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