Camp Kawabi: The early years,1955-1965

Sign for Camp Kawabi with thunderbird icon
Ronald Perry in front of Camp Kawabi sign

Ronald Perry, owner Camp Kawabi

“Oh the memories, oh the memories”, recalls Nancy (Perry) Caron as she thinks back to the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s. Nancy and her sister Jean Ann (Perry) Lillie still tell stories with great fondness about their younger years when their father Ron Perry purchased Camp Kawabi in late 1954 or early 1955. Ronald H. Perry had a love for canoeing from his own early years of cottaging on Lake of Bays in Muskoka and having canoe trips out of a camp in the beautiful setting of Kawabi was no doubt a dream come true.

However setting up the camp was a lot of work as the property had been vacant for a few years in the early 1950’s when Ron Perry became interested. Camp Kawabi was actually first started after World War II as a camp for American Boy Scouts out of Niagara Falls, New York. The American Scouts had stopped using it as an outpost for canoe trips, probably in the summer of 1950. The scouts were the ones who named the camp “Kawabi”, meaning “Hawk” and the name stuck when it was purchased by Ron Perry and subsequently by Bruce Harris.

Ronald Perry wearing trenchcoat

Ronald H. Perry M.A. was Headmaster at Ashbury College in Ottawa

Ronald H Perry was born in St. Catharines, and went to Dean Close school in England, as well as Ridley College and the University of Toronto where he met his wife, Mary. He later completed a Masters Degree from Columbia University. It was at the U. of T., that he also met Lil Brennand. They became fast friends sharing an interest in canoeing and camping. Ron and his wife, Mary Ruth (White) Perry even went on canoe trips with Lil and her husband Tom Brennand. Ron and Lil also worked together at the Taylor-Statten Camps in Algonquin Park. Lil had been a dietician for the boys’ (Ahmek) and girls (Wapomeo) camps. (More about Lil and her family to follow.)

Some of the campers in the early years of Kawabi were also students of Ashbury College, where Mr. Perry was Headmaster. It was a private boys’ school in Ottawa, and many of the parents were diplomats or worked in government and needed a place for their children over the summer. As Jean Ann (Perry) Lillie describes Camp Kawabi as “a home away from home”. In fact Jean Ann and her husband, Gene Lillie spent time at Kawabi when they were first married. Gene helped out with canoeing in those early years. They had their own cabin with their children in later years. Jean Ann (now 87 years young) also remembers that the campers had great meals thanks to Lil Brennand. As Jean Ann remembers, ‘it wasn`t like institutional food’.

There was always a doctor on staff as well so the Ashbury College parents would have nothing to worry about. It was the fact that there was always a doctor on staff, that brought other campers to Kawabi, like Don Henderson and his brother, Terry. (More to follow about the Henderson family as well.)

Ron Perry also brought staff from Ashbury College with him, including the cleaning and kitchen staff, who happened to be Dutch. Jean Ann remembers this Dutch couple following her dad to the north end of Lake Rosseau where he started a boarding school in later years. It seems that several staff members, like Ken McGowan, head of the waterfront activities and Lil Brennand, the dietician brought their families and had their own cabins. In fact Ken and his wife, Isabelle came with a two-month old baby in the very first year of camp. Lil Brennand brought her two children Sue (Brennand) Reid and Tom Brennand and lived in a small cabin behind the kitchen. Tom was at first a camper, then CIT and Sue a swim instructor.

kids swim in lake while man watches from dock

Tom Brennand stands on the Kawabi dock with his hands on his hips.

teenagers on dock with legs pointed towards each other

Kawabi Swim Staff. Head of water-front, Ken McGowan (far left), and Sue (Brennand) Reid next to him

Tom Brennand recalls that Ron Perry called his mother Lil on Christmas Day in 1955 to ask if she would be interested in becoming the dietician at Camp Kawabi the following summer. Tom remembers how she got off the phone and told her children, Sue and Tom, that they would be leaving Cleveland the following summer, where their father (Tom Brennand Sr.) played in the symphony, and travelling the 14-15 hours to Big Hawk Lake. Lil Brennand and Ron Perry were extremely good friends as Tom points out. They had worked together at Pickering College in the early 1930`s. In fact Lil was the godmother of Ron`s second daughter, Nancy (Perry) Caron.

view of lakeshore with canoes and docks

Canoes on the beach in 1956

The Perry and Brennand families would all say what a challenge it was in the beginning. Mice had taken over in the absence of the Boy Scouts and a lot of cleaning and repair was needed before the camp opened again. Nancy (Perry) Caron, now in her 80’s, still remembers even having to repair mattresses. Yet she is also quick to say that in addition to all the fun of camp, some of her fondest memories are of having to get the camp ready and closing it up at the end of the season.

There was no bridge at Big Hawk Landing and no road to Kawabi. (see The Big Hawk Lake Road story also on this website, under Education/ Cottage Tales) Everyone remembers what a challenge it was to get there. Nancy (Perry) Caron recalls that her family came from Ottawa and arrived at Little Hawk where they then had to paddle to get to Camp Kawabi. Tom Brennand remembers the long 11 hour drive from Cleveland to Toronto and then an additional four hours to Haliburton. On one particular trip they arrived at Little Hawk in the pouring rain. He had to duck down in the bow of a Peterborough runabout that belonged to Pete Sawyer. (Pete owned what is now Oakview Lodge.) Pete shuttled them over to the camp, where Mr. Perry was waiting.

Tom Brennand remembers his years as a camper and then as a staff member as “some of the best years of my young life”. He fondly recalls canoeing and how he “gained an appreciation of nature”. Tom also remembers how the day was set up in four different sessions.

Two boys canoeing towards the camera

Learning to paddle

children swim while others watch from the dock

Synchronized swimming August 1960

Campers were required to do canoeing and swimming as part of a daily routine. There was archery, sailing and crafts as well. Music and sing-alongs were also a big part of Camp Kawabi. Sue (Brennand) Reid remembers the same piano as being in the dining hall that is there today. (Wind surfing and motorized sports like water skiing came later in the “Bruce Harris years”.) It is clear that canoeing along with swimming were in the forefront at Camp Kawabi in the early years. The lucky campers got to go on short or even five day canoe trips and the really lucky ones were driven to Algonquin Park where they had a more adventurous canoe trip.

cover of Canoe trip camping

This was Ron Perry’s second book on canoeing.

Ron Perry was an expert canoeist himself and wrote two books on canoeing and canoe tripping. His first book, The Canoe and You, was followed by a more comprehensive guide, Canoe Trip Camping. This second book included an appendix with practical information to help canoe tip leaders develop charts for the trip, organize supplies as well as become aware of safety rules and other useful information in case of emergencies. Mr Perry’s first book was revised and reprinted as Canoeing for Beginners in 1967

He was also responsible for establishing standards for canoeing. Having Junior, Intermediate, Senior and Master Levels clearly outlined, allowed campers to change from one camp to another and their skills would be recognized for their appropriate level.

Bruce Harris was actually the Red Cross Examiner who came twice a summer, at the end of each session, to test the campers’ swimming skills. Bruce travelled to various camps in this role and Kawabi was just one of his regular stops.

woman with her arms around two boys. Three more boys seated at their feet.

Nancy (Perry) Caron pictured here with campers. Nancy remembers having a helper with her group of little boys.

Boys paddling in a rowboat with a man in the stern

Boys learning to navigate Big Hawk

At first Kawabi was an all-boys camp with less than 100 campers in total. Many of these boys came from the Ottawa area and were sons of diplomats or other government employees.  There were two  three-week sessions (total of six weeks) in those early years.

Parents who came on Visitors’ Day pleaded with Mr. Perry to allow girls to come to the camp as well and so he did make this important change in subsequent years. It would have been difficult for parents to come on Visitors’ Day. Remember there was no road to Camp Kawabi until 1961. (See Big Hawk Lake Road story on the HHLPOA website– Cottage Tales) As Sue (Brennand) Reid recalls the camp owned two Peterborough cedar-strip outboards back then. So Visitors’ Day must have been quite an event.

Two women in front of a camp site

Sue (Brennand) Reid and Cathy Brown on a canoe trip in 1959

Six women in two canoes

Getting ready for a canoe trip

Campers and visitors all had to come by boat. One of the ideal summer jobs according to John Hollows (see the Hollows story on the HHLPOA website– Cottage Tales) was to drive the small run-about boats and/or barges with all the necessary goods, campers or visitors. John remembers that the two flat-bottomed punts were affectionately referred to as “Stable Mable” and Steady Eddy”. John Hollows was lucky enough to have this job for four years and at different times shared it with Monty Aldous, John Ansley and Fred Reid, who later became Sue (Brennand) Reid’s husband.

Although there was a small store at Big Hawk Landing built by Bill Gartshore in 1950, (see the Garth Mole story on the HHLPOA website– Cottage Tales), most supplies were not purchased from the Landing. Don Henderson remembers “All the camp supplies came by boat. When the National Grocers’ load arrived at the camp dock it was always a challenge for the Boatman to find the camp staff (they seem to always disappear) required to carry all the cases, sacks of potatoes and fresh meat up the hill to the kitchen storage. When Pete Sawyer brought in the 100LB propane tanks staff seem to disappear again, but somehow everything would get up the hill.”

Lil's lane road sign

When 911 was introduced about ten years ago, it was Don Henderson who suggested naming the road Lil’s Lane.

Ron Perry bought the store at Big Hawk Landing from Bill Gartshore and had it run by a “Business Manager” for two or three years. This “Business Manager” lived at the Landing and was supposed to take care of the camps finances, but unfortunately that was not the case. Ron Perry ended up having to sell lots from the camp property to get rid of debt that resulted from unfortunate dealings of this “Business Manager”. Camp Kawabi property originally included much more land to the west than it does today. Many of these lots were sold to camp staff. Before the road spur was added, by Ron Perry, probably in 1965, Lil Brennand, the camp dietician and long-time friend of Ron Perry, would paddle to work each day.

The land between Kawabi and Scott’s Point, which is actually three lots, went to Lil Brennand. The bill of sale for these lots, found recently by Heather Reid, the granddaughter of Lil Brennand, was for $10. As Heather says, ‘it was such a gift!” No doubt this was due to their long-time friendship, but also for the many years that Lil had worked at the camp.
The Brennand property abuts the lot of Don Henderson, who started as a camper at Kawabi for two years in 1956 and was on staff from 1958-1964. Don’s brother, Terry, also started at Kawabi in 1956 and went each year including the first year after Bruce Harris purchased the camp. (Terry passed away in 1992.) Don graduated in 1965 and as he says himself, he “had to get a real job in the city” after that.

Don and his older brother Jim each purchased a lot from Ron Perry. They were both at college at the time so they each took out $1000 Student Loans and each borrowed $250 from their father in order to become Big Hawk property owners. Don remembers that the lawyer’s bill for this transaction was $35.00! He also remembers that his first tax bill was 13.87! After graduation Don’s brother Jim’s first job was in Winnipeg, so eventually Don purchased Jim’s lot. Of course Don’s parents must have thought that he was crazy at the time, but now more than half a century later, his own children and grandchildren cherish the Big Hawk property. In fact Don’s neighbour on the next lot to the south, were friends of the Brennands. They too were members of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. When the McGuire family gave up cottaging in 2010, Don purchased the property so that his children and grandchildren could have their own cottage. Don Henderson also remains good friends with Sue (Brennand) Reid and John Hollows from his days at Kawabi.

A group of people sitting on a beached dock

Staff closing Camp Kawabi for the season.  Back Row: Gail Lacherty, Graham Jackson, Tom (Sr.) and Sue Brennand, John Ansley, Mike Kirby  Front Row: Wendy Raudebaugh, Bill Slattery,, Connie and Bevon Monks, Don Henderson, Paul Achurst, Tom and Lil Brennan

Heather Reid, granddaughter of Lil Brennand, who was a second generation Kawabi camper herself for eight years, believes that Kawabi “changes your life” and defines “who you are now”.

a canoe upside down in front of a cabin

The Brennand (Dietician’s) cottage with Lil’s original canoe, recently refurbished., originally handcrafted in Minden by May Minto, The Bearwood Canoe Company.

Members of the Brennand/Reid family would all agree that the time that they spent at Camp Kawabi provided a foundation for who they became as adults. Sue (Brennand) Reid started right away as a swim instructor and continued to hold that role from 1956-1961. Sue actually met her husband Fred Reid there, so she can easily say that Camp Kawabi changed her life. Fred was in charge of the boats and worked with John Hollows, who was a bit younger. Fred unfortunately passed away in 2012. Heather Reid, daughter of Sue and Fred, still lives in the area, on Little Hawk Lake, and works at Abbey Gardens. Heather even relates how her niece and nephews, the children of Wendy Reid-Jackson, her sister, still spend part of their summer at the family cottage between Scott’s Point and Camp Kawabi. Although they live most of the year in New York State, these kids are definitely “Hawkers” too, says Heather.

Sue (Brennand) Reid would also say that her hand-painted paddle that she unfortunately lost in a house fire still comes to mind, if asked “what is that one thing that makes you think of Canada?”  Sue knows that canoeing, learning to paddle properly and the many friendships that started at Kawabi have had a lasting influence on her life.  She still lives in Minden today, although she grew up in Cleveland and spent several years in Newmarket.

Now that we have most of the comforts of home at our cottages we forget how rustic it would have been in those early days.

outline of bell in front of the shoreline with fall leaves

The dining hall bell rang to call campers to meals.

No cellphones, no Internet! Nancy (Perry) Caron remembers that Lil Brennand the dietician, even measured the food for Terry Henderson who was diabetic. Before the road came into camp, Don and Terry Henderson’s father, who worked for Bell, was able to obtain some telephone wire and two old crank style telephones which made it possible to install a communications link between Kawabi and Big Hawk Landing.

This happened in 1959 and the line was used for about four years. It allowed for delivery trucks to let the camp staff know, when they had arrived at the Landing and were ready for boat pick up. Don remembers when he and John Hollows stood at the back of the camp infirmary with a topographical map and decided the direction to follow to get to the landing. With a compass and lots of mosquito lotion, they set off and blazed a trail through the bush and eventually came out at the top of the big rock across from the docks. Over the next few days John and Don laid out the wire and anchored the wire that went under water to the store. The telephones were connected and they made the first call to Camp Kawabi. By the summer of 1962, after the road was built, most delivery trucks came directly to the camp, thus eliminating the need for a phone connection. The lines were mostly laid on the ground and are probably still there, buried under more than fifty years of leaves.

Campers lined up to start a race

Campers lining up for a race.

John Hollows and Don Henderson both remember that Ron Perry and Lil Brennand each kept daily records which included the weather and temperatures. Swimming happened every day, despite water temperatures. Swimming races took place at the end of every session and included ribbons! Likewise there were canoe races and even a two to two and a half hour regatta that welcomed cottagers’ participation as well. Decorated boats went from Little Hawk Landing to the docks at Kawabi, with a beach party that followed. Everyone got to know everyone else. Camp Kawabi was the hub of the Hawk Lakes.

The advantages of a small camp where everyone knew everyone and activities like scavenger hunts were possible, also included swimming challenges. It was a really big deal, if you at the end of the session, were one of the few who could swim from the Narrows to the dock at Kawabi.

Young people in costumes on a dock

Left to right: Jean Norton (as Mr Perry), Fred Reid and Wendy Raudebaugh

Young people in costumes on a dock

Kawabi staff seemed to have as much fun as the campers! And that doesn’t even include their days off once a week! Left to Right: Sue Brennand Reid, Fred Reid and Wendy Raudebaugh.

This tale certainly does not tell the whole story of Camp Kawabi, even in those early years. It is clear that Ron Perry was an extraordinary man and the legacy that he left is truly an exceptional one. It is hoped that this story will inspire others to tell their Cottage Tales.

The staff photo below was taken in 1957.  Bruce Harris bought the camp in 1965 when he was a young teacher, just in his 20’s and living in North York.  Along with his wife Doreen, Bruce ran the camp for 40 years without an accident.  No doubt there is another story or two from those 40 years.

Posed group photo

Ron Perry, front row centre; Mary Perry, Ron’s wife is to his left; and Lil Brennand is to his right as you look at the photo; Nancy (Perry) Caron is second from the end on the right; Back row: Don Henderson is second from the left and Sue (Brennand) Reid is fifth from the left

Sign for Camp Kawabi with thunderbird icon

Camp Kawabi sign

Tell us what brought you to the Halls-Hawk Lake area! Did you go to Camp Kawabi?

Were you as lucky as Nancy (Perry) Caron and Walter Zeltner or Sue and Fred Reid or John and Claudia Hollows to have honeymooned at Big Hawk?

This story has been written by Joan Hamilton, who could not have done so without the much appreciated input and photos from the following: Nancy (Perry) Caron, Jean-Ann (Perry) Lillie, Sue (Brennand) Reid, Tom Brennand, Heather Reid, John Hollows and Don Henderson. More information on the life of Ronald H Perry and the early years of Camp Kawabi can be found in the archives at Trent University.