Weekly Feature



2014-04-16 / Lifestyles

Camp Pathfinder’s golden anniversary

by BRANDON KILIJANSKI Reporter


Recent campers participate in one of the signature canoe trips that Pathfinder arranges each summer. Recent campers participate in one of the signature canoe trips that Pathfinder arranges each summer. Through two world wars, the Great Depression and all that has happened since, one boy’s summer camp has managed to stand the test of time for 100 years.

Camp Pathfinder — located on a private island in Algonquin Park, Ontario — was founded in 1914 by Western New York educators Franklin Gray and William Bennett. At the time, the park was quite primitive but well-known to Americans, including industrialists and businessmen from Buffalo who traveled by train to be guided on fishing adventures in the woods.

The inaugural summer reportedly included 28 boys with approximately a dozen counselors. During the early years, boys from Buffalo, Rochester and the New York City area attended the camp. They boarded a train at night, slept on the ride there and then woke up in a wilderness far away from any metropolitan area.


Western New York native Bob Hargrave is pictured in 1942 at Camp Pathfinder as he carries his belongings. Hargrave’s children and grandchildren also attended the camp. Western New York native Bob Hargrave is pictured in 1942 at Camp Pathfinder as he carries his belongings. Hargrave’s children and grandchildren also attended the camp. “From the outset, the goal was to give boys a healthy learning and living experience completely different from the routines of school and home,” current co-owner and director of the camp Mike Sladden said. “There was lots of physical activity, challenges, fresh air and water. Taking wilderness canoe trips was always a focus, which has remained true to the present day.”

The camp continued to gain popularity — with the help of its pollution-free sky — and enrollment eventually grew to 100 boys. Gradually, some Canadians started attending, in addition to the second and third generation of Western New Yorkers. Becoming known by word of mouth, the camp started accepting boys from Mexico, Argentina, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and in recent years, Hong Kong and Beijing.


Campers would ride this train overnight from Western New York into Algonquin Park, Ontario, to attend Camp Pathfinder. This photo was taken in the late 1920s. 
Page design: gcinotti@beenews.com Campers would ride this train overnight from Western New York into Algonquin Park, Ontario, to attend Camp Pathfinder. This photo was taken in the late 1920s. Page design: gcinotti@beenews.com It now has 110 boys, from ages 7 to 16, in each of two sessions throughout the summer and a staff of 75 counselors, guides and directors. There is a counselor for every two campers.

Camp Pathfinder remains true to its roots by keeping the traditions of rustic living in tents and cabins; having the smallest possible impact on nature by living simply with minimal technology; prohibiting the intrusion of computers, phones and Internet; and focusing on healthy sports and challenges for the boys, with adult role models.

Campers engage in an annual signature tripping program that includes wilderness canoe trips throughout Algonquin Park, Ontario and Quebec with professional guides. The senior campers venture beyond Algonquin Park to the wilderness rivers of Canada that empty into James and Hudson bays.

“The camp’s mission remains to help boys become more mature, healthful, independent and capable,” said Sladden. “And to give them tools for lifetime success in their schoolwork, university education and professional lives.”

One of the main themes of Camp Pathfinder is the concept of friendship. Many boys have made lifelong friendships and return to the area each summer to reunite with someone they consider part of their family. “Everyone, no matter their age, talks about Pathfinder as the place where they not only made their best friends, but also the place where they mastered their biggest childhood challenges,” said Sladden. “For the campers, the draw is adventures and friendships in a spectacular setting. Over time, the draw becomes returning each summer to your very best friends and taking incredible wilderness trips with them.”

Two local men, Jim Lion Jr. and Tom Hadala, had that experience.

Lion described the camp as a “brotherhood” and has even retained his nickname of “Tiger” from his days as a camper in 1969. He now owns a business, The Tiger Lion Companies, after that nickname.

“We are a very tight-knit community who all [have] a passion for hardcore canoe tripping and strong lifelong friendships,” he said. “What I remember most is the cool, crisp, pine tree-scented air that makes me take a second look each time I pass a pine tree, thinking I'm at Pathfinder.”

Hadala first visited Algonquin Park as a child with his family as part of a vacation from Buffalo. He enjoyed the area so much and decided to become a camper at 11 years old. For 10 years he was a camper and staff member.

“I realize that I developed self-reliance, individual leadership, the ability to cope with adverse conditions and most importantly, team cooperation,” he said. “I also took away the appreciation for nature and how important it is to disconnect from everything once in a while.” Even in a technological environment, and given the popularity of social media, Camp Pathfinder has seen historically high enrollments since 2012.

“The kids are giving up screens, buttons and the Internet for a few weeks,” said Sladden. “They're tuning into real human connections and sensations.”

At the end of last summer, the camp hosted hundreds of alumni from around the world for a weekend to celebrate Pathfinder’s 100th anniversary. This summer, the camp’s historic dining hall will be restored and its stone hearth will be dedicated to Pathfinder’s alumni.

“While less than a half-dozen camps in North America have made it to age 100, and canoe trip camps continue to dwindle in the Internet age, Pathfinder thrives on more than history and tradition,” Sladden said. “I think Pathfinder still resonates with everyone in the family, even after a century in business.”

Sladden has been the co-owner along with Buffalo native Glenn Arthurs since 1999.

email: brandonk@beenews.com

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