It’s over, the end of what seems like a brief moment in history for about 10,000 students. It actually may be a bit more than ten thousand. Regardless of the number it’s over. It was a ride that was both very good and at times incredibly bad. There were moments that laughter, joy and learning were experienced in spades. Equally there were moments that everything was questioned and much was doubted.
It came about after a long period of time full of adult bullying and actual threats.
Where profits and greed were put far ahead of making a difference and showing kindness.
Most people, in fact almost no one knows the whole story. I wish you were there the day it all began, all started. Where I sat beside a long time friend, told him my plan and he said, “You’re crazy! It won’t work. I don’t see it?!” In fact there weren’t many people that ever gave me any support in the beginning. Some did with reluctance. Most shook their head and said simply, “Good luck”.
There wasn’t much there to be honest. I can see why friends were pessimistic. It was pretty “sketchy”. Far more work ahead and so many unanswered questions. What was I doing?
What am I talking about?
YLCC Pigeon Lake.
On Friday I sold it. It’s a chapter of my life that has now almost closed. For the last 18 or so months I have been trying to sell it. It has been nothing short of challenging. With many offers coming and going for various reasons. I questioned my decision more than a few times. I always loved the spot. No better sunsets in the world than at Pidge (as we call it). I mean that. I live on Lake Huron for part of the year and I still think the Pigeon Lake sunset sometimes rival those Huron crimson, fiery evenings.
Here’s what you should know. Pigeon Lake YLCC began as “Camp Cleveland” in 1941. An American family from Ohio came to Canada to follow their dream of opening a family camp like the one depicted in “Dirty Dancing”. Evening dances, swimming in the lake, incredible fishing and their famous roast beaf dinners. I was told that people would drive the 35 minute drive from Peterborough to have their Sunday dinners and watch the sunset.
In the 1990’s it became a full out fishing camp and the decline began. Some good intentioned anglers decided they could run a business. They found out it was harder than they thought and eventually went bankrupt. Leaving the once loved camp to rot and waste away slowly over the next few decades…
That’s where YLCC came in. When I found it. You see I had been renting a camp in Oro (just outside of Orillia) since 2003 and the developer who leased it to us was developing a good chunk of the property into high end, million dollar, “cottage” lots. His development was going poorly and in 2007 he began trying to gently encourage me to buy the camp from him. He proposed I give him $10,000,000 for it. I knew it wasn’t worth that. I knew he was desperate. He was running out of money as the local town council (eventually the province) was requiring him to undertake extremely expensive (and justifiable) environmental impact studies. The development would impact (and has impacted) the natural untouched woodlands. Our camp in 2003 was the largest undeveloped piece of land on all of Lake Simcoe. It has been a children’s camp since 1929.
As time went on the developer got more and more desperate for me to buy the camp portion of the property. He dropped it down to $5,000,000. I still knew it wasn’t worth that as a piece of real estate. I also simply didn’t have the money. As they say, you can’t take blood from a stone.
It became a very desperate situation when the developer called me one Friday afternoon and said I had 1 month to give him $3,000,000 or he would bulldoze the buildings and develop the land into condo’s. I was terrified. I didn’t have the money. What would happen next? We had already accepted hundreds of camper registrations for the upcoming summer and scheduled dozens of schools to use the camp. We could potentially be homeless.
That’s when I found Pigeon Lake or as it was called, “The Ennismore Inn and Resort”. It was in sad shape. I made an offer, I had no financing, I took it “as is”. I had no conditions. I was desperate. I wouldn’t be bullied. I needed to have a back-up plan.
The deal went through quickly and I suddenly owned a derelict, abandoned and run-down fishing camp. When I took a few of my staff over to see our new jewel of land, 70 acres with 1000 feet of waterfront on the lake… they were less than enthused. The staff saw the massive amount of work ahead, I saw the safety net we were looking for.
There was no water treatment system, most of the bathrooms were non-functioning, there was no recognizable beach front, no decks on cabins, most of the shingles were rotting away on all of the buildings, we had no ropes course, no climbing wall, the kitchen was condemned and the dining hall had carpet with black mould. There was even a small room above the dining hall that was boarded up with no access… very creepy.
Over the next few years, I sunk more than half-a-million into Pigeon Lake. Our first year we lost more than $250,000. Truth is, it lost money every year. I remember nights being up, alone, with my calculator, spread sheet open and pages and pages of numbers that were all negative. I kept saying next year, we will break even. We never did.
In all forms of measurement. I failed. In total, the losses were more than $2,000,000 (that’s two million).
But, I also succeeded. As I always preach to anyone who will listen, there is NO failure if something is learned. I am proud of Pigeon Lake. The staff that ran it over the years. I am emotional about it leaving the YLCC family.
This is where Shannon Michelle and Iain Martin came together as a couple and got engaged. Where Shannon fulfilled her dream of becoming a camp director. It’s where Kaila Muzzin proved she could run a camp. Well. Pigeon Lake is where I got to work side by side with Richard Clark and fix so many of those problems and learn with him. He believed in Pigeon Lake. It’s where Ian Tyson learned he could cook for 100 people and do it well. Where I met Therese and Karen. It’s the place that Em Jones learned about what being a manager of people was all about. It’s where more than 10,000 youth had a camp experience, fell in-love with nature and leadership. Realized they could do MORE. It’s the place that Veg Camp began. It’s where I held my “Last Supper” for my closest friends. It’s also where Dave Tucker and Gillian met! So many memories!
Most importantly, it’s where Christine McNally and Caomhan McNally got married and began their life together as a married couple. Where love was recognized under the “Story Book” tree and their fairy tale began.
There are dozens of stories of camp staffers that became friends and campers became YLCCers. There are Gary stories and Geoff Grimmett adventures I will never know. More than I can mention and many more I have no clue about. It was a place of magic, of hope, of love and leadership.
Thank you Pigeon Lake! May your next adventure be as interesting as your last. I know that the new owners are inheriting a place that is in much better shape than it was in 2008. I also know that the buildings, the fields and the trees are full of true love.
To Dave Ornj Graham and every staff member, family member (my step-dad painted 2/3 of the buildings) and camper that helped make that chapter SO rich. Thank you.
Oh by the way, that developer in Orillia didn’t ever bulldoze the buildings. He went bankrupt and the bank sold me the camp through receivership. Less than a year after I bought Pigeon. That’s how I ended up owning two camps.
YLCC Orillia (Oro-Medonte) now has the resources to continue to grow and become even better for the foreseeable future.
Oh my adventures will make a good book. One day.