Sun could set on Camp Woolsey by 2020

The Ottawa River camp, which turns 80 this year, is one of 17 across the province that is slated to be sold off by 2020 — but former guides and camp leaders are vowing to save it.

Big deficits and mounting repair costs could see the popular Girl Guide camp near Buckham's Bay sold off

Andrea Hogue Reynolds hopes to raise enough money and volunteer support to keep the Girl Guides of Canada from selling Camp Woolsey. She attended camp there, led camps there, and hopes both of her daughters will continue to enjoy camping there too. (Supplied)

For Claire Ingraham, 21, Camp Woolsey has been a place to learn, meet people, and ultimately pass on her own knowledge.

Ingraham, the camp's director, has spent the past six years on staff there, and the decade or so before that as a Girl Guide. Indeed, if you were ever a Pathfinder, Girl Guide, Brownie or Spark in the Ottawa area, there's a good chance you camped at Woolsey, on the banks of the Ottawa River, in West Carleton.

This new sign at Camp Woolsey was built by volunteers, according to camp director Claire Ingraham. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

But the Girl Guide owned and operated camp, which turns 80 this year, is one of 17 across the province that is slated to be sold off by 2020. 

Campers, both current and former, say they'd be heartbroken if the aging place ever shut down. But the provincial commissioner responsible for the Ontario chapter of Girl Guides Canada, Susan Birnie, says the organisation has been left with little choice.

"We have an operating deficit every year that's quite substantial that really doesn't allow us to do other things that we would like to do ... All the camps are getting older, and require extensive capital improvements just to maintain them for safety. So we also find the usage of the camps is not high enough to maintain them, basically to provide enough revenue to cover the operating costs," said Birnie. 

"About half of our camping experiences actually happen not at Girl Guide properties (but) at places other than Girl Guide properties, so we know that we can provide safe and meaningful camp experiences outside of our properties."

Birnie pegs the annual deficit to operate all the camps at $750,000. And an independent auditor hired by Girl Guides, according to Birnie, estimates the cost of repairing the buildings and infrastructure over the next 15 years at $23-million dollars. 

Camp Woolsey director Claire Ingraham, 21, has spent 17 years at Camp Woolsey, six of them as a counsellor.

Still, Birnie says the organization is open to ideas from people wanting to step forward and present a solid business case.

"If there was a plan that provided long-term sustainability for a property then we would certainly look at keeping that property. But we really have to look at long-term sustainability," she said.

Challenge accepted

A group of former Camp Woolsey campers and Girl Guides in the city met in a church basement this week to come up with that sustainable plan.

One of them, Andrea Hogue Reynolds, said Woolsey is a place that helps girls find out who they are and explore the outdoors.

I feel like it's enough of an experience and a community space worth fighting for.- Andrea Hogue Reynolds

"You're right in the forest. You're right on the river. It's beautiful," Hogue Reynolds said. "I feel like it's enough of an experience and a community space worth fighting for. So, as a parent of young girls that are in guiding, one of my youngest hasn't gone to Woolsey yet, she isn't old enough. I want to do what I can to help preserve that space for her."

To that end, Hogue Reynolds and her group have begun a crowdfunding campaign to raise money. But she realizes that isn't the long-term option Birnie is talking about.

"I don't think year-after-year GoFundMes are going to be really sustainable. But this camp means a lot to our community and a lot to our girls and we'll do what we can to work with (Girl Guides of Canada Ontario Council) and prevent the immediate sale of the property," she said. "Whether that's increased volunteer hours, dedicated groups to maintaining Woolsey, doing what we can long term."

The money from the Save Camp Woolsey campaign would go towards paint, fixing roofs, and upgrading plumbing and electrical infrastructure at the camp, she said.