November 10th 1977, a young William Tozer boarded the Polar Express with his grandfather and headed south from his small village of Moose Crossing on the Moose River. When the train lurched to a stop at mile marker 131 his grandfather and he disembarked and headed off into the bush. This would be first time that William would look upon the mouth of the Onakawana River where it meets the Abitibi River.
As William experienced the rugged splendor of this wild and untamed place for the first time he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life right there. As he sought refuge in the shelter he scrawled a mark on the wall. That mark and William are still there to this day.
William went on to build a camp on that on that very site. He filled that camp with a family and a built a thriving business bringing hunters and fisherman to the area. Throughout the years William and his family have welcomed countless guests in an effort to share the rugged splendor of the area and help people understand the need to protect this way of life.
For the past 15 years I have been one of the honoured guests at the Tozer camp. As a friend of William and his family, I feel particularly privileged to be part of their vision to turn their home, this beautiful camp off mile marker 131, into a place for young people. Their hope is that Camp Onakawana will connect the campers to the land and water, pushing them to discover more about themselves while experiencing the same sense of wonder William felt as a young man that November day in 1977.
I spent last week with the Tozer's at Camp Onakawana. I drove my truck to Cochrane and boarded the Polar Express. When the train lurched to a stop at mile marker 131 I disembarked and headed off into the bush as fast I could. After a hectic and emotional summer this trip couldn’t have come a moment too soon. I needed to unplug and visit my friends beside the river. My days were filled with fishing and swimming. But most importantly, along the banks of the river and around many a campfire we also launched the Watermark Project at Camp Onakawana.
Together with Camp Onakawana we will be able to introduce the youth who attend the camp to the idea that ‘somewhere some waterbody shaped who they are’. Our goal is to help them look inward for the connections to water that already exist from their lives and explore the connections they’ve made during their time at the camp. All of these stories will be archived in Watermark project and published with permission of students.
With the Watermark Project, William and Camp Onakawana can build an archive of stories from this special place. They can illustrate the impact that this way of life can have on anyone; young, old, rich, poor. And years from now, all their guests will always have a way to look back at their special time spent where the Onakawana meets the Abitibi, and everything it meant to them.
In November 1977 the waters of the Onakawana and Abitibi made their first and strongest marks on William Tozer, marks that shaped his life for decades to come. Last weekend those same waters marked my memories with the smell of campfires and the sounds of laughter of friends at the time I needed them most. When we celebrate these memories we do more than just remember, we connect. And when we connect to water we are truly encouraged to protect it.