Several generations of Tamakwans mark camp’s 75th anniversary

By Robert Sarner, The National Post, Oct. 23, 2010

This evening, some 500 people from Canada and the US spanning several generations will converge on an event hall just outside Detroit. Some won’t have seen each other for decades. Others will be close friends. A large contingent from Toronto will include Roots Co-Founders Michael Budman and Don Green, and leading cardiologist Dr. Bernard Goldman.

Bringing them together is a shared love for a place in the Canadian wilderness called Camp Tamakwa. The evening will celebrate its 75th anniversary, paying tribute to a summer paradise, which has had a major impact on thousands of people, the largest number of whom have always come from Michigan.

The event is the culmination of celebrations of Tamakwa’s milestone. Last month, 250 Tamakwans traveled three hours north of Toronto to Algonquin Park for a festive weekend at camp, where the magic began in the 1930s and continues to this day.

With its spectacular, near-infinite outdoors, Canada is the promised land of summer camps. It’s home to thousands of them, each a world unto itself. The best ones provide children a timeless sense of fun, adventure and discovery.

Located in Algonquin Park, a vast government-protected nature reserve, Tamakwa’s setting is ideal for a camp. It occupies a peninsula on South Tea Lake accessible only by water, creating a more self-contained, close-knit community. Each summer, the camp hosts 300 campers (aged 7 to 16) who relish a reality far removed from urban civilization.

In today’s wired, media-saturated, technology-driven world, spending a summer in the wilderness can be a more powerful, transformative experience than ever for young people. 

Such is the case at Tamakwa, which has introduced thousands of kids to a world they would not otherwise have discovered. For Michael Budman, who first went there when he was 10, it ignited a passion for Canada that changed his life. 

“Tamakwa has been the source of so many positive things in my life,” says Budman, 64, who grew up in Detroit and spent 13 summers at Tamakwa as a camper and staffer before moving to Toronto in 1969. “It was a great meeting place. The friendships and sense of camaraderie were remarkable. I also loved the physical beauty of Algonquin Park and the style of the people, the plaid flannel shirts, the lumberjack look, sweatshirts, rubber boots.”

At Tamakwa, Budman became friends with fellow Detroiter Don Green, with whom he would establish Roots in 1973, both greatly inspired by their Tamakwa experience. “It’s likely there would never have been a Roots had there not been a Tamakwa,” he adds.

Today’s celebration is especially moving for Vic Norris, Tamakwa Senior Director, who’s spent 40 summers there. He became co-owner in 1980 after working on staff for nine years. Since 2005, his partner has been Craig Perlmutter, who runs the Toronto office.

Best traversed by canoe or kayak, Algonquin Park is still pretty much the way it was when Detroiter Lou Handler, with help from his friend Omer Stringer, established Tamakwa in 1936. 

While a counselor at Camp Arowhon, Handler fell in love with Algonquin Park. Wishing to start his own camp there, he enlisted Stringer who had grown up in the area and was one of Canada’s foremost canoeists and outdoorsmen.

Over the years, the camp’s physical side has evolved, but it remains relatively rustic, governed by the same philosophy and values that Handler instilled from the outset. A love for the outdoors and sports, a strong sense of optimism, resourcefulness and an attitude of making the best of every situation still prevail. Based on the number of current campers Tamakwa doesn’t seem to have lost any relevance despite its advanced age.

Every summer, the camp makes a large plaque that’s mounted in the dining hall listing all the year’s campers and staff.  If you look closely, you’ll find some familiar names – actor/comedians (the late) Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase, film director Sam Raimi, writer David Bezmozgis, singer Amy Sky, former CBC head Patrick Watson, and US Senator Carl Levin.

Tamakwa has also spawned many marriages, business partnerships and even a Hollywood movie (Indian Summer made in 1992 by former Tamakwan Mike Binder).
Jerry Cohn first attended Tamakwa in 1946.  Today, he lives in California and last month was at camp for the anniversary weekend.

“Tamakwa was a fantasy world come true,” says Cohn, 72, who spent 12 years there. “A whole society was created at camp for two months. You could be something there you couldn’t be on the outside world. It made for quite an experience. One time Lou Handler told me: ‘Memories are better than dreams,’ and I never forgot that.”


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