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Cheakamus celebrates 48 years outside

It was your first sleep-away camp. An introduction to Johnny Appleseed and Capital the pig. There were giggles after “lights out” in the cabins. And chores, even though your parents were miles away.

It was your first sleep-away camp.

An introduction to Johnny Appleseed and Capital the pig. There were giggles after “lights out” in the cabins.

And chores, even though your parents were miles away. But they were fun tasks – feeding and caring for the farm animals, for example. Or reading weather instruments and then giving a forecast to fellow students in the dining room.

You played predator and prey.

If you went to public school in North Vancouver after 1969, Outdoor School (today known as the Cheakamus Centre) was a rite of passage and the greatest week of your elementary school career.

And twice in those eight elementary years you got a free ticket to Paradise ... Valley, that is!

This Sunday is your chance to take a trip down memory lane at the Cheakamus Centre’s 48th annual open house in Brackendale. And, if you’re feeling nostalgic enough, maybe donate some coin to the centre’s cabin enhancement campaign.

The cabins date back to the 1950s, when the site was used as a family summer camp; before the North Vancouver School District bought the land.

Considering tens of thousands of kids have descended on Cheakamus Centre since then, there’s no question why the cabins are in need of a 21st century upgrade.

Energy-efficient enhancements to 10 cabins are slated to include new double-pane windows and a ventilation system.

The centre has already found a special sponsor who put up some money for the cabin facelift campaign. And they didn’t have to look very far.

Cathy Jenkins’ history in Paradise Valley starts in the early 1970s.

“My mom actually still had the postcard my sister mailed home from Outdoor School in 1971!” writes Jenkins in an email to the News. “I’m not sure for how many years the tradition of letter writing continued, but when we went in the ’70s all kids wrote a card home and the red mailbox (a bit faded) is still on the side of the admin building at Cheakamus Centre.”

Wendy Jenkins, Cathy’s sister, sent this postcard home during her life-changing outdoor school experience. - image supplied

In her senior year at Handsworth Secondary, Jenkins volunteered as a counsellor at Outdoor School – in an Internet-free era when reading paperbacks by flashlight under the covers and catching fish were fulfilling forms of amusement.   

Jenkins went on to become the first operations manager for North Vancouver Outdoor School and was most recently named project manager for the Cheakamus Centre campus revitalization.

It was those initial magical and adventure-filled days at Outdoor School which inspired Jenkins to champion this unbridled educational experience for youth.

“Mom always said ‘you girls were never the same after Outdoor School,’ says Jenkins. “She meant that in a good way, as my sister and I both returned home after a week away brimming with new-found confidence and independence.”

For the uninitiated, Outdoor School frees students from the confines of a classroom and immerses them in the natural world where they participate in field studies and recreational activities, including canoeing and archery.

The students apply their math and science knowledge in the outdoor environment, by measuring fish and learning about salmon fertilization at the on-site hatchery, for example.  

Outdoor School educators take full advantage of the expansive 165 hectare ecological reserve, guiding students on extensive teaching trails, in forest shelters and alongside spawning channels and ponds.

The Grade 6 students purposely camp at the Cheakamus Centre in the fall and winter because that’s salmon run season, followed by when the eagles show up, giving the students a serious circle of life lesson.

“We sort of take full advantage of those cycles on the site for the kids to take part in,” explains Cheakamus Centre director of educational programs, Conor McMullan.

The outdoor learning experience, adds McMullan, is a unique opportunity to engage kids because it takes them out of environments where they may have a degree of comfort.

“Often the kids that find it difficult to be indoors actually thrive in an outdoor setting – we see that all the time,” he says.

Guided by Squamish Nation members, Grade 3 students are immersed in an authentic Coast Salish experience in the Bighouse on the Cheakamus Centre site.

The students are given traditional Aboriginal names and there’s a formal welcoming as part of the program which is focused on a pre-contact, First Nations experience.

“What life would be like in a village in this area prior to settlers arriving, explains McMullan, where multiple families would be sleeping on platforms together.”

Students gather around a roaring communal fire. They are divided into family groups, which are each responsible for a survival skill: wool weavers, salmon fishers, wood carvers and cedar bark workers.

Outside of the flagship K-12 Outdoor School program, the Cheakamus Centre also offers a wide variety of experiential environmental programs to children and adults and hosts visitors from around the globe for special events, retreats, conferences, seminars and workshops.

In July 2012, the BlueShore Financial Environmental Learning Centre opened its doors in the heart of Cheakamus Centre campus, allowing for expanded educational programs, environmental initiatives and conference space.

Previous Cheakamus Centre open houses have attracted 2,000 people, including Outdoor School alum, who are free to roam the property and reminisce.

Visitors can try their hand at archery or head to the hatchery to help release coho into the spawning streams or see the barnyard animals, among other exciting activities.

Inside the Bighouse, bannock will be served and visitors can sit and listen to First Nations drumming and traditional songs. Picnic friendly food will be available during the open house, which runs from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The event also coincides with the cabin enhancement development campaign kickoff.

“In a spirit of fun and shared history, we are calling it our ‘Capital’ campaign in tribute to our legendary Outdoor School farm pig who has had the same name – ‘Capital’ – for over four decades,” says Jenkins.

The Cheakamus Centre is putting the call out for photos and/or stories to be part of a compendium of Outdoor School experiences. The deadline for submissions is June 9. More information about the Cheakamus Centre is available at

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