The History of Camp Chief Hector YMCA
Surrounded by mountains, forests, open fields and lakes, Camp Chief Hector YMCA is an awe-inspiring place. Situated on the Ancestral Lands of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and Blackfoot Confederacy, its history goes back much further than our story will tell today.
Camp Chief Hector YMCA opened for the first summer in 1930. Most of what we currently know of the history is from the YMCA perspective. Through more recent teachings and meetings with Stoney Nakoda and other Indigenous Elders and Knowledge-Keepers, we acknowledge that the YMCA held the balance of power in those initial decisions, as well as through the 90+ years of operations.
In recent years, Camp Chief Hector YMCA and YMCA Calgary staff have been working diligently to more accurately honour the Truth of Camp and to progress towards Reconciliation. This includes participating in conversations with our neighbours at the Stoney Nakoda First Nation regarding our shared history and our path forward.
The original Camp Chief Hector site was on the Stoney Nakoda reserve. Instrumental to the establishment of Camp was Chief Hector Crawler and Jonas Benjamin - Walking Buffalo - of the Stoney Nakoda Nation, and Cecil Brown and Stan Young of YMCA Calgary and YMCA Canmore. While the relationship between the settlers and the Stoney Nakoda people was fraught with challenges, according to YMCA history, they agreed on the goal for camp to "make the White man's sons better than their fathers had been" (C.J. Ford).
The Stoney Nakoda people provided services to the Camp Chief Hector YMCA operation, such as the construction and erection of tipis. This was discontinued in the 1970s, but we are currently working towards once again having tipis that are made and blessed by Stoney Nakoda tipi owners and makers. Camp Chief Hector YMCA relocated to its current site, leased from Alberta Parks, in the 1970s. Many of the beloved buildings we know and use today were built then, such as both Bowfort and Hector Lodges.
Camp attendance grew by more than 900% in the first few years alone, when camp used to cost only $7 per week to attend.
In 1929, a 15-year lease was signed by the YMCA (Cecil Brown) and the Stoney Band (Hector Crawler and Walking Buffalo – known as Jonas Benjamin). The first camp was held at the Bowfort Lake site in 1930. Camp was for two weeks in early August and had 25 boys accommodated in bell tents. The dining lodge was built in 1931 by the Rotary Club and the original tipis were built in June of 1931 allowing the camp to expand to six weeks.
By 1934, 260 boys were attending camp run by 33 trained leaders. Across-the-lake swims were popular, and their times were printed in the Camp newspaper called the Daily Piffle. An infirmary was built by a group of YMCA men called the Phalanx Fraternity.
The YMCA had a critical role in the war effort and providing support to youth and families.
The YMCA’s goal was to assist servicemen in every way possible and provide for the many young boys whose fathers were away due to military service. Despite shortages of leaders and materials, camp capacity was up to 120 boys per session in 19 tipis.
Camp benefits from the booming economy and sees growth and development.
In 1953 Pioneers Camp began. This had the campers build their own camp site at the southwest end of Bowfort Lake. A new aluminum roof was put on the lodge in 1953, floors for tipis were donated in 1954 and a shower house was built by the Y’s Mens’ Club in 1955 – campers were finally able to go home squeaky clean! A camp staff manual was developed as well as materials on canoe techniques, crafts and hiking trips, and many old songs and legends were officially documented.
Camp expanded back-country exploration & began formalizing the tripping opportunities.
Back-country expeditions away from Camp (outtrips) expanded greatly in the 60’s. Trips to Calgary via canoe were added in 1964. Hiking expanded to favourite campsites including Junction, Newford, Wolena, Shangrilla, Cooperstone, Loggers and Horseshoe. A dedicated director was hired in 1964 for the Counsellor in Training (CIT) program and Wilderness One, a tripping program built around the twin pillars of physical and psychological growth.
A big move is made, and camp becomes co-ed.
Camp’s current site (the former Diamond Cross Guest Ranch) was acquired in 1972, after the Stoney Nakoda Band Council indicated they wished to regain the Camp’s original site. The Outdoor Education Branch was established to expand the horizons of Camp Chief Hector YMCA. And Camp was to become co-ed.
CCH Girls began at the new site in 1972 while the boys continued at the original site for two more summers. Wilderness Two was added and the canoe programs for all ages became longer and more challenging. The construction of Hector Lodge was well underway in 1974 but the roof was not quite finished in time for summer camp. Campers had an all-camp picnic every day, now lovingly known as the 42-day picnic.
Staff versus alumni friendly rivalry begins & camp begins to offer financial assistance.
The 80’s at Camp saw the increased emphasis on environmental and nature education in all aspects of programming. The year-round style of operations provided more opportunities for staff and retention rates remained high; many staff came back for six, seven or more seasons. Eagle Lodge was added at the east end of Hector Field in 1985, a wash shack was built in 1987 and Deer Lodge was completed in the Pioneer Section in 1990. The staff vs. alumni game of touch football tradition began and then changed into the more inclusive slow-pitch baseball. The Melmac Cup was born.
Campership Fund was founded, providing underserved youth with the opportunity to attend camp.
The Camp experience gets taken to new heights.
Camp had a deeper integration with YMCA Calgary in the 1990’s and there was a focus on major facility enhancement/acquisition. The Sac Dene program, an eight-week canoe expedition in Canada’s north, was launched in 1991 for the oldest campers. Rock climbing, high ropes, low ropes and the challenge course areas were built. Camp instituted major changes in training and equipment for outtrips such as water filters, radios, satellite phones, logbooks, Kevlar boats, and equestrian helmets. By 1998 camp was logging hundreds of days in the backcountry with its 200 staff leading almost 2,000 campers.
The 90’s saw the YMCA leading Outdoor School programs on an independent basis and the Outdoor Centre ran programs such as Mountain Haven and Meeting Challenges Together. Both kitchens were renovated in 1995. A new health centre opened in 1998 and camp owned 110 horses thanks to its expanded corral area. 24-hour supervision was implemented and smoking and drinking on site were banned. A satellite site with access to amazing horse trails and wilderness along the Red Deer River was purchased in 1997 west of Sundre as the outtripping home for the older campers.
A new millennium brings about expansion and renovations for Camp.
Programs expanded to include day camps for Bow Valley and Canmore residents, and more family camp opportunities were added. The Outpost Site (later re-named Camp Gray Jay) near the YaHa Tinda (north border of Banff National Park) was acquired. Hector Lodge was renovated in 2005 (for the 75th anniversary of Camp) adding a stainless-steel commercial kitchen and offices for year-round staff. The Growing Strong Together Campaign (2004 – 2008) resulted in the addition of a climbing tower near Hector Lodge.
Campers are going further and being challenged even more.
Summer camp capacity increased to 3,000 campers. Two Sac Dene trips ran in 2015 with one group to the Northwest Territories and a second group to the West Coast Trail. The Leadership Cabins were completed across from Bowfort Lodge providing more accommodations for Outdoor School Groups. New program options were added for summer campers including mountain biking and a mountain-arts program focusing on painting, sculpture with found objects, and photography. New play areas were created – Jungle Rock, Adventure Playground and a Garden.
Camp overcomes a global crisis and embarks on building an even stronger future.
Operations were modified for two seasons during the Covid-19 pandemic. Traditional summer camps, weekend programs and outdoor school all resumed in 2022. The new Expedition Centre was completed as a home for all things outtripping.
The Love, Camp Campaign is launched in 2023 to revitalize critical capital infrastructure including camper accommodation, staff housing, washroom and shower facilities, high ropes and low ropes, and the ranch area. 63 new yurts were installed at mid-camp and Hector Lodge area for Summer 2023, allowing for extended camper seasons, and increased accessibility for campers with mobility challenges.