Large group of teenagers
Canada,  Friendly Friday

My first taste of adventure: a 1970s camping trip

I can still remember the small thrill of excitement that ran through me – an extremely unusual emotion to feel at a school assembly! Our headteacher had just announced that our local authority was organising a three week camping trip to Niagara Falls, open to fifth and lower sixth pupils, for the following summer. I was just starting the lower sixth, so I was eligible to go. I wasn’t even sure at that point where Niagara Falls was; somehow in my head that morning it got confused with Nigeria! But it sounded like an adventure, one I wanted to be part of.

At break time it was of course the main topic of discussion. Some of my friends were keen to go, others less interested. My main thought was, would my parents agree?

So, can I go?

When I got home I broached the subject with my parents. Of course it wasn’t going to be a cheap adventure; even though we would be camping there would be trans-Atlantic flights to pay for, plus three weeks’ food and sightseeing money. They cut me a deal. If I could save enough out of my Saturday job pay to contribute the spending money element (which was a specified amount set by the school, so everyone would be equal), I could take the rest of the cost from the small sum left me by my maternal grandfather to be spent on my education. I agreed, naturally.

At this point I had only been abroad twice before, both times to Europe. With my parents and younger sister I had visited a great uncle and aunt when he was stationed in Germany on RAF service. And with the school I had taken part in the annual ‘French exchange’, staying with my partnered French student and her mother in a small rural village near Beauvais. The latter was the only time I’d flown; a short hop across the Channel from Lydd to Beauvais. This would be very different!

This was the early seventies, 1972 in fact (the trip itself would take place in 1973). My Saturday job was as an assistant in a local baker’s shop. I was earning very little, about £1.70 per week. I calculated that to reach the required amount of spending money I would need to save £1.50 of it, leaving me almost nothing; but it would be worth it. And I still remember the relief a couple of months later when my wages went up to £1.90 and I had a little more slack!

We’re off!

The great day came, and we were off. Our parents saw us off from the school gates. To add to the excitement we were missing one week of school; the other two weeks would come from our summer holiday. Arriving at the airport (I assume Heathrow although I don’t remember that detail) we were met with the news that our flight was delayed due to a strike by catering staff. In vain our teachers argued that we didn’t need catering and would happily buy sandwiches to take on board; of course that didn’t work. So we were hanging around for I think about six hours before finally taking off.

I remember nothing about the flight, oddly. I’m sure I wasn’t nervous; that I would have remembered. And I think it must have been dark for much of the journey.

Lots of tents and an old car
The first morning with tents in chaos

What I do remember is arriving at our campsite after dark and having to pitch our tents. We had the benefit of a practice run, as we’d all camped out on the school playing fields for one night a month or so previously to test everything. But erecting a tent in the dark is a very different thing! I was sharing with two other girls and eventually we did manage it and got off to sleep. In the morning we awoke to find that our group had succeeded in erecting a circle of tents around one of the station wagons hired by our teachers for the duration of the trip; quite a few had to be dismantled to extract the car!

The first week

The first week of our trip was spent not at Niagara Falls but at a family holiday campsite near Montreal. There was a large pool and in the hot weather we spent a lot of our time relaxing and swimming. But there were sightseeing trips to Montreal too. There I saw my first Mounties and was struck by the ‘Frenchness’ of it all.

My particular group of friends on our day trip to Montreal, and my first Mounties!

Camp memories include a memorable camp disco where we danced with the local families camping there. I recall ‘Love Train’ by the O Jays was one of the numbers; we all joined a train with the Canadians, and I felt for perhaps the first time that sense of bonding with strangers that you get when travelling.

On to Niagara

Our next campsite, which was to be ‘home’ for the major part of our trip, was called Lake Shalamar. It lay between the town of Niagara Falls and the smaller community of Niagara on the Lake.

This is where we really settled into the camping way of life. The site was larger; so my group of six friends could have three tents between us and share with just one other person rather than in threes as at the Montreal site. But we stuck together as a group for shopping and cooking purposes, visiting the local supermarket (which was a real eye-opener in terms of the amount of choice!) and preparing simple meals on a camping stove. One friend got a shock when she managed to singe her fringe and eyelashes but thankfully did no further harm!

We were able to get the bus into Niagara and visit the Falls several times. Of course we did the Maid of the Mist boat ride; and we went on the tour that takes you really close to the falls. We also, through judicious shopping choices, saved our spending money to splurge on a helicopter ride over the falls; and on a special dinner at a restaurant overlooking them so we could see the night-time illuminations as we ate.

Another favourite place was Niagara on the Lake, especially the ice cream parlour!

Old fashioned shops and old cars
Ice cream parlour, Niagara on the Lake
Three teenage girls on a lawn by a lake
Helen, Barbara and me at Niagara on the Lake

We also had some days when we simply stayed in the campsite, enjoying the pool or relaxing and chatting together.

Days out

Our large group included pupils from a number of schools. So we were divided into three sub-groups for the purposes of organising day to day activities. Our school had sent more pupils than any other, and were a group on our own. As part of the arrangements, our teachers had the use of the station wagons on every third day, I recall, and took us on some sightseeing outings. We had a day in Toronto where one friend and I hit the record shops in search of LPs we couldn’t get in England!

Barbara, Alex, Sue, Helen and Gill at Toronto City Hall
Teenage girl in front of a fountain
Helen at Toronto City Hall

Meeting the locals

The most memorable outing by far was to Old Fort Erie, a reconstructed British fort from the time of the fighting between Britain and France over territories in Canada. It wasn’t the history that fascinated us, as teenage girls; but the young male students spending their summer working there as re-enactors! We got chatting and found ourselves invited to a ‘party’ at one of their houses.

It still astounds me today that our teachers permitted us to go; I can only think that a lot of checking was done behind the scenes before permission was given. The party consisted simply of us and them sitting around over drinks listening to music; ‘Born to be Wild’ still takes me straight back to that evening. They told us dramatic tales of suicides over the falls, as one of them had a father who was a volunteer rescuer, regularly called out to such incidents. One of them (I think) drove us back to the campsite. We were a bit late, as a teacher was out by the roadside looking out for us, but safe and sound, of course.

We’d exchanged addresses and I kept in touch with one guy for a couple of months before it inevitably petered out. These days perhaps social media might keep the connection going a bit longer; but these days I doubt very much we would be allowed to go to that ‘party’!!

Algonquin National Park

Another adventure was spending a few days in smaller groups going off to camp in the more wild environment of the Algonquin National Park. Here there was no sturdy toilet block, but small wooden shacks set well away from the camping area. One boy reported visiting at night and hearing what he was sure was a bear outside, so he stayed in the hut until daylight!

Three girls in a kayak
Helen, Gill and Sue kayaking in the Algonquin NP

Another time there was a storm and we had to stay in our tents for some time. Two rangers asked to take shelter in ours. Of course I and my two friends agreed, and squeezed up to let them in, very happy to again have an encounter with local ‘men’! My shoulder was pressed against the tent wall so of course the rain came in, but I didn’t mind; it was all part of the adventure!

We swam and kayaked in the lake; went for walks to see beaver dams (but sadly no beavers); and visited a saw mill.

Then it was back to Niagara for the remaining part of our fortnight there, while the next small group headed to Algonquin.

On the way home

The adventure was nearing its end, but there was still one more bit of excitement. We were to fly home not from Canada but from New York, so that we could see just a little of that city! It meant an overnight drive to NYC; a day spent driving around its major sights; and another night spent travelling on the flight back to London. Tiring, but so worth it! I fell in love with New York and have been back twice since – and hope to go again.

In fact, I am sure it was on this trip that I fell in love with travelling in general. France and Germany had been fun, but this was an adventure. And although it would be some years before I got to travel again, this was the spark that lit a smouldering fire, just waiting to be ignited when I met my husband and started travelling with him.

Incidentally, Alex and Barbara with whom I shared a tent through most of this trip are the two friends I have stayed in touch with over the years since leaving school. I’m sure this trip bonded us in a way that regular school activities did not. We still see each other regularly and although the talk nowadays is mostly of present-day concerns (families, holidays, household matters, politics, health etc), now and then it turns to the past and to this special adventure that brought us together.

A disclaimer

You’ll have probably worked out by now that my ancient slides have not stood the test of time very well and some seem to have suffered with a light leak issue. They haven’t scanned too well either! But I couldn’t resist sharing them, and the tales of my first major trip, as my response to Amanda’s Friendly Friday Look Back to the Future challenge. This childhood adventure certainly shaped my future as a travel-addict, and also perhaps as a travel photographer. Thus it links perfectly to the joint themes of this blog.

I camped in Canada in 1973

42 Comments

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Oh my, what a fascinating adventure! That was some school trip! No school in Yugoslavia would ever have organised a trip abroad, and by plane! So nice that you have photo memories too. My first camping trip was a disaster since I shared my tent with an unknown older girl called Sandra who was really really mean. Luckily I had many lovely camping trips after that. Thank you for sharing this memory.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Manja 😀 Yes, I was so lucky to get this opportunity – and also lucky to share a tent with good friends (and to still be good friends after the trip and even now, very many years later!)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Looking back I realise our school was quite adventurous in what it offered. As well as this trip and the French exchange I could also have gone to Moscow (I was studying Russian) but my parents said paying towards one big trip was enough, and skiing in the Alps – but the latter really didn’t appeal!

  • Rose

    What a delightful story and a wonderful experience. You and your group of friends sound like a parents’ dream – independent girls who save their hard-earned money to live their own adventurous life. I’ve visited Niagara Falls, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if I’d been able to stay for a few days, and go for a boat tour and a helicopter ride. It’s easy to see how this adventure led to a future of travel addiction.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Rose 😀 I’m not sure my parents would have described be quite like that in my teenage years (I could be (can be?!) very stubborn) but they did admire my determination to save the required amount and the things I gave up to be able to do so, like new clothes!

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    Sarah, I just loved reading your account of going to Niagara Falls on Canada side while in middle school on a school trip! That’s incredible and I doubt no one does this any longer. Your pics came out fine, clear enough to see what was going on–you are quite the photographer even then!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Terri, and I’m glad you could make out the photos well enough! This would I think be the equivalent of High School in the US – I was seventeen and going into my last year at school before heading to university. The other pupils were the same age as me or one year younger.

  • SJ Butler

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I loved the fact that you were allowed to go the party 🙂

    On one of my school trips to London my friends all brought bottles of vodka (I think) and we shared it drinking out of paper cups. My friend at the time drank so much that she was ill in her bed and we had to get ‘help’ from one of our teachers!
    The hotel refused to let the school stay ever again and needless to say the trip to London was never done again lol!
    Happy memories!

    • CliffClaven

      I accompanied about 80 pupils aged 17-18 on a school trip to London. There were four other teachers but I was the only one who spoke English. I was on duty 24/7 and hardly slept in five days as I rushed between hostel (keeping teenage boys and girls apart), hospital (broken ankle), police station (shoplifting) and museum (that part, at least, was planned) while interpreting for the other teachers on their shopping trips and managing one evening off when I took half a dozen kids to a disco and wowed them with my moves. Well, that’s how I remember it….. .

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That sounds like a classic school trip Sue, but we had the fear of god put into us by our teachers who kept reminding us that the drinking age in the US was 21 so while we might at 16 get away with drinking in the UK (where the limit was down to 18 by that time), there was NO WAY we could do so in the US, and if caught doing so we would be grounded at the camp site for the rest of the trip. Certainly among my circle we stuck to the rules while there, to be on the safe side.

  • rosalieann37

    My sister and her whole Girl Scout troop earned money and practices their camping skills so they could go to Europe (this was 1957 so they didn’t fly, they went by ship). They camped with various troops and stayed with the scouts in their homes. The girl from that troop are her friends still and they meet every year or so. One of the girls who lived in the Netherlands (Ineke) was my sister’s pen-pal and when she “grew up” she married a US soldier and came to the US – she lives near my sister and they call each other frequently and see each other often. Since her husband died, ineke has become a travel agent.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, once. My husband and I did a road trip in New England back in the mid 1990s and we made a detour across New York State and into Canada for a couple of nights at the Falls (I much prefer the Canadian side). We even ate in that same restaurant, and did the Maid of the Mist, but not a helicopter ride 😆

  • Forestwood

    Wow – that is some school trip. These days kids get to do amazing things like Aussie kids studying Italian, French, and Japanese get to visit or used to pre-Covid, their respective countries. The furtherest we got at school was a skiing trip interstate, or maybe to Sydney. Like you, I had to save some spending money from my job at the local bakery for the ski trip too!
    I can’t believe that you were allowed to go to that party! What a fun opportunity and whilst I do understand why kids can no longer do that, I feel workplace health and safety meansure have taken away the spontaneous adventures that one might have and those valuable life lessons when going through them. My own kids school camps were nerve wracking enough, camping out in cyclonic weather was probably more risky in Australia than attending a party!
    Wonderful post and I can see why you fell in love with travelling! I don’t get the attraction of New York, yet so many people say that they love it! It just doesn’t appeal to me. What was it you liked about the Big Apple?
    Thanks for joining in the challenge.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda, and for the great challenge theme that inspired this post! I had so much fun compiling it 😀 I quite agree that we’ve gone too far and become over-protective of kids at times. But I do have a feeling that behind the scenes our teachers must have done a little bit of checking up on where we were going for this party, maybe speaking to the boy’s parents?

      As to NYC, I’ve always said it’s what we call a ‘Marmite’ thing (do you have the same term for Vegemite?!) You either love it or hate it, there are few who are indifferent about it. I love the buzz, the sense of electricity in the air, the architecture, the ‘seen it in the movies’ memories (from ‘On the Town’ to Woody Allen), the history, the variety. Chris and I had one of our early holidays there, in 1982, spending three weeks there and enjoying every minute! We’ve since had another week and intend to go back again one day, even though we rarely do go back anywhere!

      • Forestwood

        Re New York: My son visited and loved seeing the scenes from movie, my friend who is a bit anti American, loved NY’s architecture and others said they loved the buzz and how everyone looked like models. But to use a slang Aussie saying: Yeah nah, I get it, but I don’t think it is for me, although I can understand why it appeals to others. It seems very Art Deco? I do like Art Nouveau but am not such a fan of Art Deco design. I assume it is always crowded too?

  • CliffClaven

    Your memories are vivid. They always are, of a first “big” trip. When I was 16, I told my parents that I wanted to hitchhike in Europe. My mother was adamant that I was too young, but my father quietly told me that I could go – if I saved the money. (With hindsight, in later years, I think he envied the opportunities which I had but which he never had as a youth in the 1930s and wartime England.) My pocket money of a couple of bob a week would never be enough, and so I wrote to the editor of the local newspaper and offered to write a weekly column on pop music. That paid for the trip, and in fact the column ran for six years. I started travelling, and I have never really stopped.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You must have had some great adventures on that trip! It shows the importance of supportive parents – although I’m 100% sure mine would not have agreed to hitch-hiking around Europe! This school trip was very tame in comparison 😆

  • SandyL

    What a thrilling school trip. It seems like such a great distance for an excursion. UK to Canada! Even now, when i think of driving from Montreal to Toronto to Niagara Falls to Algonquin Park and back to New York … that’s four to six hours for each leg! I suppose you must have had a bus to take you around and travelling with friends is always quicker.

    Thanks for sharing your story Sarah and you shouldn’t apologise for your photo quality – if they were any better they wouldn’t ring as true 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sandy 😀 Yes, we had a bus for the long stretches – in fact I think there were three buses, one for each of the groups. The only journey I remember is the long overnight to NYC and even that is hazy! And I see what you mean about the photos, and after all they are nearly fifty years old!!

  • Alison

    That must have been so exciting, all the way to Niagara Falls. It must have been a memorable trip to remember so many details. The photos fitted in perfectly.

      • margaret21

        It looks as if my schooldays were some ten years ahead of yours. There were German and French exchanges, but I didn’t do German and somehow a French one didn’t happen in my year. So the furthest I got in school was youth hostelling in Dorset! What a great experience you had! And a Saturday job to help pay for it … We were expressly forbidden to have work outside school … homework, you see … (and yes, before you ask – it was a state school)

  • Marie Nicholson

    What far-seeing parents to allow you to make use of the bequest towards what is ‘proper education’, i.e. mixing with others, having adventures and seeing the world. Great post – even the pictures.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, my parents were great about it all. Back then of course I didn’t really need to keep the bequest (which was only small, my grandfather wasn’t rich and had five granddaughters) for university as that was the era of reasonable grants and no fees or student loans. So this was much better use of the money!

  • Anonymous

    My comment didn’t ‘take’ although the cog-wheel went round and round and it appeared to be getting ready to publish it, so maybe you’ll get two again! I won’t repeat my comments in case they already appear somewhere.

  • Anonymous

    What an amazing experience at such a young age (we were all younger than our years at that time!) and how for-sighted of your parents to agree to you going and using a bequest for education in the best sense of the word. A lovely tale, well told.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I think you’re right – we were much younger at 16 than today’s 16 year olds, somehow! It was indeed an amazing experience and I was so lucky to be part of it 😀

  • Nemorino

    This certainly sounds like an unusually ambitious school outing. A few years later (in 1981, I think) we visited this area with our then-small children and were duly impressed not only by the Falls but also by Old Fort Erie, which we had never even heard of before then.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It was ambitious Don, and the first year the council had attempted anything like it. I seem to remember that they repeated it the following year and possibly the year after that, but I don’t think the numbers interested in going were ever as high as for this first year and they dropped it after that I believe.

  • Henna

    How exciting that must have been! So many adventures packed in to one trip! 🙂 My travel-addicteness started to form before I even went to school, I loved to listen to my grams and gramps stories of their travelling (Australia first and foremost but also India and Egypt) 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Henna 🙂 I think my appetite for seeing something of the world had already been whetted by reading children’s encyclopaedias and by stories read to us at school, and by a great aunt’s souvenirs of her travels, but it was this trip that opened my eyes to the fact that it was something I could actually do myself!

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