A magical place turns 40

Ask anyone who grew up in Kamloops about McQueen Lake Environmental Centre and the response will invariably involve a broad grin and dreamy-eyed memories of discovering the wonders of nature.

The centre located 20 kilometres north of Kamloops has been a magical spot for 40 years and four generations of students.

"They all leave a little bit of their heart up there," said Kirsten McDougall, who was the centre's first, and for a time, only employee.

On Saturday, the centre's founders, its former and current staff and volunteers, and a few of its many, many fans gather at the beautiful locale to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

In the late '60s, Ralph Shaw, known then as a teacher and principal of Beatty Elementary, and Dr. Alastair McLean, a grassland scientist, were inspired to create a place where kids could connect with nature.

McLean died in 1989 but to hear 86-year-old Shaw speak of it today, the men were visionaries well beyond their time.

"My vision hasn't changed," said Shaw, who received an Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts.

"My view is that people must learn to touch the Earth because with climate change, we're going to need a broad base of people who are going to know what natural systems are about to make some of the adaptations that we're going to face."

The pair scoped out a beautiful spot on McQueen Lake across the now-protected Lac Du Bois grasslands to do just that.

From then on, everyone from parents and community groups to local industry and government pitched in. The North Kamloops Rotary group gets special billing as an indispensable benefactor, said Shaw.

Even the man who owned a claim on the property and had already staked out the site for copper exploration needed only a civil conversation to sell out at a reasonable sum, said Shaw. And the province put up those funds.

The federal government, which owned the land, leased the property to the school board for $1 a year - a deal that remains to this day with the Kamloops-Thompson School District.

With property in hand, organizers knew they first needed an outhouse. Then came the need for a shelter when weather became inclement. Cabins were wanted for overnight trips, then a central lodge for cooking and dining.

Rotary members drove to the site loaded down with large rocks that would be used for the lodge's fireplace.

Local forestry companies Weyerhaeuser and Belco donated enough material to build a dozen structures. Cabins were built on the site of what is now Westmount elementary than disassembled and reassembled at McQueen Lake. Much of the labour was provided by summer students and paid for through federal job-creation funding.

Those students and many more have since returned with their kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids.

"They'd point to a cabin and say, 'I built that!'" said Karl deBruijn, school district assistant superintendent.

The sense of ownership is shared not only among the volunteers and former students, but also the centre's head administrators, each of whom took the helm from their former teacher or principal.

Shaw saw his student Ron Watts lead the centre. Watts watched former student deBruijn take over for a time. And current administrator Art Blackwell was also a student of Watts.

"It's not a job, it's a passion," said deBruijn. "It's the gem of the school district."

There have been some changes at the centre throughout those leaderships, like the installation unique solar-powered composting toilets.

Lessons have also evolved to include modern touches like GPS navigation, said Wayne Deptuck, the centre's current resource teacher.

But every move is made with a deep commitment to education, said deBruijn, and the vision Shaw and McLean had so many years ago.

And the deep connections established through four decades ensure that vision remains for the next 40 years.

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