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A trip through Freecamp – Part 1 of 2

As summertime accommodation hunters know all too well, when May 1 hits and seasonal staff start to slink into town, getting a room in Jasper is no easy thing. Our research at the Fitzhugh has told us this has been a trend that’s been happening for decades, which made us ask: what have some of the solutions been in the past? The short answer is there haven’t been any, but further digging produced an interesting tidbit: during the 70s there was a little place people went to seek solace from the summertime squeeze.

So dig up that lava lamp, bust out those bell bottoms, this is a groovy tale about a little place called… Freecamp.

But back that vee-dub up for just a minute. Before you crank up the Floyd and don your most disco dashiki, it’s important to put Freecamp — all three of the Jasper versions — in perspective. They might have turned into a place where people would live for the entire summer, but the Parks employees who worked for JNP at the time know that certainly was not why the camps were originally conceived. Moreover, by talking to someone who lived at the Freecamps for the better part of nine years and who helped run them for four seasons, it seems like it may not have resembled the trip-happenin,’ psyched-out love fest that we at the paper had hoped. Or did it?

“Nah… there were too many bears for that. And too much rain,” asserted Willie Saunders, who, as the face that many Jasperites put to the Freecamp name, is somewhat of a local legend. Saunders had the role of custodian, manager and firewood chopper at the Freecamps. He also had the sometimes unpleasant job of enforcing the rules, which, he admits, wasn’t too time-consuming.

“I have been punched before dawn, though,” Saunders said while walking down the road that leads to the site of the first two Freecamps. “For telling someone they couldn’t have a fire.”

For those who don’t know or remember (and it wasn’t the 60s — so if you remember the 70s you were most likely there), Freecamp was a federal government initiative designed to allow Canadians — youth, in particular — to get out and see their country. It started in 1973 and lasted until 1982. Every summer, Banff and Jasper National Parks (and presumably other ones across the country) allocated a space in the area surrounding the townsite where campers were allowed to stay, for free. Parks Canada had an arms-length role in the sense that they provided water wells, bearpoles, firewood and garbage haulers, but their man on the ground was Willie: a fiery, wiry 20-something who would be chopping firewood before dawn, blowing his hi-C harmonica to ward off bears and giving newbies the spiel about the grey-water stations and not using shampoo in the river — in English and French!

“They gave me a wheelbarrow, a rake, a shovel, first aid kit, garbage bags … gee, I hope I’m not leaving anything out,” he adds with a sneer.

As Saunders trots along the gravel road, he reflects on the camps, but also the attitudes held by the people who used them. Both, it seems, were much less complicated than their counterparts today.

“It was very primitive, but that was the beauty of it. Heck, some days a good bannock was all you needed.” With that, the colourful character rips off a “mmmm… that’s good!” The memories are obviously flooding back.

As he descends off the road and into the forest, blazing over an overgrown path but obviously familiar with the route, he can be heard in the distance, yelling back towards his stumbling guest.

“Oh yes! I’m remembering one of local artists staying here,” he laughs. “For a couple of years, I think. You always knew what time it was when he came home.”

Soon he’s at the place he called home for two seasons. He’s looking at his old bed, a mossy rock that actually looks quite comfortable; the remnants of a fire pit where he would cook, among other delicacies, brown rice (“all the time — we were vegetarians”); and the trees that he strung plastic covers onto to shelter him from the constant rain. According to Saunders, there were only about 30 rain-free days for three straight seasons. Made that bannock all the more satisfying, he said.

“This is a trip,” he laughs, checking out his old haunt. “This tree wasn’t down… this, I built a plastic shelter overtop of. This was my bed, looks like a bed, doesn’t it? Candle goes here… it’s great because I can take my kids out here now.”

Thirty-odd years later, he can visit, but Saunders knows Freecamp wouldn’t ever work the way it did then. Not that it worked all that well anyway. Despite the nostalgia that Saunders and a certain group of Freecampers hold for the finer points of that time, he was well aware that the camps caused their share of problems. Bear encounters were among the most serious, the inability to enforce responsible camping was equally frustrating and the traffic hazards that were created when drivers would stop on Highway 16 to sneak a peek at nude bathers were, well… stark.

Then-Park Warden Wes Bradford remembers them all well. Tune into next week’s Fitzhugh for the conclusion of Freecamp.

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