a former Canadian YMCA camper who was now Treasurer of the World Alliance of YMCAs. The reason I remember wasn’t just because of the audience with the Queen, but that I was also able to then turn around and roll my eyes at Wayne Perkins across the reception area (he was also attending the World Council meeting, now as CEO YMCA Calgary) as if to say “What are a couple of Wanakita types doing at a place like this!!!”
Don also went on to Chair the Board of the Toronto Y and also provide leadership to the broader Canadian charitable sector as Chair of Imagine Canada and Chair of the Standards Program of Imagine Canada. Helping to introduce change at each of these local, national and global levels where Don never fails to attribute his leadership skills to his Wanakita roots. Don is now working to ensure children who are suffering from childhood cancer get the same camping / leadership experience he was able to enjoy, by serving as Chair of Camp Oochigeas.
The Great Fire of ’72
Until somewhat recently, it was the responsibility of all those on the lake to put out fires. Still, when the fire bell went, anything could happen …
by John Lafferty
Steve Heming, Chris Marsden and I were standing by the old office just chatting. Somebody – I can’t remember who – came running up from the causeway, perturbed about something. Just then the phone rang. Chris Marsden ambles in to answer it.
When he comes out of the office, it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He shouts: ‘Get the fire pumps!’ A bunky was on fire at the Westaway cottage across the lake. Well, Steve and I turn into a Buster Keaton movie. We’re going: ‘Where are the fire pumps? Where are the fire pumps?’
We had two pumps at the camp because we were the main fire-fighting unit for the lake. These pumps are big things. So, we decided to get a wheelbarrow to get them to the boats. I knew the wheelbarrows were behind the old craft shop, but I said they were behind the dining hall. Poor Heming looks behind the dining hall and disappears for ages – I’d sent him to the wrong place. Meanwhile, I’m down getting the pumps out. When he finally shows up, I start asking ‘Where the heck were you?’
Anyway, we finally wheeled the pumps down to the boats. By this time more people have rallied to the cause and are all running about. It turns out that a couple weeks earlier we’d done our fire-fighting training and left the hoses out in the playfield to dry. We realized they were still there. We didn’t have time to roll them up, so we threw them into the 18 horsepower. I think they took one pump across the lake in the 50 horsepower, so they got that pump up and running quickly. But I don’t think they had any fire hoses.
Of course, everybody wanted to go fight the fire. There must have been about 10 guys piled in the old 18 horsepower and we just putt-putted across the lake. As soon as we left the dock, Bob Richards knew we had left behind an important part. But he couldn’t remember what. He figures maybe it won’t be that important. We finally get to the other side of the lake and there’s no place to dock – just this cliff. Rather than turn sideways and look for a place to dock, Richards just plows into the cliff.
At that point he remembers that the part we forgot was the intake hose for the pump. So, this pump is essentially useless. We unload most of the things and go up. By this time, of course, the bunky that had caught fire was a smoldering 10 by 10 square of coals – perfect for roasting marshmallows. It was a real fiasco. But Mr. Westaway was kind enough to give us a party afterwards to thank us for preventing the rest of his cottage from burning down.
A period of clarification
“There was a whole crew there of people who were good friends and are still good friends today. … They had the history, the tradition, the knowledge “
“Al was a theorist and an academic,” says Perkins. “He understood a lot about what was going on. He realized that the camp needed to change and the type of change that needed to occur. Where he lacked, sometimes, was that he didn’t have the persona to be able to translate that stuff.”
Perhaps understandably, as the summer of 1972 drew to a close, Knox began talking about moving on. As Reid sees it, Knox knew he put the camp on the right course, but also knew he wasn’t the guy to take it to the next level. Reid thinks Knox had succession planning in mind when he first brought in Wayne Perkins. He knew Wayne well and was aware that he had an interest in developing a four-season camp and knew he had the skills to take the camp to the next level.
That next level included building out the programming into a year-round model. “If you were to develop a winter program you had to develop a superstructure that would make it run well and make it be comfortable,” says Reid. “Wayne was the guy to do that and I think Al recognized that.”
Starting in 1973, an outdoor education program was offered May through September and on weekends throughout the winter. The basic premise of the new program was that Wanakita would become a living laboratory for education. As an early brochure explained it: “…things that can best be learned indoors should be learned indoors and things that are best learned out-of-doors, should be learned outdoors.”
The camp also tinkered with winter camping. Knox started off offering multi-day sessions for student counselors over the Christmas/New Years break. Those first attempts at winter camping were very, very rustic and very, very cold. Charlie Hogg recalls hearing the frozen tree branches cracking overhead, something that seemed as ominous as it was impressive. As well, snow transformed the camp into a winter wonderland ideal for skating, snowshoeing, tobogganing and more.
Dennis Hill began attending winter camp in 1977. “When we went up, the Longhouse wasn’t winterized and we had to cut a hole in the ice for water. We used the kitchen in Fenton Hall. I think we stayed in the old hospital because there was some form of heat in there. It was a very cold weekend and a lot of snow. We did that for about four years and every year it got a little easier because they had the Longhouse done in 1978. We could cook in the Longhouse then and had running water. There was an ice storm one winter and we had to hand-sand the road all the way to the forks. We broke camp at about one o’clock and it was about three o’clock when we got the forks. The sander had run off the road.”
Initially Wayne and Pam thought that they would spend the winter in camp and then go back to teaching, which was their profession. Despite the suggestions re succession, it was nevertheless unclear what Al Knox was intending, either to stay or, himself, return to teaching. “We were all fired up about teaching,” says Wayne, though the offer of coming on as camp director remained in the back of his mind. “By about Christmas, I was phoning Al and saying ‘Al, are you still thinking about going back to school? … What interested me was that I thought I could do what needed to be done.”
In the event, they were all back in camp for the summer of 1973, with Wayne taking over the directorship in the fall. When he did, there were three key issues that needed to be addressed immediately: getting enrolment back up to full capacity, moving further into outdoor education, and ensuring that the right staff were in place to make it happen.
To do it Wayne produced a five-year plan. “We did a plan relatively early in the game in order to have it go through committee and the board.” The goal of that plan was turn Wanakita into a year-round operation.
The board supported the idea, says Perkins, because outdoor education allowed the camp to serve more people and different kinds of groups yet still maintain the summer as the principle area of programming. With that support, the camp was then able to get some financing for infrastructure and improvements.
Now all Perk needed was the human resources, and as it turned out, he had the perfect staff sitting there right under his nose. The staff group photos from the time present a who’s who of Wanakita in the years prior and those to come. There were two future camp directors, Rob Heming and Steve Heming. Dave Black was there, and would become the first staff to be employed year round. Others, including Deane Collinson, George Hamer, Doug Richards, and Judy Collinson would become key players not only in advancing the culture of the camp, but also driving capital campaigns and reunions. There is also a core of the summer staff that would remain through the decade, including John Lafferty, Leslie Barrett, Bob Thaler, and Bill Hughes.
“There was a whole crew there of people who were good friends and are still good friends today. … They had the history, the tradition, the knowledge,” says Wayne, “plus they were good at it … I recognized that we couldn’t start all over again. I can remember meeting some of those guys very early and saying ‘are you in? Here’s my plan.’”
He also had a promising crew moving up through the ranks of the SC program. “I’d had the opportunity and pleasure of working with the two previous groups of SCs, who now in essence became the core of the new counseling staff. I knew them and they knew me.”
“I went around and talked seriously to the people I thought I wanted keep,” he says. “That in itself made a statement. People kind of chose to buy in or not.” The result was a strong, dedicated staff that supported a bright new future for Wanakita.
During the New Years’ holiday between 1973 and 1974, Wanakita hosted its first staff winter camp. Most bedded down in unwinterized cabins, oil stoves providing the only warmth. For activities, Wayne managed to scrounge up some old cross-country skiis and a few ancient pairs of snowshoes. And of course, there was the ultimate toboggan run: Cardiac Hill on the W-E road.
The New Year’s winter camp wasn’t the first winter camp at Wanakita, but it was the first that was organized with the intention of building the camp into a year-round operation. As first steps, Perkins began to make greater use of the shoulder seasons, principally targeting school groups to make use of the camp for retreats. Finding campers and staff was, frankly, hard work. There were no permanent staff on site. Perkins was the only full-time camp employee and he worked out of the Hamilton Y from September to June. That meant countless weekend trips back and forth and thousands of kilometers of driving.
“I would have to say that they were some of the toughest times but also some of the best times we had,” says Wayne. “We had to drive to camp in the winter time, get there early, chop a hole in the ice in order to get water, go around and light all the stoves in the cabins and hope you could get all that done before the group rolled in.”
“The stove oil used to be down behind the Longhouse. We used to have to truck these containers of stove oil around on a toboggan. We had to take them around and fill up the stoves the last thing before bed so that the stoves wouldn’t go out during the night.”
On top of trying to run winter camp with part-time weekend staff, Perkins had to promote it and equip it. Initially, there was little money for equipment, so he had to improvise. “Deane Collinson and I decided that cross-country skiing would become sort of the feature program. But we didn’t have any skiis and we didn’t have any money to buy them, so we put an ad in the newspaper to see if anyone had any old wooden skiis.”
Though most of the donations were from the 1930s and 40s, perhaps better fit for museum exhibits than active kit. “Anyway, we went around, got them and fixed them up. That’s what we used the first couple of years. We literally used to haul them back and forth in the truck from the city up to camp every weekend, because we didn’t have anywhere to leave them.”
So much of the activities of camp were done on a shoe-string, if only because it was a period of testing ideas. Then, in 1977, the camp came up with the serious financial boost it needed to transition to a year-round facility: a Wintario grant. The money was used to upgrade the Longhouse. When complete, it included a lounge area with a fireplace, several bunkrooms, washroom/shower facilities, and a garage/workshop. To oversee the job, Wanakita hired its first year-round on-site staff member, Dave (“Blackie”) Black.
Blackie was a long-time summer camp staffer who was graduating from university. Wayne hired him as a year-round assistant camp director. In addition to supervision the completion of the Longhouse the he coordinated on-site programming, aided by Wayne and Steve Heming who came up on weekends.
In the fall of 1978 when Blackie left to pursue a career in accounting, Steve Heming took his place. One of Steve’s first assignments that fall was to oversee the construction of the Duplex, a fully winterized staff quarters containing two units, each with a kitchen and bathroom. The next year he oversaw the construction of a new winterized director’s cabin and a ski lodge designed to house the cross-country ski equipment.
And with skis, you need trails. “For a couple of months each fall,” Steve recalls, “I was out there chain sawing, creating the Green Island–Beaver Dam ski trail system.” When the camp secured a special grant to develop its system of trails, a team of four were hired to map out and cut them. They cleared a trail past the beaver dam to the Falls (on the Burnt River), the new Cathy Cole Trail (named in memory of a former counselor), and a connecting branch to the existing Green Island trail.
The first winters at camp
by Dave Black
I joined full time at Wanakita in May 1977 upon graduation from University. During the summer, I was Assistant Director/Business Manager, while Steve Heming was Assistant Director, Programming. In the fall of 1977 I supervised the construction of the Longhouse along with winterizing of some other cabins such as the roofs of the Panabode cabins. There were other projects…but memory fades! By Christmas, the Longhouse was complete (water system took the plumber about 3 days to prime and get going, just before the buses arrived for the first group between Christmas and New Years.) In the winter of 1978, I was the on site manager with Jamie Nicholson as program staff (who, I believe, was on a work term from school). Wayne frequently came up on weekends or for certain groups and I think it would have been Steve Heming (not Rob) who also came up for program. You note in your history that the duplex was constructed in late 1978. During my full year at camp (the summer and fall of 1977 and winter of 1978) I stayed in the Apartment , above the summer office which became the day camp office in later years. Heat was provided by 2 electric heaters and the Apartment never got above 10 degrees C in the winter. While I could have moved to the Longhouse, the Apt had been home for the previous 3 summers (May to August), shared first with Deane Collinson, and then with Steve Heming.”
“I’d like to think that it started in our era and has withstood the test of time.”
From a the perspective the residential camp, Wayne Perkins strove to make Wanakita more progressive than it had been prior. He wanted to ensure that there were new and varied opportunities for campers so that they could return each summer and have a new experience. “I always felt that it was critical for a camp to be seen as progressive,” says Perkins, one that grew along with the campers. “If a camper came and had a good experience, they could see what their next experience would be, so they would want to return and have that experience.”
Within that mandate, Wayne developed the seniors’ program, providing increasing challenges as campers moved through the program and into the SC program. He also brought in new activities, such as kayaking and habertism, an early version of high and low ropes.
As well, through Wayne’s leadership, two long-standing traditional elements of the camp were retired: the multi-seater outhouse and parents’ day. The outhouses were the less controversial change, perhaps, though they were missed. Says Don Hambley, “The six seater kybos. I distinctly remember those with great fondness. I used to get the Hamilton Spectator. After dinner, [some of the staff] would wonder down to the six seater and we would just sit on the seats. Each of us have a piece of the paper and we’d just pass around the different sections. That was how we spend our post-dinner. Instead of having a sherry or a cigar we would have our newspaper on the six seater.” In any case, the kybos were no longer considered environmentally friendly, and didn’t reflect the standards needed for a co-ed, multi-purpose, year-round facility.
Parents’ day was perhaps missed more, at least by some. In a sense, a day when parents could come to camp, tour the facilities, and to see their children within the camp setting was one of those essential elements of camp life at the time. Certainly, it’s something that continues in private camps throughout Canada, the visitors day serving an important marketing function. Many private camps have only two sessions, each a month in length. Because of the costs associated with those longer terms, parents want to see what they’re investing in, and, conversely, camps want to have an opportunity to prove their worth to the people who are paying the bills.
At Wanakita, with four shorter sessions running through the summer, the need for a parents’ day wasn’t as stark and it was also much harder to manage. Since the camp began, parents’ were allowed to visit their kids on the middle Sunday of a two-week period. Few took advantage of the opportunity, though that was probably a blessing. “You’d have parents driving three hours, arrive at camp and find out their kid was in Algonquin Park on a canoe trip,” recalls Ted Reid, a senior staff at the time. “Or you’d spend a whole week getting a first-year camper to have fun and then mommy would show up. When mommy left, the camper would be crying and we’d have to start all over again.”
By 1980, Wayne had accomplished many of the personal goals he had set for himself at Wanakita, and he perhaps felt that a new leader with new ideas could continue moving the camp forward. He began looking for other rich development opportunities in camping, and he found one in Camp Chief Hector, the camp run by the Calgary Y. “During the 70s, I’d had the opportunity to work on a national camp committee,” says Wayne. “I had met the other full-time YMCA camp directors from across the country, [and] I had watched as Camp Chief Hector went through a tremendous renaissance during the 70s. It changed sites, went from being boys only to co-ed, went from summer only to year-round, and tripled in size.”
Still, they had challenges of their own. “Things had not gone very well during the transition and they were losing large amounts of money. The Y was seriously considering whether they would have to shut down the whole camp operation.” Given the kind of potential Wayne say in the camp, when the director of Chief Hector left in 1980, he headed west. “It was the challenge of thinking okay, I’ve learned a few good things from Wanakita, let’s see if we can put those to work in Calgary. That was kind of motivational.” In the event, he was able to have as significant an impact on Camp Chief Hector as he had had on Wanakita.
He also knew that he was leaving Wanakita in exceptionally capable hands, given that Rob Heming had completed his university education and, therefore, was able to take on the directorship of the camp full-time. Says Wayne, “He had hung in there all through the 70s when he was going to school. He was my recommendation and fortunately he was able to get the job.” Rob had been on staff from 1969 to 1974 and his last year at Wanakita had been Wayne’s first summer as director (though Rob had been involved with the camp in the intervening years, especially around the development of the winter program).
In addition, Rob had gained experience in another camp setting, working for Scotty Bowman at the Creative Centre for Learning and Development, a facility in the Wellandport area. Bowman had founded Camp Kewatin to provide camping opportunities to developmentally delayed and children and those with behaviour disorders. Rob started out running an adventure-based program for older kids who had been in and out of jail and then went on to be director, a position he held for three years before heading back to Wanakita in the fall of 1980.
When Rob returned to Wanakita, his younger brother Steve was already the assistant camp director and was living on site year round overseeing camp programming. Together, Rob and Steve formed a dynamic duo. Whereas other brothers may have had trouble sharing the number one and two spots in an organization, these two thrived.
“I think we had a real good division of duties,” says Rob. “I accepted the fact that Steve was the programming person, and Steve accepted the fact that I was the administrative, behind-the-scenes facility person.
Steve ran the Outdoor Centre from September through June and took care of programming in the summer time. Likewise, Rob handled the hiring, marketing, and development. It was much like having two directors on site, and the goal they shared was to continue to work toward making Wanakita a camp that could stand on its own during a time when many camps in Canada and the US simply weren’t. Many of the YMCA camps in the 1970s closed, and often the reason wasn’t programming or marketing, but a strained financial relationship within the urban YMCA organizations they were affiliated with. Says Rob, “The urban Ys got into pretty deep financial trouble due to the issues of recapitalizations. They needed to recapitalize old facilities. To do so, they had to get money. What they would do is sell their camp operations, which were in prime recreational areas, cottage and resort areas.” Given that the Y camps were often the oldest operating camps in Canada—Y camping is the oldest camping organization in North America—the facilities were showing their age and could easily become liabilities. Given an opportunity to liquidate, many urban YMCAs did just that.
“We really needed to place an emphasis on making Wanakita self-sufficient,” says Rob. The whole issue during that period was to stabilize Wanakita. When I took over in 1980 Wanakita wasn’t full yet; it was still not achieving 100% capacities. So, we wanted to build both summer- and year-round programs so that we could become financially independent.”
An emphasis was placed on strategic planning, and working toward that goal of gaining a sound, independent footing and identity for the Camp. Rather than trying to attract campers and groups each year, the dream was to have instead a waiting list for camper spaces. “That would drive our ability to retain revenue,” says Rob, “and if we could retain revenue, we could then begin to have a capital program that allowed us to develop new facilities in the long run.”
By 1983, they’d achieved that initial goal. Where once there were empty bunks, there now were waiting lists. The next goal was growth. While everyone loved the smaller size of the camp—and indeed many opposed growing it beyond the size it had been—it simply wasn’t a sustainable model. Rob had begun to understand that “the only way that Wanakita would be able to earn enough revenue to be able to do anything, and to be independent, was to double its size.” He estimated that, based on the success of other camps in the region, including Tawingo, White Pine, and Timberland, to be able to raise money for capital projects of any substance the camp would need enrolments of between 280 to 320 campers.
Says Rob, “The big thing we were focusing on was improving our return rate for campers. Successful camps have a 75-80% return rate. We were at 55%. So, we wanted to bring that up. And one way to get it up was to get section identity started. When you had section identity, kids would want to come back and be in that section and do different things. Moving up – that whole progression.”
All of that contributed to the overriding goal of financial independence, and ultimately to ensure that the camp was earning enough on an annual basis to replenish facilities and operations, obviating the need to constantly go back to appeal to the Hamilton YMCA for capital. “It’s a hell of a legacy really,” says Rob, “to say that our whole purpose in those six years and two strategic plans was to stabilize camp operations and make it more independent of the Hamilton-Burlington Y,” but that’s exactly what they did. Another legacy Rob left was decidedly more prosaic: he banned smoking and underage drinking. “We agreed in 1983 to institute a no-smoking and no-drinking policy. We gave them two years to understand that by 1985 this is our goal: we have a no smoking and no underage drinking staff. And you will be dismissed if you are caught doing these things. We felt that our staff needed to be an example for the kids in all aspects. … I had to fire seven staff in 1985 the first week because they all went out drinking and they were all underage. … Most camps now have adopted those kinds of policies, but we were one of the first Y camps to do so.” Since 1986 the camp has been finically independent, something which may well have saved its life.
Fun with bears
Camping out means getting in touch with nature. And, sometimes, it also means nature getting in touch with you …
by Sarah Powell
When I did first year SCs, we were on solos in the back nine. Scott Menkalo and myself and our two cabins of kids were on the Green Island Loop, and we had just dropped all our kids off for their solos. We told them that we would walk by later and they could give us the thumbs up if they were fine, and that we’d come by and pick them up in the morning.
It was about 4 o’clock and Scotty and I were setting up our tent and I looked over and I thought “Oh, there’s a dog coming down the path at us. That’s really weird.” I turned to Scotty and said, “There’s a dog.” We turned around and it was a bear. We’ve got 16 kids spread out on the Green Island Loop and there’s a bear coming toward us. That was back when you could choose from a list of things that you could bring for your solo. You could bring everything or you could bring nothing. You could bring things like a granola bar, apples, a sleeping bag and a tarp. You could even bring a tent if you wanted. A lot of the kids, just because of the pressure, said “I don’t need any of that.” But you had to bring water.
Scott Menkalo’s nickname was Snack Man because he ate so much. He had four or five packets of apples, granola bars, cheese and crackers in his knapsacks. The bear came towards us. We had tent poles and stuff and were trying to scare it away. It wouldn’t go away. It kept going for Scott’s knapsack. Scott was a long distance runner. So, going through my head is the thought that if this bear decides to attack, I’m so dead because Scott can run away. And I’m wondering what we’re going to do about these 16 kids who are spread out in the woods.
So, Scott and I had this quick chat and decided to lead the bear away from the kids and see if it follows us. It started to follow us, but was really interested in Scott’s knapsack. It didn’t rip it open or anything. Then it ran off into the bushes. We didn’t want to pick all the kids up because it was the only night they had to do their solos. If they hadn’t seen the bear, we figured it didn’t make a difference. It was gone and we didn’t tell them.
But we walked the loop to see if they were all fine. They were all thumbs up and loving it. We get back to our tent and there’s a kid, Mike Linton, standing there. It was his first year at camp. The bear had come onto his little solo area, eaten his snack, ripped up his water bottle and taken his sleeping bag. He’s like “Oh my God, I saw a bear.” We told him we’d walk him back to camp if he wanted, but he insisted that he continue his solo. I gave him my sleeping bag and he went and finished his solo.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. He did his solo; I couldn’t believe it! We took the water bottle that was all mangled up and we spayed it gold and put a little plaque on it for him. None of the other kids saw the bear or knew about it until the next morning. We never did find his sleeping bag.
“Campers never really realized that counsellors were campers at one point too.”
“What really amazed me was the first year we went to family camp in 1998.” says Dennis Hill, who was a camper in the 1970s and returned later as a family camper. “The feel of the camp was still there after more than 20 years. Although the physical part of the camp had changed it was still the magical place I remembered as a kid. I can recall walking through the camp that first time in that first summer back, going through Fenton Hall, remembering all those childhood memories and thinking this place is really something special.”
Though there were lots of changes, concerns, and challenges over the years, campers largely didn’t notice any of that. For them, camp was simply magical. Dennis Hill says, “I remember one year, the whole camp went out to Umbrella Island. It was night time and we had torches. One person in each canoe was holding a torch—just a pole with a coke can stuffed with a rag. I think we had a campfire out on the island or maybe we just went around it. But it was really quite memorable seeing all these canoes with the torches. It was really quite a sight.”
Pirate Day, Amphibian Day, days on the lake, trips, Haliburton civic parades—though camp was different than it had been in 1953, the experience was nevertheless just as idyllic and just as wonderfully removed from life at home. “I remember as a young kid they used to tell us ghost stories,” says Dennis. “One time they told Big Foot Stomp with the lumberjack. I think I was cabin 13, just to make things more interesting. Anyhow, I had to go to the washroom about three o’clock in the morning. I come out and there’s this ground fog. The kybo was down about two or three cabins. You wouldn’t believe how fast I ran. And all the time I’m in the kybo I’m thinking an axe is going to come crashing through the kybo wall.”
“When I was a kid,” recalls Sarah Powell “when you arrived at camp the first day the first thing you asked your counsellor was: ‘Is Charlie Hogg going to come and tell us a ghost story?’ I’m sure he was busy every night of the week at two different cabins telling stories – either with a funny ending or the-hook-across-the-floor kind of thing. And then when I became a staff member, we had Monday night meetings up in Fenton Hall and you had run around with your blank schedule trying to fill in your days. Charlie always had the biggest line-up. To get him to do a ghost story for your kids was like “I can’t do it Tuesday from 7 to 8, I can only do it at 8:15 to whatever.’ He was always fully booked. And his stories were freakin’ scary. They were so scary. He’s this big man and he’d have this candle. He’d hit the candle out at the end and it went black. You’d all go ‘AAAHHHH!’”
Mark “Rock” Blackett was a camper in the 1980s and, in the 1990s, became a core member of the staff. “I remember on night patrol, you’d get a coke and chocolate bar from the tuck shop and then go sit out in the middle of the forest somewhere. Your whole job was to literally catch kids out and scare them. It was boring if you didn’t catch kids out because it was no fun. There were some things the kids never realized when they were in the cabins. They never realized that you could hear through walls. You’d be standing outside and you could hear absolutely everything, including the whispers. Kids never really caught onto that. You could side outside the cabin when they were planning to sneak out. They’d step out the door and you’d be standing there. They’d go ‘we’re just going to the washroom’ and you just go ‘of course you are.’ Campers never really realized that counsellors were campers at one point too.”
There really is nothing like a camp birthday … and maybe that’s a good thing …
by Sarah Powell
We had an Outdoor Centre group on East. I think it was Sunship 3 for Grade 7 kids. There were five staff some teachers and probably about 100 kids, so it was probably a little out of control.
It was this one girl’s birthday. The staff were all sitting at the table. Bob Demere came out of the kitchen and he had a cake for the girl behind his back with a candle in it. He’s like “We’re going to sing Happy Birthday for so-and-so.” People weren’t getting the note right and weren’t singing together or in tune, so he kept restarting it over and over again. But what he didn’t realize was that the candle on the cake behind his back had tipped over.
All of a sudden one of the kids who was sitting beside Murphy and I tugged on Murphy’s shirt and says, “Murphy, is Bob on fire?” All you could see was smoke coming up the back of Bob. We’re like “Bob, you’re on fire!” He turns around and there’s a big black hole in his shirt and there were flames shooting up his back. He ripped off his shirt. We couldn’t handle it we were laughing so hard. We threw buckets of water on him and then he ran into the kitchen. We were all in the kitchen laughing because it was so ridiculous.
“We kept learning.”
Change, ultimately, can be a very hard thing to bear. “Every major change creates opposition,” says Steve. “They don’t want it to happen. They’re worried about losing what is Wanakita.”
Everyone wants the camp to remain as it was during their own formative experiences there. But time marches on, bringing new challenges with it. “Certainly, in today’s environment, expectations are significantly higher than they were even back in the 1970s,” says Wayne Perkins. “I’ve often said to staff, if you did what I did as a staff member I’d fire me.” There was a time when smoking wasn’t just allowed in camp, but you could buy cigarettes—provided you were 14 years of age or older—at the Tuck Shop. In that, and so many other ways, the staff members of today are simply held to a different standard. As well, notes Wayne, there is perhaps a greater understanding of responsibility and it’s flipside, liability. “It was one of those things where, in what I would call almost youthful naïveté, you really didn’t understand what you were responsible for. If you really stood back and looked at it and said ‘somebody said I’m responsible for these 300 kids and 60 or 70 staff … I’m supposed to be looking after them and making sure that they’re getting fed and that they’re healthy…Yikes! But you never really thought about all that.”
“I think largely Steve Heming is responsible for the shape of the camp in the last 15 years,” said Dennis Hill in 2002. “His visions, taking chances, it’s really wonderful.”
By 1987, Rob at been at camp for 17 years and was looking for new scenery and new challenges, and he found them just a lake away, at Bark Lake. The opportunity was a brilliant one, because it would allow Steve to remain at camp. he had been looking at moving to Pinecrest, the Toronto Y camp. He had interviewed for the position, and the directorship of Pinecrest was literally his for the asking.
When Steve Heming took over the directorship—like Al, Wayne, and Rob before him—he brought a willingness to really look at things from a distance and to find areas of improvement. The main challenge ahead, as he and Rob had noted, was the camper return rate, which still dipped into the red.
Part of the problem was a lack of identity. When campers came in the 1960s, their sense of identity came from the camp itself, which was then small enough that it felt cohesive. With a larger camp, that feeling dissipated. One solution was to develop the sections. Steve recalls that, “the thinking back then was that we wanted to bring stability to each section, so that each section had an identity unto its own. … We brought in full-time section directors because we felt at that time that we needed to create sections to help get a sense of place for campers.”
Programming was developed within the sections, and because campers would spend two or three years in each section, there had to be an arc of experience. “That was hard when you had roving section directors every two years because they would be learning more than they would be establishing.” All the camper singing and banging in the dining, with each section with its own chants, began.
Under Steve’s guidance, the programming was also shifted away from a macho culture of achievement—going on long push trips for example—to something more inclusive, something more attuned to value than achievement. While it’s not as impressive to older campers, the intermediates and their two night overnight is just as big and just as important as the 10-day trip that goes out. Seniors were no longer required to go on a trip, and could opt to stay in camp to focus on their skill levels. Tripping is important, though Steve notes that “you have to share the time with other things that are just as important.”
Woodslore was always an important part of the camp, and in the late 80s and early 90s it was packaged into a number of formal programs: Sunship Earth, Earth Keepers, and Sunship Three. (In 1979, Steve Van Matre of the Institute for Earth Education (IEE), developed a curriculum titled Sunship Earth, a program based on the seven ecological principles that make up our world: energy, cycles, diversity, community, interrelationships, change, and adaptation. The program was implemented at Wanakita in 1986.) Where woodslore had been primarily scientific in its gaze—where campers learned about organisms and their relationship, the Sunship programs, says Steve, were more relational. “It’s more touch the earth, feel the earth. It’s the large concepts of the earth. You acclimatize yourself to the earth. … Nobody can identify a maple tree anymore, but there is a broader appreciation for the outdoors.” Concept trails were developed, and campers would walk into the woods with a concept in mind, testing it and developing ideas around it as they toured a series of pre-set stations.
“The Outdoor Centre and what we learned there influenced the summer program and vis-vis-versa. We kept learning.”
Still, the most noticeable change in the late 1980s was size. Wanakita, which by then had reached capacity (600 campers per summer) was looking to expand. Previous directors had long coveted the Hockey Haven property, and the purchase of the site was one of the objectives listed in the YMCA’s 1987-1993 strategic plan. When Wren Blair phoned Steve Heming in 1988 to offer the property, Steve jumped at the opportunity.
But, it required money. To fund the purchase, the camp launched its first major capital campaign. The goal was to raise $1 million during the first phase by the end of 1990. The YMCA officially took possession of the camp on Oct. 21, 1988 and, with it, added 34 acres of waterfront property, 1,200 feet of sandy beach, and 22 buildings—a truly significant addition by any standard. “In keeping with the YMCA’s commitment to youth and youth leadership development, the purchase of the hockey camp will allow us to expand our youth leadership program,” Rusty Davis, chairman of the camp committee at the time, told the Hamilton Spectator. With East and West established, the Camp Wanakita facility now comprised 70 buildings. Wanakita originally owned 30 acres of land but has grown to a size of over 1000 acres. Its largest expansion came from a private donation by a landowner who felt that the camp was a positive presence on Koshlong Lake.
As the decade came to an end, staff and volunteers were working harder still to maintain the camp feeling and to preserve the many old and new traditions. Into the early 1970s, each camper met with the camp director to pick their skill options. During his tenure as camp director, Wayne Perkins set up a system of sign-up stations–section directors were stationed at picnic tables by the basketball court. During their orientation, kids would drop by the appropriate station and select their skill options.
But by the mid-1980s, even the station approach was becoming ungainly. The solution was to have campers pick their skill areas at home, sending it in with their registration forms. “By the time they arrive at camp, they are already slotted into their skill groups.” Says Heming, it wasn’t idea. “We’ve lost a little bit. During orientation you used to be able to walk through camp on your first day, see everything, feel everything and go “I want to do archery, I want to do swimming’ and then you sign up.”
more to come …
Glasnost on Koshlong Lake
In 1990, Wanakita invited some Soviet teen-agers to visit camp, and this story about that visit ran in the Globe and Mail on August 13 of that year. It’s an amazing story in large part because of when this occurred: remember, this is just 1990, the first summer after the wall fell. Russians then were as exotic to us as we were to them. And what did they take home with them? In answer, one camper said, “First we shall speak about the people.”
by Martha Perkins
Under the canopy of maples and with Koshlong Lake shimmering in the distance, a girl is playing a guitar and singing.
Her song is like many across the country as thousands of teen-agers bid farewell to summer camp.
What sets the scene apart is that the girl and her song are both Russian.
“People live far away from one another, but a time will come when we will make friends,” 14-year-old Valentina Afanasjeva sings.
The 100 or so Camp Wanakita campers gathered in the forest clearing can’t understand a word. Yet they’re transfixed by the sound of the language and the presence of the Russian visitors.
Valentina, Anna Yolushko, Andrei Yukhov and Mikhail Yousjev are all young teen-agers from Leningrad. Members of the Central Council Pioneer Organization, they are accompanied by their supervisor, Andrei Tjulubajev, and translator Elena Afinogenova.
Saturday’s visit to Camp Wanakita was part of a two-week stay in Ontario, the first of its kind organized by the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA. Since Aug. 3, they have sat around the campfires of several YMCA camps, including Wanakita and Muskoka’s PineCrest.
“It’s important children of different cultures meet each other and make friends,” Mr. Tjulubajev said.XXXXXXXX“Children are our future; they will run our countries.”
“It’s important that all countries are closer to each other and there is peace and openness,” says Anna, 13.
“The Cold War was hatred, a huge wall between states, and we don’t need it, especially children.”
“Those who were initiators of war were wrong,” Valentina adds. Asked whether Soviet children viewed North Americans as enemies, they say the idea is foreign to them.
Andrei and Mikhail – his friends call him Mischa – are more interested in Canadian sports, although they will talk politics, as they enjoy their picnic lunch.
“It’s a good country. People are very friendly and open here,” Andrei says in English. “You haven’t visited a city, have you?” one of the Canadian campers quips. The boys break into laughter.
Later, Andrei talks about home: “It was a very different country before (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Russian President Boris) Yeltsin.” While not everyone is enamored of Mr. Gorbachev’s economic restructuring, perestroika, everyone loves Mr. Yeltsin, who seems to speak more for the Russians themselves, he added.
“Do your parents take politics seriously?” a Canadian asks.
“My father is in the Communist Party,” Andrei replies seriously.
“Our children are different; they’re a bit reserved and there’s less self-confidence,” Mr. Tjulubachev says.
“We admire the freedom of children here and the relationship between children and leaders,” adds Mrs. Afinogenova. “They are good sportsmen, very strong and healthy. And on the children’s faces, we always see smiles.”
X“All the people are open and smiling, as if we have been close friends all the time,” says Anna, who smiles often herself.
Mrs. Afinogenova says Soviets aren’t ready to totally embrace North American ways. “We don’t know how to use (glasnost),” she says, adding that they’re not ready for democracy.
“Now we’re criticizing everything, silly things. It’s too bad.”
“People expected it to go much faster and we haven’t achieved much,” says Mr. Tjulubajev, who says he will lobby his government to spend more money on camps.
However, they’ll have only fond words for Canada and their visit when they return home on Saturday. “First we shall speak about the people,” Mrs. Afinogenova says.
A poem written by Wanakita counsellor Rebecca Lees.
With camp-smoke in my hair,
I head back to the city,
to the “real world”;
the land of Grown Ups.
And I do not mourn my departure;
for as long as I love dragonflies,
and messy hair,
and tired, sunburnt smiles,
and sand between my toes,
and the sudden laughter of children,
and the music in a thunderstorm,
and photographs of silly, scowly grins,
and the challenge of true friendship,
I know that I will take camp with me down
every road I travel.
This song was written for the 50th anniversary.
Guitar/vocal: Glen Herbert; Guitar solo/accordion/production: Jens Kruger; Bass; Joel Landsberg.
The Hockey Haven!
For most campers and staff, the Hockey Haven was simply a mystery. Yellow school buses roared back and forth along the W-E road, tearing up and down Cardiac Hill as they shuttled boys to and from the rink eight miles away at the Dysart Community Centre in Haliburton. Other than that whatever happened at the Haven stayed at the Haven.
But, really by any measure, what was happening there was impressive. In the mid-1960s two emerging personalities within professional hockey, Wren Blair and Jim Gregory, bought a parcel of property from Jim Emmerson property and launched the Hockey Haven in time for the 1964/65 season. Quickly, both Wren and Blair would become very prominent, with Blair serving as head coach of the Minnesota North Stars from 1967 to 1970 and the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1975-76. Gregory was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1969 to 1979, where he led the Leafs to eight playoff appearances. After 1979, he became the director of the NHL Central Scouting Bureau.
Back in the 1960s, when Gregory was still coaching and managing junior hockey, he had an idea to start a hockey training school at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. One day he mentioned this idea to a close friend and hockey associate, Blair, who liked the idea but suggested a different location: the Haliburton Highlands.
The name “Hockey Haven” was derived from the names of several cottages already on the Emerson property: Pine Haven, West Haven, Red Haven. At camp, campers had three to four hours of ice time each day. During a two week session, they spent anywhere from 32 to 37 hours playing hockey. Through his connections, Blair was able to attract a variety of hockey talent (from the junior, minor, and NHL franchises) to provide hockey instruction. Hockey players were paid anywhere from $75/week for Junior A players, to $250/week for NHL players. Players were lined up as much as a year in advance.
Appendix A: The landmarks
When it comes to camp, most of our memories tend to be centered on people and events. But the various “landmarks” around camp can also play an important role in our camp experience.
Seeing the totem pole the first time you pull into camp. Pulling the rope on the bell – when you weren’t supposed to. Lounging in the Longhouse on a cold, wet evening. Meeting friends on the basketball court for a quick game of 21. Catching a few rays on the dock on a sunny afternoon.
The landmark isn’t the memory. But the memory wouldn’t exist without the landmark.
With 1,000 acres of land, more than 100 building and a half-century of history, Wanakita has its share of landmarks. For many of us, the Wanakita we know or remember is shaped by those landmarks. Here’s the lore on just some of those landmark.
The Bayer Den –In 1957, the camp committee secured the support of the Mount Hamilton “Y” Men’s Club to fund the creation of a new health centre. Bought at the Sportsman Show in Toronto, it is pre-fabricated log cabin produced by Pan-Abode. Once constructed it had three bedrooms, a sitting area, a small kitchen/dispensing area and indoor plumbing. It was added onto over the years, and eventually became the home of the hemophilia program. Falling into disrepair, it was significantly refurbished through a grant from the Bayer Inc.
The Doghouse – Don Hambly recalls “I started as a Junior camper in ’55. You used to cross over the swamp on what used to be a bridge. There was a tiny little cabin just on the other side place called the Doghouse. It only had room for six people — five campers and one counselor. I was in there my first year.”
Corey’s Place (The Old Rattray Cottage, The SC Cottage, The Museum, Outtrippng) – Built in the early 1940’s and bought by the Y in 1964, this building has served many purposes. Beautifully located on 1.5 shoreline acres slightly away from the main campsite, it is now Corey’s Place with a shoreline santuary, amphitheatre and hosts in summer the performing arts programs. It was named in memory of Corey Buffo, a family camper who, in 1998, was diagnosed with a rare heart and lung disease. After Corey’s passing, the Buffo family became lifetime supporters of the camp. “I wanted to help ensure that all children had the opportunity to benefit from a YMCA Wanakita experience, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances,” said Brian Buffo, who became involved in the YMCA Strong Kids Campaign. “Corey’s passing was an unspeakable loss. To know something positive came out of this tragedy has really helped me. In fact, it became a lifeline.”
Cumberland House – A log cabin located at the far end of camp.
Day Camp Central (a.k.a. The Office, The Ice House) – The history of Day Camp Central is a prime example of camp ingenuity and evolution. Built at the tail end of the 1930s, the two-storey building was originally constructed as an ice house. Ice was cut from the lake in March and hauled up to the ice house. Carefully packed in sawdust to keep it insulated, the ice easily lasted until the fall. Throughout the summer, the ice was hauled, as needed, to the adjacent dining hall where it was used for refrigeration. Records indicate that a new ice house was built in 1942, leaving the structure available for other uses. During the ’50s, ’60s and into the ’70s, the camp’s summer office was located on one-half of the ground floor, while the tuck shop was located in the other half. The office was moved to the Longhouse during the 80’s when the camp started to run year-round and needed winterized office facilities. The tuck shop was moved to the Core in 1991.
Fenton Hall – Built in time for the 1967 season, it served as the dining hall until The Core was built in 1991. It boasts beautiful church-like arches and could easily seat 250 campers and staff. The location of Fenton Hall was a major decision. For several years, development of the camp hung in limbo pending a decision on where to build the new dining hall. When the camp committee settled on a location, the decision was also made to move cabins across the causeway. In short, the way was cleared for expansion. With the construction of an even bigger dining hall in 1991, Fenton Hall’s role as a dining hall came to an end. Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, it has served a dual role – grand hall and craft shop. “If it’s pouring rain and we have an opening campfire, we can fit the whole camp in it – 400-500 of us can be in that hall,” says general manager Steve Heming. The hall is filled with summer history. Each year a new panel is added listing the names of campers and staff for the previous year. The walls and ceilings are lined with such panels, dating back to the early 1970s. The kitchen – where meals were once cooked – now serves as the craft shop. Colourful murals adorn the walls, while the old walk-in refrigeration is used to store craft supplies. In the fall-winter session of 2012-13 Fenton Hall was used again as a dining hall while a new kitchen was being built on the Core.
Flagpole – The position of the flagpole has not really changed much over the years, although the pole itself has. In the early years of Lagakelo, the owners decided they needed a flagpole. The chosen location was between the old dining hall and the beach (then known as the girl’s beach). There was a tall, straight balsam in about the right spot. Barney Howe, the aging camp handyman (he was reportedly 65 plus at the time) climbed up the tree with his double-edged axe, cut off the top, installed a rope and pulley, and then worked his way down removing limbs and bark as he went. Near the top of the tree, he had seriously gashed the back of his hand from one side to the other. Rather than climb down and interrupt his work, he simply used balsam gum to seal the wound until he finished the job and got to the doctor.
H-Dock – Built to replace the T-dock in the 1960’s, the dock is still in use today at the West Beach. It has been turned 90 degrees, so more accurately should be known as the ‘I’ dock.
Health & Wellness Centre East – Renovated in the late 1990’s, this building serves the same purpose as the west Health Centre.
Health & Wellness Centre West – With the growth of Wanakita through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the need for a larger health facility became apparent. In the spring of 1995, the camp erected a new health & wellness centre. The new structure was built adjacent to the Old Health Centre (The Bayer Den), on the site of the all-camp campfire circle. (Of course, nobody remembered to dig up the Wanakita Charter first. The charter had been buried in the old campfire circle at the last closing campfire. That led to a bit of a panic just before the next opening campfire, where the charter was to be dug up as part of the ceremonies. Staff searched frantically but could not find it… ) The 2,000-square-foot health centre contains six bedrooms, a full kitchen, dispensary, examination room, nurse’s quarters, office, 4 full bathrooms, and a multi-use area. In the summer, the centre is an active health care facility. In the fall, winter and spring, it provides accommodations for Outdoor centre teachers and groups. The building was raised in what can be described as a modern-day barn-raising: a group of 100 from Toronto volunteered their time and skills over two weekends to put the building up.
Kybos –In the early days, kybos were communal: no partitions, just a series of porcelain “thrones” lined up in a row. One kybo boasted six seats (although it was later cut in half to create two three-seaters). With their multiple seats, kybos often became the location for many impromptu “staff meetings” – a place where staff could sit, have a smoke, catch up on the day’s gossip and, of course, use the facilities. “As the times changed and we went from boys to girls, we had to add partitions,” recalls Steve Heming. Not only were the traditional, multi-seat outhouses no longer socially acceptable, they were stretching the environmental envelope. In the mid-1970s, there was a move to more environmentally friendly and less aromatic flush toilets. As Wanakita evolved, more changes occurred. Development of the Core washrooms in 1991 and in 2003 two new major “wash houses” on the West side of camp, complete with proper flush toilets and showers. And all new year-round cabins being planned for the future will have their own bathrooms. (Kybo is an acronym for “keep your bowels open.”)
Lagakelo Lodge (WEP, Woodslore, Onalea) – A two-story, barn-like structure with a double hip roof, this building was erected over a long weekend in May 1941. It was originally named Onalea after the wife of the carpenter who helped put up the building. It was designed to provide open space and a room for a program director on the ground floor with sleeping accommodation upstairs for two cabin groups. Over the years, the lodge has had multiple uses and almost as many names. In the early days of Wanakita it was used to house campers and student counsellors. Through the 1960s it was used for woodslore on the main floor and staff accommodation on the second floor. The main floor was converted to a museum in the 1970s. By the 1990s it was being used for outtripping and WEP.
Lakeview Lodge Since the building of the Core the dining hall on East has been a very important program building housing crafts, a nature centre and an open hall for major indoor activities. Built in the mid 60’s when the Hockey Camp opened, the lodge is beautifully situated with large picture windows overlooking the East waterfront. It was featured extensively in the film, Camp Rock.
Longhouse (a.k.a. The RecHall, New Dining Hall) – Originally a cinder block building, the Longhouse was built as a temporary dining hall. A large stone fireplace made it an ideal place for the camp to congregate for all-camp sing-songs in inclement weather. With the aid of a Wintario grant, the Longhouse was revamped and winterized in the fall of 1977, in preparation for year-round operations. The upgraded building included a lounge area with a second fireplace, several bunkrooms, washroom/shower facilities, and a garage/workshop. A second addition in 1998 allowed the camp to move its registration facilities from its Hamilton office to the Wanakita site.
New Directors Cabin – Built in 1979 to accommodate an ever expanding camp this 3 bedroom home was built with large living room and fireplace to accommodate staff meetings. It currently is the home for Wanakita’s General Manager.
New Stockade – a smaller stockade was built on the East side of camp after it was purchased from the Hockey Haven. It was in the woods in the area behind the dining hall just at the trailhead for the Ridge Trail.
Old Dining Hall – A large and attractive building, it is the only major building that has been torn down. The Dining Hall evolved over time. The original structure, put up by Camp Lagakelo in the spring of 1938, consisted of a closed-in kitchen area with a room at each end, as well as a large dining area that consisted of a large canvas-covered frame superstructure. Because the canvas could not be pulled tight, large amounts of water would collect in the sagging canvas during heavy rains. The accepted way of dealing with this build-up of water was to take the brush end of a broom and carefully push the sagging canvas up until the water flowed over the edge. The dining area was enlarged and fully enclosed for the 1939 camp season, and office space was added. In 1941, two 2-storey additions were added at 45-degree angles to the main structure to create an enlarged kitchen area, more living space for staff, and provide space for an office and tuck shop. This building served as the main dining facility until 1967. Throughout the 1950s, numerous annual reports talked about the poor condition of the building. After a new dining hall(Fenton Hall) was built in 1967, the old dining hall was used briefly as a craft shop. In the late 1960s, it was labeled unsafe for use and was torn down. As you look from Day Camp Central toward the water, you can still see the original concrete steps – now known as the “Steps to Nowhere.”
Old Stockade – The stockade began as a pen for raising chickens and later pigs in the 1940s. In his camp memoirs, Garth Kaye noted that his family raised chickens as a special Sunday dinner treat. The chickens were reportedly kept in pens “in the bush behind the boys camp.” When Wanakita moved in, the fortress-like appearance of the stockade with its slat-board walls made it an ideal location for “Indian Pow Wows” during the early days of Wanakita. Large rocks within the stockade were brightly painted with so-called native symbols and a fire pit was added. The walls were replaced with taller log-pole walls. The stockade fell into disrepair and was taken down in 2003 in order to make room for a series of new, winterized cabins.
Physo – A three-section motel-style cabin – dubbed Physo Cottage – was donated and built by the Hamilton Y’s Physo Club in the summer of 1954. This cabin is located on the south side of the Government Road outside the main camp area. It has been winterized and is still in use as staff accommodation.
Ski Lodge The Ski Lodge was built in 1979 as part of a major capital expenditure to prepare the camp for year-round operations. The lodge provides a home for the camp’s cross-country ski equipment. Located in the playfield, the lodge has easy access to the camp’s 25 kilometres of trails. Before the lodge was constructed, cross-country skis and snowshoes were kept in the Waterfront Cabin during the winter and stored away in the summer. In summer’s the lodge has been used as accommodation for staff.
T-Dock – It was the swimming dock in the 60’s with two major rafts. Used as the F canoeing dock in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the same wood and structure was moved to create a bridge to span the inlet to get to the middle beach and Corey’s place.
The Bell – As long as anyone can remember, campers at Wanakita have been roused from their slumber by the sound of the bell. It’s believed the original bell was damaged and replaced in 1961. The 1961 annual report notes: “Our new camp bell was a great acquisition and really proved effective.” The bell – believed to be a brass bell from a locomotive – is also used to announce meal times and camp activities. Originally, the bell was located on the second-floor porch of what is now Day Camp Central. When cabins were moved to the other side of the causeway in the late 1960s, the bell was subsequently relocated to a new site adjacent to the West canoeing area where it remains today.
The Core Built in 1991, Fully winterized to serve the newly expanded(addition of the Hockey Camp property) Wanakita, 14000 sq.ft…upper floor dining and kitchen, lower floor program offices, washrooms,laundry, bulk food storage. It can seat over 500 in summer and has allowed Wanakita to host summer camps and fall/winter/spring school, family and adult groups as well as weddings, conference dinners etc.The dining Hall has always been the central, most important building in camp and the Core took this to a new level.
The Duplex – Winterized staff living quarters, the Duplex was built in 1978 as the camp geared up for year-round operations. The Duplex consists of two self-contained staff units, each with its own kitchen and bathroom facilities. A basement dwelling has been created over the years as well. This building was the first official dwelling built specifically to house year round staff.
The Old Director’s Cabin A small three-bedroom cottage with a stone fireplace built in the late 1930s, the Old Director’s Cabin is located on the western edge of the camp property on the west side of the Government Road. It was originally built as a rental building where renters could prepare their own meals. After Wanakita bought the camp in 1953 it became the camp director’s cabin. When a bigger and better director’s cabin was built in 1979, the cottage became the home of the assistant director.
The Old Hospital – Built in 1937, the cabin had two hospital rooms on each side and sleeping quarters in the middle for the camp nurse. This small cabin was originally located on the water’s edge at the end of the Government Road. However, this turned out to be an unfortunate location. Annual reports from the early ’50s noted that the low-lying location created a rather damp environment.
The Swamp and the Causeways There are two narrow stretches of land separating the lake and swamp on the west side of camp running between the waterfront and the canoeing area. The causeways were built in the mid 1950s to span a stream that runs through camp. When water levels were low, the stream was small enough that campers could almost jump over it. But in the spring and early summer, when water levels peaked, a 15-metre stretch of water divided the camp. In the days of Camp Lagakelo, a rope bridge was built to span the divide. But by the mid-1950s, the bridge needed replacing and, in the fall of 1956, it was replaced with a soil and stone causeway. With the creation of the two causeways a pond was created where wildlife abounds and children over the decades have enjoyed catching frogs and watching for the beavers, snapping turtles and the great blue heron that reside in and around the swamp. As well, many a staff has experienced the dunking in the very weedy, cold and aromatic waters of the swamp after being found guilty in a Kangaroo Court case.
The West Basketball court – It was tennis, not basketball, that first prompted construction of the court in 1939. Although the court was upgraded in 1940 and surround netting put up in 1942, tennis never really caught on as a camp activity. By the 1960s, tennis at camp was nothing but a memory. Basketball nets adorned each end of the court and a volleyball net was strung across the middle. During the 1970s, the court was the site of many impromptu volleyball games as campers filed out of Fenton Hall after dinner. With the move to year-round operations in the late ’70s, the court took on new roles as skating rink and broomball court. In 2001, the camp replaced the court’s ragged tar-gravel surface with a smooth layer of asphalt, becoming the first asphalt ever laid at Wanakita. New basketball nets were also installed. The upgrade was made possible through money received from the Fergie Jenkins Foundation. Jenkins, a Baseball Hall of Famer and former Harlem Globtrotter, flew into camp to officially open the newly revamped court.
The Workshop (The Craft Shop, The Rec Hall) – This a barn-like structure located behind Fenton Hall. Records indicate that the Workshop was built in 1942. Part of the bottom floor once served as a woodslore/crafts centre. Throughout the 1970s, the craft shop was located in the upstairs, while part of the downstairs housed a meeting area for student counsellors. The entire ground floor is currently used as a year round maintenance workshop; the upstairs is used for storage.
Ville Marie, Cartier, Hudson (a.k.a. Sunrise, middle waterfront, sailing/out-tripping) – Three cabins built in the spring of 1938, in time for the opening of Camp Lagakelo. The cabins are still located along the shoreline on the west side of camp, near the day camp flagpole. The cabins were given names of places or people from the early days of Canada’s exploration. Up until the mid-1960s, these cabins were used to house summer campers. Since then, the cabins have had various uses. One was used for out-tripping supplies in the 1970s. One is still used as the sailing cabin. All three cabins have, at various times, been used to house staff.
Waterfront Cabin – The Waterfront cabin is probably one of five log cabins built in the late 1930s. The cabins are believed to have been built by a group of Finnish men from Scots Dam. Excellent builders of log structures, the men were hired by the owner of Lagakelo to build three cabins on the east side of the swamp, one on the west side, and another for renters just west of the Government Road. Since the 1960s, or perhaps even earlier, the cabin has been used by summer camp staff including the waterfront director. In the later half of the 1970s, it was also used during the winter months as the ski and snowshoe hut.
Appendix B: Camp timeline
9 thoughts on “Wanakita history”
Thank you for this history.
I was a C.I.T. at Wanakita the summer of 1969. Dave Glennie had recruited me in Burlington. It was a wonderful summer, and I do remember the girls arriving for the first time. In my recollection the guys welcomed them with open arms – quite literally – there were a number a romances among the counselors.
You don’t mention the Jamaicans. At that time the Hamilton YMCA had an exchange program with the Kingston Jamaica YMCA, and there was a group of the most fun loving Jamaicans at camp that summer. I guess I did a pretty good job at Wanakita, because I was chosen to go to Jamaica the following summer on that program. It was a life changing experience, and by no means a holiday.
I never returned to Wanakita, but it remains one of my fondest memories. I still have the canoe paddle I made that summer hanging on my wall.
I left Ontario in 1971 and wandered the world for a few years before ending up in California. I hadn’t returned to Ontario until last week, when I did a nostalgia trip to the area. Burlington sure has changed. That trip is what prompted me to do a search of various things from my past. I was pleased to discover that Wanakita was still around and thriving.
The most enduring memory I have from camp is a campfire song I learned that summer. It is the only place I have ever heard it. I have sung it at countless campfires over the years. I hope they still sing it at camp. I have done a lot of “movin’ on” throughout my life and this been my theme song along the way.
Must be on my way
must be movin’ on
but as I go
I’ll sing this song.
no roof for me
no roof have I
but I own the stars
neath the open sky.
One thing I know
and I know it’s true
I’m a better man
for the knowin’ of you.
We’ll meet again
As the years roll by
and we’ll sing this song
neath the open sky.
One thing I know
and I know it’s true
I’m a better man
for the knowin’ of you.
San Diego California
I was at Camp Lagakelo the summer of 1941, the month of July as a camper — fell in love with the horses even to mucking out the stables – Black Babe, Beauty, and Garth’s horse, Fred taught riding in the paddock and the riders had to pass a riding test. Wonderful days! When VJ day (middle of August, 1945, was announced, some consellors and councellosd-in-training from both the boyd’ camp as well as the girls’ took the horses and a open back- truck into Haliburton to celebrate! Lillian nee Gerrier from Oshawa.
It is so great to hear from you! Thanks very much for writing. Would love to hear more about your time at Lagakelo as well as the feeling there on VJ day. I believe that the horse barn is now the maintenance shop. I understand that it may be the oldest building on site. Thanks again for your comment here.
I never went to Wanakita as a camper, but it was an integral part of my childhood as a cottager on Koshlong Lake. I took my swimming lessons there on the big “H” dock. I can still see canoes rounding the point as campers took trips to Bark Lake, or back. I remember hearing the bell ringing from across the lake at mealtimes on quiet days, and sometimes even a “Ring the bell!!” being shouted out right before the bell began to ring. I was over on Halls Island, so we’d normally only hear the shout in the morning, of course, even a bit of wind would blow the sound away.
I guess Ham Harrison must have sold a fair bit of land as my family bought three islands and some mainland property at about the same time as the Kays bought the camp.
My grandmother, Mary Halls, knew the Kays, and she thought Alvin was a bit of an odd duck. She told the story of one of his dogs (a St Bernard) several times, and how he was so unhappy after it died that he had it skinned and the hide mounted up over the fireplace in one of the camp buildings.
Certainly we were always glad they were neighbours and always appreciated the support they gave to cottagers on the lake.
Camp Wanakita provided many lasting memories for me.
As my Birthday is in September I was allowed to attend Camp for 2 weeks as an underage Junior Camper, this was because my older brother Peter Buxton was a Councillor at Camp and would be there at the same time as me. That was about 1961.
This is the same year that Murray McLaughlin was a Counsellor. In fact his cabin was right beside mine. The last 2 Junior cabins before the causeway.
Some nights our cabin and Murray’s cabin would share a campfire. Murray would bring out his guitar and we’d have wonderful sing a long. Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowing in the Wind etc.
I came back every year. I was voted Little Chief of the Junior Camper’s one year and Big Chief of the Senior Camper’s another. I don’t think either of these accomplishments were because of any skill I possessed. Probably more because I Loved camp. Maybe my enthusiasm shone through? I eventually tested and became a Master Canoeist. I had very encouraging staff helping me every step of the way.
Eventually I came to camp as an SC. About 1968-70. Gavin Cooke was our Leader and I believe we were housed at Rattrey’s Cabin. I also think we were CO-ED SC’s. Also as Co-Ed Trippers Gavin Cooke led us from Kiosk to Whitney in Algonquin Park in 4 days. Huge achievement, great CO-ED SC’s working together. If nothing else we AL learned leadership can be fun and the work easier through talking the problem out and togetherness/teamwork.
The next year I went to Bark Lake Camp for their L.I.T. program. A respected leadership program for a month. Also CO-ED.
Many of my friends at home in Burlington would say “your parents send you away every summer?” I would rebutt them with “there is nowhere I’d rather be in the summer than Camp.” Camp Wanakita! “Wanakita you’re our champ everyday that we’re at Camp.”
Love this! Thanks for writing.
Very well done excellent. Are you printing it out?
Hi Edward. There’s no plan to print it. It’s just a project that I’ve been picking away at over the years.
Excellent how you going to print it out so people can buy it?