Canadian writer Will Ferguson describes Canada as “ . . . not a country but a series of outposts.” One day in September 1979, 30 representatives of outposts from all over Canada (including me) gathered at the train station in Montreal. Boarding a bus, we headed down the St. Lawrence River.
In the C.S. Lewis story The Magician’s Nephew, two children arrive by magic in a forest full of little pools. They discover that these pools are portals, each leading to a different world. Our Katimavik bus, full of young people aged 17–21, was just like that wood-between-the-worlds: we were each a portal—a way for all the others to get a peek at the outpost we came from.
Our bus arrived in the wilds of the Quebec/New Brunswick/Maine border, and the group was divided into three smaller units. My little group settled into a house in Sully, Quebec, in the care of a group leader. After the shakedown (some people quit after a few weeks), we formed a functional, close-knit group of eight. For the next nine months, the eight of us travelled and worked together in three different regions.
Sully was a warm and friendly outpost. My group helped the little town renovate its movie theatre and set up its skating rink. We also spent a lot of time at the nearby base de plein air, clearing trails and preparing the grounds for winter. The Sully townspeople welcomed us and made a point of getting to know us. Toward the end of our time there, they put on a réveillon for us at the community centre. When my group and I stepped through that community centre door, it really felt like we had gone through a portal into a unique world. We ate tourtière, pulled taffy, and danced into the night.
Katimavik had a military option, and so our second rotation was at CFB Esquimalt in British Columbia. The navy was a whole other world worthy of a whole other story. Our military stint brought its own adventure, but I loved the two traditional Katimavik rotations the best.
Geneva Park near Orillia, Ontario, hosted our final rotation. There, we stayed in cabins by the shore of Lake Couchiching, enjoying its spring melt. We helped the outdoor centre get ready for summer by building beds, bird houses, and a nature shack. Our group leader Mary was from small-town Ontario. She made us laugh by directly translating an English idiomatic expression into French: “Donnez moi une fracture!” Our Quebec group leader, Joanne, often translated a French idiomatic expression directly into English: “You guys are falling on my nerves.” Such expressions reveal the challenge of being a Katimavik group leader. I admire Joanne and Mary for the cheerful and capable way they managed my group of rambunctious and willful youth.
My year in Katimavik gave me everything I wanted (work and travel) and added unexpected fringe benefits (portals). I’ve lost track of every one of my fellow Katimavikers. We disappeared into our own worlds—as we should, since even the children in The Magician’s Nephew knew that the wood-between-the-worlds was not a place to stay. A study of the Katimavik program reported that each dollar Katimavik spends generates a return of $2.20. This is notable, but Katimavik’s value to me is more profound than mere financial return. It was my temporary dwelling place: a marvelous land of discovery.