The majority of my camping experiences since I moved West have revolved around Provincial or National Parks with only a smattering of private campgrounds tossed in for flavour. In many ways, this is reflective of Western Canada, with far more open space and far fewer people than my native Ontario. By no means have I become a hardcore, rustic camper enjoying the back country adventures provided by the mountains and lauded by locals but such opportunities are limited in Southern Ontario and outside of Algonquin or the north, really don’t exist. Still, camping in the parks feels more natural than the camping I grew up on, something I revisited with my family last summer.
Nostalgia is dangerous, especially when writing reviews. It can easily taint one’s impartiality. Comparing a current campground to thirty year old childhood memories will never work out in favour of the campground as it is now. This is particularly true if those childhood memories contain the very essence of one’s youth. That rosy tinged history is impossible to compete with no matter the changes, dare I say improvements, made since. It is with this fair warning that I now proceed with my review of Carson’s Camp in Sauble Beach, Ontario, a place I spent most weekends and many weekdays of my summers from the ages of five through fifteen.
My childhood and Sauble Beach are intimately linked like a binary star system. So many fond memories reside there that the place takes on an almost mythic vibe in my soul. My maternal grandparents had camped in Sauble when my mother was young before moving there to live in a modest, four season cottage/house when I was young. In the latter half of the seventies, my parents purchased a 23’ Jayco travel trailer and parked it in a prime, oversized lot across from the main playground at Carson’s Camp, the same campground my grandparents had camped at years earlier.
For the next twenty years, that corner lot became synonymous with the Schmidt clan as our increasingly modest trailer, white chain fence and coloured patio lights, our beloved cat house, and the canvas tent in which my sister and I held court became a staple of the campground. We never went on summer vacation road trips like the Griswolds. We didn’t even travel around the province camping at different spots each weekend like I do now. Instead, we just went to our permanent campsite at Carson’s, a poor man’s cottage as it were, played, swam, visited the grandparents, and grew up.
I stopped going with my family when I turned 15 and got a summer job at the Home Hardware store in my hometown, though I did manage to make it up once or twice a summer for a visit. My parents would continue going for a few more years but eventually they too stopped, brought the trailer home and sold it. By then I had finished university and moved to Saskatoon but I still felt the emotions bubble up when I heard they were quitting Carson’s. An era had ended and with it, as if needing more proof, my childhood was officially done.
Twenty years later, now with a wife and two children of my own in tow, I was determined to give my own family a little glimpse of one of the better parts of my childhood. We endeavoured to take an epic road trip back to Ontario with our own little 21’ trailer and as part of that adventure we would spend a week camping at the venerable Carson’s Camp where so much of my childhood happened. What we found was a great campground, far different from our Provincial Park camping experiences, but gobs of fun nonetheless. What I learned is that you really can’t go back home.
Carson’s Camp is located one and a half kilometers south of renowned Sauble Beach on the shores of Lake Huron at the southern end of the Bruce Peninsula. With over 700 sites, the campground itself is big, encompassing two separate campgrounds on either side of Highway 13. Not big in a wide open spaces sense but rather big in a holy crap are there ever a lot of trailers here sense. This is Southern Ontario camping and it’s a far cry from the kind we’ve been doing out here in Alberta.
A combination of seasonal campers in what are basically mobile homes, weekly campers which is the minimum stay now, and a smattering of rental trailers and rental cottages, Carson’s is probably a bit of a shock for those who grew up on camping weekends in mountain parks. It’s just an entirely different beast in the congested and popular beach towns of the Great Lakes region. It’s an unfair comparison, like apples to kumquats. But if you’re going to fall on the sword of mountain parks camping you’d best spend a day at a Great Lakes beach to experience what a real lake and beach are supposed to be.
The entire facility is fenced to prevent outsiders from entering. The main entrances have card activated gates only registered vehicles can pass through. Pedestrian entrances around the property require a numeric code to exit or enter the grounds. It’s all a little unnerving but such is the price for private, peaceful camping in the midst of one of the most popular cottage and resort towns in Southern Ontario. And hey, no bears.
In addition to the fencing, Carson’s is very strict about its rules, particularly noise. This is a family campground with lots of older folks who’ve been camping there for decades. Quiet times are firmly enforced which likely irritates those who like to have a few wobbly pops around the campfire into the wee hours of the morning but for those of us with kids, it’s greatly appreciated. That being said, you can’t keep the cottagers around the campground quiet so expect some fireworks during the night and the odd hoot or holler if you’re site is near the boundaries.
The original, and arguably nicer west side of the campground, is a short two block walk to the gorgeous sands of Sauble Beach. This is the raison d’etre for the entire town and undoubtedly a huge selling point of Carson’s. The east side is further from the lake, of course, but it backs onto the small Carson’s Lake, a remnant of Lake Huron from early post-glacial times when water levels were higher. The lake is a shallow, reedy mess and not good for swimming but it makes for a fun paddle around in a canoe. Back in my day we’d hit buckets of old golf balls into this lake and even fished in it catching a few good sized bass. I don’t know if those activities are still condoned, but the fact that the lake is now fenced off suggests they are not.
Campground amenities are split between the two sides. With the west side having the luxury of Lake Huron proximity, the heated, indoor pool was built on the east side. It’s a decent sized pool but not exceptionally deep, never getting deeper than my shoulders. That’s good for kids, I guess, but limits the kinds of fun to be had. The west side has the new outdoor pool, something that didn’t exist back in my youth. It’s a smallish pool and in a strange location near the main office parking lot. It too is not exceptionally deep so you won’t be practicing your diving here. On one hand, if the weather is nice why you wouldn’t go to the beach is beyond me. On the other hand, if for some reason you don’t wish to make the trek to the beach I’d have appreciated a much bigger outdoor pool and lounging area. What they have is too small to be a meaningful selling point of the campground. I’m unsure why they bothered putting it in.
Both sides of Carson’s Camp have playgrounds consisting of a combination of vintage equipment with modern additions. It was awesome to see some of the same equipment present from when I was a lad of merely single digit age. Same monkey bars, slides, and swings though they have been moved around to make way for a splash pad. That is definitely a new addition and with its location directly across the street from where our campsite used to be I gotta say I am bloody jealous! I have no doubt my sister and I would have spent hours in that splash pad making my parents’ life so much easier.
To be honest, for the size of the campground and with the potential numbers of kids around, the playgrounds now seem kind of small. I suppose entertainment opportunities abound outside the campground limits but I still expected to see a much larger setup. The fact that the same equipment I played on 35 years ago, which then was already ancient, remains in use tells me the proprietors have limited interest in upgrading this feature.
The east side playground is beside the indoor pool and it too has a splash pad. There is also a zipline installed, another new addition not present in my day. A zipline is also located on the west side, away from the playground, where the former topsoil pile used to be. There appears to be a small golfing net set up here too to practice your shot. My kids, along with their cousins, loved the zipline. I even gave it a go myself but as I was pushing the weight limits of the contraption I’m not so sure my experience equaled my kids’ in terms of exhilaration.
The indoor pool was built during the latter half of my childhood time at Carson’s and it remains a welcome reprieve when the weather is rainy. Sure it’s not deep, but it can still be lots of fun for kids and adults alike. There is also a small hot tub and a modest gym filled with the essentials for exercise. This isn’t something you typically find at normal campgrounds and is a testament to the seasonal camper priority of Carson’s.
A second building on the east side, just down the road from the indoor pool houses a small laundromat behind one of several bathrooms in the campground. There are 5 apartment style stacked washer-dryers units. The cost is $2 for a cycle of either.
Bathroom houses can be found in convenient locations from pretty much any site. On the west side, where we stayed, there is one per street. These house flush toilets, a urinal (in the men’s anyway, though I really can’t vouch that there isn’t one in the women’s) and a couple shower stalls. The showers are $1 for four minutes. The sinks no longer have hot water and use those damned push button deals that are truly annoying. I understand the need to conserve water but those things are nothing more than a hassle. The bathrooms are kept clean and pleasant and are a far cry from the dreaded pit toilets still found in some provincial parks.
The water at Carsons’ is potable but, frankly, not great. There is sulphur in the Sauble water supply so by law the water must be treated with chlorine. The result is unpleasant tasting and smelly. It’s just fine for washing or cooking, but you’ll certainly want to bring bottled water for drinking. I’m confident the local grocery store in town is making a quiet killing on bottled water.
You’ll also want to have a campfire and to do so you’ll need wood. Prices range from $4 for a small bin to $8 for a big bin. The big bin is approximately the same size as the feedbag of wood you get out here so the pricing is comparable. The biggest difference though is that for that $8 you are getting seasoned maple and birch rather than spruce and poplar. What a wonderful difference that makes. That $8 bag of wood can easily last a night whereas it would be gone in an hour were it Alberta softwood.
Firewood can be purchased at the main office which is located on the west side immediately adjacent to the highway. There is a small store here as well with camping supplies and food staples, some treats, and some clothing. It’s significantly smaller than when I was a kid when there was just more stuff for sale in campground stores. A sign of the times that is certainly not unique to Carsons’. Attached to the store is a large multi-purpose room where most of the campground programs take place.
Now, despite my earlier assertion that the campground is crowded and a far cry from provincial park style camping, the sites at Carson’s remain a selling point. While they may not be oddly shaped oases cut into boreal forest, they are surprisingly roomy all things considered. More importantly, they are bursting with mature trees and green grass. Most of the seasonal campers keep their yards in magazine photo shoot condition but even the temporary sites are well groomed.
This is something I miss dearly in my modern camping adventures; grassy sites with towering Maple trees for shade. And to some degree, it is something that was partially missing back in my day. The west side, which is the original part of the campground, was well established and quite striking but the east side was still being developed. Large portions of it were nothing more than a sandy, open field. Now it is full with campsites and all the newly planted trees from 35 years ago are tall and proud and most importantly, providing shade from the potentially hot Ontario sun. Not everyone loves to sit in those burning rays and the deciduous tree cover does wonders for keeping the trailers cool.
It’s fascinating to see the change in trailer size at Carson’s though. Back in my day (I just hiked up my pants over my belly for emphasis) there was a not so minor controversy over how big management would let the trailers get. It seems those that wanted trailers to remain modest lost that battle and now many of the seasonal campers own actual mobile homes. My parents’ old 23’ Jayco would look utterly ridiculous were it still there. And to think there had once been a hullabaloo over installing garden sheds behind trailers in the eighties. Now there are giant trailers, garden sheds everywhere, and several campers now make their way around the grounds on golf carts!
Whether you think this type of camping is far too congested (understandable) or not genuine (again understandable) you can’t deny that Carson’s is a beautiful spot. It may not be natural per se, but the effort most folks have put into their little homes away from home is quite striking. Add to that the bedded plants and landscaping of the Carson’s grounds and it really is a pretty site. Considering the stark dullness of some new private campgrounds out West, which are essentially paved pads in an empty field, I find this a pleasant alternative.
In addition to the campsite we reserved for a week, we also booked one of the two small cottages within Carson’s Camp available for rent. We booked a site just around the corner from the cottage and invited family to come spend a couple days each in the cottage and visit. We ultimately had three separate groups of family spend two nights each and Carson’s management was wonderfully supportive of this special request.
The cottage we rented was nice for what we used it for. With hot water, a shower, a full kitchen, two bedrooms, and a decent sized living area it worked well for grandparents and guests. The stove behaved bizarrely and there were many
missing and burnt out lightbulbs so it doesn’t appear management dotes upon it as they should, but it was clean and had kitschy furniture just as you’d expect in a genuine summer cottage. There was a nice, large deck with picnic table and room for chairs but the fire pit was in a small, inconvenient location near a neighbouring cabin. We did not use it for fire and it would be hard to sit a group of people around it, let alone not disturb your neighbours.
Carson’s continues to host many of the programmed events that I remember enjoying so much as a kid. A schedule posted on the information boards at each bathroom provides a summary of all events occurring during the coming week. Some of these have changed. The novelty of movie night thanks to the newly installed ten foot satellite dish is obviously no longer a thing but bike decorating contests and bingo still exist and provide campers of all ages with myriad ways to be entertained. Having family visiting we didn’t partake in any of these but they are surely a welcome feature for those camping on their own, especially with kids. And surely the seasonal campers make good use of them as well.
Okay, enough about the campground because, let’s face it, the real reason, the only reason, you are there is for the beach. Sauble Beach, while less famous than Wasaga Beach, is easily it’s equal in beauty and pleasure. With near white sand and clear blue waters, this 11km long freshwater beach is a true gem. There is a small catch, however. From downtown and all the way south including the area nearest Carson’s, the beach is owned by Saugeen First Nations. As such, they charge a fee of $5 for entry to the beach. Children under 13 and seniors are free and apparently seasonal cottagers and campers can purchase a pass for the entire summer. I’m not fully aware of the details but this is definitely a change from my youth.
The north beach starting in the downtown is municipally owned and while there is no charge for entry to the beach, parking anywhere near the beach costs you by the hour. North or south, you’re going to pay to use Sauble Beach. And while this is not surprising considering the number of people using the entire beach and the cost of maintaining it, I was a bit choked at having to pay for something I used to enjoy almost daily for free.
The First Nations part of the beach also allows vehicles on. This has changed a few times over the decades, often in relation to water levels, but also prevailing preferences. I remember a few years when a stream of hot rods and muscle cars would cruise the beach much to my delight. Then they weren’t allowed anymore. Now they are back, though the muscle cars have been replaced by minivans. This is surely convenient for families heading to the beach for the day but it does take away some of the beauty of the wide, sandy beach. I don’t know the cost for this convenience but rest assured there is one.
When you need a break from sunbathing, sandcastle building, and swimming there are plenty of things to do in the town of Sauble Beach and surrounding area. A mini-golf course that’s been operating since my mother was a girl remains in business and is always a joy to play. I wonder if they will honour the free game card I think I still have hanging around my keepsake box from 1983?
There are lots of shops and restaurants but here too things have changed a bit from my childhood. DJ’s, which had the best fries on the planet, is long gone. The small, quirky Home Hardware store has moved to a new, modern location outside of town. The candle shop with the shelf covered by a towel behind which were naughty “adult” candles that I’d always sneak a peek at, appears to be gone as well. And the small amusement park just east of the downtown core is closed and crumbling. That concrete waterslide was a bitch on the knees but god was it fun. And Sauble Falls, five minutes north of town, is a modest but fun excursion. Just don’t expect Niagara, folks.
Still, the Dairy Queen remains if you’re looking for a cool treat on a hot day. Sauble Speedway, the source of many a fond memory from Steady Eddie Elliot to demolition derbies, remains a hot ticket on Friday and Saturday nights for those who enjoy stock car racing. And the usual town amenities from full grocery store to drug store to beer store to library are all available for those staying longer than a day or two. Sauble Beach is a fully stocked resort town without the rowdy reputation (yet) of Wasaga or Grand Bend.
So what do I make of my trip back in time? Like I said at the start, you really can’t go back. It was fun to be there again and I treasured sharing this special place with my family, but I spent most of the time telling them about the changes. My Sauble Beach is stuck in the eighties and those days are long gone I’m afraid. It is still a wonderful place and my longing for something similar near Calgary is palpable. The lakes and beaches here really do not measure up; not even close. I would love to be able to spend my summer weekends at a place like Sauble, like Carson’s, with my kids but like the town itself, I have moved on.
There are more people now, more cottages, more campers, with bigger trailers and bigger cottages (second homes really). I have a hard time giving an honest rating for any of it. It’s all great but it’s all different. My memories are of a place worthy of a solid 5 baby dill pickles out of 5. The modern reality can’t measure up even if it is better in some ways. Such is the danger of nostalgia.
Sauble Beach remains arguably the best beach in Ontario. If you ever get the chance to vacation there, I highly recommend it. And if you have a trailer, you won’t be disappointed setting up shop at Carson’s Camp. It isn’t cheap and it isn’t camping like we’ve become accustomed to out in Western Canada, but in a Southern Ontario popular resort area, it’s a quality spot for family camping. The party crowd would best look elsewhere. I comfortably give Carson’s Camp in Sauble Beach, Ontario 4.5 baby dill pickles out of 5. The outdoor pool is underwhelming and the playgrounds are dated but otherwise this campground has everything you would ever need or want for a fun family vacation. I just wish I could take you back to the one I grew up in.