Did you know? Yes, on Aylen Lake! The older generation may remember?
Located in the north-western corner, of the north-eastern arm, of Aylen Lake. The Ballet camp was inspired by Rita (MacDonald) Warnes.
For the residents of Aylen lake: …. You, ever wonder why it’s called MacDonald’s rock?!
A Dancer/Teacher; she studied with, and was principal dancer for Volkoff Canadian Ballet; founder of Toronto Ballet School (1946-1960s) and The Wilderness Ballet Camp (1950) also, a dancer with Theatre Under the Stars, Winnipeg Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Rita also participated at the Olympics…. a dancer for Boris Volkoff; travelled to 1936 Berlin Olympics with Volkoff Canadian Ballet.
The Wilderness Ballet Camp, was once a functioning dance camp. It was reopened from 1980-1983 for a short time, and is best described by the following story & photos submitted.(thank you to Nora for your addition) The Ballet camp is long gone, but the memories remain.
While exploring the region south of Algonquin Park one summer with my best friend Mary and her parents, we stopped in a country store in Barry’s Bay for cold drinks. On a windowsill was a little pile of old-timey looking brochures for a “Wilderness Ballet Camp” on Aylen Lake. The pictures showed glamourous teenage ballerinas in 1950’s dance costumes in ballet poses on a granite outcropping.
Mary and I had both studied ballet since we were four years old, and the idea of a camp that combined our favourite hobby with a wilderness setting fascinated us. We begged our parents to sign us up.
We received instructions by mail about what to pack, and we arrived at the dock – I believe it was at the south end of the lake – on the appointed day. We looked around for the other campers, but saw nobody. Soon after, a little boat pulled up and a woman got out. She was tiny (5 feet tall or less) and very old (at least to us — we were 12) and had thick, knee-length white hair piled up in a braided coil on top of her head. She told us she was Rita MacDonald, the camp director, and that we were the only campers, but that a couple of other girls from around the lake would be joining us for classes.
The trip to the camp by boat took almost an hour. There was no road access, no power, no running water. But there WAS a large, windowed, professional ballet studio with a high ceiling, a top-of-the-line sprung dance floor, and a real piano. Along the walls of the studio were amazing pictures of the camp in its 1950s heyday – female and male dancers in professional costumes, often holding ballet poses on waterskis – sometimes with the girls on the men’s shoulders. One of the pictures showed Rita herself and her handsome husband. We learned later that she first closed the camp not long after he died, in the mid-sixties.
The camp was on a shallow, sandy bay. Besides the ballet studio (which had a long dormitory running along the north wall) there was a bunkie for the instructor, a cabin for Ms. Macdonald, and a main lodge with a long, wooden dining table for the campers.
Cooking was done on a big woodstove, which Ms. Macdonald would light early in the morning. Water came from a pump. There were outhouses, and there were bears – sometimes we’d have to walk from the lodge to the dormitory throwing firecrackers along the way to hold them off. It was very rustic. But there was nothing makeshift about the dance classes – they were high quality and exacting, with proper music and proper form and no fooling around allowed. We may not have been the most talented ballerinas ever, but we were expected to work hard. Ms. Macdonald taught some of the classes, and others were taught by the hired instructor — one of the summers, this was a beautiful professional ballerina from New York City named Jennifer Song. We were in awe of her.
Mary and I attended for three summers; my sister Julie joined us for the last one. We lost track of Ms. Macdonald after that. I’m not surprised to hear that she lived to be 94 years old – she was a very strong and independent woman, though, I think, she was still heartbroken over the loss of her husband many years before. One day I’d love to sail out to the part of the lake where the camp was, just to look at it again. Having last seen it when I was 14 years old, it’s hard to be sure how accurately I remember things.
Here is some of the folklore of the camp: There was a camp song, which I have long since forgotten. The song I associate more with the camp is actually Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Don’t Fence Me In”, which was a favourite of Ms. Macdonald’s – she used to sing it while we washed dishes after meals.
The camp cat was a Russian Blue named Lena Horne. She was declawed but could still kill mice by squashing them flat with her paws.
Some of the food served at camp in the 1980s was actually leftover from the 1960s, including, I think, a barrel of flour. It didn’t kill us, but it did contain maggots, which Ms. Macdonald was not able to see (maybe her eyesight was failing). There were certain flour-based meals we wouldn’t eat, and, worried that we might starve to death, one day we hiked along the shoreline to the cottage of a neighbour (he was a podiatrist). We asked if he had any food. He offered us pickled herring and gooseberry preserves on canned Russian black rye bread. We decided we’d rather eat the maggots back at camp.
Sometimes, we travelled for the afternoon to an island owned by a woman whose first name is all I remember – Shigeko. She and Ms. Macdonald were great friends, and Shigeko’s family owned the whole island, which had three or four cottages on it.— (formerly, Watsons’ Island)
We 1980s girls had our own dramatic story, too: one year, an elderly local hunter visited the camp and agreed to take us on a hike into the woods to look for cougar markings on trees. We hiked into Algonquin Park, got lost, and wandered for hours. Overnight we could hear the sound of a helicopter – apparently the OPP mounted a major search operation for us, using a helicopter, a “human chain”, and scent dogs. They didn’t find us. By morning, the old hunter was unconscious from kidney failure. Mary and I left him behind in the woods with a local girl who had come on the hike with us. We followed a stream out to a lake (not Aylen), and then walked along the rocky shoreline for hours until we came to a remote cottage. We gave the cottagers the fright of their lives when we knocked on their door before 7 a.m., waterlogged, bleeding and scraped, and with our faces grotesquely swollen from a million mosquito bites. We gave the searchers directions for how to find the hunter and the remaining camper, and we were transported back to camp, where Ms. Macdonald kissed the dock upon seeing that we were safe. We were exhausted and hungry but also quite mortified that the search dogs had been allowed to sniff our dirty underwear and socks.— (a special thank you to Nora for sharing)
Some of the property remains the same, to this day. A curious choice?, perhaps. But, In the ‘most beautiful location!’, I’d say!
Please, contact us if you can share more on this Aylen lake memory-maker. Pictures, & stories are most welcomed. Info, & memorabilia on the subject seem hard to find.
Thank you for your interest.
Enjoy the lake!!!
Please Note: All postings here, are created … out of interest, or concern for the area of Aylen lake, Ontario., and the surrounding community . A descendant of the Dennison family, and early settlers to Aylen lake. I have family heritage, and a love & commitment to this area. I hope to bring awareness to other residents, owners, and visitors of the News and the goings’ on, around ‘The Lake’ & in the local area.
Welcome to ‘My world!’, a Love for ‘The Lake!’
Aylen lake, Ontario.
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