Former girl guides banding together to save Ottawa camp

Some former girl guides are rounding up the old troop to save a beloved camp on the banks of the Ottawa River that's slated for closure after 80 years.

Camp Woolsey, founded in 1939, slated for closure as part of province-wide sell-off

Andrea Hogue Reynolds, right, first attended Camp Woolsey as an eight-year-old Brownie. She hopes her own daughters will one day be able attend the camp on the Ottawa River. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

The Girl Guides motto is "be prepared," but for some former guides, news that a beloved camp on the banks of the Ottawa River is closing after 80 years still came as an awful shock.

"I was stunned. There were tears," said Andrea Hogue Reynolds.

Like generations of local guides, Hogue Reynolds spent many happy summers at Camp Woolsey, a wooded, 40-hectare haven at the end of Dunrobin Road.

It's a second home for a lot of young women and girls in the community.- Andrea Hogue Reynolds, former girl guide

For Hogue Reynolds, whose mother died of cancer when she was a teenager, the camp provided refuge during a difficult time.

"Being up at camp was a good place to be. I felt good. I could just be me and put some of the tough stuff behind," she said. "There's something about stepping onto that property where time slows down and you just feel you can breathe the fresh air and feel at home."

Now she's leading the fight to save Camp Woolsey, and she's rounding up the old troop to help.

Camp Woolsey in the 1950s. (Supplied)

Properties worth millions

Founded in 1939, Camp Woolsey is slated for closure in 2020 and sale in 2021, part of a province-wide move by Girl Guides to sell off many of its properties, some worth millions of dollars.

According to the organization's Ontario commissioner, Susan Birnie, Camp Woolsey and others like it have fallen out of fashion, and fallen into disrepair.

"To be frank, we don't have usage at the camp to make it sustainable," Birnie said. "Our infrastructure is aging, so we have a huge bill coming up."

Camp Woolsey faces a 'huge bill' to fix aging infrastructure, according to the Ontario commissioner for Girl Guides. The Ottawa-area camp is set to close in 2020. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

When Girl Guides first announced the plan to sell off most of its Ontario camps, it set off bitter legal battles across the province.

A court decision last fall granted the organization permission to go ahead with the sale of the properties, but local units were offered the chance to present business plans to save the most viable camps. The plan to save Camp Woolsey was rejected in November.  

'Tough decisions'

According to Birnie, the plan submitted by the Ottawa group last year fell short because it didn't include reasonable costs for infrastructure repairs or accessibility upgrades.

We had to make some tough decisions about where we should put our energies.- Susan Birnie, Girl Guides Ontario commissioner

"We had to make some tough decisions about where we should put our energies," she said. "We have to decide, is our business property management? Or is our business programming for girls? And we decided we wanted to concentrate on programming for girls."

Now, the organization's Ontario council has offered a glimmer of hope, telling the Ottawa unit that if can find a way to boost bookings, Camp Woolsey could yet be saved. 

Some former Girl Guides say it never should have reached this point, and are blaming the Ontario organization.

'You can just breathe the fresh air and feel at home'

5 years ago
Duration 1:15
Featured VideoAndrea Hogue Reynolds is part of a group of former Girl Guides mobilizing to save Camp Woolsey. The camp west of Ottawa is slated to close next year and be sold in 2021.

Kirsten Jacobsen, who was a teenage Pathfinder and later a Girl Guide leader, said a restructuring in 2007 stripped the organization of layers of local governance that encouraged volunteers to fix up camps, maintain trails and donate money.

"You had this tremendous connected sisterhood of volunteers who were active in doing service for the camp," Jacobsen said.

Under the new structure, headquartered in Toronto, that community spirit has been eroded, Jacobsen said — including local efforts to keep Camp Woolsey in good shape.

Birnie rejected that assessment.

"We have encouraged local communities to stay in touch and to do things together and to communicate with each other, and there's no reason that can't happen under the new structure as well," she said.

Former guides leader Kirsten Jacobsen blames the camp's financial problems on organizational restructuring at the provincial level. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Outdoor activities to continue

The Ontario council has said it remains committed to providing outdoor camping and adventure experiences for girl guides, and could turn to a provincial park or another private camp during the spring or fall.

Birnie said money from the sale of the camps will go into a trust to fund those future programs.

"There's no reason for us to stop camping because we don't own Camp Woolsey," she said.

Camp Woolsey was founded in 1939, and has hosted generations of girl guides. (Supplied)

But for Hogue Reynolds, who has kept the photos and colourful badges from all those years ago, it just won't be the same.

"It's a second home for a lot of young women and girls in the community," she said. "If the camp does close, I will be able to sleep knowing I did everything I could to save that property."

Hogue Reynolds has called a meeting Thursday to figure out a plan of action, and to prepare for the fight ahead.