One of BC’s handful of queer-friendly campgrounds is up for sale, causing concern among gay campers that there may soon be even fewer places where they can be themselves in the great outdoors.
Birkenhead Resort, about 25 minutes northwest of Pemberton, will soon be put on the market due to the passing of its long-time owner, Joene Preston, who died of cancer Jun 18.
Vincent Burt, the executor of Preston’s estate, confirms that although Birkenhead is not yet listed, it is indeed for sale. Burt emphasizes, however, that it will be business as usual at the campground/resort until the end of this season, which will be sometime “later than Labour Day.”
“At the moment there is absolutely no change,” says Burt. “It’s still a queer-friendly resort.”
Preston’s long-time friend Harry Whalen, who’s worked on and off at Birkenhead for the past 14 years, says he will stay on at the resort as caretaker “at least until the end of August.”
“We’re running it the way she was. We’re still taking reservations for camping and cabins,” Whalen says.
Burt says although the resort “will have to be sold,” he hopes it will be bought by gay or lesbian people.
Raynee Taylor hopes so too. She has been camping at Birkenhead for the past four years, and expresses interest in taking the campground over if she can find enough investors to join her in the venture.
“If there is a group of people within the community interested, I’m definitely interested in talking to these people,” says Taylor, who stresses that she would preserve the unique character of Birkenhead if she became one of its new owners.
“We’d definitely want to keep it just the way it is.”
Burt says anyone interested in connecting with Taylor can call the resort at 604.452.3255 and he will put them in touch with her.
Meanwhile, frequent guests at the resort are being hit hard by the news that the site is for sale, signalling for them the end of an era.
Clifford Thorbes has been going to Birkenhead, which he describes as “just magical,” since he moved to Vancouver from Ottawa 14 years ago.
“There is something very sheltering and special and relaxing and warm about it,” he says. “It was like a spa for me. I would come back feeling totally refreshed and reborn. It’s hard to find places like that.”
Randy Paterson, a Vancouver psychologist, is another big Birkenhead fan. He’s been taking a group of men and women up there to “Gay Summer Camp” since the mid-’90s.
“The moment I saw the place, I recognized that’s the place where Gay Summer Camp ought to be.”
Paterson describes Birkenhead as “unique.” Each cabin has its own theme, such as “Hollywood,” “the 1960s,” “the Library” and “Mexico.”
“They were jammed with stuff — movie props, mannequins — oh, god knows what. It was very, very different. This is the expression of someone’s mind: it’s not Whistler, not Intrawest.”
But besides the site itself, with its quirky character and quaint atmosphere, campers say they will miss Preston, whom they describe as “one of a kind.”
“She was a tremendous hostess, a welcoming person,” Paterson says. “[At Gay Summer Camp] she would never pull rank: she never said anything inappropriate. She saw it as her mission to provide a launching pad rather than a container.”
Thorbes says he will miss Preston’s unique sense of humour and style, but above all, he will miss her friendship.
“I didn’t know many people,” he says. “When I met Joene, I felt an instant connection and understanding between us. She had a way of making me feel instantly comfortable and at peace.”
“Joene was a world traveller and a teacher,” says Alain Simard, originally from Quebec, who’s been camping at Birkenhead two or three times a year for the past decade. “She was very cultured and quiet and reserved. She was very particular with the people she allowed in the campsite. If you were too noisy, no way — she only took people she liked. You know if she took you back, she liked you.”
With the future of Birkenhead up in the air, some gay campers are lamenting the potential loss of one of the province’s few queer-friendly campgrounds.
“It’s not very good,” says John Inch, a Vancouver freelance photographer, “because we don’t have that many, do we? So losing one of them is quite a pity.
“I don’t know any lesbian-owned campsites in BC,” he adds.
“We’re already limited in gay campgrounds,” echoes Simard. “I don’t want to camp in straight places with kids and stuff.”
BC’s other queer-friendly camping options are Shadow Falls, a gay campground one and a half hours east of Vancouver in the Harrison River area; Nanaimo’s Kamp RnO’s, which is men-only; and Kiskatinaw Park Campground, a family-owned, queer-friendly site 28 km north of Dawson Creek, in Fort St John.