Ask anyone who grew up in rural Manitoba to name a place they link with childhood and summer, and chances are it’s Camp Wannakumbac.
For 70 years tens of thousands of youths have spent a week of summer camping here, often returning later on to work as a counsellor or director. Adults wanna come back, too; whole families have made the trek year after year on the August long weekend for Family Camp Weekend. Years ago it was called ‘The Co-op picnic.’
This site on the shores of Clear Lake conjures great lifelong memories, and it’s often been where life directions were set, say both ‘old-timers’ and newcomers to Wannakumbac.
“I can say with confidence that my time at Wannakumbac has been one of the most influential experiences of my life,” said Thunder Bay resident Joseph Boyle, who today comes every weekend for Family Camp and is part of a newly established Wannakumbac Circle of longtime supporters.
Boyle’s first time here was in 2006 at age 14 when an aunt in Onanole working as camp secretary urged him to check it out. He loved the place instantly and was a regular, then had stints as counsellor, programmer and one year as a director. It’s hard to put to words exactly how much the place means to him, he said.
“There is so much to fall in love with at Wannakumbac,” he said. “The natural beauty, the history, and most of all, the community are completely unparalleled in any other place I’ve seen.”
How Camp Wannakumbac was founded is an intriguing tale of evolving farm life in Manitoba, and lifelong campers know it just about as well as their own personal story. For many, experience at camp and the course of their own lives are connected.
Marion McNabb of Basswood and Irene Gamey of Strathclair could probably recite the camp’s entire history verbatim, easily recalling names, dates, events and people noted in the 1988 history book Camp Wannakumbac: The Dream and The Development published on the camp’s 40th anniversary.
They — and that book — describe an era leading up to Wannakumbac and its early years, when co-op-focused farm organizations were keen to create youth programs teaching the principles of co-operation.
McNabb and Gamey, who were directors at the newly minted Camp Wannakumbac, remember both earlier summer camps and winter ‘folk schools’ held across Manitoba even before land was bought for the present-day site.
Folk schools lasted three weeks and were places where rural youth gathered to learn about the co-op movement and how co-operative enterprises operated. There was also lots of games, music, public speaking and theatre taught during folk schools, says McNabb, who met her husband in 1949 when one was being held at the newly established camp.
For a time, it was hoped that a permanent site for folk school could be found, but in tandem early founders were also looking for a place to hold camp consistently.
“The dream was for a permanent folk school or a permanent camp, and the permanent camp won,” recalls Gamey.
It was under the auspices of what was then called the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture and Co-operation — later dropping the ‘Co-operation’ part of its name, and the predecessor of the Manitoba Farm Bureau, followed by Keystone Agricultural Producers.
McNabb, who worked for MFAC, recalls young people in rural areas going to Manitoba Pool Elevator (MPE) meetings to pitch the idea and farmers at them passing the hat.
“Sometimes it was very small amounts they gave because people didn’t carry a lot of money in those days,” says McNabb. But they eventually had enough thanks to MPE matching the donations and by 1948 could buy Camp Wannakumbac a permanent home at its present day at Crawford Park. It was rustic — with only a general store and post office that had operated on the edge of Riding Mountain National Park since the early 1920s, but camp builders set to work.
And hearing of it, farm families across Manitoba began to send their kids, beginning an annual summer ritual across the province.
Swimming lessons and romance
A real attraction those early years was it being a place to swim — or to learn to, say Gamey and McNabb.
Some kids were just scared stiff, because farm kids didn’t necessarily have much or any experience with water, Gamey says.
“I remember one little boy who’d hang on to the pier for dear life because he’d never been to the lake and had never learned to swim,” she says, adding that swimming lessons were fun but also lifesavers, too.
“In the very early years it was very important because it would be their only chance,” she said.
There were other aspects of going to camp that helped whole generations keep their heads above water; romance bloomed at Camp Wannakumbac. In fact, so many marriages came out of the place they’ve kept written records of them.
“That’s written up someplace… and it’s still going on,” said Gamey. She and her own husband Roy met elsewhere, but for decades worked side by side at Camp Wannakumbac, bringing their children here, of course. Roy Gamey’s lifelong dedication to Wannakumbac earned him a place in the 1988 history book as record holder for camp attendance.
As per normal at camp, there were plentiful pranks and hijinks going on, too. McNabb and Gamey have all those memories filed, too, but prefer just to smile and insist it best not to commit anything to print.
“Some of the culprits are still living,” adds Gamey.
This year marking its 70th milestone, Camp Wannakumbac continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Manitoba’s farm families. Many now count three or four generations sent there.
It’s truly remarkable how just a few days or weeks spent here once a year has been so formative for so many people, says Cathey Day of Deloraine, whose own parents and grandparents were lifelong Wannakumbac’ers. The Days are regulars at Family Camp Weekends today, bringing their three grown sons, who all went to camp, too.
Day says her memories are of non-stop fun, and lots of learning and team-building activities. And like so many other leaders in the province’s farm and rural communities, Wannakumbac set her on course for life, too.
“All of those skill-building opportunities I had at Camp Wannakumbac really served my interest in working with rural people,” said Day, who went on to become a home economist with Manitoba Agriculture and is now a manager of the department’s production and economic development division.
To her young eyes ‘camp always just looked big to me,’ she says. “It was just a great big wide-open opportunity. It’s just an incredible privilege and honour to be part of it.”
In 2018 Camp Wannakumbac, managed by Janet Gusdal for the past 25 years, continues to fill every bunk with rural and urban kids each summer. The camp also stays busy through winter when schools and other groups, plus Girl Guides and Boy Scouts rent the site.
Unlike neighbouring camps in the same beautiful surroundings it occupies, the camp, and Riding Mountain Conference Centre remain a non-profit organization with no religious affiliation. Funding now comes from KAP, Manitoba Elks Foundation, Federated Co-op, Manitoba’s Credit Unions, Co-op Hall Insurance, Parrish and Heimbecker and Dairy Farmers of Manitoba.
Fees to send a kid to camp are $300 for younger children and $345 for teens, which is lower than other camps, and made possible by camp sponsors subsidizing each camper by about $75.
This upcoming weekend’s 70th year gathering for Family Camp will also include the first annual meeting of the camp’s newly incorporated Wannakumbac Circle, formed by a group of longtime supporters to stay abreast of financial needs of the camp and to seek additional financial support.
Visit the Camp Wannakumbac website for more information.