Snowshoes and Song Circles
It’s early March 2010, and I’m driving up Highway 35, a few hours north of Toronto. I’m on my way to teach at the Haliburton Winter Folk Camp. The snow is starting to melt away, but there’s still a bit of winter left in the air. My driving companion is Linda Morrison, a lovely singer and songwriter based in Montreal. She’ll be teaching a choir class at the camp, while I’ll be leading the intrepid beginning guitar group. We turn off the main highway right around Minden, and in a few minutes we’re at YMCA Camp Wanakita, the home of Winter Folk Camp.
I’m looking forward to the weekend – a musical retreat with fifty to sixty other folkies. There will be classes, workshops, concerts, song circles, and jams. There will be great food served up by the Camp Wanakita kitchen staff, early morning yoga class, and even some free time for hiking, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, or skating if the weather allows.
The first night, after wine and cheese, campers meet the staff and are introduced to the program for the weekend. This year, the staff includes myself, Linda, stellar songwriter Ian Tamblyn, guitar whiz Paul Mills, percussionist Rodrigo Chavez, and fiddler Cindy Thompson. We end the evening with a song circle, campers and staff singing late into the night in the main building, while others drift off to sleep or jams in other cabins.
The next morning, the early risers get their morning shot of yoga. The rest of us stumble into breakfast and head to our classes. My beginning guitar class meets four times over the course of the weekend. The class turns out to be a small but mighty group of three players who are mostly complete beginners. Over the course of the weekend we focus on the basic skills of making a few chords, playing bass notes and bass runs, and singing while we play. My students work away diligently, admirably intent on improving their skills, and I’m inspired by their dedication.
After class, I attend Rodrigo Chavez’ maraca workshop. I have never seriously tried to play maracas, but in a few short minutes Rodrigo has us trying complex Latin rhythms. We laugh a lot as we try to follow Rodrigo’s instructions for starting and stopping together. He’s a skilled facilitator and I come away with a new respect for the possibilities of this simple instrument.
After lunch, I join a nature hike led by one of Camp Wanakita’s staff. She shows us how to look for animal tracks and helps us identify trees. It’s a crisp sunny day and I’m grateful to be able to have some time outside – the area is stunningly beautiful, dotted with lakes and hills, and beautiful trails through the woods. I return refreshed and energized, ready for more music.
Everywhere you go through the weekend, there’s a musical buzz. There are always a few people sharing songs in the corner, or working on their fiddle tune, or talking excitedly about their first songwriting experience. In the evenings, we gather for workshop-style concerts where several staff people share the stage. This year the unusual musical combination of Ian Tamblyn, Rodrigo Chavez, and Cindy Thompson blows the roof off the main hall on Saturday night. And then it’s more singing and jamming until the wee hours.
The weekend is full of musical highlights. But beyond the music, there is another thing I experience over the weekend, something that’s hard to put into words. It’s about the things that happen “in between”—the small moments of exchange that happen over dinner, the personal connections made between teachers and students, the impromptu collaborations between the staff. These are the magical things that can’t exactly be quantified, and yet, it’s exactly what makes an event like Winter Folk Camp more than the sum of its parts. This is what I’m in it for—the spark and connection that nourishes the soul. And clearly, I’m not the only one.
On the last morning we gather in the main hall for the camper’s concert. This is the culmination of everything the weekend has brought us—the music, yes, but also the community spirit and warmth of new friendships and connection. My beginning guitar class plays “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” They are slow, but steady, and they receive an enormous enthusiastic response. I sit at the back for the rest of the concert and soak in the vibe—people are laughing, playing, cheering each other on and enjoying their moment in the sun. This is good.
Camper’s concert over, we share one last delicious meal and Linda and I say goodbye to our new friends, and hop in our car for the drive back to Toronto. It’s been an amazing, restorative weekend, and as we wind our way back to the hustle and bustle of the big city, I’m wishing I didn’t have to wait a whole year for another Winter Folk Camp.