Thanks to conservation areas, experiencing the wilderness is much closer to home
Yuki Hayashi Special to the Star
Becca McLellan and her son, Riley, 2, at Albion Hills Conservation Area, which provides a cottage-by-the-city experience with RV spots.
PHOTO CREDIT Shayne Gray
Imagine having your own lakeside retreat, less than one hour from Toronto: a place where you can swim, fish, hike in the woods, and break out the mountain bikes for some trail riding – or, if you’re adventurous, sign up for an off-road bike race. Because you’re so close to the city, you can invite friends over for an alfresco dinner and, at the end of the night, stargaze while roasting marshmallows by the firepit. The best part: no, you didn’t have to win the lottery.
As Toronto residents Judy and Harry Vandekemp discovered more than 20 years ago, Albion Hills Conservation Area provides this cottage-by-the-city experience with RV spots complete with an electrical hookup, at an affordable price to boot. Located in Caledon, the bustling Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) site, which saw a 30-per-cent increase in visits in 2014 over the previous year, has been their family’s summer home for 20 years.
“We book a seasonal rental from May through October each year, and start off with a few days here and there, but for July and August, we basically move in,” says Judy, mom to five kids, ages 15 through 27.
The proximity to Toronto means her husband can visit “the office” (Golden Crisp Fish & Chips, their west-end Toronto restaurant) without any disruption to their summer schedule.
But the convenience doesn’t come at the cost of a cottage-country experience. “Once we’re in the park, even though we’re just 45 minutes north of Toronto, it feels like we could be in cottage country another three hours further north,” says Vandekemp.
“We’ve got the same trees, the same kind of grounds. We may not have Georgian Bay, but the small lake and pool are great and it’s so peaceful and beautiful. You get that northern feel, but you’re still close to town,” therefore avoiding the bumper-to-bumper traffic that is the bane of Muskoka- and Kawartha-bound cottagers, she says.
Staycations to day tripping
Traffic jams and rising costs are so synonymous with the summer vacation experience that many city dwellers are no longer willing to make long-haul treks, says Doug Miller, senior manager with the parks and culture division of the TRCA.
“Staycationing is the trend we’re really noticing. Between traffic north, ever-rising fuel costs and the poor exchange rate if you head south, people are taking day trips or camping close to home,” says Miller.
“Life in general is a factor; if you stay close to home, you can still make it out to your son or daughter’s lacrosse games or swim meet, and any other commitments.” For busy families that kind of accessibility is a game-changer.
Increasing awareness of conservation site activities is also fuelling renewed interest in these local-wilderness destinations, which have adapted to changing times by retaining traditional elements such as fishing (Glen Haffy Conservation Area and Ken Willans Resource Management Area are particularly renowned for their family fishing), while introducing more contemporary pursuits: mountain biking trails (Albion Hills Conservation Area), BMX parks (Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area), splash pads and Treetop Trekking zip lines (Heart Lake Conservation Area). One-day events such as the Mud Hero adventure race and a variety of mountain bike races at Albion Hills are attracting scores of new visitors.
“We’ve really looked at what people are looking for and have partnered with some wonderful groups to bring more activities into our facilities, so people can connect with nature,” says Miller, adding these new attractions are ammunition in the battle against sedentary, screen-focused lifestyles. “We all know the challenges of getting people off their screens, and we’re really striving to provide activities that will appeal to different groups to get people active and outdoors,” he explains.
Classic attractions and new activities
The appeal of conservation areas appears to be growing. For instance, in 2014 there were more than 75,000 visitors to Island Lake Conservation Area, the Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) site located 20 minutes away from Albion Hills.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Holden Blair, 5 1/2, of Brampton, was excitedly surveying the spring-fed lake at Island Lake Conservation Area. As his father, Kevin Blair, unloaded their canoe, Holden announced: “I’m here to go fishing. I want to catch a big bass fish, to win a trophy. That’s it!” he declared during a fishing derby being held at Island Lake that weekend.
As he proudly displayed a new tackle box filled with shimmering spoons and colourful artificial lures, Holden talked about one of his favourite summer destinations: “We’ve been here 10 or a 100 times to go fishing. We go out in our boat, we fish, we say ‘Hi’ and meet new people. That’s it!”
Nearby, another father-son pair was taking a shore break before heading back out on their boat. “It’s been really fun and the fishing has been good so far. We caught a bunch of perch and sunfish,” said Julian Sangiorgio, 13, who won the derby’s yellow perch category in 2013. Julian and his father, Rico, avid fishermen, were lured by the derby even though they typically spend their vacation time fishing in Italy.
“It’s a little different fishing in Ontario, but I enjoy being outdoors here,” said Rico. “I could stay out here all day.”
Although the derby was the star attraction that day, Island Lake hummed with activity, as families took advantage of the site’s shaded picnic areas, beach and rental canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards to find respite from the July heat. Island Lake attracts summer crowds for its water-based activities, fishing and picnic areas, says Sandy Camplin, a conservation areas administrator for the CVC, but additional features will enhance the site’s traditional appeal.
“We’re launching Art in the Park at a few of our parks. A local artist will come in and paint at each location, and we’ll host classes where she can teach you to paint, too. We’re offering that at Belfountain, Terra Cotta and Island Lake Conservation Areas this summer,” says Camplin. Another new initiative is yoga in the park, also being held at a variety of CVC conservation areas (check online for locations).
But the biggest change at Island Lake was a community-led one. After nearly a decade of fundraising and years of construction, the local Friends of Island Lake volunteer committee is unveiling a 10-kilometre trail around the lake.
The wheelchair-, stroller- and bike-accessible path will enable people to explore the varied terrain around the lake, and offers views of the wetlands, woods and maybe even native wildlife such as deer, foxes, beavers, and an osprey pair who are raising their young in a raised platform nest above the lake.
Having this wilderness experience nearby is a huge boon for GTA residents, say conservation area enthusiasts. Besides saving on gas money and commuting time, conservation areas provide an accessible way for urbanites to dip their feet into the water.
“Some first-time visitors may be nervous in the wilderness of a provincial park, but conservation areas have a staff presence, people to guide you and help you through a new experience, which is a good reason to visit on a day trip,” says Camplin.
And who knows: it may just become a 20-year habit. After two decades of staycationing in Albion Hills, the Vandekemps have passed this tradition on to the next generation. Judy and Harry’s daughter, Becca, has booked an August weekend in one of the park’s rental trailers with her husband and kids.
“Camping is one of the best things you can do with your family,” says Judy Vandekemp. “Kids just love it, they absolutely love it.”