Camp Holiday For Veterans Brings Back Memories

October 20, 2008 by Tom MacGregor

Norm Carnell has his eye on a big rock about two feet under the surface of water in Lake Joseph. The Royal Navy veteran makes his cast out towards that and then waits.

It’s not long before his line begins to stretch and his fishing rod bends. A big smile lights up his worn face as he reels in a rock bass the size of his hands. He skilfully removes the hook from the fish’s mouth and tosses the squirming creature back into the water.

“I’ve been fishing all my life,” says the long-term resident of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “I’ve got about 10 or 12 so far. Last year I must have caught 50.”

Carnell is one of 20 veterans from Sunnybrook and 16 from Parkwood Hospital in London, Ont., enjoying June 16-19 at camp in Ontario’s famous Muskoka cottage country. They have come to the CNIB Lake Joseph Centre to give them a break from the day-to-day routine of institutional care courtesy of Royal Canadian Legion branches in Ontario.

“The tri-district committee of districts A,B and C in Ontario Command have traditionally looked after the veterans in Parkwood Hospital just as districts D, E and F have looked after the ones in Sunnybrook,” said Ontario Command Chairman Bill Chafe, a member of Sarnia Branch. Each committee sponsors the veterans at the facility they look after for the camp vacation. “The idea is just to let them do what they want even if it is just to sit by the water. The smiles on their faces make it worthwhile.”

The veterans have moved into the facility operated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The land was purchased by the CNIB in 1960 to provide an outdoor experience for people with vision loss in Ontario.

The original cottage on the land is now used as the manager’s residence.

A gazebo now sits where a hotel named Gordon House and later Blackstone House once stood. But much of the facilities have been greatly improved in the past couple of years since Sunnybrook veterans first started coming 13 years ago.

“This year they have fixed up the accommodations immensely,” said Nancy Bowers-Ivanski, manager of recreational therapy and creative arts at Sunnybrook. “The bathrooms in every wing are now wheelchair accessible.”

The sleeping accommodations used by veterans and the staff assisting them are a series of cabins all connected by a wooden walkway leading from the main facility where there is a dining hall and large lakefront lounging area. A bit further along the same hallway goes outside and leads to a separate recreation and games building.

There are six cabins. Veterans and staff are housed two to a room with a shared bathroom. Each cabin has a screened porch where the early risers can find coffee and doughnuts before breakfast is served in the dining hall.

Activities are scheduled throughout the day. “They are free to do what they want to do with their time. It’s important to give them an opportunity to relax and get out of the structured environment,” says Dorothy Ferguson, operations director for aging and veterans care at Sunnybrook.

Bowers-Ivanski says that planning the trip begins in November when they discuss what went on the summer before and how things can be improved.

“In January the planning begins in earnest and we form a Camp Committee,” she said. Meals are planned in consultation with the camp staff for all four days.

“Anyone who expresses an interest can come,” says Bowers-Ivanski. When the time comes at Sunnybrook two buses are loaded with veterans, staff, wheelchairs and all the medical accessories needed for the four-day stay.

Brent Peltola of Parkwood says that his group comes in one bus. Since the trip from London is longer they arrive later in the day when the Sunnybrook veterans are mostly settled in. “And by Thursday they are usually ready to go back.”

Some veterans, like Carnell, enjoy following the wheelchair accessible trail to the far point where a deck has been built out over the water. The spot has proven to be easy pickings for small rock bass and perch which are just caught and released.

“I used to be down at the Don River in Toronto when it was still out of town,” says Carnell.

Others enjoy the beach in front of the dining room where on a sunny day some brave souls venture in for a swim or take out a paddle boat.

The boat dock was once part of the Canadian National Railway Line/ Steamship Line that ran passengers through the Muskoka Lakes—Joseph, Rousseau and Muskoka—from 1904 to 1948.

Greig Foord of Bala Branch on Lake Muskoka brings his large powerboat up to the dock to offer rides around the large Lake Joseph. He tucks Bob Dalby, Arthur Lincoln and Sandy Little into the back of the boat with blankets to keep the chill of the lake off them. Some of the staff take places in the front of the boat for an hour’s cruise around the magnificent cottages, some owned by movie stars and worth millions of dollars.

“I’ve been doing this for a few years. It’s a good way to let the veterans have fun and I get to spend the day out in my boat,” says Foord.

Back at the camp several veterans join Katherine Burgoyne in creating shadow boxes. These small wood boxes are about a foot square with about two inches depth. Veterans put items into them and then paint them as souvenirs.

“At the residence a lot of them will put medals or pictures of themselves into the boxes to keep them in the room,” says Burgoyne. “Here, they are trying to make something that reminds them of their visit. Some of us spent the morning gathering sticks and stones in the area for the boxes. One lady even found a dead June bug to put in the box.”

Among those making shadow boxes is Charles Kewen a member of Brig. O.M. Martin Branch in Toronto who flew over Burma with 436 Squadron. “I signed up wanting to go to England but they had me going up and down the Alaska Highway. I wanted an overseas posting so they sent me to Burma,” he explains.

“What I like about here is it just gets me away. I’ve been a traveller all my life,” he says.

In the evening the veterans enjoy a barbecue and musical guests perform. Despite the cool night temperatures many of the veterans stay up for the bonfire and swap stories around a crackling fire.

Ralph Prize is a resident of Parkwood enjoying his second year at the camp. “It’s a great experience. Boating is a great interest to me,” says the Royal Canadian Air Force veteran. “As a kid I used to go camping with a group but my wife wasn’t much of a camper.”

Prize was an air gunner flying in Lancasters. “I did 20 trips over Germany and was fortunate to get away with it. They were great guys to fly with,” he said. He got married in 1946 and worked for 40 years with London Life in London.

Another air force veteran is Reg Blundell. “I enjoy the boating. I get wrapped up and go out. I liked the mini-golf but the course is the headquarters for mosquitoes this year,” he said.

Wally Hamilton from Sunnybrook says, “I just enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful scenery.” As a teenager he used to go to a lake near Peterborough. “There was no sun tan lotion in those days. Our mother would just cover us in buttermilk. We never heard of skin cancer. I eventually got that.”

Hamilton was a pilot overseas during the war and afterwards worked as a printer with the University of Toronto Press.

A true highlight of the week comes on the second last day when Fort York Branch of Toronto sponsors a ride on the Wenonah II luxury steamship cruise which leaves nearby Gravenhurst for a cruise of Lake Muskoka. Although actually built in 2002, Wenonah II recreates luxury style and grace of a 1907 ship, accommodating up to 200 passengers. While on board for the almost three-hour cruise veterans were treated to lunch in the fancy licensed dining room offering all the elegance of a bygone era. Lake Muskoka is 12 miles long and six miles wide with about 120 islands some of which appear to be more cottage than land.

Members of Harry Wray Branch in Gravenhurst and other branches in the area form up at the dock in Legion dress to greet the veterans as they arrive for their cruise around the lake.

Fort York Branch, which has no facilities of its own but meets regularly in the Royal Canadian Military Institute in downtown Toronto, was the original sponsor of Sunnybrook veterans going to the camp. Over the years the tri-
district committees became involved. Fort York now sponsors the cruise as its main contribution.

“We get a lot of requests for support,” says Tom Foulds of Fort York Branch. “We’re glad to help out but we want to make sure it is something to make the veterans’ life a little more enjoyable.”

While it rains during this year’s tour, veterans are happy to sit inside and just look at the shoreline and think of things that they did in their past.

“An important part of treating people in long-term facilities is letting them get in touch with their memories,” says Ferguson. “Camp is sometimes the best opportunity to remember some of the things from their past.”

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