Memories of a Falcona Camper

YMCA Camp Falcona Contributed Article

The article below is a re-post of an article that appears in a YMCA newsletter. The original article appears here – Thank you to Gary George at the YMCA in Sudbury for allowing me to share these fond memories. This article was originally published in 2016. Camp Falcona was shutdown in 2018.

On traditions old and new

I had the good fortune to attend Falcona Camp starting in 1976 when I was ten years old. Like many young campers who spent summers on the shores of Nelson Lake during their formative years, Falcona was a highlight of my life. There is something enduring about the friends we make when we’re young. I’ve not spoken to most of my fellow campers in decades, but we are bound together by shared traditions like the brown rock swim, hikes to Lumsden tower, and our efforts to execute the perfect “Mary Poppins” on the Maypole at the base of senior hill – a practice that endured until proven dangerous, and subsequently banned under penalty of “loss of tuck”. Grounded in these experiences, I know firsthand that former campers, when re-acquainted, pick up right where they left off regardless of where life has taken them.

Many readers will be aware of Falcona Camp, but in case you’re not, Falcona is a children’s camp located north of Sudbury. It was started in 1937 by Falconbridge Nickel Mines and operated primarily for the children of Falconbridge employees in its early days until the YMCA assumed operations in the late 1990s.

I have a unique perspective on Falcona, I think. You see, my parents, Bob and Lana Sissons, assumed the role of camp directors starting in 1976 and continued in this role through the late 1970s into the 80s. Mom and Dad had attended Falcona growing up as children in Falconbridge through the late 40s and 50s and both had subsequently become counsellors in the days of Jack and Marg Nihill. I am not an expert in the history of Falcona but I wanted to share some thoughts on the importance of Falcona’s traditions. If you are not familiar with Falcona, please forgive my occasional reference to terms familiar only to Falcona campers.

My parents were school teachers. In the spring of 1976, their plan was to break from our previous summer tradition of tenting on Lake Kagawong, and travel across Canada in a newly purchased Nomad house trailer. Just a few weeks before the end of the school year, a family meeting was convened. My parents announced that plans had changed. We were all going to Falcona Camp for the summer. Mom and Dad had jumped at the opportunity to become re-acquainted with the camp they knew so well as children by becoming the new camp leaders. Our new trailer, and the trip to Western Canada would have to wait.

I spent my first night at Falcona Camp a few weeks after this. Falcona in those days was run as a boy’s camp for the month of July and a girl’s camp for the month of August. My parents were determined that my brothers Don, Steve and I for the month of July at least, were going to be regular campers and have the full camp experience unfiltered. We were not going to get any special treatment because our parents happened to be running the show. We got to Falcona before any campers or counsellors arrived so my parents could set things up, and I recall being immediately introduced to the age appropriate Intermediate A cabin, later to be known simply as the A cabin. These cabins don’t exist anymore at Falcona I’m sad to say, but some readers will remember them. They were framed with rough-milled lumber and painted dark green with white trim. They were open with exposed rafters, a counsellor’s cabin in the middle, and walls extending partway to the ceiling. Anyone semi-athletic (and we were all pretty athletic at the time) could easily traverse the rafters hand over hand, and dive bomb an unsuspecting counsellor by dropping from the ceiling and jumping on their bed. Did I mention we were ten years old? The tradition at that time was to write your name and any clever messages you could think of in paint or magic marker on the interior walls. The walls and ceilings were covered with names like Lacey, Mott, MacDonald and Koskela dating from the fourties all the way to the modern seventies interspersed with the odd “Kilroy was here”. World-war II era metal bunk-beds were setup with military precision in the A cabin, and this early in the season the mattresses still smelled of mouse treat from winter storage in the Lodge. It was cold and windy when we got there with the storm shutters banging against the side of the cabin. My new red sleeping bag and fancy flashlight with extra D-cells intended for a Western Canada tour in a Nomad trailer didn’t put a dent in the horrors of that first night alone in the A cabin at Falcona on Nelson Lake!

Somehow I got through it. The next day was our first “changeover day”, when a new set of campers were ferried across the lake in the Falcon II, a pontoon boat that could seat 30 or 40 campers. I remember thinking it was pretty cool that my Dad was driving the boat. The next night, the A cabin was suddenly filled with two dozen other scared ten and eleven year olds, and things seemed a whole lot better. Looking back, we were learning about the importance of community and resilience, without even realizing it.

Those who attended camp in my era will recall traditions like dawn patrol, tuck, taps, Indian day, Fright night, Mad Harry, the Canoe regatta and the Brown rock swim. A highlight was an annual visit from SWAT, a band I’d never heard of. Apparently a lot of campers had all their albums, so they must have been pretty big. They seemed to play a lot of songs from STYX for some reason, and I remain a STYX fan to this day as a result of SWAT. Campers of my era will also recall hikes to the Girl’s tower, the Boy’s tower, overnights at Mott’s and MacDonald’s and canoe trips to Blueberry Island and West Bay. My all-time favorite camp experience was probably an overnight trip to MacDonald’s cabin. Counsellors used to tell the obligatory scary stories about the Wendigo, Mad Harry, about how MacDonald’s cabin was haunted. Apparently the mounted dear head over the stone fireplace would sometimes move in the dead of night on its own. I recall waking up to terrified screams and a sea of flashlight beams focused on one wall to realize that the deer’s head had in fact moved half way around the cabin and was now on a different wall. It didn’t occur to me until much later that a counsellor might have moved it. I can’t do justice to recounting and sharing all the wonderful and memorable experiences shared in a short article. There were just too many.

As I got a little older (as in eleven), I came to understand that my parents in running the camp were trying to strike a balance. They were respectful of the newer traditions shared by recent campers and counsellors, but I know also that they were very pleased to be able to reach back, and re-introduce some of the camps’ older traditions from Falcona’s history that might otherwise have been lost. I remember discussions of what program to introduce, when. Falcona had so many great traditions, and many survive to this day I’m sure. I’d love to have a copy of “taps” if anyone reading this happens to have it? I’m referring to the evening prayer posted on the wall of the lodge facing the lake that we used to sing every night before “lights out”. I’m interested whether it is still at the modern Falcona’s Lodge.

Most of us who are now parents ourselves, have probably taken on the responsibility of looking after someone else’s child for a short time at some point – perhaps for a sleepover, a weekend, or longer. Now imagine taking on the responsibility of looking after hundreds of children who are not your own, in groups of one hundred and more at a time, over two months, on the far side of a Northern Ontario lake. Throw into the mix a hefty supply of canoes, sailboats, a raft, midnight swims, rickety fire towers, a steam bath, BB guns, camp fires and an archery pit. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the years I spent at Falcona, especially during August (Girl’s month) I had more visibility to Falcona’s operations. I came to have a greater appreciation for what was involved in running Falcona Camp. From the perspective of a July boys-month camper in the seventies, three meals a day, a well-stocked workshop, nightly lodge programs and a planned recreational schedule all seemed to happen by themselves. In August, I came to understand that this stuff actually took some effort. I found myself ferrying groceries from the landing in the Cat’s Meow, collecting and incinerating garbage, and on one exciting occasion, keeping watch with Val, the camp handyman, for a bear that had been spotted near the archery pits and was threatening camp. (Val got the bear). I remember also the Delco unit – a scary, noisy diesel powered generator that supplied electricity from a boathouse past the caretaker’s cabin that would constantly become overloaded and quit. The Delco powered the few parts of camp that actually needed power like the dining hall, kitchen, workshop and nurses quarters. I now appreciate that the designers had never anticipated the “blow-tried look”, and a new generation of campers that felt the need to blow dry their hair after every swim period. Suddenly a perfectly good 10 KVA generator could not hope to keep up with demand from new campers. I like to imagine some modern analog of this situation, with today’s modern YMCA Falcona campers crushing Falcona’s WiFi and broadband service.

Every morning in August (around 6:30 AM I think) I woke to the sound of my Dad on the phone before Dawn Patrol talking to people named Sandy and Hector and others I can’t remember at the townsite office on the camp’s only phone. Dad relayed endless daily issues, and talked through long lists of grocery items and supplies required as well as repairs needed to keep the camp running. There was no such thing as e-mail or faxes, so all the items were read line by line over the phone. Falcona Camp ran on standard time in those days so the 6:30 AM calls would have been 7:30 AM in Falconbridge. The time shift was a useful tactic to make Dawn Patrol (The Falcona tradition where participating campers needed to jump in the lake by the count of ten) more bearable, and get campers to bed at night after taps by which time it was black dark.

Our family never did get to Western Canada in 1976, but in retrospect this is fine by me. I learned a few things from my Falcona experience.

First, the specifics of the traditions are not all that important. What is more important is simply that we had traditions. My younger sister Barb attended Falcona longer than I. She recalls many Falcona traditions unfamiliar to me. I’m sure we would both be amazed as former campers by the traditions dreamed up by a new generation of more connected and tech-savvy counsellors and campers today. Traditions don’t get better or worse, and cannot be compared. Traditions past and present are simply a product of the times, and a reflection of the talents of the many people who get them started and sustain them. I believe that the best traditions have a way of surviving and thriving however. As someone who experienced the old Falcona, I see the echoes of the traditions I knew at Falcona alive and well, and improved upon in many cases in the Falcona YMCA programs today.

Second, we owe a debt of gratitude to the people willing to work hard to create these experiences for children growing up. This is not just about my parents, although I’m certainly proud of their contribution. This about a great many people including Nihills, Rudds, Sheppards and many others who have taken on the challenge of running programs at Falcona. Our gratitude extends to people behind the scenes, then at Falconbridge, and now at the YMCA, who volunteer and give freely of their time, going the extra mile to create fun and memorable experiences. I appreciate now that the people at the other end of that daily 6:30 AM call did as much to make our Falcona experience possible as the people we saw every day at camp. What’s impressive, is that they helped quietly, behind the scenes, expecting and asking for no thanks or recognition.

Creating an experience like YMCA Falcona takes a serious effort and considerable administrative talent. As a former Falcona Camper, I know we’re fortunate to have the YMCA at the helm carrying on Falcona’s traditions. I can see how the camp programs have become richer and better in many cases, adjusting as needed to adapt to our modern day. Falcona remains every bit as vibrant as I remember it. It is filled with new energy, and the contagious enthusiasm and sense of fun that only the young or the young-at-heart can provide. In this environment, new and wonderful traditions can’t help but emerge binding together another generation of Falcona Campers. You’ve just heard my experience – I’d love to hear about the new traditions from today’s Falcona Campers!