Some 200 former campers and their families arrive for a reunion at Camp Pathfinder one glorious weekend in August to find the power knocked out by a summer storm.
But Camp Pathfinder specializes in canoe trips all over Algonquin Park, as well as other parts of Ontario and into Quebec, so these alumni are used to roughing it. A sign in the outfitting building sums up the ideal attitude: "No Snivelling."
It's this kind of spirit that makes going to camp a way of life for many Canadian families. That can surprise people from other countries. Kids head off to live with peers in the outdoors for a stretch each summer, learning new skills, having fun and building character. Even among families with cottages, many believe there's no substitute for going to camp, and they pass that tradition on through the years.
Take the Goodwins: Four generations have walloped dishes on canoe trips from Camp Pathfinder. Walloping? That's when you rub pine needles and sand on dirty dishes before rinsing them in the lake.
Three generations are on hand for the camp's 90th reunion: Ted, his son Charlie, and Charlie's son Timothy, 11, fresh from his second year at Camp Pathfinder.
Ted Goodwin's own father Fred and a couple of Ted's uncles attended camp before him, arriving by train, as did Ted, who first attended Camp Pathfinder in 1938.
I predated Hydro, although Bell Canada arrived before I did. I came through the war years Camp Pathfinder played host to four generations of the Goodwin family in August 2003. Attending the camp's 90th reunion are three of those generations, from left, Ted, his son Charlie and Charlie's son Timothy. I enjoyed the canoe tripping. I still have friends from that era, people I have one place in common with.
"There was no doubt in my mind," says Ted, that his son would follow him to Camp Pathfinder.
In his late teens, Charlie went on to be a staff member at the camp for three years.
"As you get older, the quietness of the park really draws you. It really is so inspiring," Charlie says. "As soon as you get off the bigger islands, you can go days without seeing anyone."
These days, it's hard to get Timothy to come home. "It's a really cool place," exclaims Timothy, who discovered that Sunday dinners finish off with especially good desserts.
"He likes the whole atmosphere, the trips (and) a lot of fun activities like the challenge course," complete with climbing wall.
Out on canoe trips — his lasted seven days — Timothy boasts that "campers do all the tent things" while the counsellors collect wood.
And will Timothy send his own kids someday? "I probably will," he says.
Geoff Park, director of Camp Summit in Squamish, British Columbia, says camp is the perfect place to live with peers while learning to communicate, build team spirit and solve problems. "It's also a great venue to gain crucial skills in activities," and overcome reluctance to try new things.
"The reason it works at camp is that it's a safe and supportive community environment, with a great staff that really helps to develop each child, both in a group setting and as an individual, to try to get each child to the next level."
As for friendship, Park says he met all his present day best friends while at camp.
Shirley Adams can relate. At age 75, she still gets together with women she went to Camp Tanamakoon with 60 years ago, and reminisces about canoeing and sleeping on beds of balsam branches covered with a waterproof sheet in Algonquin Park.
Adams' daughter, Kathy Gray, is a third-generation cottager who knows the pleasures of gathering the family at the lake. Yet for her, owning a cottage is no reason for children to miss out on summer camp. Adams, 48, and her sister, Judy, 45, also attended Camp Tanamakoon, like their mother.
Gray made sure that her children — Kate, 22, Adam, 20, Will, 15, and Jimmy D, 13 — headed to camp for a month each summer. Kate attended Tanamakoon and the boys all started at Camp Ponacka near Bancroft, Ontario at age 10. Jimmy D started a year earlier, "desperate" to be there the year big brother Adam started as a counsellor.
"You get to meet kids from all over the world," enthuses Jimmy D, citing new pals from Switzerland, Bermuda, Mexico, Spain, Peru, Brazil and "tons of people from the States."
Why a month? Relaxing outside her cottage on Leonard Lake, Gray explains: Camps that offer a month seldom offer less. The first week the kids are homesick, the second they're over it and into activities, the third week they're really into it and the fourth they don't want to go home. As well, a month's training provides the chance to become more proficient in boating, swimming and canoeing. And unlike at a cottage, camp fosters independence in a structured environment that isn't school, just one more benefit of summer camp.
At home, parents might cave in to whining. At camp, counsellors urge them on: "Come on, get with it."
Moreover, Gray says, "At girls camp, girls have to take on responsibilities that are often given to boys, and at boys camp boys on canoe trips make meals and clean up."
It all makes for memories that last. Gray still recalls the wisdom of an aboriginal guide who saw her trying to fish a bit of dirt out of the purified water/Kool-Aid mixture she was concocting. "A little bit of Algonquin never hurt anybody," he said.
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