By Michelle Annette Tremblay, WordBird Media
Remember that movie, ‘We Bought A Zoo,’ about the family that turned their back on the status-quo, suburban lifestyle, to buy and operate a zoo, hours away from the city? Well, that’s pretty much what Karen Challinor and her family did. Except they bought a campground.
“We were living in Caledon, commuting to Toronto every day. I worked in international finance, and my husband, Chris, worked in fibre optics and telecommunications” says Challinor, who made the move away from the city 18 years ago.
“We had great jobs. But my commute used to be 170 km every day; through rush hour traffic. Now it’s literally four steps from my kitchen to the camp office.”
We’re sitting in her office, at Red Eagle Family Campground in Coe Hill, a pretty little Hamlet in Hastings County. While we chat, visitors frequently pop their heads in the door to say hi. The egg man drops by, with farm fresh eggs of course. Chris stops by, with Harley the dog. The Challinors tell me that Harley is the luckiest dog ever – getting to live on a campground where he swims and gets fussed over every day – and today is his birthday, so he’ll be having a special dog-food birthday-cake later in the evening. A few staff members drop by, cheerful and relaxed. That’s just how it is at Red Eagle. Everyone is family. Everyone is cheerful.
“Some of our staff have been here longer than we have,” says Karen, explaining that the team mentality of the camp has resulted in incredible staff retention.
“We never ask our staff to do any jobs that we wouldn’t do ourselves, and everyone is trained in everything, so if one person is unavailable, someone else can step in. There’s no hierarchy. Everything is a team effort.”
On a typical sunny Saturday in July, her team will be scattered throughout the campground. Some will be cleaning, others will be selling Kawartha Dairy ice cream at the camp store, the full-time recreation coordinator will be leading children’s activities. Someone else will be in the camp office showing guests a new brochure of available R.V.s or sunrooms. Karen says the camp management team is like a well-oiled machine. Each weekend has activities, and on the long weekends the camp celebrates Christmas in July, Halloween, Canada Day, and there’s always an all-ages dance at the pavilion.
Even though the Challinors urged their three daughters to first spend some time in the city, getting educated, finding themselves, and making their mark before considering working at Red Eagle, all three of them have since decided that they do want to join the family business. And Karen is pleased.
“Would I do it again? Definitely.” Karen describes the change in lifestyle, from living a city life with a corporate job and a commute to living in the country, self-employed.
“No one wants to say it, but we weren’t raising our kids. The daycare centre was,” Karen admits about her past in the city, with long commutes and demanding jobs.
“One of the greatest things about running the camp when the girls were younger was being able to see them all the time. We’re very busy in the summer, so we’d always hire a babysitter to watch the girls to make sure they were safe near the water, and so someone was always available to them.
But anytime I had a free half hour I’d join them down at the beach. I had the flexibility to do that. They were never more than a couple minutes walk away from me.”
There are challenges of course. Being in compliance with provincial legislation takes a large time and financial investment. Both Karen and Chris are active in their communities and industry as well as being highly involved in tourism and economic development. They sit on various boards and committees, offering valuable real-life feedback to the municipality, the county, tourism organizations and the province.
“It’s a time commitment, but it’s important,” says Karen, who also points out the importance of supporting the local economy.
“We don’t really do any traditional marketing. It’s all word of mouth, and we get a lot of that because we’re very involved in the community. We always buy the Girl Guide cookies, even if we already have stacks of them. You see those painted rocks?” She asks pointing. “Those are specially painted rocks,” she laughs. “They cost me two dollars each.
We sponsor girls hockey, the Coe Hill Fair, we support the local business association and the chamber. You have to support your community. You have to shop locally. You get what you give.”
And the Challinors give and get a lot. They get to live year round in one of the most beautiful areas in the world, nestled between Wollaston Lake and Deer River. They get to enjoy all the activities that their guests love, they live life on their own terms, and they make lasting friendships.
“Everyone here knows each other. All our guests are seasonal,” explains Karen, meaning that each family that stays at Red Eagle stays for the full summer. No-one is there just for a week or two. The same families are there all season, year after year. In fact, the guests even spend holidays and trips together in the offseason. The Challinors have even seen young guests meet, fall in love, get married and come back to Red Eagle with families of there own.
The biggest difference is the stress level,” says Karen thoughtfully. “It’s not that we don’t have any stress at all, but it’s different. Our deadlines are flexible. We have more fun. We don’t miss the corporate model or the city lifestyle. We’ve already decided that when its time, we’re definitely going to retire here, on Wollaston Lake.”
To learn more about Red Eagle Camp Ground, visit http://www.campredeagle.ca/
If you’re interested in leaving the city to live your dream in Hastings County, click here.