Twilight falls over a nearby lake as you stand at the foot of the picnic table and scrape the remnants of Hamburger Helper into a garbage bag. Hamburger Helper again? For the third night in a row? Why, of course — and scalloped potatoes from a box, too. You finish scraping the dishes and pile them into a tub of hot water.
The water was boiled in a dented kettle over the same Coleman stove you have brought on every summer vacation since, well, since … it doesn’t really matter. It’s been around for as long as you can remember. You have, after all, been doing this thing called camping since you were very young.
Camping has long been a summer ritual for Ontarians, not least for those of us in Kawartha Lakes — a ritual that really got off the ground in this part of the world during the last quarter of the 19th century, when people like W.A. Goodwin took to the thickets of northern Victoria County.
Though by no means the first person to camp in this region, Goodwin was possibly the first to prolifically document the experience in the form of drawings and paintings. For him, the backwoods campsite complete with tent and canoe was as much a part of the local landscape as the barn and silo.
Yet, camping as we know it owes much of its existence to the emergence of the automobile.
In 1925, the Ontario Motor League made inquiries about Council developing a “tourist camp” near Lindsay in which motorists could pitch their tents. The scheme bore fruit a quarter of a century later, when weary travellers could park trailers in what was then called Lyn Park for a dollar a night. By the late 1960s, the park featured some 10 to 15 campsites, each complete with a picnic table and a hibachi.
Today, some overgrown asphalt loops buried beneath a layer of pine needles are the only evidence of the site, which is now called Memorial Park, affectionately now known as the ‘train park.’
The demise of Lyn Park’s meagre camping facilities owed much to the increasingly popular Emily Provincial Park, which first opened in 1957. Ken Harrison, a retired dairy farmer from Emily Township, remembers visiting the site long before it became a provincial park. “We took the kids there on a Sunday afternoon,” he recalls.
“My wife would pack a lunch of ham sandwiches, salad, and cold tea. It was a nice place to have a picnic.” Within less than two decades, this popular picnicking spot adjacent to the Pigeon River had almost 270 campsites and was attracting visitors from all over North America.
While thousands of people have spent their summers in provincial parks, others have been welcomed into the many privately-run trailer parks operated by local families, of which David and Joan Wagstaff are one. They opened Riverwood Park in 1968 on a 75-acre piece of property south of Lindsay previously occupied by the family’s brickyard.
Joan Wagstaff says she remembers “like it was yesterday.”
“On Sept. 8 at 10:30 a.m., eight families came from another park and gave me $20 deposits.” Before too long, she was clearing brambles away from the first of the original 100 sites. “A gentleman from the Peterborough department of tourism bet me that we would have 100 customers,” Wagstaff recalls.
“He was excited that we were doing this.” Young families flocked to the new campground, and Wagstaff remembers making hamburgers for hungry campers in her electric frying pan.
North of Lindsay, Percy and Hazel Preston, together with Mervyn Courtemanche, opened Fairy Tale Park in July of 1964. Inspired by Storybook Gardens in London, Ont., the site featured a series of attractions which brought famous nursery rhymes to life.
In addition to a giant pumpkin serving as a concession stand and a castle through which patrons passed to pay admission, Fairy Tale Park was home to Humpty Dumpty’s wall and Old McDonald’s Farm — complete with live animals. The property also included at least four campsites with electrical hookup overlooking the Scugog River.
Sadly, Fairy Tale Park was not financially sustainable and it closed after just a few seasons. Eugene Gignac and his son Jake purchased the property in the autumn of 1969, renamed it Cedar Valley Park, and expanded it to 156 campsites. The faux barn previously housing Old McDonald’s Farm became the Gignac family’s living quarters. “We were a camping family,” says Gene Gignac’s daughter, Gabrielle Gignac.
Originally from Montreal, the Gignacs were familiar with the area, having spent summers at Emily Provincial Park, among others. In the almost 50 years the Gignacs owned Cedar Valley Park, they hosted Christmas In July events, corn roasts, dances, fishing derbies, and more. “The campers were the nicest, happiest people,” Gignac reminisces. “We were all like family.”
Wagstaff concurs. “It’s been a rewarding job over the 50 years. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and made a lot of wonderful friends.” Much has changed over the last half century, especially as “glamping” has taken hold.
“The question used to be ‘do you have swimming and fishing?’” remarks Wagstaff’s daughter-in-law, Penny Wagstaff who now runs Riverwood with her husband. “Now, it’s ‘do you have satellite and Wi-Fi?’” What hasn’t changed, she says, is the desire to be outside: “Kids still love the outdoors!”