Out of Kingston into the woods

Two students paddle a canoe on a lake lined with evergreen trees.

Camp Outlook archives.

There was a story that Ron Kimberley (MD'73, BA'74) never tired of telling. He and a friend were paddling a canvas-covered canoe on a long camping trip near Cochrane, Ontario in the late 1960s. They hit some rapids, the canoe overturned, and the two young men were thrown into the churning waters. When Kimberley struggled out of the river, he was alone. Not knowing whether his friend was safe or even if he had survived, Kimberley went out in search of him. But first, he left a message. He found one of their packs and a fragment of their smashed canoe, ripped off a strip of canvas, and used some instant coffee from the pack to write a single word as a note for his friend.


They both survived. His friend found the note, stayed with the pack until Ron returned, and they limped to a nearby road where they were eventually picked up. That trip could have been a catastrophe, but instead it became one heck of a story about resilience, the power of nature, and the human spirit. It was a perfect story to be told at Camp Outlook, the camp that Ron Kimberley started in 1970.

This year, Camp Outlook celebrates its 50th extraordinary year of taking disadvantaged kids out of Kingston and into the woods. Though they keep well away from rapids, Camp Outlook is resilient and powerful, yet as fragile as that smashed canoe.

“It changed my life,” says Susan Enright Paterson (Artsci’93, Ed’94), who volunteered as a staffer in 1994 and 1996. “I’d never been tested like that before in terms of resilience. I didn’t realize I needed it.” Linda Vanderlee, who was a camper in 1970 and went on to become a staffer, says it didn’t just change her life, “it became the foundation of my life.”

So what does this life-changing experience look like?

“We looked like hell,” says Enright Paterson of her trips in the mid-1990s. “But we were fast, strong, and lean with our patched-together equipment. We would bump into rich kids with their fancy gear, but we looked tough and we liked it.”

Outlook trips have always been run on a shoestring budget, and Enright Paterson says that it was an “annual miracle” that funding came through. Although the length of the trips has changed over the years, generally Camp Outlook summer trips involve three aluminum Grumman canoes, three staffers, and six kids ranging in age from about 13 to 17, though Vanderlee was only 11 when she went on her first trip in 1970. All the kids during the 50 years of the camp have faced some kind of disadvantage in their lives and have been referred through various Kingston agencies. The trips have mostly been four days to two weeks of backwoods camping, most often in Algonquin Park, following a preplanned route that involves moving campsites each day. Of course, for a lot of those 50 years, there were no cellphones. “If you were three days into a trip and needed to evacuate,it would take you three days to paddle back,” Enright Paterson says.

Gear for the trips is limited to the basic necessities: a tent, a sleeping bag, rain gear, and only as much clothing as could fit into a sleeping bag’s stuff sack – along with the sleeping bag itself. In the ’90s, there was cheese for few days, apples and oranges for a few days, and maybe some Kool-Aid and the fixings for s’mores, but by the end there would just be water drunk straight from the lake and PBJFO (peanut butter and jam fold-overs made from squashed bread. They’re still a staple, although they’re called “wraps” now.). “We didn’t bring plates, bowls, knives, forks,” Enright Paterson says. “Only a cup and spoon each, and a pocket knife for each of the staffers. There were no camp stoves, so if it was raining, you had to figure out how to start a fire with wet wood. But it was really efficient.”

Because they had so little gear, they travelled fast and light. That made it a little easier to meet their goal of always completing a portage in a single run. “There is a real sense of accomplishment in that,” she says. One camper in 2008 was quoted in the Outlook Views newsletter as saying that her favourite thing about the trip was portaging. “I just like knowing that I can do it,” she said.

Former staffer Jennifer Oulton (Artsci’87) wrote in a 1987 article for student magazine The Conduit that “the value of a canoe trip is in its surmountable stresses.” And there have been stresses. Lots of them.

Greg Gransden, who was a staffer in 2017 before joining Outlook’s board of directors, describes some of the challenges. There was a reason the portages had to be done in a single trip. “Emergencies happen on portages,” he says. Kids could have panic attacks. They could have seizures. Or someone could wander off. Many of the kids who go on these trips come from deeply troubled backgrounds. “Some have anxiety or depression. Some kids are being raised by grandparents because their own parents have imploded due to alcoholism, gambling, drugs, violence ...” Gransden describes one young man he met on his first trip out. The boy had training in mixed martial arts, and he would bully the other campers and try to provoke them into fights. “I had to feel compassion for him, though,” Gransden says. “He’d been traumatized, too.” He describes another teen who was a drug dealer. “I watched him transform from a dealer into a kid on a trip. He still carried all these burdens, but he was able to shed them temporarily.”

Nature presents its own challenges in the backwoods. “We were four or five days into a trip in Algonquin Park when a rainstorm came up,” Gransden recalls. Before long, lightning was flashing around them, and they had to get off the water and out of the aluminum canoes. “We had to sit on our life jackets so that no part of your body was touching the ground, with 10 to 15 feet between each person. All around us there were trees being hit. One kid became hysterical. But we were trying to keep each other’s courage up. It was terrifying, but it was wonderful – wonderful because it was beautiful. We were completely vulnerable, but there was courage.” And jokes. And PB & J on squashed bagels. “These were very intense moments.”

That vulnerability is a vital part of what makes Camp Outlook work. Just as the gear isn’t top of the line, the staffers aren’t all highly accomplished canoe campers. In fact, some have never set foot in a canoe before their training with Camp Outlook. But this, too, is part of what makes the camp work so well, according to Daren Dougall (Artsci’85, MEd’97).

Dougall referred hundreds of kids to Camp Outlook during his 35-year career with Youth Diversion. “It’s one of my nearest and dearest programs in the city,” he says. Part of what makes the program work so well is the lack of a strict hierarchy of skills. He explains that the staffers face challenges, but when they do, they show kids how to work through them. “They model anxiety, frustration, even fear,” he says. In doing so, they show the kids how to cope with these emotions in a way that’s different from what the kids might be used to at home.

The kids also see that they’re needed. They understand that the trip will only be successful if they all work together.

“There was a division of labour and a sharing of joy,” says Vanderlee. She describes how at the beginning of a trip, kids would complain about how hard it was, especially portaging. “They’d get to the end of a portage, drop their tumps [packs] and just sit until the others caught up. But at some point, you’d notice that when they got to the end of a portage, they’d go back to see if anyone needed help. Seeing that change was magical.”

In fact, that “magical” transition was part of Ron Kimberley’s original philosophy for Camp Outlook.

He was working with a 17-year-old boy whom he described as “emotionally disturbed and mildly retarded and who had been in trouble with the police. Society calls him a juvenile delinquent.” As a reward, Kimberley took the boy on a four-day canoe trip in Algonquin Park.

Seeing the value of that trip for the boy and looking into similar camping programs for troubled youth, Kimberley put together a formal funding proposal for Camp Outlook in 1970. He described his belief that “a canoe-tripping experience can help the delinquent adolescent in many ways that other programs cannot. To every trip there is a destination and a tremendous sense of accomplishment when that goal is finally reached. We hope that he will be impressed with the thought that the way to make a success of the adventure, whether it be life or a canoe trip, is to co-operate with his fellow man and to do his share of the work.”

Kimberley felt that canoe tripping could give young people a chance to leave behind “things in society that make life so uncomfortable for the juvenile delinquent” and instead allow them to become part of a “tribal group” in which everyone is dependent on one another.

The language is clearly outdated, but the philosophy has held up: Don’t try to change kids. Just give them a chance to be part of a caring group. Give them challenges that they can overcome so they can feel competent. Let them feel that they are valued and valuable. Show them that they can be happy.

The philosophy was sound, but there was a lot of idealism in his proposal.

In the proposal, Kimberley wrote that he “expect[ed] rewards for the individuals who take part in them and ... great rewards for the society of which we are all a part.”

“I feel an obligation to do what I can to better society,” he wrote. “I cannot wait until I graduate to begin fulfilling it.”

But herein lay a contradiction: Part of what makes Camp Outlook work is that it does not try to change lives. It is therapeutic specifically because it is not therapy.

“Kids have a resistance to being fixed,” Dougall says. But at Outlook, that was never the goal. “The camp was never seen as a cure-all,” he says. “Instead, it was always sold as an opportunity.”

What was the opportunity?

Dougall sees Outlook as a way for teens to escape poverty, just for a few days, and to explore beyond “the 10-block radius of their lives.”

He explains that most of the kids that he recommended for Camp Outlook faced many challenges. Most were on the radars of police and multiple social agencies in the city. Some had been in foster care. Some had parents with addictions or difficulties with the law. All of them lived in poverty.

“From a cognitive perspective, these kids saw life and the opportunities available to them very differently from other kids. Many of them would never even think of going onto Queen’s campus because it seemed such an alien place to them. Camp Outlook demonstrated a possibility of a life beyond that poverty.”

He also explains that they could see themselves differently at camp. “Many of these kids are used to being the worst – at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The worst grades, the worst dressed, the worst behaved. But at Outlook, the social strata were neutralized.”He explains that other camps would ask parents to send campers with tuck money, gear, and specialized clothes. Not at Camp Outlook. Here, everything is provided, and there’s nowhere to spend any money anyway.

Not everyone who went to Camp Outlook was, to use the old terminology, a “juvenile delinquent.” Some, like Vanderlee, were simply economically disadvantaged. But Dougall laughs when he thinks what his reputation at Outlook must have been like over the years. He says he was always recommending kids who would be the most challenging, the most likely to need evacuating for behavioural issues. But these are the kids who need the experience most.

“For some of these kids, home is not a refuge. Some dreaded going home. The camp let them see life on the other side. On a canoe trip, the adults were there to keep them safe, not hurt them. There was food when they were hungry. This was different for them.”

Vanderlee saw this difference, too. “The bus trips home got very quiet,” she says. “I had a loving home to go back to. Not everyone did.”

“It wasn’t stress-free,” says Dougall. “But it was a different stress.”

  • Camp Outlookers in a forest

    Photo courtesy of Susan Enright Paterson

  • Campers pitch a tent

    Camp Outlook archives

  • A camper struggles under the weight of a large backpack. Two canoe oars protrude from the sack.

    Camp Outlook archives

  • Ron Kimberley, 1970

    Ron Kimberley, 1970

  • A camper mid-jump

    Camp Outlook archives

  • Three people in a canoe. A lake lined with evergreen trees in the background.

    Photo courtesy of Susan Enright Paterson

  • Campers look out over a lake at dusk.

    Camp Outlook archives

By 1973, Kimberley seemed to have tempered some of his idealism about how much Camp Outlook could “better society.” In a document describing the philosophy of the camp, he wrote about the importance of staff recognizing their limitations. He noted that some staffers joined the camp with the grand idea of changing kids’ lives, and when this didn’t happen, they were disappointed and felt that either they or the camp had failed. But Kimberley wrote that “without training, university student staff are nearly incapable of changing the lives of campers. Even with training this is an extremely difficult process.” Instead, the lack of training in psychology, criminology, or behaviour modification was essential because it allowed the staff to focus on meeting the common goal of completing the trip and on building friendships with the campers. It was the relationships and meeting goals that were therapeutic, and they were therapeutic specifically because they were not approached as therapy.

In the philosophy document, Kimberley questioned whether the camp should follow a medical model that would diagnose “delinquents,” identify what caused their behaviour, and then apply treatments to “cure” their issues. The efficacy of these treatments, including canoe trips, could then be measured.

But Kimberley felt that no, this was not the right philosophy. He balked at the idea of labelling kids. Instead, he wanted the camp to focus on helping students form relationships. This is most clearly seen in his change of terminology. He no longer referred to kids as “delinquents,” but rather “kids having difficulty relating to the rest of society.” He felt that Camp Outlook provided a different, safe society of nine people working together to meet a goal. And this philosophy stuck. This is exactly what Dougall sees today.

A challenging time
1978 brought a new, troubling reason for self-reflection: the Lac Temiscaming tragedy. On June 11, 1978, four adults and 27 boys aged 12 to 14 from St. John’s School in Claremont, Ontario, set out on a three-week canoe trip. By late afternoon, 13 campers were dead. According to the coroner’s report, the tragedy happened when one of the four canoes capsized while crossing a mile-wide lake in strong winds with 12-inch waves. In the scramble to save the eight paddlers in the overturned canoe, the remaining three canoes capsized. While most of the campers were able to swim to shore, 12 boys and one adult succumbed to the cold and drowned.

The coroner’s report found that no one was criminally responsible, but it levelled several criticisms: there was “no chain of command” on the trip; the adult who died was not an experienced canoeist; and the campers had no way of calling for help in the event of an emergency. Even the food was criticized: the cold cheese sandwiches given to the boys for lunch were deemed insufficient for the level of exertion canoeing required. In its conclusion, the report stated, “We feel that for boys from 12 to 14 years of age, this entire expedition constituted an exaggerated and pointless challenge.”

Could these same criticisms be levelled at Camp Outlook, which ran on a flattened hierarchy, PBJFO and the value of surmountable challenges?

“We took a lot of risks,” says Peter Dalziel (Arts’73, Meds’77), who was a staffer in the first years of Outlook and later became its program director.

In 1980, the Outlook Views newsletter mentioned that as a direct result of the Temiscaming tragedy, safety regulations were becoming tighter and staff competency in canoeing and camping skills were now clearly defined and monitored. But staffers were also questioning whether the camp was effective. Was Outlook just offering a pointless challenge? Or was it, as Ron Kimberley had hoped, offering “great rewards” to both the campers and society?

Interestingly, some wondered whether Outlook even ought to examine its own effectiveness. Barb Martin (Artsci’79, Ed’80, MA’82) came to this question through the lens of funding. If Outlook applied to the government for funding, it would be forced to provide some sort of quantified success rate in order to justify continued support. But how do you quantify the experience without dehumanizing the kids? Would this mean a return to the labelling, medical model that Kimberley rejected back in 1973?

“Kids are people,” Martin wrote in the November 1979 edition of Views. “At Outlook this means being listened to. It does not mean being manipulated, dominated, or behaviour-modified. It does not mean being objectified for the sake of scientific evaluation. It does not mean being served as an object of charity or social conscience. The freedom to relate to kids as people (as opposed to statistics) exists at Outlook precisely because the camp is not a bureaucracy. Outlook staff meet with the kids on human (not professional) terms. If we lose sight of this fundamental perspective of Outlook, we lose Outlook, and we become just another social agency serving its particular ‘clientele.’”

If they got government funding, they would be forced into a hierarchy, Martin felt. “We would no longer be an independent and human group, but rather the ‘child’ of an uncaring bureaucracy.” Today, Martin, who has held the roles of staffer, summer camp director, coordinator of winter and summer programs, and president, still feels as she did in 1979. “There’s a moment in a trip when you sit down on a rock and watch the sun set, and a kid sits down beside you and asks ‘Why are you doing this? How much do they pay you?’ And you say ‘I’m not being paid at all. I want to be with you.’ It’s a potent moment.”

Ron Fairley, Artsci’75, whose Camp Outlook nickname was Bear, was a staffer on some of the first canoe trips in 1970. For him, the most memorable trip was his second. Two Outlook groups went together in a bus from Kingston to Algonquin Park. Some were doing a four-day trip beginning and ending on Lake Opeongo, while Fairley’s group was extending the loop to nine days with a two-day stopover at Brent Station on Cedar Lake. The first night at Brent Station, the boys got into some “mischief” (there was beer and a group of girls from a different camp involved), and Fairley and the other staffer made the decision to get them all back on the water as quickly as possible. After considerable grumbling from the boys, the staffers struck a deal with them. If they worked really, really hard, they could make it back to the starting point on Lake Opeongo and catch the bus back with the other group. The boys agreed. “We put in 16-hour days of hard paddling,” Fairley says. At one point, they found an aluminum canoe folded around a rock so that the bow and stern were touching, and this sobering image spurred them to paddle all the harder. It was exhausting, but they all knew they had to work together to make it in time. Late on the fourth day, they reached the put-in point, only to find that the bus with the other group had already left. But despair was replaced with elation when a ranger was able to call the front gate and have someone stop the bus before it left the park and return to pick them up. They’d done it. Many years later, Fairley was walking near Portsmouth Village when a man called out, “Bear?” It was one of the campers from that trip. The man rushed over to introduce his wife to Fairley, then asked him to recount the story of the nine-day trip completed in four days. “I’ve been telling my wife that story for 25 years and she never believed me,” he said. “For this guy, it truly was a life-changing trip,” Fairley says. “It was great to have someone share it with him again.”

Outlook today
Today, about 140 kids each year come to Algonquin Park and Frontenac Park with Camp Outlook in fall, winter, and summer programs. The canoes are still heavy and practically indestructible, and the tents and tumps are still held together with patches. The staffers have more training than they did in the ’70s, including mental health first aid, but they’re still volunteers. There’s still no permanent funding, and there are still lots of fundraisers and the “annual miracle” that it all comes together.

“It blows me away that it’s lasted this long, because it’s so fragile,” says Barb Martin. But, she says, it’s the simplicity that makes it last. “It’s all about a group of people going into the wilderness to enjoy themselves and survive. It reduces all of our relationships to simplicity.”

As for the kids, Dougall says, “The benefit to them is just obvious. Most of the kids I sent considered the camp the best part of their teens – even the ones who had to be evacuated because of bad behaviour.” He tells the story of one young woman who said she hated the camp the first time she came back from a trip, “but year after year, she asked if she could go again until she aged out.” Eleven years later, she got in touch with Dougall again: this time to ask if her daughter could go.

“Society might have changed over 50 years, but poverty hasn’t,” he says.

Nor has Camp Outlook.

“So many kids would say ‘I’ve never swum in a lake.’ And they would tell you things. It was such a privilege to connect with them in this beautiful place,” says Vanderlee.

Vanderlee describes how once, when she was a staffer, a camper took off in a canoe. She went after him, not to chase him down, but just to be nearby. “I’m not trying to change you,” she told him. “I’m just here with you.” “This is the foundation of my life,” Vanderlee says. And it’s what Camp Outlook is all about, too. It’s not trying to change anyone ... and that’s why it does it so well.

Who was Ron Kimberley?

By most accounts, Ron Kimberley was a quiet man. Many remember him as being in the background, quietly making things work, and miraculously finding the funding to make Outlook run for another year. Daren Dougall describes him as brilliant and very thoughtful, reserved, yet somehow always available to talk. “He seemed to follow the First Nations tradition of listening more than he spoke,” Dougall says.

Ron Fairley describes him as inspirational and a gifted pianist. He says that Ron Kimberley was completely dedicated to anything he did. “He was either in or not in.” He was also undaunted by a challenge. Despite – or perhaps because of – the near tragedy on the canoe trip near Cochrane, Ontario, he and his friend went back and conquered the route safely. Ron Kimberley always kept that coffee-stained scrap of canvas as a memento.

Peter Dalziel says “he was an intellectual, a triathlete, but he was difficult to get to know. He was so significant in so many people’s lives, but he was a bit of a mystery.”

In 2016, Ron Kimberley died as he had lived: quietly and without fanfare. His legacy lives on in Camp Outlook and the countless lives he has touched.

Linda Vanderlee recalls that whenever a camper, whether exhausted or merely bored, would ask how much farther they had to go, the reply would always be “eighteen point two SOUs.” SOU stood for Standard Outlook Units. What was a SOU? No one really knew. But whatever it was, by the end of a trip, every Outlook kid knew they could make it.

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