September 9, 2014 by Doug Webster
Our First Post-Reunion Report
The following mirrors a news release we sent to the Muskoka newspaper along with some photos. (The end result has now been published by The Muskokan, and can be found at the end of this post.) It is the quickest way to update all about what turned out to be an absolutely wonderful reunion.
Many alumni brought photo collections with them. Fortunately, we also had a scanner and were able to collect literally hundreds of new pictures from camp and from the Dorset area as well. In addition, we took a ton of photos during the four-day reunion weekend. Suffice it to say we will try and get them up for all to see as quickly as we can.
We also scored a wonderful coup over the weekend when we were presented one of the old camp “end of season” camper signing registers. It contains entries from the 1940s to the 60s and is a treasure trove of valuable information….particularly the names of campers whose names we had forgotten. It is going to be a big chore to scan those pages and get them posted, but we hope to do so, year by year,so you can find your own postings from past years and remember long lost friends.
So here goes with the report and the first few photos…..more goodies to come.
It was a trip back in time and memory for over 60 Camp Otter alumni as they gathered last weekend in Dorset, Ontario for a reunion. It was a time to recall summer camp memories, but also a time to express once again the gratitude and appreciation campers felt and still feel for the generosity with which the people of Canada shared their wilderness, their friendship, and their culture. Nearly all Otter campers were from the United States, and have never forgotten the hospitality and instant friendship of the people of the Muskoka region. Camp Otter itself was closed in 1970 after sixty years of operations but the warm memories of childhood days at Otter and many camp canoe trips in the area and to and through Algonquin Park have kept alumni connected over the years.
Planning for the 2014 gathering began over a year ago and alumni voted strongly for a return to Dorset and to the site of the camp. Many participants arrived on Thursday, September 4th and met for dinner at Dorset’s Trading Bay restaurant. Friday was a free day for exploration of Dorset including the town’s famed Robinson’s Store – a favorite visit each summer for campers when they got to “go into town.” There were also hikes to the Dorset fire tower, and for some, drives to Algonquin and to Huntsville. In the afternoon, many alumni enjoyed cruises on Lake of Bays aboard the restored steamer Bigwin.
Saturday was the big day, starting with a visit to the Dorset Museum and Cultural Center where the alumni toured exhibits including displays of memorabilia and photos from Otter days and chatted with townspeople who remembered the camp and shared their memories and some photos with the visitors. At a brief ceremony, the alumni presented the Center with a paddle, signed by all those attending the weekend get together, framed histories of the camp and of much beloved camp caretaker Bill Crewson and his family. The Center was also presented with the camp’s large dinner bell, which over the years summoned campers to meals in the main lodge dining hall.
After lunch, the alumni drove out to Otter Lake and spent the afternoon visiting the site of the camp on the north shore. The Otter Lake Cottagers Association had helped plan the visit and several cottage owners joined the group to learn more about the camp’s operations and history. Owners of the properties on which the camp had been located generously provided access to the visitors for the afternoon and even arranged to have a half dozen canoes brought to the shore to enable former campers to enjoy a “paddle on the lake,” and demonstrate that once you learn the Canadian J stroke, you never forget it.
Saturday evening was devoted to a final campfire dinner at the Dorset Community Center (lunches and dinners were catered by Dorset restaurants Zachary’s and Trading Bay respectively). During the dinner, honorary camper awards were presented to those area residents whose help and guidance had made the weekend such a success. They included Wilma Jean Nickason, granddaughter of Bill Crewson, Norman MacKay and through him the staff of the Dorset Museum, Janeen Byman, and Otter cottagers Malcom Thornton and Larry Cassie and their families.
For those privileged to have attended Otter, the camp’s programs had lasting and positive impact. Joan Fleischhauer Smith, from suburban Baltimore, MD, said the tears just welled up as she stood on the site of the camp looking across the lake. “I didn’t realize until today just how deeply and positively my years at camp affected me.”
Many alumni also emphasized how happy they were to have made the journey back. Retired autoworker Jim Boguslawski of Buffalo remembered a Camp Otter credo of always crossing portages without stopping or turning back. “Later in my life, when I was in the Peace Corps in South America and trying to adapt to some very challenging living conditions, I often remembered that, and it helped me move forward whenever I faced challenges in my life.”
At a final campfire Saturday evening in Dorset’s community park, alumni gathered to sing favorite songs including the Camp Otter song and Taps, and then launched floating candles on the nearby Bay and watched them float away as they had done at the end of summer each year at Camp.
Many of those attending went to Otter from the mid-50s to the closing of the camp in 1970. The oldest of the camper alumni, John Conkling of the Buffalo area, had attended from 1944-49, and remembers marking the end of WW II while at camp. Jane Wardwell Roberts, 89, a long-serving counselor and advisor to the camp directors, drove herself to Buffalo and then rode with other alumni to Dorset. “I am so happy I was able to come,” she said. The alumni presented her with another paddle, again signed by all in attendance, as a token of their appreciation for her work as a counselor and for coming to the 2014 event.
Alumni have held reunions in the past in 1976 at the Crewson farm on Lake Otter and then in the Buffalo area in 1996, 2000 and 2005. The chance to return to Dorset and to the site of the camp made this gathering very special. Doug Webster of suburban Pittsburgh, one of the team that helped organize the weekend, expressed the thanks of all who attended to the community of Dorset for their hospitality and their support in making things run smoothly. “Dorset is a little bigger now than it was when we were there, but not a lot….Clayton’s store is no longer there, but there are other shops and stores and Robinson’s goes on forever. We all had a great time and I suspect more than a few of us may come back again.”
Coverage in The Muskokan
As noted, the above post mirrors the material we submitted to the folks at The Muskokan newspaper and their article, using mostly the same text and pictures has now been posted as follows: