Home Feature Creative immersion at Winter Folk Camp

Creative immersion at Winter Folk Camp

Guitar in Woods
2012 Winter Folk Camp artistic staff

As March rolls into Toronto with a casual, spring-like confidence, I’m thinking back to my weekend in Haliburton, where winter still means wind and snow, and provides the perfect backdrop for a gathering of music-makers.

I was attending Winter Folk Camp, a 4-day getaway packed with concerts, workshops, song circles, great food, and outdoor activities.

Now in its fourth year, this initiative, supported by the Haliburton Folk Society and many dedicated volunteers, offers campers the opportunity to participate in focused “streams”, each led by one of the talented artistic staff. This year’s group featured Ken Whiteley (playing the blues), My Sweet Patootie‘s Terry Young (fingerstyle guitar) and Sandra Swannell (fiddle), Eve Goldberg (ukulele orchestra), Lynn Miles (songwriting), and Teresa Doyle (choir).

I chose to participate in the songwriting stream, and was initially anxious, having never taken a songwriting workshop before. I was quickly put at ease, thanks to Winter Folk Camp’s brilliant practice of providing delicious, healthy meals, served family style.

Lynn Miles and Shawna Caspi

At dinner on Friday night, I found myself seated across from Lynn Miles, as we joked and laughed and Lynn offered me pointed life lessons. Conferences and festivals should take note — there is no better way to build community than by eating meals together. It’s a real leveler.

The songwriting class convened five times over the weekend, with each meeting going deeper into the process. As we got more comfortable, we got braver, sharing songs without hesitation — something that could only be accomplished as a result of the feelings of support and camaraderie that were established so quickly.

In past years, the songwriting group had performed a class co-write at the Monday morning campers’ concert. Our group opted instead for intense critiques of each others’ work and inspiring discussions about the songwriting process, which I maintain was a much better use of our time.

I was chosen to perform one tune at the campers concert. Since we had just spent the previous day ripping apart my newest song, Grace, I decided to play it and incorporate a couple of my classmates’ suggestions, to an overwhelmingly positive crowd response.

Groups from each stream performed, proving that excellent work can be accomplished in a short period of time. The room glowed with pride as performances were met with standing ovations.

I was grateful for the chance to meet all the artistic staff and get a taste of each person’s expertise, not only in the ceilidhs that occurred on Saturday and Sunday nights, but also in the open workshops they led throughout the weekend. Many stayed around for evening song circles or jams, resulting in collaborations and new friendships.

View from a snowshoe hike

In between, campers were also given the opportunity to take advantage of the beautiful natural setting and engage in outdoor activities led by the energetic Camp Wanakita staff.

A challenging but invigorating snowshoe hike perked up one of my afternoons. It was such a different experience from the stuffy, isolated setting of a conference hotel.

There was obvious pride in the surroundings and visible support from the Haliburton community. The dining hall walls were covered in vibrant paintings by local artists and information booths from local businesses were prominently displayed.

There were many campers from the local area and the evening ceilidhs were open to the public for further community integration. The Wanakita staff were thrilled to take part in classes and music events and many spent their weekend as volunteers in order to partake.

The youth presence at Winter Folk Camp was refreshing. Two campers were recipients of special scholarships specifically developed to send young people to the camp. To further this initiative and encourage more people to attend, perhaps a youth discount registration fee could be offered in the future.

Word is spreading about Winter Folk Camp, with the highest ever attendance this year. I found profound impact in the fact that this was a true retreat. I had no access to my phone and no internet connection. I didn’t have to cook for myself or run any errands.

I wasn’t preoccupied with the business of music, only the art of making it. I was free from the mundane tasks of everyday life so I could completely immerse myself in the act of creating and learning.



  1. Truly a creatively inspiring and laughter filled experience. I have a new appreciation for my music. Ukuleles and kazoos rock!!!!

  2. Hi Shawna,
    Great job on the article. Indeed it was a wonderful musical experience.
    I really enjoyed your song performance at the “camper’s concert”
    If you have a CD format of that, or any other of your songs, I would love to feature them on my Haliburton radio programs.
    Kris Kadwell

  3. Hey Kris, thanks so much! Barrie forwarded me the address for CanoeFM. I’ll be sending you a copy of the new CD in a couple of weeks, for sure. “Grace” is too new to be on it though – gotta wait for the next one!

  4. Great article Shawna…so true that one of the best things about Winter Folk Camp is eating meals together…it is not often that you have a chance to share mealtime conversations with performers. That interaction is a really key aspect of the experience. I’ve never thought of it as a “retreat”…but it really is! I think we might have to use that word in future marketing, because it does a nice job of capturing the experience, makes it stand out as a different kind of experience than a folk festival or conference. Thanks!

  5. Great article, Shawna! A very detailed recount of the whole Wanakita experience. I appreciate that you took the time to include the small details that evoke the feelings of community and family between all who are involved. Wanakita really is an island, isn’t it? Keep up the great work! Will listen for your songs on Canoe!

  6. Hi Shawna,
    Thanks for the insighful writeup. This year we had better weather and more registrants. Taking meals together does add greatly to the community experience.
    2012 was the most satisfying for me as a volunteer and as a participant.

    Point of clarification, Ian Tamblyn’s songwriting class (WinterFolk Camp 2010) did not opt for the group song.

  7. I loved your songs, Shawna. You have a very unique style, both in guitar playing and in vocals and lyrics. I hope to hear more of your music soon. Doing a songwriting workshop with Lynn Miles was a dream come true for me, because she is truly one of my greatest musical heroes…right up there with Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, and a precious few others.

    You are quite correct that eating meals together with the performing artists is the best way of connecting. What a great weekend it was!

  8. A retreat indeed. As soon as I got back, I was right into booking gigs, promoting gigs, figuring out the logistics of getting to gigs, answering emails, etc…the stuff that sadly takes up a large chunk of my day when I’d rather be playing and writing.

    It makes such a huge difference to get away for a few consecutive days of JUST music-making. I’m so used to diving my attention in the digital world that I forgot what it’s like to have that kind of intense focus. I’d love to try the “retreat model” in my life in some way or another at least a couple of times a year.

  9. It’s a great way of recharging and calming the mind. The problem with the “digital” lifestyle is that you don’t have physical contact with other people, the natural environment, and all the rest of that 3-D life experience that everybody in the world lived for the past half a million years…until just recently. We need direct experience of things, otherwise they just spin around inside our heads but don’t touch us so deeply. 2 or 3 of these musical retreats a year would be the best way of reconnecting, I think.

    On visits to 3rd World countries such as Cuba and Trinidad, I have discovered societies that still live mostly in the pre-digital age. What I found was that people were happier there, they had a way better social life than we do, they got out more and did more things, they did things themselves instead of watching someone else do it on a TV screen, and the maturity and self-reliance of the young people was striking. They also had a lot less material “stuff”…which paradoxically (from our point of view) gave them a lot more freedom. I wasn’t doing the “tourist” thing at the hotels when I went to those countries, but was staying among the ordinary people….through connections with either church communities or spiritual organizations (such as a meditation center…ashram).

    The experience of doing that was intense, as you say above, invigorating, and at the same time very relaxing. The lifestyle in those warm countries is much more relaxed than in North America, and the sense of human connection between people is profound. The Cubans also have a great sense of personal honor and their own dignity. I admired them for those qualities.

  10. Shawna, thanks so much for your insight and support of the Winter Folk Camp. We all need more opportunities like this and I’m sure your enthusiasm will help spread the word.

    You really captured the essence of the weekend in your last couple of paragraphs. It’s really about connecting with ourselves, the natural world, and the people around us. The great thing is, we have a choice. We can choose to bring that same kind of space into our lives every day.

    So as I sit here typing away (with the further intention of catching up on a few emails), I think it’s time to shut the laptop down and let a bit of dobro playing brighten my day.

  11. One project I have given myself since the WFC is to learn to flatpick effectively. I’ve been fingerpicking for over 40 years, but have always felt incompetent to flatpick. On Lynn Miles’ advice, I have bought the heaviest flatpick I could find and am working at it a bit each day. And it’s going well. I should soon be flatpicking up a storm…handy on songs where I want a more driving rythm.

  12. Hey Shawna,
    Great read: thanks for sharing your experiences with us all; I hope to be able to attend in the future. Hope to catch up soon in TDot….I’m on tour right now in BC but back in the spring.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here