It started out as a way to promote their taxidermy business.
The Manitoulin Island home of Rita and Terry Gordon has since evolved into a popular gathering place for campers, cyclists, hikers, stargazers and those who enjoy a good midnight wolf howl.
The Gordons could have set up another trailer park on their 268-acre property, but they wanted to attract nature lovers to their place who shared the same appreciation for the outdoors as they do.
Their rustic and innovative way of introducing nature to city dwellers has resonated with many visitors to Northern Ontario.
From May to September, Gordon’s Park Wilderness Retreat and Interpretative Centre entertains about 10,000 visitors, ranging from teenagers to seniors.
Their eco-park campground once hosted a Boy Scout Rendezvous and a World Youth Day, as well as numerous school groups.
Over the years, the venue has grown. The Gordons have added a bed-and-breakfast, mini-putt, pool, a nature interpretative centre, and added tipi-tenting.
The hiking trails circling their property are filled with wetlands for kids to find frogs and turtles, and wildlife viewing stations to watch blue herons and hawks at work.
“We base ourselves on our own interests and our appreciation for our surroundings,” says Rita, a former Sudbury banker, who moved with husband Terry back to his native Manitoulin in 1990.
As a way to advertise Terry’s taxidermy skills, they posted a life-sized stuffed black bear at the edge of their Highway 6 driveway.
Before long, motorists on their way to and from the Chi-Cheemaun ferry in nearby South Baymouth began stopping to videotape themselves in weird poses with the bear.
“It gave us the idea. We had all this land and all these mounted species and we asked ourselves, why not create a hiking trail?”
They carved out a nature trail featuring display booths with Terry’s animal handiwork inside and some interpretative information. It didn’t take long for the Canadian musical trio, The Arrogant Worms, to notice the roadside sign for Terry’s Taxidermy and Mounted Animal Nature Trail. It gave the Kingston college band enough comedic fodder for a song on their 1995 C’est Cheese album.
“We were quite surprised when we heard the song on CBC radio,” says Rita.
On one morning in early May, Rita was on the phone taking the first campground bookings and relaying directions to reach their property, 13 kilometres from South Baymouth.
The first birdwatcher of the season was arriving that day. Their corner of southeastern Manitoulin is on the migration path of 130 species of birds.
At Gordon’s Park, there are none of the crowded campsites of a provincial park. The emphasis is on family-oriented fun in communing with nature and its sounds.
What’s made them a popular gathering place is a busy calendar of events and programs.
There’s regular Thursday night summer stargazing at their observatory, a women’s weekend, moonlight hikes and wolf howls.
Though they get a diverse mix of campers, Rita says their relaxing and rustic venue has become a popular choice for Baby Boomers and the 40-plus crowd.
While many Northern Ontario tourist operators are forecasting a slumping 2007, Rita says their business is getting stronger, thanks to many repeat customers, some favourable word-of-mouth and a strong web presence with a regular e-newsletter.
‘Experiential tourism’ are the buzzwords these days among tour operators in promoting the island’s green-scape.
“If you package the experience, it becomes a memory and an annual tradition,” says Rita, a past Manitoulin Chamber of Commerce president.
Each summer, the Gordons take on students from eco-tourism, outdoor education and environmental sciences programs at Laurentian University, Cambrian College or Sir Sandford Fleming College.
Rita encourages them to put their education to work by designing their own programming.