Around 25,000 students have benefited from the free school programming offered at Gavin Lake Forest Education Society in the last 28 years.
Located northeast of Williams Lake, the camp hosts students from school districts 27, 28 and sometimes 74.
Manager Mike Tudor has been working there for 30 years.
When he was first hired it was a summer camp run by the BC Forestry Association (BCFA) with a skeleton crew.
Once BCFA was getting out of offering the camp, Tudor and a group of foresters decided to turn it into a forest education centre offering school programs.
“It started out fairly bare bones,” he recalled, describing how they put together some modules with one-hour teaching sessions.
“It was all done so that a parent or a teacher could teach it - it was basically step-by-numbers lesson plans.”
Gradually, as they got their feet under them and fundraised more, the society started hiring instructors.
Today there is a fully-staffed outdoor education centre with Tudor, a cook, an assistant manager, who is also an instructor, and five other instructors.
“The sixth instructor rotates and is always a volunteer forester or a biologist and now we have opened it up to knowledge keepers,” Tudor said.
A module the volunteer forester instructs is the Forest Discovery Trail.
Typically the forester will discuss aspects of the forest such as tree aging, beetles, fungus, forked trees, woody debris, woodpecker damage, habitat for wildfire or riparian zones.
“The whole idea is to have the kids go out and experience the forest. It’s about seeing what you can see in the woods and understanding what it does. It is about appreciating the complexity of a forest without hammering the message.”
There are three academic modules and three about outdoor fun and activities, he said.
“Our philosophy behind that is if you are looking to create stewards of the forest and the environment then you want the students to love it, so we are teaching them fun stuff like archery, canoeing and a compass course.”
Aside from the forestry discovery trail module, which is one of the academic ones, the two other academic modules cover species-at-risk in the Cariboo and perfect streams for trout habitat.
Predominantly, Grade 6 students attend the programs so each student in the region will have the opportunity at some point.
It does not always work out though.
Sometimes it is not possible for a teacher to attend and stay overnight because they have small children at home, for example.
During the COVID pandemic, when rentals and overnight school visits stopped completely, they switched to offering day programs to School District 27 students.
“We actually started up a whole new program and were taking any grade and teacher that was interested. It was organized chaos,” Tudor said. “It was very fun because one day you’d have a group of Grade 7s who are a completely different kettle of fish and the next day you’d have a bunch of Kindergarten kids.”
The day-program proved to be a success, he said.
A winter program is also offered at Gavin Lake that sometimes means students are moving about in six feet of snow.
By September 2023, every day in June 2024 was already booked, proving how popular the programs are.
Tudor said the basic costs of the program for the 28 years have been about $1 million, plus management, insurance, propane, electricity for another $1 million.
“We have lots of solid, regular, local support,” Tudor said of how the camp continues to operate.
He said the mills - Tolko and West Fraser - give funding, as well as Williams Lake Truckers Association, Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society, Salmon Foundation, anonymous public members, service clubs, Southern Irrigation Williams Lake, plus School District 27 supplies buses and donates toward the school program.
Additionally, the Cariboo Woodlot Education Society, made up of foresters, some retired, donates from the proceeds of their cut from the woodlot on Bull Mountain near Wildwood.
Tudor said the woodlot society also funds bursaries for graduating students.
Outside of school programs, Gavin Lake rents out cabins at other times of the year. For example, every May the place is rented to a tree-planting company.
A board of directors for the society is made up of foresters, or forestry-related people from Tolko, West Fraser, Consus Management Ltd., the UBC Alex Fraser Research Forest, Ministry of Forests and someone from a school district.
Tudor plans to stay on for three-and-a-half more years as manager and said encouraging outdoor education is “the right thing to do.”
“Plus there is such a wide demographic in the [region] that if you put a fee on something, it just excludes people and we didn’t want to do that.”
Looking back to when it started 28 years ago, he said the society was a “bunch of foresters who were all young parents and hated the fact they had to sell chocolate almonds to support anything their children did in school.”
Keeping it free has been one of the biggest struggles, he admitted.
“It would be so easy to slap on a $50 fee for a student and your financial problems would be solved, but the board of directors works hard to get a bunch of different funding sources.”
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