Campers run with pillows and books across a field toward a shady spot during their daily rest hour. (Kristen Dobbin)

Jõekääru (“Riverbend”) kids camp was established an hour north of Toronto in the early 1950s, as a wave of Estonian refugees arrived in Canada, escaping the Soviet occupation of their country. Jõekääru was one of the places in exile where they could ensure that their culture and language lived on through their children’s generation. Last summer, photographer Kristen Dobbin documented the camp while exploring her own ethnic culture. 

My grandmother worked as a cook at Jõekääru, and my uncle and mom were campers. I spent my childhood visiting our family’s nearby one-room summer house, not much bigger than a trailer. I loved being in that Estonian enclave, saying “tere” to strangers instead of “hello” and swimming in the river.

When I was a kid, the camp was only for children who could speak Estonian. My dad was Canadian, and so my parents had decided not to teach my sister and me the language. While I have a deep fondness for Jõekääru, which served as a backdrop for so many wonderful childhood experiences, the camp itself was a cultural institution that was inaccessible to me.

Being outside the diaspora community in this way never hindered my curiosity about my Estonian identity. As a kid, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s stories of life in her small village and of spending nearly two weeks on the Baltic Sea after escaping Estonia in a fishing boat.

A camper looks outside to see what her cabin mates are up to. In recent years, the camp has averaged around 250 kids per summer. (Kristen Dobbin)

A group of campers prepares for the final dance, which takes place on Saturday nights throughout the summer. (Kristen Dobbin)

In the leatherwork shop, tongue depressors are labeled with the Estonian words for various colors. (Kristen Dobbin)

The camp swimming pool and cabana were built in 1999 after excessive farm runoff made the nearby Pefferlaw River less attractive for swimming. A new sauna, an important part of Estonian culture, was later added adjacent to the pool. (Kristen Dobbin)

A group of the youngest campers prepare to enter the pool to practice their synchronized swimming routine. Children can start attending the camp as young as age 3. (Kristen Dobbin)

Supported by the Estonian Studies Center, my project on Jõekääru is a documentation of a diaspora institution in transition. With Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, the urgency of preserving the language and culture is gone. Attendance at the camp has dropped significantly since the early years, and mixed marriages continue to change the demographics of the community.

These days, all kids with Estonian heritage can attend the camp, regardless of their language skills. While I wasn’t allowed to attend, my children could, and many participate today who are of mixed ethnicity A handful of the program’s coaches and kids now come from the homeland, Estonia, to have international experiences and to meet Canadian friends.

The future of this place is unknown, but for the time being, young Estonian-Canadians continue to gather at the flagpole each day of summer to raise the Estonian and Canadian flags side by side; they share camp meals in the apple orchard and fall asleep in bunk rooms that haven’t changed much since their parents were campers. For most of these kids, Jõekääru is a place to feel that unique sense of connection that only a shared culture offers.

Campers dressed in Estonian ravhariided (folk costumes) walk from their cabins toward the main kitchen hall for a celebration of the camp’s 65th anniversary. The campers will perform folk dances and Estonian songs for their parents and other guests. (Kristen Dobbin)

A kitchen staff brings out freezies for the campers after lunch. Everyone at the camp gathers for their meals together in the apple orchard. (Kristen Dobbin)

Wet clothes dry outside one of the six camper cabins, which are divided by age and gender: vaiksed tudrukud (youngest girls), vaiksed poisid (youngest boys), keskmised tudrukud (middle girls), keskimesed poisid (middle boys), suured tudrukud (oldest girls) and suured poisid (oldest boys). (Kristen Dobbin)

Today campers come from mixed backgrounds and Estonian language skills are no longer a requirement to attend. Over the years, children have traveled from the USA, Estonia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Brazil and across Canada. (Kristen Dobbin)

Homemade fishing poles lean up against one of the cabins. The Pefferlaw River snakes through the centre of the camp, and it remains a focal point for the campers. (Kristen Dobbin)

Leather medallions are given out at the end of each day to recognize campers who have made efforts to speak the Estonian language. The medallions are awarded to six campers, one from each cabin group. “VP” stands for vaiksed poisid (youngest boys) and “SP” for suured poisid (oldest boys). (Kristen Dobbin)

Campers play a card-tossing game to pass the time in the camp’s main hall. (Kristen Dobbin)

A boy in the keskimesed poisid (middle boys) cabin wears a silkscreened t-shirt made during arts and crafts, featuring the blue and black colours of the Estonian flag. (Kristen Dobbin)

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