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These campers catching a tow circa 1925 were among the first to make memories at Survey Camp. Photo: courtesy Lassonde Institute of Mining
Photo courtesy of Lassonde Institute of Mining

Memories of Gull Lake

Why learning to survey is an unforgettable experience for University of Toronto engineers

As summer slips into fall before their third year of study, civil and mineral engineering students spend two weeks in the heart of cottage country to learn the art of land surveying. Survey Camp, a 175-acre property on the northern shore of Gull Lake in Haliburton, Ont., has been a fixture in field work education since 1919, when the University of Toronto purchased the land. “The country is broken and rolling and admirably suited for the various problems that arise in practical surveying,” states the 1930s camp manual.

Surveying is a core skill for these students, but “the main thing I learned at camp has more to do with life than with engineering: I learned that everybody has something valuable to offer,” says Marcia Lamont Scott (BASc 1947). “Survey Camp taught us a lot technically, but it also taught us so much about working together.”

“When you spend concentrated time sleeping, eating, learning and romancing with a group,” adds Gordon McRostie (BASc 1944), “you develop a camaraderie that is uncommon among classes.”

While the fundamentals of surveying haven’t changed since the camp opened in 1920, the students have. Lamont Scott was the first woman civil engineering grad in Ontario; in 2014, engineering boasted 31 per cent female enrolment in the incoming class. Between now and 2020, Survey Camp aims to raise $1 million to upgrade its 95-year-old buildings and add new women’s facilities.

Ekaterina Tzekova (BASc 2009, PhD 2015) got to know her fiancé, Stephen Perkins (BASc 2009), at Survey Camp; he proposed at the fire pit where their relationship kindled. While studying for her PhD, Tzekova returned to Gull Lake yearly as a teaching assistant to watch a new crop of campers make memories. “You wonder about the experiences of the students who came before you,” she says. “It’s neat how people of different generations have this place in common.”

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  1. 5 Responses to “ Memories of Gull Lake ”

  2. Joyce Sitarski says:

    My late husband (1984), Walter John Sitarski (1953 Civil Engineering), spoke fondly of the survey camp at Gull Lake. He attended U of T on scholarship and played football for the Varsity team. I believe he received a medal at graduation for receiving the highest marks in Civil Engineering for 5T3.

  3. Ted Ross says:

    I took my first year in Engineering Physics before switching to Electrical and in that first year we had a surveying course doing polygons and elevations around the campus. This must have been a lighter version of surveying than would have been required for Civil Engineers and that is likely why I never heard of the Gull Lake survey camp.

    Whatever this "lighter" version taught me turned out to have been adequate for me to be hired for the 1952 summer survey work at Canadian National Railways when their Telegraphs Department was tasked with providing high-speed carrier telegraph service for the new Defense Early Warning radar system then being deployed across northern Canada. My work was directed from Toronto headquarters and my specific field assignment was in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan which was called District 4.

  4. Orlando Martini says:

    A multitude of lifetime friendships emerged when the 1956 Civils attended survey camp in the summer of 1954. That class has organized a reunion every year since 1956 and some years the class has also attended a second reunion during milestone years such as their 10th, 25th and 50th anniversaries. Since 1964, the 5T6 Civils have presented an annual scholarship to a student completing second year. The current value of that scholarship is $3,000. During the period 1964-2014, 51 scholarships have been presented with a total value of $63,500.

  5. David H. Gray says:

    I'm pleased U of T has recognized an important part of the civil engineering curriculum. I also am very happy to read that the university is embarking on modernizing the facilities. However, I wondered if the photo could be misinterpreted as suggesting that the students were embarking on a joy ride in the heart of cottage country. Many U of T alumni might not realize that in 1925 the means of getting to camp included a five-mile canoe ride from Miner’s Bay. I dare say the students appreciated the tow!

    From its inception in 1920 to circa 1960, survey camp was six weeks long. By 1966 (when I went there), it was five weeks. At a nominal eight hours a day, the course was weighted the same as four hours a week of lectures during both fall and winter terms. Now at two weeks, the course is considered one credit. I can vouch that the present-day students do not work an eight-hour day, but 12- to 15-hour days, each day, for the two weeks.

    I know this because I have been an instructor there for three summers since my retirement from the federal public service. I worked just as long as the students and every third night I marked field books until 1 or 2 a.m. The university professors who also teach at Camp are expected to return to campus and be “wide eyed and bushy tailed” to teach their regular load of classes in the fall. I retreated to Ottawa, and rested!

    As the three interviewed alumni stated, Survey Camp is more than just teaching surveying; it teaches team work, working to short deadlines, living in a construction camp environment, and provides a back-woods experience (some students have never been out of an urban setting) -- all essential ingredients for a successful practicing civil engineer.

    David H. Gray
    BASc 1968, MASc 1971

  6. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Some of my fondest memories are the summers my family spent on Gull Lake, and the frequent visits we made to the Survey Camp. I’m talking of the years from about 1948, when I would have been 14, to about 1950 or 1951. For my mother and her sister, it was a return to the lake they had known in the summers just before the First World War, when timber was still being cut in the area.

    My father took a cottage for his family on the north shore, initially near the beach and later on the hill on the west side of the Gull River where it flowed into the lake. Most of the time we walked barefoot, and swam off the beach, but on many a hot summer morning or sultry afternoon we and our cousins would paddle across the bay and around the point to Mintos. I think we assumed the Minto brothers were custodians of the Survey Camp for U of T. We knew they also built canoes but what we were most interested in was swimming and diving.

    The camp was quite deserted till late August and on our excursions there we could dive off the dock into deep water, which we didn’t have on the north shore, and one or two brave ones would climb up the tower and jump off. But when the survey school started up each year we stayed away. When the young surveyors arrived we rarely saw them. There was a difficult path round the steep slopes on the point between the two bays, and few of the students, not having boats I suppose, ventured as far as our beach. Some must have, though, and dated my sisters, and sometimes two would be brought back on a chilly August evening to chat quietly by our fireside while the rest of us went to bed. Whether my mother stayed awake until the young men left she never said.

    Although we were vaguely aware that a war had begun in some far-off place called Korea, that a boy at a camp at the bottom of the lake was ill with polio, and that my mother went about with an air of worry and concern, nothing harmful came near us, and those summers were utter bliss.

    Paul Chandler Harris
    BA 1956 Victoria