Labour of Love
By Leslie C. Smith
It started out as a good idea. It has grown into a great one.
In 1983, a small group of Muskoka-loving volunteers formed Camp Ooch, a no-charge, home-away-from-hospital camp for children with cancer. Decades later, their concept has grown to comprise not just the camp itself and nearby family accommodations, but a special recreation centre in Toronto plus an activities-based programme attached to paediatric oncology centres across Ontario. Ooch’s wilderness location has changed over the years, too. Thanks to generous donor support, it now has a permanent, private base on the shores of Donner Lake, close to Rosseau.
Ooch Muskoka is the only overnight camp in Canada with IV chemotherapy and blood transfusion capability, meaning that even campers with complex care needs can enjoy a traditional camp experience. Kids just being kids is the whole rationale: everyone is encouraged to concentrate on fun. Camp programs “celebrate kids for who they are, not what they have.” No one points you out or whispers behind your back. “[It] was probably the first place where I didn’t feel so different anymore,” says one camper.
Recently, the privately funded volunteer organization has pressed itself even further, seeking not only to comply with the new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act but also to accommodate 50% more campers. Project developer and manager Miles Cope, working with lead architect Rob Knight from Barrie’s Ted Handy and Associates, oversaw the camp’s remodelling from beginning till end, ensuring the feasibility of ideas and creating a super-enthusiastic team fuelled by his own passion. Improvements included everything from new sewage and water processing systems to rebuilds of camper housing and the central lodge, to a new medical facility and flex housing for families and other visitors.
The work was hard – literally, in the case of laying pipe infrastructure through thick granite 1.2 metres below the frost line – and it took a long time, given that Camp Ooch was still operating during summer months. However, one blessing was that Covid, when it came along, didn’t interfere too much with the final phase of the process, which was a complete reno of all outdoor amenities.
“The goal was not necessarily to beautify,” Miles Cope says, “but to make the camp more accessible, while bringing back the Muskoka feel to the landscape.” Quick-to-rot wooden borders were replaced by sturdy native granite. Stone pavers and asphalt for steeper inclines replaced the wood chips and loose gravel that sometimes made walking and wheelchair pushing difficult. Wherever possible, Cope’s team dealt with Muskoka’s uneven terrain and varying elevations by smoothing and extending some slopes and zigzagging others.
This switchback technique proved most effective for the jewel in Camp Ooch’s remodelled grounds: A completely new Campitheatre, providing stage access to wheelchair users, night sky-friendly lighting, two circular firepits, and, best of all, stepped seating built entirely from precision-cut Muskoka granite.
The latter is a product of Muskoka Rock Company, headquartered in Gravenhurst and Huntsville. President Seth Rudin says working with so many dedicated people was amazing. “For us, this was a special project to be part of – the creativity, the collaboration, the teamwork… Above all, we thought of the kids who’d be benefitting.”
The Campitheatre seating uses a unique flagstone application that gives the benches a natural look while being comfortable on a multitude of bottoms. The task of putting it all together fell to Kirby Hall, owner of Parry Sound’s Hall Construction. His input proved invaluable in face of the challenge of dry-laying – that is, setting without mortar – heavy granite blocks into a barrier-free, semi-circular shape.
“It was just like building the pyramids,” says Hall. “Everything had to be precisely fitted.” This engineering feat, so tough to achieve and yet so easy on the eyes, had the stated goal of lasting for a hundred years or more. “It won’t disintegrate and it will never need repair. We kept thinking of the enjoyment it would give these kids for years to come.”
Miles Cope says he’s proud of bringing off the entire project on time, despite tight deadlines, Covid, and having to do most of the building during winter. He talks of the enduring joy and laughter at Camp Ooch and of the “culture of contagious enthusiasm” engendered by CEO Alex Robertson.