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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Extended canoe tripping at Camp Stephens -- How the six week started

By Doug McEwen

Doug McEwen and Jim King in 1969

My memory has faded a little after 44 years, but the 1969 six week canoe trip was an “evolution” of canoe tripping at Camp Stephens. 

Actually, some of that evolution is highly personalized from my own growth and development in the YMCA and through my professional involvement in children’s residential camping. 

I liked to think there was a high level of my own leadership in that evolution but much of that effort was led by others – Punch Jackson, Jim King, and so many of their peers. What greatly helped too were the associations we formed with others in the camping fraternity.

Thus, for this document, I have broken the material into three parts:
Part A: My Personal Input
Part B: The Partnerships and Influences that we formed with others.
Part C: Balancing Risks & Adventure in Camping Excellence.

Part A:   Camp Stephens is in my bones

In 1919 my father, Nelson McEwen, from Charlottetown, P.E.I., at the age of 22 was hired as Assistant Boys Work Secretary in the Winnipeg YMCA. There was no camp program that year because of the Spanish Flu epidemic but the following year he assisted at Camp Stephens and set several things in motion. He founded the Order of the Triangle (Secret societies were a rage at the time and he recruited and worked with many young men – among them, Mitchel Sharp, Bill Master (here my memory escapes – I saw a photo album once with the pictures of 23 young men, actually teenagers). From this group came a number of leaders in Y Youth programs during that time and things like the old chapel altar was a project as well as the first Order of CS. Nelson personally directed Camp Stephens from 1924 to 1927 (I think) and then was recruited to serve as the Boys Work Secretary in the Montreal YMCA and also directed Camp Kanawana of the Montreal Y. He served that post for ten years before being seconded to the National Council of YMCA’s in 1937 as National Boys Work Secretary. 

During his years in that position, he developed the Hi-Y program to a massive size and conducted two National Assemblies of Hi-Y in 1940 and 1946 at Geneva Park. Interestingly along with his good friend, Taylor Statten, he founded the Canadian Camping Association in 1946 and served as Secretary while Taylor was President. It should be remembered that much of the discipline of group work (i.e. a whole understanding of how youth grow and develop in informal group programs) - like cabin groups and club groups was developed in the YMCA and especially in children’s residential camps during the 1920s, 30s and 40s! (Also during his National Council years Nelson met and married Winifred Maynard and became father to yours truly in the spring of 1940). And thus it was that my own interest and focus in YMCA Youth programing and camping got somewhat of a ‘genetic’ start.

In 1947 Nelson McEwen was offered and accepted the position of General Secretary in the Saint John YMCA. (It was during his service there that he recruited men like Ross Bannerman, Lloyd and Niles Ring, Doug Allen who all went on to make contributions in the Saint John  and Canadian YMCAs). It was also there that I started my own camping activity at Camp Pascobac of the Saint John YMCA and progressed in my swimming skills. (Camp Pascobac in 1951 was directed by Ross Bannerman – my first Camp director! Ross was subsequently recruited by my Dad to Winnipeg where he established the St. James YMCA branch and personally directed Camp Stephens in 1956. Ross went on and in due course became CEO of the Montreal YMCA in the late 1970s).

It was in 1951 that the Winnipeg YMCA was ready to grow beyond the downtown building and North End Branch. Nelson was offered and accepted the position as the first Metropolitan General Secretary of the Winnipeg YMCA. 

It was at the Central Branch that I enrolled in swim and gym classes and was pleasantly surprised to be invited to join the Junior Leaders Corps. (Those were the days when Sid Glenesk and Bill Halstead were staff in the Phys Ed Department and Frank Hoffman and Alex Owen held sway in the Boys Work Department) When Bill Halstead asked me to join Junior Leaders he visibly blushed when I told him my name in response to his question – he had not known that I was Nelson’s son! It was important to me that I was chosen for myself and not simply as the son of the boss. 

Certainly as time went on, I grew through the Leaders corps, Hi-Y, the Gymnastics Club and the Trident Youth Club at the Y and started my Camp Stephens relationship in 1952 as a camper in Better ’Ole with Gord Danzinger as my counsellor. I returned for two more years as a camper in 1953 and 1954. In 1955 I was able to serve as a C.I.T. even though I had been chosen to attend the World Centennial YMCA Youth Conference in Paris, France. I served only one year as a Camp counsellor at Stephens in 1956 as in 1957 and 1958 I served as a Section Director at Day Camp at Camp Manitou. I returned to Stephens as Waterfront Director in 1959 and then in 1960 I served as Senior Section Director and ‘Tripper’. Those two years were pivotal to my development in youth programming endeavours and in camping as an unique method of youth growth and development.

During these years, I was trusted with responsibilities that outstripped my skills and maturity but which massively challenged me to think away beyond the simple transmission of swimming/boating skills and camping/canoeing. As I later moved into YMCA programming and camping as a professional, this ‘initiation’ served me well to conceptualize the bigger picture as to how these elements result in the growth and character development of young people. (But more of that theme later).

In addition to my camping focus, I was privileged to be a Fellowship Secretary in the Winnipeg YMCA during my University years (1958 to 1961). While much of this consisted of teaching swimming and lifeguarding swimming pools, it was also an opportunity to begin thinking beyond skills transmission to both quality in instruction and developing programs which offered ‘age-graded’ opportunities beyond simply repeated experiences in group activity.

As I entered my last year in university, my Fellowship experience was moved from Central Y to the St. James Branch, where my continuing development was heavily influenced by Ross Bannerman and Tom Potts. It was Ross who offered me my first full-time YMCA position in Winnipeg. He competed effectively with Ham Gosse of the Regina YMCA. (These two men would both describe themselves as Nelson McEwen’s boys in their YMCA careers. Despite the fact that my father died while still in active Y service in 1956, these men seemed desirous of training and challenging the son of their former mentor).

With my graduation and then employment in the “non-physical education” aspect of YMCA programming, an important time of my personal growth came in applying group work skills to an important component the breadth of YMCA programming as it was then evolving. Tragically, as we were unable to ‘commercialise’ this aspect of YMCA activity what is probably the most significant component of character development, uniquely crafted to near perfection by the YMCA, has now been lost to stuffy and now irrelevant papers like this one!

In any event, the summers of 1961, 1962 and 1963 saw me, not at Camp Stephens but in leading and developing Day Camping as a significant program in the Winnipeg YMCA. (It was during this period that I did postgraduate study of group psychology, continued my interest in literary criticism of the Bible and got actively involved in municipal, provincial and federal politics. It was also during this time that, on behalf of the Y,

I gave fairly significant leadership to the annual Boys (later Youth) Parliament movement in Manitoba which expanded the interests of youth beyond swimming, clubs and camping to social/political/debating interests as well. It was a challenging and active time).

I returned to Camp Stephens in 1964 to assist Hal Studholme for two summers before succeeding him and expanding the senior YMCA camping position as the first full-time Director of Camping for the YMCA at the Winnipeg ‘Metro’ level.

Part B. Winnipeg YMCA Camping Development and Partnering in the late 1960’s

During the period of 1966 through to and including the years to the autumn of 1970 were golden years for camping development in Winnipeg.
1.  In 1967, I was elected to the position of President of the Canadian Camping Association and with other Manitoba camping personnel; we tried to give leadership to residential camping development across Canada. It was Canada’s Centennial year and we conducted the Centennial Journey where teams from Canadian residential camps journeyed by canoe through historic Canadian waterways. (Camp Stephens was chosen to traverse the Winnipeg River from the Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg as a part of that venture, successfully co-ordinated by John Latimer of Camp Kilcoo in Ontario).
2.    Through my (Canadian Camping Association) CCA involvement I worked with Dr. Kirk Wipper (a Phys Ed professor at the U of Toronto and a private children’s camp owner, not to mention the developer of the Canadian Canoe Museum) I got Kirk to come to Camp Stephens to conduct a canoeing instruction program and shared many ideas about canoe tripping and ‘trail experience’ between his camp and our camp staff. In my memory, John MacBeth shone from Kirk’s expertise in canoeing and went on to give significant leadership, not only to us at Stephens but also in other locations. I remember our staff being very impressed with the ‘Kevlar’ canoes from Camp Kandalore (Kirk’s camp).
3.  Similarly, as President of CCA I met and worked with Armand Ball who was President of the American Camping Association and Director of a Camp Widjiwagen in the Superior National Forest. Through him, our staff were exposed to his excellent canoe tripping program where his canoes never touched anything but water; his camp’s canoe trips, frequently long ones, traced historic canoe routes of both Canadian and American explorers; and two-packing of canoes was ‘de rigeur’. I believe, if memory serves me correctly, Jim King was a primary beneficiary of this exposure and led to his own excellence as a canoe trip leader.
4.  It was also through this period that I obtained numerous opportunities and exposures with others professionally engaged in children’s residential camping to conduct camping leadership seminars where our professional leadership was challenged to provide training opportunities for our peers in camps and through developing centres of outdoor education at universities. I considered myself highly flattered to assist in the founding of the Saskatchewan Camping Association and provide co-leadership with Bob Johnson of Camp White Bear in their first Camping Conference. That ultimately led to my own opportunity to give key leadership to the Alberta Camping Association Conference in February of 1971.
5.    From the wealth of exposure to other centres of camping excellence came some recognition of Camp Stephens as a camp way beyond most institutional children’s camps of the day and gave a confidence to our staff which set us in good stead for the future. In recognition I served on the Board of the National Symposium of Recreation for Expo ’67 and was also made a Charter Fellow of the Canadian Society of Camp Directors and have retained my active status to this day.
6.    While Camp Stephens, since the late 1960’s has been known for its canoeing and tripping expertise, there was also, in that period, significant investment in other things that lead to excellence in children’s residential camping.
During that period all of the camper cabins were replaced; the Canoe Centre and tripping depot was built; some ‘jungle’ undergrowth in main camp area was reduced; hydroelectric power was extended to camp from Town Island; and a 9 boat sailing fleet made up of ‘Snipe’ class sailboats from the Pan Am Games (purchased by individuals but then donated by these same persons!) was received and we set up a sailing program.
Without in any way denigrating the Camp Stephens focus on canoes and Canoe tripping, during this period Camp Stephens also
-   Developed its the sailing program,
-   Place a focus on research in camp staff training,
-  Led Canadian research examining experience and personality characteristics to predict ‘success’ in Camp staffing (in partnership with Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal,
-       Hosted the conduct of French Immersion camping,
-       Organized a National seminar on Intercultural camping,
-       Gave some extended leadership to Outdoor Education through Universities and school divisions,
-       Conducted, and an attempt at some girls’ Camping. (Unfortunately, while we examined the idea, Family and Young Adult Camping while experimented with earlier never really got restarted after the closing of Winnipeg YMCA Camp Pala, north of Minaki in 1954).

In tracing historic connections, partnerships and the ‘evolution’ of camping at Camp Stephens, what can be easily overlooked is what camping truly is and is meant to be. Bear with me here, while I attempt to be succinct and identify the components of excellence in children’s residential camping (This then also applies to canoe tripping and extended canoe trips).
1.    By definition, camping takes place in the out of doors. There is a skill set required to limit the risks associated with weather, the natural setting, water (or snow or mountains or horses or sailboats or any other prospective focal venture). These skills must be a focus for safety, of course, but also because the mastery of outdoor skills is interesting, challenging and fun.
2.    Also by definition in the sense of ‘organized’ camping it is not a ‘solo’ activity. Camping for its greatest value is undertaken in groups. Groups may be large but are most successful when focused on four to ten campers living and functioning together – not just for a few hours at a time but 24 hours a day for, in my view, at very least, a week and preferably somewhat longer. This sustained experience and interplay of personalities provides an intensity which, if conducted well, can be the single most effective means of changing or developing attitudes and behaviour of people in groups. To my mind six weeks on the trail with a peer group can be a life changing or more particularly an evolving experience which is unique in developmental terms.
3.    Camping is ‘shared living’ – being a lot of common activity such as cooking, eating, sleeping, just talking and playing together. In saying that, sharing also benefits from a brief respite to be alone, yay, even naked in the breeze on a hilltop, or deep in thought staring into a starry sky with only loons for company and a million other possibilities that really only enhance the intensity of time spent within elbow’s length of another fellow camper for days at a time.
4.  While camping, like life, needs private time and contemplative time, it is, importantly active time. Co-operative actions are a key to success if camping is to be the force for change and development that it is and can be. Camping is least successful when only one or two persons in a group are doing the activity – it is most successful when the functions of the group are shared fully among all of its members.
5.    Importantly, camping by definition required a shared purpose and meaning – particular ‘destination’ or ‘objective’ which has meaning for all participants. It gets characterized as the ‘spirit of the venture’ and is the focus of memories which linger after a lifetime.
6.    Camping is also adventure. As noted, it involves action, and, frankly should involve risk! That is a managed risk. There is no camp director canoe trip leader who does not trouble his or her mind with those horrific ‘what ifs’… a drowning, a lightning strike, a lost person, communications loss and on and on forever. The leader whose focus is a qualitative one, does not seek to avoid all risk but who does try to mitigate that risk in advance – and the more that the leader is joined by all participants in this sensitivity, the greater the quality of the experience will be.
7.    Camping when it involves children and teens is ‘age-graded’. A ten year old attending a residential camping experience will not get as much, (indeed probably very little) from an extended canoe trip as will an older and better prepared as well as experienced camper. In some camps going to camp three times, frequently results in the same camping experience three times. What we strive for is to give a progressive three-year or more camping experience!
8.    Finally camping must be fun. There can be and needs to be challenging, threatening, earnestly-testing as well as lazy and wasted times at camp but there also has to be a time of light-hearted reverie that leaves that good feeling – We had a good time!! We had fun!!

The combination of these things, in balance, is the essence of quality in the camping experience. They lead to why an extended canoeing experience was undertaken at Camp Stephens and remains as a model for camping ‘traditions’ as well as excellence.

Part C. Getting the Extended Canoe Tripping Experience started.

Despite my fond memories and my professional orientation as to what camping is and should be, the actual events and decisions that led to the extended (or six week trip) do not stand out in my mind. 

Clearly, however, they are a part of an evolution in canoe tripping and of developing excellence in camping programs that we were striving for in the late 1960s.

When the six-week trip began to come into an operational phase, several evolutions had already occurred. The wilderness tripping program had developed an invitational (or elite) tradition and thus a longer, hence more challenging basis was logical. I remember that my own personal disappointment, at the time, was that the route chosen, while well-researched for destinations, options, communication points etc. it was not characterized as the outstanding and documented trip of Alexander Mackenzie or some other famous Canadian explorer resulting from study of journals and learning of early Canadian exploration. 

In fact though, as it turned out, it was a voyage and adventure that challenged all the things that had been studied in advance – the risks turned out to be more significant than I recalled in reaching my decision to approve the trip.

How did such a trip get approved? There is no magic about that. When we looked at it, I liked the proposal and the challenges that I foresaw. I trusted the staff who would be leading the experience and the likely participants who would go. The approval was given by me personally. 

Certainly, the Camp Board were informed, but not consulted in advance, nor required to give approval. Adventures were had by all but I was always confident that the extended canoe trip was a great innovation in our camping program – History appears to have borne that out – BUT that is because good leadership coupled with a desire for excellence has prevailed over all of the time in between – a true credit to the young people involved in Camp Stephens camping.