Students shaped by empowering and unforgettable Camp Onakawana experience

“Empowering.” “Unforgettable.” “Blissful.” These are just some of the words Trinity College School students used to reflect on their one-week journey to Camp Onakawana in early March.

Located near Moosonee, Ontario, the camp was founded by the Tozer family to provide guests with an opportunity to connect with the land. The land not only provides us with everything we need to survive, it also provides the opportunity to heal, to build self-esteem and resilience.

The experience began with the long journey north, including an eight-hour drive to Cochrane where the group and its supplies boarded the Polar Bear Express. The students and their chaperones – Ms. Alison Elliott and Mr. Nick Stratford – were warmly welcomed by the Tozers and thus started a week of building connections to the land.

The students – Ben Browne, Leah Chesney, Graham Hall, Will LaBranche, Rhayne Tozer and Allan Tang – learned how the land provides us with warmth as they cut their own firewood to construct campfires. They discovered many ways to attain water. First the group was tasked with bringing its own water on the train, because dams on the northern rivers have caused leaching mercury making much of the water there unpotable. Students also collected water from the river for use in the toilets and for dishwashing, and they enjoyed boiling snow to make hot chocolate.

The group made a first-hand connection with where their food comes from, as they plucked and cleaned goose, duck and partridge. The goose was then cooked on a traditional Cree sagabon over the fire in the camp’s teepee-style cookhouse. As well, the students spent a great day fishing, learning how to create a fishing hole in the ice and to construct and use a tree-branch pole. Their success was celebrated with a delicious meal of fresh-caught Northern pike cooked over an open fire.

A very special part of the trip was the opportunity to make new friends from Northern Lights Secondary School, Moosonee. A group of outdoor education students and their teachers joined us at the camp for several days. Students from both schools formed mixed groups to cook, clean, chop wood, play games and socialize. The learning was powerful for everyone.

Another highlight of the week was the chance to learn how to make tamarack geese with master craftsman, Peter Kapashesit, of Moose Factory. Having gone out by snowshoe to collect tamarack twigs, the process was all the more meaningful for the group members, each of whom created a distinctive, beautifully scented bird which they brought home with them.

Transportation was a theme throughout the journey, both motorized and non-motorized. Snowmobiling was a thrill, but walking through the majestic black spruce woods was also exhilarating. Snowshoes were completely necessary to stay afloat on the deep snow just off the trails, with the group learning that wooden snowshoes are vastly superior to the metal ones in terms of mobility and speed on the snow. The week wrapped up as the group caught the train in the middle of the woods to head south.

Everyone is extremely grateful to the Tozer family for providing this experience. It was truly life-changing for the entire group. As one student reflected, “I will never forget my time here. I never wanted to leave.”