As the closing date on an iconic piece of real estate draws closer, former and current members of Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore can rest assured that they did everything they could, for over 40 years to provide a naturally gifted space in northern Ontario for countless children and youth. While Camp Wakonda has been sold, the memories and experiences shared and lived on the grounds, will continue in perpetuity.
Camp Wakonda sits along the sandy shores of McCarroll’s Lake, about 25 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. A beautiful drive along Hwy 638 will eventually lead a person to the elevated signage over the entrance that marks the long driveway into Camp Wakonda.
(the following is an excerpt from campwakonda.ca)
‘In 1937, an old manse at Gordon Lake was purchased and torn down to obtain the lumber to build a two storey building and the two cabins. The lodge was known as “The House That Tony Built”.
Boys and Girls could be seen in the evenings straightening nails on the back steps of the manse so that the caretaker,(Mr. Tony Cherwoniuk), two other Ukrainian carpenters, Rev. I. G. Perkins, and members of the congregation might hammer them into the new building the next day. While the carpenters were busy with the building, others were busy clearing the water front of its many stumps and logs, often using a team of horses to winch out the stubborn roots. For years, the camps (boys, girls, young people and family) were under the leadership of All Peoples United Church. Later, the property was rented for one month each summer to the Presbytery Committee for the Algoma Summer School Camp, for a nominal fee of $1.50 per day. Wakonda was sold to the Sault and District Council of the Christian Education in September 1947 for $1,800.00.’ (from the History of John Wesley United Church printed in 1975.)
”We wanted to make the facility available for groups, non-profits, organizations and businesses, to be able to use, for a nominal fee in order to experience the outdoors.” said Dave Shier, Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore member.
“The city, (Sault Ste. Marie) at that time, rented Camp Wakonda for approx. 6 weeks each summer and ran the camps. After government grants dried up, and the city could no longer undertake the ongoing operation of the summer camps, Lakeshore Kiwanis began operating them, in 1995.”
In 2003, Lakeshore Kiwanians began a mammoth project to rebuild the main lodge. “The original lodge was torn down right up to the kitchen.” he said. “A new foundation, in-floor heating, all new roof, windows, and siding, and extensive renovations to the interior including the kitchen and washrooms took place. We received a Trillium grant of $25,000 towards the project and the rest Lakeshore Kiwanis funded ourselves.”
The renovation to the lodge cost around $200,000.
“Back in the early days, (after purchasing Wakonda) around 1997, we received $40,000 from the Variety Club of Ontario, and we built the building known as Variety Village. The brand new building had 7 bedrooms, and 4 bunks in each room, brand new ladies’ and men’s washrooms.”
A space was also built for a medical facility at the back of Variety Village that could be used for the camp nurse, and first aid treatments.
The Camp Wakonda grounds boast 5 cabins along the sandy lakeshore. “In total, there are enough cabin spaces to sleep 36 people. Other structures include Gitchigoomie cabin which would sleep 12 and another large cabin that slept 8.”
“The main lodge in the early days was named in memory of Rusty Chalmers who was one of the past presidents of Kiwanis. William ‘Bill’ Chalmers, was Club President in 1968, 7 years after our club was started.” said Dave Shier.
“One of the greatest things about Camp Wakonda for our Kiwanis club has been the caretakers we have had since we bought it.” said Dave Shier. “Without them, Kiwanis would not have been able to do as well as we did. The caretakers did the work of general maintenance, checking in rentals, cleaning facilities when rental and summer camp was on. They were a constant presence for us on the grounds. They have all been wonderful. Each of them brought a strength and strong set of skills in their work, which helped us so much in the ongoing upkeep of the camp. The last eight years we were fortunate to have Derek Hanson as our caretaker.”
Donna Shier has been a constant presence for Camp Wakonda as well. As Camp Administrator, Donna began a journey in 1998 that she thought would be for one summer, but one summer led to another, ultimately becoming 19 years.
“I was with Bon Soo back then, (1998) and I was encouraged to take a look at the programming, and overall organization of the camp. And that, then, worked into more than one summer.” shared Donna.
19 years later, Donna has many memories, and for her, the enrichment she received from the young people who made up the contingent of staff each year are the most cherished.
“The joy for me was in hiring the young staff each year. Some of the camp directors were young people who originally flourished at Camp Wakonda as Councilors or C.I.T’s (councilors in training).
“Lakeshore Kiwanis gave an opportunity for the young staff to build life-long skills. Some of them even ended up changing their goals and charting a new path. Working with youth, or becoming teachers, for example.” she said.
“To be a camp councilor, you are working 24 hrs. a day, and there are many things for a person to deal with. The staff at Camp Wakonda were all special young people to me. This is what gives me hope, knowing that there are some really great kids out there.”
“C.I.T.’s, Councilors, every single staff person had been a camper at one time. One of our councilors had been at camp since she was 7 years old. You have kids that are campers, and then they become C.I.T.’s and Councilors. These kids love camp. They flourished at camp, and became a family.”
There is a spirit that lives inside camp councilors and camp directors to be sure. Councilors guide a diverse group of youngsters in a robust schedule of daily activities, complimented with fresh air, polar bear dips, and swimming in McCarroll’s Lake. Camp provides dining experiences like no other, (get-your-elbow-off-the-table) complete with drumming on tables, stomping of unison feet, sung grace in all kinds of ways, KP duty, cabin clean-up, outdoor games, skits, and of course, the tossing of camp councilors by campers into the lake. The evening always held promise (weather permitting) for a campfire and camp songs. A vespers tradition to bring the day to a close.
The last supper held at Camp Wakonda
“It was so emotional to leave the kids this year. They were like family amongst themselves. We called them ‘the dream team’. They were all equally devoted to camp. These kids came to camp to work because they love it.” she said.
Reflecting on the campers, Donna shared, “I’ve witnessed youngsters who hadn’t been in many meaningful social situations. Where they are the centre of attention. Where a whole day is planned around them. Where they can experience the great outdoors.” Adding, “We did receive children through Children’s Aid and Big Brothers (for example) and other child and youth service organizations. There were no electronic devices allowed. At camp, the kids made friends, some who will be life-long. All the children were accepted equally at camp. They came to a safe place where they could just be, kids.”
Donna spoke about developing a manual for Camp Wakonda with her first Camp Director, Jacqueline Harrison. “She helped me immensely in developing the Wakonda manual, which we used right up until the final camp this summer.”
On October 2nd, 2016, former and current members of Kiwanis, and about a hundred of their closest friends and Camp Wakonda champions gathered together for a final ‘campfire’ at the Wakonda Lodge. It was an evening to reflect on the beauty of the grounds, and on the tireless work of members of Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore and Camp Wakonda staff and volunteers.
“When the function happened (Oct.2) at Wakonda to honour the final closing, I was quite emotional. Seeing so many of the former staff was very special.”
During the final Wakonda party, Kiwanis Lakeshore presented Donna with a photograph of a winters’ scene taken of the bridge that was once part of Wakonda’s geography, and holds special memories for her. Donna and Dave Shier were married at Camp Wakonda 6 years ago.
Camp Wakonda was officially listed for sale in August 2015. The sale closes October 21st,2016. “Everything we needed to do has been done. The camp and the two parcels of property associated with the camp has been sold.” said Dave Shier.
“Lakeshore Kiwanis will still own the house near the road where the caretaker lives, along with the 7 1/2 acres that goes with the house.”
Insofar as who purchased Camp Wakonda, “I can tell you that the name on the original contract (sale of property) is somebody locally. It’s someone that has an interest on the lake already.” The sale price is undisclosed at this time.
Camp Wakonda has been a place where many young people from the Algoma district, and from places further afield, have come to grow and develop as citizens; to learn an appreciation for wild things. A place where all were equal, and all were welcome.
The Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore has done a tremendous service to the children and youth through their work to keep Camp Wakonda going for as long as they did. Work bees to keep the structures and infrastructure in good working condition continued throughout the 40 years they owned the camp. As a community, we are in their debt.
Thank you to Dave Shier and Ford Upton for providing the photographs used in the story. And to Donna and Dave for sharing reflections of Camp Wakonda with saultonline.