Seventy years of outdoor education

By Sue Tiffin

Published Oct. 2 2018

A five-kilometre country road separates Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre from County Road 503 in Irondale but that doesn’t stop nostalgic former campers and counsellors from making the trek down the dirt road to revisit the spot they remember from their youth.

“It’s just one of those things you can’t just turn it off” said David Spencer who was a camper and later a staff member at what was then known as the Ontario Camp Leadership Centre. “If you hear the name or if you drive by Irondale or you’re in Haliburton or Minden a lot of those guys are going to make the effort to drive up there and say ‘hi’ and they’ve had hundreds of people come in off the street … ‘I used to go here I used to work here I used to be a camper here.’”

The centre is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Though Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre is now privately owned rather than being operated by the provincial government much of its focus is still on supporting outdoor education teamwork and leadership development of youth according to Maria Paterson director and that history is being acknowledged.

“I really wanted to bring back that history and honour that history that was here” said Paterson. “We’ve done a lot of work to try to bring back that history. I knew a number of staff that used to work before it was sold here so I asked them to come back and tell me stories. I want to hear that stuff. A number of people come in off the streets to say they worked here. A number of people have sent us black and white photos of what it used to look like. A gentleman sent us a whole package of when he was a camper of what he was sent from the government to get him ready to come to the Ontario Camp Leadership Centre. It was really cool so I’m trying to preserve those pieces so we can have that history.”

Spencer was just a teenager in high school when he was able to go to the centre through the City of Brampton.

“The focus during the time I was there was to have students aged 16 or 17 from high schools across Ontario school administration would send students with potential for outdoor leadership camping leadership working with kids and day camps that kind of thing” he said. “A lot of them were part of an outdoor education club or environment club the others they sent were the cream of the crop from summer camps. They were all invited to come.”

Spencer said there was a 10-day skills camp and a 14-day leadership camp in which canoeing skills sailing skills building shelters archery and an orienteering program would be taught.

“A lot of the staff who came in June and July a lot of them were teachers from around the province who had great outdoors skills leadership skills” he said. “Some of them committed five 10 15 20 years of their summers to come up there and spend a month or more to work with the kids. There was a real continuity there that occurred. One of the directors said Bark Lake was like an incubator for outdoor leadership in Canada. It was the place.”

Spencer returned to the camp in the 1980s as staff teaching canoeing kayaking sailing and also fixing the canoes kayaks sailboats “and anything else that needed to be fixed.”

He remembers huge singsongs with 120 people singing in harmony.

“It really brought people together” he said. “When you start singing in unison all those differences and those barriers drop pretty quickly.”

Leaders promoted a hands-on experiential approach at the centre encouraging campers to work to organize work well with each other and make decisions.

“The key thing was if it wasn’t for Bark Lake a lot of the summer camps would not be as good as they are” said Spencer. “Ontario has the best summer camps in the world. We have a lot of lakes but just the programming the focus on young people it’s a very positive thing for our culture because these young people become comfortable outdoors they know how to have fun outdoors but they also know how to relate with other people and deal with conflict and all sorts of other things. This is all without looking at their cellphone. It’s incredible what can happen when people don’t look at their cellphones.”

Spencer said a survey of people who attended Bark Lake as either camper or staff would show impressive resumes of people working well within their communities.

“You’d be surprised of the important roles they play now in our culture whether it’s managing a store or being the mayor of a town or working with the United Nations or helping young girls who are struggling whatever it might be” he said.

Spencer operates the The Friends of Bark Lake: Ontario Camp Leadership Centre website now bringing together alumni in an online reunion.

Currently owned by Columbia International College out of Hamilton Paterson said BLCC works with a large population of international and national students. The centre hosts about 1000 international students through the CIC summer camp inviting students from more than 20 different countries including Brazil Mexico China Korea and Turkey to Bark Lake. Paterson recalls one of the favourite stories she’s heard involving a group of students going on a Duke of Edinburgh trip.

“It was in the winter November or December but we didn’t really have any snow that was happening and so they didn’t take any snowshoes” she said. “They hiked out and they camped and the next morning we had like three feet of snow that came. We had this group of African students that literally woke up to the first time they’d ever seen snow. It was absolutely amazing to them. … Just hearing that how we take snow for granted or we take our trees changing colour for granted these students were amazed and shocked and just so happy they got to experience that.”

Paterson said the teenagers were eating snow making and throwing snowballs and enjoying the time they’d seen or experienced snow.

“It was really magical and just a special moment that I think Bark Lake offers” she said. “Anyone that comes here you make it what you wish. It’s the sunset over ‘reflection rock’ or the mist coming off of the marsh we have here or walking out to the bog and seeing a pitcher plant or hearing wolves howl in the background.”

The centre also offers a large venue for weddings and corporate retreats. Eleven weddings were hosted on site this year.

“The cool thing about us” said Paterson “I don’t know how many places are still left in Haliburton County … It’s just us on Bark Lake. There’s no other cabins there’s no other people. So when you come out here you have the seclusion of it and the privacy of it.”

Paterson said that unlike a camp in which campers return year after year people who attended or worked at the centre might have been on the grounds only once or twice but that they are still impacted by the experience they had there.

“It’s really cool to sit with people” she said. “We had a past director he was 85 and he came in and we just sat with him as he told stories about what it used to be like. To me that’s really cool because without the past we couldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be sitting in the office I am today as the director without the people who stuck up for Bark Lake and did all that work beforehand.”

And yes she does have people drive in down that long road to take another look around at the place they remember from years ago.

“We plow it so it’s an adventure but that’s part of it” she said. “There’s little potholes and things but that’s to slow you down. You slow down and leave all the city-ness behind you and you can step into a different world.”

The Bark Lake Leadership Gala – celebrating with cocktails a buffet dinner slide show silent auction evening entertainment and of course a campfire – is open to the public and will be held on Oct. 13 at the centre at 1551 Bark Lake Drive in Irondale. Tickets are $70 per person or $400 for tables of six people which includes two bottles of wine.

“One of the things about the gala and why we’re celebrating the 70th year gala is to make sure we can say thank you and recognize the staff and clients that have come before and are currently here now” said Paterson. “We want to make sure our doors are always open and moving forward. I know when it was sold that it was a bit of a hit to the community and the staff that were working at that time. We want to make sure we honour the staff that were here before 1996 and their passion and dedication they had to Bark Lake and also make sure we’re welcoming the next generation into outdoor leadership education.”

The centre is also hosting the second annual autumn social on Oct. 14 from 11 to 4 inviting the public to explore archery high ropes canoeing a climbing tower and meet Soper Creek Wildlife Rescue’s animal ambassadors or participate in a traditional North American aboriginal drum workshop. The autumn social costs $20+HST for adults $10+HST for youth aged six to 12 is free for kids under six or $45+ HST for two adults and two youth. The price includes a barbecue lunch. Call 1-888-517-9999 or visit for more information.