I’ve had many good summers growing up. Trips spent up north by a lake with family. Visits to the CNE in August. Dragging days of summer school… Ok, not always so good. But as far as having the “best summer ever”, I reserve that spot for when I worked as a Ranger.
It’s a particularly poignant time that I make note of this, because this year marks the tenth anniversary since I first joined the Ontario Ranger Program. As far as summers went for me when I was growing up, it was the most adventurous one I’d ever had. It was also the most pivotal.
It’s a bit of a long read, but “bear” with me. (Pun definitely intended.)
To brief those of you unfamiliar with it, the Ontario Junior Rangers was a program for girls and boys in their seventeenth year. It gave them the opportunity to spend a summer away from home to work in a rural camp setting among a group of people their age (in separate camps for boys and girls). It ran for a remarkable 70 years before it was abruptly cancelled in 2012 by the Ministry of Natural Resources, much to the dismay of its alumni.
My older brother did the OR Program a few years before me, and mom immediately thought I should do the same in my seventeenth year and fill out an application. I said to her, “What if I don’t get in?” And she answered with a knowing smile: “You’ll get in.”
Sure enough, I did. The program consisted of 13 camps across Ontario: depending on where you lived, you could either be sent up north or down south. When I got my official notice of acceptance in the mail, I was stunned to read that I would be sent to the second farthest camp in the program. Situated by a small town two hours outside of Thunder Bay(!!) was the place I would call home for the summer: Mink Lake.
Upon arriving in Thunder bay in the beginning of July, I first met the ladies who I would be living with, and who would become my friends/mentors for the rest of the summer and beyond.
The area around Thunder Bay I discovered was pretty sparse. Lots of woods, rock formations, and many, many lakes. Mink Lake was just off the TransCanada Highway, and across from the entrance to the massive Quetico Provincial Park. It had two cabins, a big dining house, a small laundry house/sauna, and a recreation room. And nothing but woods all around us.
Admittedly, it took a few days for me to adjust to camp life. I had a wonderful roommate, our supervisors were warm and welcoming, and I’d had some good laughs with the others in my cabin… But I still felt homesick at times, living in an unfamiliar place so far from everything, and with people I was just getting to know. Thankfully, that feeling did not last long.
In our rooms, Mink Lakers’ from years past had written notes in the closets and drawers, and on the board under our mattresses. They were messages that spoke lovingly of their time at Mink, gave words of encouragement, and promised that the summer we were about to embark would change your life.
They also said that it wouldn’t be long before you would be calling Mink Lake your second home.
In the times where I was too busy to be homesick, I was learning the ropes of being a Ranger: we were practicing canoeing and portaging, GPS navigating, using tools that would help clear out the bush (since that’s what our job would consist of half the time), and learning about workplace safety. We got the low down on CPR training, learned how to use a fire extinguisher, and most importantly, what to do upon encountering a bear. (Keep calm and say, “Whoa bear. Whoa bear.” It works… I think.)
We spent a lot of time around Quetico doing brushwork and clearing hiking trails. Other duties included painting outdoor buildings and pick up trash along the highway. By the end of the day, we were ravenous! And kind of grimy. This is where I will put emphasis on how our meals were oh so amazing; we held our camp cook in high esteem for her amazing dinners and desserts (chocolate lava cake anyone?!). Especially her baked loaves, which quickly became our camping food staple.
On weekends we ventured to the nearby lake in Quetico, or took trips into quaint little Atikokan, known as the canoeing capital of the world. It was–and still is apparently–small. (Just look up Main Street, Atikokan on Google Maps and you’ll see what I mean. Not much has changed. Except for there being an LCBO, which was definitely not there before.)
Excitement in Atikokan was when there was a canoeing event happening… Or when a new batch of rangers came to town to stir up trouble (wink wink).
Canoe trips were the ultimate test of physical and mental endurance. But they were also surprisingly fun. In mid July there was a canoeing race happening; two groups had gone out on a camping excursion, while a few of us (me included) stayed behind. We also took a bit of a camping trip to help out as markers for the canoe race. We met up with some of our fellow Rangers and caught up with them on their adventure/mishaps. Turns out it was a good precursor to the full on camping explosion I would experience later on.
We each had two trips we were scheduled to go out on in-between July and August, in small groups of six/seven. Lucky me, I was scheduled to take two trips within two weeks of each other! We packed an assortment of foods into barrels, minimal clothing in our packs along with a few toiletries , bid farewell to Mink Lake for a week and headed off into the bush with our canoes. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to bring our watches.
Why? Because we were HARD CORE.
Making things even more hardcore were the drastic weather conditions, long portage trails and trying to navigate potential camping grounds…. All while wearing steel toed boots and soaking wet wool socks. Things got messy, big time! Plus, learning to work alongside your mates in close quarters and compromising situations proved to be a test of endurance as well. But at the end of the day, differences could be put aside when we settled into a campsite for the night and started fooling around. Again, we were so hungry anything we made over the fire tasted delicious (even when slightly burned). Lots of dirty jokes/references were made in our tents, which only became part of the fun.
However, the real beauty of our camping excursions was in the scenery. Passing through the lakes and rivers on canoes under blue skies (sometimes grey), and waking up to only the sound of nature around us was an incredible feeling. Not to mention, so very peaceful. (You would think that in the time we spent out in the bush I would have seen at least one form of animal life, like a moose or bear, but I never did.) Long after Mink Lake, in times when I’d allow my mind to wander, I would always think back to particular places I remember passing through while paddling.
Then finally, after a week out in the bush came the relief of returning to Mink! When we pulled in to the camp I realized it had, in fact, become like home. Home to shower/use a real toilet, catch up on gossip, eat good food… And of course, rip into any mail (yay for goodie packages!) that I received from home while I was away.
In August, the big Ranger hurrah before heading home was Jamboree. This was where rangers from other camps would come together and compete in some fun stuff. It was Mink’s turn to host Jambo, so we didn’t thankfully didn’t have to go anywhere. That meant, however, the three other ranger camps up in our “locale” would be descending upon us. The theme was the Wizard of Oz, and the big prize was a work boot painted with red and doused in glitter (which was done by yours truly). Needless to say, Jambo was ridiculously fun. While we were competing against the other camps, we also were working together in mixed groups from every camp. For the team I was in, we appointed ourselves “The House.”(After the house in the Wizard of Oz…) We did some crazy challenges that I can’t even bring myself to describe because they were insane, but it was a lot of fun. And we came in a close second! Bam.
Mink Lake, however, did not win the grand and beautiful ruby work boot that I had created, even though we had a great skit and song number, more or less influenced by the Elephant Love Medley from Moulin Rouge. (It became our anthem of the summer.) But oh well!
After Jambo… Well, things were starting to come to a close. We took a few trips here and there, going to Thunder Bay (to walk among civilization), Kakabeka Falls, etc. It was hard to believe the summer had moved that fast.
By this point, we were no longer strangers with each other. We had seen the best of one another, and sometimes the not so best. (Camping trips will do that.) We were just a group of young women from all eight corners of Ontario, hanging out and making the most of the time we had together. Because by the time we would have to head home at the end of August, there was no telling when we would see each other again as a full group. We didn’t want to say goodbye just yet.
So, did I return from camp a changed person? Yes…. In some ways more than others. My ranger experience certainly pushed me outside of myself to take more challenges, and learn to take more initiative in situations. I was also quieter than most of the girls there, so I might have needed a bit of extra coaxing to “come out of my shell” (even though I absolutely loathe that term). But I did! Eventually. Ten years later I’m still not boisterous, but hey–being reserved has its perks.
The point is, my summer as an Ontario Ranger was absolutely life changing. I honestly don’t think I would be the same person today if I hadn’t done it, and many others would probably say the same. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have this experience went home with memories and a set of skills that would benefit them way off in the long run. To have the Ontario Ranger Program cancelled a few years ago was a devastating decision, but I really hope it can be brought back one day for future generations to experience.
It was, and always will be, my best summer.