Field Notes: Camping at TJ Stables in Ontario for Canada’s (2nd) Best Summer Job

Hipcamp selected LGBTQ+ influencer and outdoorswoman Shannon Youngs for Canada’s (2nd) Best Summer Job, an epic cross-Ontario adventure. As part of her journey, she chronicled her time at TJ Stables.

When I first met my Hipcamp Host John, the “J” in TJ Stables, he gave me the warmest welcome that made me feel right at home. John, who is Métis, was very proud to tell me about the positive programs that TJ Stables works on with the surrounding First Nations communities, as well as the care they put into creating a safe and supportive place for special-needs youth outdoor camps in the area. Even though I just arrived, I could tell by the look on John’s face and from the sound of his voice how passionate he is about his Métis ancestry, his local community, and his business.

He then let me know that his wife Terry, the “T” in TJ, was away at her first Canadian Cowgirls drill team event since COVID-19 shut things down, and would be returning late that evening. I learned that Terry is a world-renowned cowgirl and entertainer who takes pride in teaching TJ Stables staff and other young women about how to achieve both personal goals and new goals that may have once seemed unattainable. Before I met her, I couldn’t help but think about how important that lesson is for young women to learn. A lot of the time we are taught to keep our goals at a certain height, not being encouraged to reach further. I think back to the women in my life who have, luckily for me, helped show me that I was capable of more.

A unique healing energy

John then gave me the grand tour of their beautiful land just outside Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario. We passed their stables, indoor riding arena, and a stunning gazebo that John made himself. As we drove around, he spoke about the healing energy of the property—something he attributes not to the work he and Terry have put in, but to something very special. Something that many people are unaware of or may never get the chance to witness in their lifetime.

Ojibwe spirit horses.

Spirit horses at TJ Stables. // Photo by Shannon Youngs

How do spirit horses differ to other horses, you ask? It’s not just about their size or genetics—it’s about their story of resilience. Thanks to recent discoveries of 1300s-era birch bark scrolls and DNA samples from glacial melts, it’s been proven that these particular horses roamed the earth among Indigenous peoples well before Europeans initially thought they did. Elders have continually passed down stories of the spirit horses and their tragic history of genocide during colonization, leading up to 1977 when there were said to have been only four spirit horses remaining on Lac Lacroix in northern Ontario. At the time, Canadian Health Officials deemed the horses a “health risk” and ordered them to be killed. (In blunt terms: Having horses was a sign of wealth and respect, and those in power couldn’t bear the idea of the Indigenous having them as well and diminishing the portrayal of their status.)

In 1977, there were said to have been only four spirit horses remaining on Lac Lacroix in northern Ontario.

Thankfully, a brave group of men decided that they needed to save these horses. They put them in a trailer and undertook a daring escape across a frozen lake to get them to the safety of a private property in Minnesota. There, a breeding program was initiated in hopes of continuing the pure blood line of the horses, which thankfully still exists today. If those men had not taken that risk and saved those last four horses, spirit horses would no longer exist.

Photo courtesy of TJ Stables

TJ Stables is one of few spirit horse caretakers and breeders in Ontario, along with the Lac LaCroix First Nation and the Seine River First Nation, as well as a few others across Canada and the USA. It’s said that about 30 Ojibwe stallions and 80 mares of breeding age are alive today, and that’s all thanks to those brave enough to save, work with, and continue to respectfully breed these beautiful horses—John and Terry included.

John shared these stories with me through his own experiences, as well as through artwork from local Anishinaabe artist Rhonda Snow (signature R.Snow), whose art is sold on the property. John shared that Snow had all of these stories from her elders in her head but wasn’t confident to write them. She knew she had to share them in some way, so she decided to paint them and turn the stories into art. They are both thoughtful and thought-provoking, with 100% of the proceeds from pieces sold at TJ Stables going to keeping the spirit horses housed, fed, and cared for.

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Snow

If spirit horses are something of interest to you, I urge you to look up more information about them and their history, and also plan a visit to TJ Stables, a place that plays a huge role in cementing spirit horses in our future, in Canada, and on earth.

A comfy bunkie stay

That first night, after dinner, I retired to my newly built bunkhouse set to the side of the property. The bunkie was so quaint, smelling of fresh wood with plaid curtains that framed the windows. I couldn’t help but envision a freshly baked pie sitting in the window sill…maybe I watch too many movies.

TJ Stables’ “Little Cabin in the Woods” is a cowboy-style bunkie with space for 4 people. // Photo by Shannon Youngs

I met Terry the next day—she had very fun and wise energy about her. We chatted about her Canadian Cowgirls performance, and she told me more about her own life journey. As a woman it was very cool to hear about all the incredible things that Terry has accomplished in her life, from breathing new life into her family farm to competing and performing around the world. She’s also worked with famous animal trainers and has mastered those skills herself—not to mention her personal drive to create awareness and respect the true, wild nature of the spirit horses in her care.

Discovering Chatham-Kent

That afternoon I explored Chatham-Kent. I took John’s recommendation and drove to a place called Erieau on Lake Erie’s north shore. I am so thankful that I took his advice because when I arrived, it felt as though I was transported to a beach vacation. The only other place I can compare to Erieau is the nearby Pelee Island. I enjoyed my lunch by the water at the local brewery, then settled my bill and headed back to the stable. I was excited for my Hipcamp Extras: a medicine walk experience and a spirit horse encounter, both of which were scheduled as part of my stay. I had been looking forward to this all week.

Indigenous experiences at TJ Stables

During the first portion of the medicine walk, I sat with Terry in the beautiful, hand-crafted gazebo and heard more about her spirit horse journey, including how every moment led to where we sat talking to each other. Everything fell together for her—after many dead ends, disappointments, and surprises along the way—the stars aligned and brought her to this healing place and sanctuary that she and John feel lucky to call home.

I then moved onto the tipi area, where John taught about his culture’s annual buffalo hunts and fur trade, as well as the proper techniques and tricks that go into building a traditional, authentic tipi structure. The medicine walk was an amazing way to open my mind to learning our history through a different perspective that I had previously been closed off to in earlier years of life.

“The medicine walk was an amazing way to learn our history through a different perspective that I had previously been closed off to in earlier years of life.”

I have to admit that throughout high school geography and history lessons, my attention was elsewhere (like many other Canadians). But now more than ever, it’s apparent that the majority of Canadians have much to learn and accept about our ancestors and country’s “hidden” (not so hidden) past. I would encourage anyone staying with Hipcamp at TJ Stables to add the kid-friendly medicine walk to their stay.

A part of the property’s cultural medicine walk experience.// Photo by Shannon Youngs

Lastly was my spirit horse encounter. After a week of wondering and imagining what this would entail, I was finally experiencing it. We first smudged and cleansed away any negative or unnecessary energy that we were carrying from that week. Hearing the hide drum while walking among the spirit horses was like nothing I have ever experienced. I felt connected, open, and free to experience their wild and gentle nature. I felt totally at ease, standing there thinking about the past of the animals in front of me, and what they had endured to be there. I was able to touch a part of history that may have never existed if it wasn’t for people like Terry and John advocating for the horses.

“Hearing the hide drum while walking among the spirit horses was like nothing I have ever experienced. I felt connected, open, and free to experience their wild and gentle nature.”

Later, we all sat together and ate a dinner that John cooked over the fire: a wild turkey pie and a potato salad with fresh ingredients from their garden. To top off the delicious dinner, we had two locally made pies for dessert: one wild blueberry and the other a caramel pumpkin pie. I knew I would have no problem falling asleep that night.

The traditional tipi at TJ Stables, built by Métis community members. // Photo by Shannon Youngs

I slept in the tipi for the second portion of my stay. John set up a fire inside and taught me all about the tipi’s structure and its maneuverable flaps at the top built to control the smoke. I bid John and Terry goodnight, then wrote in my journal until the fire burnt out. I shut my eyes and listened to the horses in the field beside me. At times, I couldn’t tell if what I was hearing was the rumble of thunder or the sound of the horses’ hooves hitting the ground. What a way to be put to sleep.

My final morning at the stables came quickly. I made sure to say goodbye to all of the great staff members who, in only two days, had embraced me as if I was one of their own. I said goodbye to Terry and John and hope that I meet them again in the future. I made sure to let them know how much their hospitality and kindness meant to me.

I drove away curious about what the future holds for TJ Stables…but confident that it will be something great.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Youngs

More about Canada’s (second) best summer job

After entering Hipcamp’s national ‘Best Summer Job’ contest, Youngs, born in Temagami, Ontario, placed second in the national competition. As an extension of the contest, Hipcamp created a special second prize specifically for Youngs.

“During the interview process we fell in love with Shannon’s adventurous spirit, sense of humor, and her unique perspective on camping,” said Tegh Singh Bedi, Hipcamp’s Canadian general manager. “We knew we had to find a way to work together, so we created this special assignment for Shannon based on her expertise in the outdoors, her passion for storytelling, and her work advocating for inclusive camping.”

“I really want to tell adventure stories from the perspective of a solo woman visiting Hipcamp’s incredible locations across our province,” said Youngs. “I want to encourage all Canadians—but especially women and minority groups—to get outside and take that first step toward adventure. I hope that by sharing my humour and my experience as a woman travelling alone, people will see that anyone can do this camping thing!”

Check out Shannon’s original winning entry to Hipcamp Canada’s Best Summer Job contest.

Read on for more Indigenous stories

Discover more important stories from the Indigenous Hipcamp community across Canada and beyond.

Ontario-born Shannon Youngs is a writer, outdoorswoman, and barista, as well as the winner of Canada's (Second) Best Summer Job, in which she took a unique cross-Ontario journey to the province's best camping and glamping destinations with Hipcamp. She is the author of SLY Writings, an emerging LGBTQ+ and travel-focused blog. Youngs currently lives with her partner in beautiful BC.

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