Otter Lake Cottagers Association

100th Anniversary of Camp Otter: By Doug Webster

We did have an Otter website at one point, but it has expired. However, Otter alumni do keep in touch with each other and have held a series of reunions over the years at about five year intervals and mostly in the Buffalo area since so many campers were from that area and many still live there.

You might want to check with the Dorset Historical group because I believe the alumni group, using a surplus of funds we had compiled over the years, made a modest monetary donation to them along with some camp memorabilia.

I also believe that at least one homeowner with property on what once was the camp’s location, “inherited” one or more of the annual camp “journals” which were traditionally signed at the end of each summer season by that year’s campers.
I had been contacted to ask if I wanted to buy it or them, but was no in a position to do so, and frankly, if the option arose, I would encourage whoever has such documents to give them to the Dorset historical folks for their collection and to add to whatever other Otter items may already be there.

Rachel Rogers Clarke passed away early this year. She and her husband Charlie and then her second husband Berner Clarke were directors of the camp from the mid-50s until it closed and for a time summered at the Crewson farm site across the lake from the camp, having inherited that property as part of their agreement with the original owners, the Ortners. Howie, a one-time Cornell basketball coach, owned and ran the camp from the 20s until the 50s when his age and advancing medical problems required some outside help and that is when Rachel and Charlie, both Buffalo school teachers, came aboard.

I attended camp from 56 to 60 and it was truly a magical place…no electricity, wood stoves (later gas) for the kitchen, an ice house for refrigeration needs (kept stocked by Bill Crewson, the caretaker who lived with his wife on the Crewson farm for several decades and took care of buildings, cut firewood and ice in the winter and shoveled snow off the building roofs to keep them from collapsing. There were a few cottages on the lake at that time, but it was the construction of major roads north from Toronto during that period and into the 60s which opened the area up to summer cottages and it swept over Otter as it did so many other places.

I have been back to the lake once (one of our camp reunions was held on the Crewson/Clarke farmsite one summer) and it was a bittersweet experience to revisit the camp location, much of it now taken over by cottages or remodelings of original camp buildings. Time passes and things change, but those of us who went to Otter were forever shaped by it and the things it taught us….a love for nature, and a realization that you didn’t need a lot of stuff to have fun in life and that you could do a lot more than you realized.

The camp emphasized canoe trips and everyone went on at least a couple during the summer..most of them 3 days to a week, but some more extensive. I went on one that lasted a couple of weeks, and the year after I was there, six older veteran campers set out at the start of camp on a summer-long journey to Hudson’s Bay.

There was no age or sex discrimination at the camp (which went co-ed the year after I arrived) and everyone did things together. I remember many canoe trips which departed right from camp, heading either through Little Otter and portages over to Kawagama and on up into Algonquin, or alternatively, up the road to Hardwood and then north via Wolf Lake and into the Park. I suspect many of those trails have grown over since the camp closed due to lack of traffic.

I also remember trips into Dorset where you could get fresh fruit and candy and ice cream and many times, hike up to the fire tower for its views of the area. And of course the campers competed in the annual Dorset regatta with canoe races and gunnel bobbing and other events.

My children later had the chance to attend another Canadian camp, run by one of Otter’s graduates and a life-long friend and they and I have been back to Algonquin for canoe trips which are treasured family memories.

I hope to get back again one day soon.