It is a warm August Saturday evening, and I am in Hawkestone, a sleepy little hamlet nestled along the shores of Lake Simcoe about an hour and half’s drive north of Toronto. For over fifty years it has been home to a large summer community of Ukrainians who have sought to escape the heat and the hustle of big city Toronto for a little bit of salubrious relaxation in the woods and waters of the near North.
The land for this Ukrainian “resort” was first acquired in the early 1960’s by the Toronto Branch of the Ukrainian National Federation (UNF) with the primary intent of building a summer camp for the burgeoning number of kids born to the baby boom generation of Ukrainian immigrants that settled in the Toronto area after the Second World War. Over the decades, many of these Ukrainians built cottages adjacent to the camp on streets that bear such distinctive Ukrainian names as Shevchenko, Franko, Mazepa and Hlynka. An outdoor chapel was added, as well as a large dance pavilion, a campground, motel, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and a large trailer park.
On summer weekends, the place buzzes with activity that includes sports tournaments, cultural events, festivals, dances, and of course, summer camps for the kids. Although, the resort saw a bit of a decline in popularity and use during the eighties and nineties, there has been a resurgence over the past decade or two as the latest fourth wave of Ukrainian immigrants have brought new life and energy to this recreational summer haven.
I am here because for the past five years or so, our Oshawa branch of the UNF has held an annual social weekend getaway in Hawkestone. For most of the year, our members dedicate themselves to carrying out the cultural, educational and charitable fund-raising programs and activities of the branch, but for this one weekend, the priority shifts to relaxation, basking in nature’s playground and having a good time.
That is why on this fine evening, I am comfortably seated in a folding camp chair with a glass of sangria in hand, lazily indulging in some hedonistic day-dreaming. Periodically, a modest breeze gently cooled by the waters of Lake Simcoe, wafts through the trailer park where some dozen of us are comfortably ensconced around Stefania’s trailer enjoying the fresh air, the setting of the sun, and the easy banter that is indicative of genuine friendship. We have just finished a sumptuous albeit eclectic al fresco meal of barbecued chicken, my notorious bean salad, Oksana’s addictive scalloped potatoes, fresh garlic from Stefania’s garden, pungent pickles, sliced kobassa, rye bread and so many odds and sods of culinary miscellanea, that most of us can hardly move.
The proceedings are liberally lubricated with a seemingly endless supply of Lvivske beer, good Canadian wine, a large bowl of sangria, assorted bottles of Ukrainian and domestic vodka, some Carpathian cognac and assorted libations of all kinds. This fuels an interesting outpouring of toasts, jokes, stories, and nostalgic reminiscences as the air resonates with multiple simultaneous conversations, boisterous laughs and animated exclamations of all kinds.
One of Stefania’s elderly neighbours, Pan Bohdan Temniuk, joins in the festivities, accompanied by a bottle of some exquisite Ukrainian vodka by the name of Kozatska Rada, which aside from the usual ingredients, is also said to be infused with ginseng. This of course, spurs a new round of appropriate toasts. Pan Bohdan is a member of the renowned Ukrainian Bandurist Capella and is blessed not only with a fine voice, but with an incredible store of songs and poems in his memory banks which show no sign of his advanced years. As the skies turn dark, the voices begin to stir and the night air is soon filled with old Ukrainian folk songs. I struggle to keep up, but sadly my knowledge of these songs is usually restricted to the first verse or the chorus. Fortunately, there are enough musically adept members in our group that remember these songs to keep our impromptu choir going for a long time.
At one point, after toasting to legendary Kozak Hetmans of the past, Pan Temniuk recites from memory an epic poem by Taras Shevchenko called “Chyhyryne, Chyhyryne”. As his voice rises and falls in hypnotic rhythm, we sit in rapt silence as evocative images from Ukraine’s glorious and tragic history scrolls by on the virtual screens of our imaginations. Overhead, in the star-filled heavens, a meteorite occasionally blazes by across the horizon in affirmation that there is magic in the air this evening.
There was magic indeed. For a couple of days at least, we escaped the tribulations of urban existence and indulged in the appreciation of the simple pleasures of life and the gift of each other’s company.