staff on history hike

The great OP retirement tour: Bon Echo

In our second installment of a trip down memory lane, Interpreter, David Bree, regales us with his experiences at Bon Echo Provincial Park

Catch the beginning of the nostalgia tour in the first installment:
Charleston Lake Provincial Park

When people ask me what was my favourite park to work at, I say without hesitation: Bon Echo.

This is as much due to circumstance as the obvious notable physical features and facilities of that park.

I worked at Bon Echo from 1992 to 1999 and went from senior interpreter to leader of the education program in my time there.

Through various contracts at one time or another during my time there, I managed to work in every month of the year except December. I really did get to know this park in all its moods and seasons.

The circumstance that made the biggest impact were the people I worked with.

Home away from home

staff cabins

Bon Echo had staff accommodations, and most of those that lived with me were fellow park interpreters, in what was then Visitor Services (later the Natural Heritage Education department, and now the Discovery Program).

Staff accommodation in those days consisted of a cluster of old change houses divided in two.

We each had our own little half cabin, with kitchen, toilet, and shower facilities in separate buildings.

It was wonderful.

Even when I was the only one living there in the middle of January, it was a magical place.

A talented bunch

Though the mix of people changed every year, we were a team that worked together, lived together, ate together, sang together, and played together.

We planned programs and talked programs at all waking hours, and even dreamed programs! We went to each other’s programs and helped or just sat in the audience and provided moral support.

vintage photo of staff

We were a family and I have stayed in touch with many of those people to this day.

And the talent! We dreamed of having one guitar player when I worked at Charleston Lake.

At Bon Echo, we always had at least one and at one time we had six! Our programs were filled with songs and music. Thankfully for me, we still did skits.

Program with music

While my singing didn’t improve, my own programming ability blossomed during this time with so much positive energy and constructive peer evaluations.

There was many a night I was up at the office until midnight working on a story in slides on the light table and carefully loading the slides in carousels — upside down and backwards.

slide carousel

Tech savvy in those days meant ensuring you locked the slides in the carousel (dropping an unlocked one was tragic), being able to trouble-shoot a jammed slide in ten seconds or less (always carry a quarter), and remembering to check the take-up reel on the film projector.

An error there could result in a pile of celluloid spaghetti on the projector room’s notably dusty floor.

The visitors came to us in numbers. It was hard not to play star with 500 people at evening programs and up to 90 on hikes.

staff on history hike

People would approach me in stores in Belleville, Peterborough, and Kingston, greeting me like an old friend, while I tried desperately to look as if I recognized them.

Of course, good interpretation is not about being the star, but rather the catalyst to bring wonder and interest to the visitor as you help them with their connections to the land, nature, and history around them.

You are the Yoda in the story, not Luke Skywalker.

But all that attention was very ego-boosting and energizing.

The Rock

The other half of the equation was, of course, the park itself.

Bon Echo consists of two parts.

The west side was a large piece of wild Canadian Shield forest, lakes and wetlands. There was car camping at Hardwood Hill, and walk-in and canoe-in camping sites elsewhere, a great introduction to near wilderness camping.

The east side had the main campgrounds, visitor centre and, of course, the Rock.

The Mazinaw Rock is a granitic gneiss pluton forming a 100 metre-high, kilometre-long, sheer cliff, plunging into the depths of Mazinaw Lake.

It looms like a sentinel on the far side of the lake from the campgrounds.

sunset at mazinaw

It’s eye-catching, breathtaking, and a place of real power. The only place I know where people gather in the evening to watch the sunset and look east! The rock glows with reflected light and the play of colours on the cliff as the sun sets is magical.

Indigenous peoples also recognized this as a place of power.

In the past they painted over 300 pictographs along the base of the cliff. This was the embryotic start of my appreciation of indigenous spirituality and its relationship to the natural world, an appreciation that would grow working at Petroglyphs Provincial Park in years to come.

One of my fondest memories is helping the Canadian Conservation Institute document all these pictographs with high resolution images.

boat tour

This required the camera to be on a stable platform, so it was done in winter on top of the ice.

We also did summer boat tours, run by the Friends of Bon Echo, along the cliff edge, discussing both the natural features and pictographs along the cliff.

Flora and Merrill

The European post-colonization history here is also fascinating.


Every park in which I worked had a regional historical significance, but I can say Bon Echo had national significance.


Yes, here there were similar stories of European settlement, eking a living off the Canadian Shield and early recreation history with the Bon Echo Inn, but it was the owners of that lodge that made Bon Echo unique: feminist Flora McDonald Denison and her son, playwright Merrill Denison, had connections with the intellectual and artistic elite of North America of the early 20th century.

Merrill’s artistic friends included members of the Group of Seven, some of whom stayed at the Inn and did art designs for inn literature. My favourite is a poster done by A.Y. Jackson.

Many of the plays Merrill wrote were about the Inn. How great it was to do skits based on plays actually written at the park, about the park, and played by inn visitors during their visits in the 1920s. We truly recreated the past.

Flora was a great believer in equality of humankind, being a feminist fighting for women’s suffrage.

photo of old walt engraving

These ideals were manifest in the works of American poet Walt Whitman. She had his words carved on the Rock’s wall, and after 25 years I can still quote the part of stanza 20 of Song of Myself that is incised there:

“My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.”

An appropriate verse for a rock a billion years old.

A beauty to behold

And how about that rock!

Mazinaw Rock is born of continental pressures that ripped the earth’s crust apart 450 million years ago and its raw glory is exposed as the cliff we see today.

Continental pressures inflicted on the land when the Ottawa River valley was spreading apart caused the land at Mazinaw to compress and tear along a north-south fault that was ultimately responsible for both the Rock and the long, narrow, deep lake.

people paddleboarding on water

What a great resource to do programs about and connect people with, on boat tours, canoe paddles, or walks up the Cliff Top Trail to the lookouts on top, or just watching the sun set in the evening.

The nostalgia trip

I headed up to Bon Echo for my nostalgia visit on Aug. 6, 2020.

I headed first to visit friends camping on Joeperry Lake on the west side. The Joeperry Road used to be paved in my time but is now mostly gravel.

I remembered the time I was biking there early one morning and the road was gone!

Cardinal flowers

A beaver dam had let go upstream and the tiny creek became a torrent strong enough to rip away 10 metres of road and carry chunks of asphalt 100 m downstream.

As I drove, I peered along the road trying to remember landmarks. Suddenly, there was a glimpse of intense red. What was that?

I hit the brakes and jumped from the car.

Oh! Of course, the creeks here at this time of year are covered with Cardinal Flower. How could I forget Cardinal Flower?

This flower has the most intense, retina-burning, deep red colour found in or out of nature. It was a hue I had found impossible to capture with slide film.

I tried again today with the digital camera to see if this medium could do it justice.

cardinal flowers

What do you think?

Friends from the past

Joeperry Lake has a number of canoe-in sites, but my friends were at the two sites that can also be walked to.

Twenty-five years ago, these friends were all students that worked with me at Bon Echo. Now they are established professionals, here with their families and the campsites were a buzz of activity with their kids.

It was great catching up with them and the lake was as lovely as ever. As we talked, we saw Merlins fly by, a Great Blue Heron fishing out on a rock, and a loon family floating by.

Before I left, my friends told me that the trees were covered with bark lice. What? I had only ever seen bark lice once before and never at Bon Echo. Sure enough, an examination of the Red Pines showed dense patches of bark lice.

bark lice

These insects, also know as Tree Cows, act like cattle moving in herds over the tree trunks, grazing on lichens.

The bumble bee-striped young were easy to distinguish from the glossy black adults. That goes to show that even after years at a park there are still wonders to discover.

Forest bird monitoring

I said my goodbyes and headed back down the road. I stopped at the Hardwood Hills Campground. For ten years at Bon Echo I did forest bird monitoring in the spring. I did five sites on the west side.

Each site had five stations 200 m apart. They are designed to be in the deep forest. Hardwood Hills was such a wooded campground that one of my sites was in the campground.

I could bicycle around it. Surely the only forest bird monitoring site in the whole country you could use a vehicle to do!

I had spent many a pleasant morning walking/biking around this campground before it was open each spring, so walking around it again now while it was empty fit right in with my memories. But there were changes. There used to be large American Beech trees here with scars on their bark from the Black Bears’ claws as they climbed up to get to the beech nuts in the fall.

These are all gone now. The park had to take them down after they were all infected with Beech Bark Disease and died. I walked to all five stations, but the tags were no longer to be found. They were put up over 30 years ago, so no surprise.

I guess no one is covering these sites any more, maybe I could take them up again now that I am to be free in the spring.

Surrounded by nature

My favourite site, 490, is still there.

site post

It’s not to everyone’s taste; I remember a camper questioning the sanity of someone that would put a campsite on the edge of a swamp.

Yes, the bugs could be bad, but it was a wonderful vista over a flooded forest swamp.

site post

Olive-sided Flycatchers once nested here. Who wouldn’t smile at their cheery call: “Quick, three beers!”?

The swamp has matured and most of the trees have fallen, the flycatchers are gone, and the swamp has filled into a beaver meadow, but it would still be an interesting site to stay at.

A happening spot

Finally, I made my way over to the east side. This is where most of the infrastructure is: campgrounds, staff housing, visitor centre, main office, store, and of course the lake and Mazinaw Rock.

I was strangely reluctant to spend much time here. It was very busy, but I felt alone.

mazinaw rock

Did these people not know this used to be my park? It didn’t help in this year of Covid-19 that the visitor centre was not open and boat tours were not running, integral parts of my time here.

I went down to the shore and paid my respects to the Rock across the water.

pictographs plaque

I noted that there was a federal plaque now at the water’s edge honouring the pictographs, joining the Ontario blue plaque commemorating the Bon Echo Inn.

Greystones cottage

The latter was unveiled in my second year here, during Ontario Parks 100th anniversary celebrations in 1993. I also looked through the windows at the visitor centre and Greystones Cottage, where my office used to be before it turned into a store.

Taking flight

One of the highlights of my time here was the three years (1994-6) that Peregrine Falcons were released from the Rock.

peregrine chick on box

Chicks hatched in Alberta were flown to Bon Echo and placed in hack boxes secured on the cliff edge. The boxes and chicks were air-lifted by helicopter up to the top.

While not my project, staff on hand were able to go up and “help.” We each placed a chick in the hack box. Later in the fall when the students looking after the chicks had left, I did go up a couple of times to leave food for the birds before they migrated south.

Rather ironically, none of the Bon Echo birds ever returned, but many years later Peregrines did start nesting on Mazinaw Rock and did so again this year. I could not pick any out this time with my brief scan.

The return of Peregrine Falcons to Ontario through re-introductions is a great conservation success story and I am proud that Bon Echo played a small part.

David with peregrine chick

South Beach

I also did a quick walk down to what we called the New Beach. We had to make sure we enunciated this clearly as many people heard “Nude Beach.” I see it is now called the South Beach, probably for the best.

It is still a mostly underutilized spot, though the new dog beach area was packed.

Falling into old habits, I did direct a couple to the dog exercise trail who were wandering with that lost look.

I suspected I was looking the same.

Pre-reservation camping

I drove by the office but didn’t stop in. No one is left from my time working here. But I was reminded of being here in my first spring as leader when reservations opened.

No online reservation system existed in those days. Opening day in April was a big deal. Five reservation clerks started at 9 a.m. sharp to start taking reservations: two on the phone, one opening mail that had been collecting for weeks, and two doing in-person reservations, all simultaneously.

I was in charge of keeping the in-person line moving. Booking was computerized so they didn’t double book, but a site could disappear while you were looking at it, snatched by someone in the next room!

Roll call

The in-person group was a community unto itself. People would start arriving up to two weeks earlier (usually in trailers, it was cold!). They were allowed to use the campground, even though it was not open yet. They registered when they arrived for their place in line and had to show up every morning for roll call to keep their place.

Far from being competitive, the in-person group was a little community on their own. Greeting each new arrival as old friends, comparing notes on how the winter had gone, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of late comers (no cell phones or Facebook to check in on them).

The pre-reservation camp was as important to them as the trips they lined up to book. This story repeated itself at a dozen different parks throughout Ontario until we went to the online reservation system. A fairer system perhaps, but something was lost, and opening day is no longer an event at parks.

Moving on

So, time to go.

Driving away I reflected on my last years at Bon Echo. After my seventh year at Bon Echo, my position was converted from an 8-month to a full-time position. This meant it was a new position and I had to compete for it.

Working full-time at Bon Echo would take some organization with my wife who worked at Sandbanks, but we thought we could manage it. After my interview I waited impatiently at home for the call. Finally, it came.

I did not get the job.

Looking back

I can say now I was not ready. I still had more growing to do in park jobs to come, but at the time I was lost.


I did manage to work one more season at Bon Echo and was able to concentrate fully on programming.

But Bon Echo felt different to me, and I needed more supervisory experience if I was to move up.

So when job shuffling due to a maternity leave opened the education leader position at Sandbanks Provincial Park the next year, I took it.