Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre celebrates 50 years

The Institute for Outdoor Education and Environmental Studies (IOEES), known locally as the Outdoor Education Centre (OEC), is one of the most unique education centres in Ontario and, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is still one of the most prized assets of the Bluewater District School Board (BWDSB).
Students of Bruce and Grey Counties are among the most fortunate in the province when it comes to staying in tune with nature as all Grade 6 students in the Bluewater Board of Education, for the past 50 years and currently, are required to go on a field trip and experience outdoor education as part of the curriculum.

Under the direction of the OEC staff, outdoor education specialists, the students have the opportunity to view the stars from the ES Fox Observatory while learning in the Bruce Power Environmental Learning Centre and walking or snowshoeing through the surrounding forests.  For most of the students, it is a highlight of their primary school years.

All Photos by Saugeen Times

Tom Mottram, Pres. Board of Education Foundation toasts the staff

(L) Deb Diebel with OEC staff

Located between Oliphant and Wiarton, the Centre is a 128 hectare (320 acres) site that provides a natural learning environment for students and adults across Bruce and Grey Counties. The Centre, situated on the Niagara Escarpment, a designated UNESCO Biosphere reserve, is  an ideal location for environmental learning.


Surrounded by lakes, field, marsh land, swamp land and mixed forests, the facility encourages hands-on exploration in natural environmental studies. Buildings on the site include a stone farmhouse, a 6,400 square foot kitchen/dining hall and dormitories, a Spry Lake cabin, a large barn and driving shed, 3,000 square foot Bruce Power Environmental classrooms and the world-class ES Fox Observatory.

Through a partnership between the Bluewater Education Foundation, the Bruce County Astronomical Society (BCAS) and the Outdoor Ed Centre (IOEES), the observatory that opened in September, 2011, features a fully retractable roof that enables full night-sky views in what is one of the most highly recognized dark-sky regions in Bruce County.  The major telescope in the centre was donated by the University of Guelph following a province-wide competition.  The main criteria was that it [telescope] would be available to the public and there are also several others provided by Astronomical Society members.

At the 50th anniversary celebration, held on Saturday, May 6th (2023), there were many in attendance from the Centre’s historic past, including teachers, principals, Outdoor Education Specialists and founder Ray Fenton.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary – for larger view, Click on Image

Clive Card, former BOEC Principal, told the audience that there were a number of ‘firsts’ in the room – first Supervisor of Science & Outdoor Education in Bruce County was Clarke Birchard, first full-time teacher and then Principal was Peter Middleton, first student teacher was Stewart Nutt, first seconded teacher was Doug Pedwell and first cook Marilyn Thomas.

According to Card, Birchard and Middleton left a legacy based on three principles – maintaining, facilitating and providing. “Maintaining a natural ecological foundation for learning, facilitating meaningful and memorable activity-based programs and providing opportunities for growth of students, teachers, staff and the community.  It’s a solid foundational legacy that has lasted for 50 years.  These principles still drive the OEC operation in 2023.  Before Google, we had Clarke and Peter!  You couldn’t be in the presence of these two educators without learning something exciting, new and useful … they touched the lives of anyone fortunate enough to have worked with them.”

(L) Peter Middleton and Clarke Birchard

Each of the former educators then spoke eloquently about their experience during their early years at the OEC.

Birchard pointed out that three prints were donated by renowned artist Robert Bateman for a fundraising effort for the Centre.  At the time, Bateman said he could not think of a better place than the Bruce Peninsula for a Centre and one of his prints remains in the Centre.

When it comes to educational resources, Birchard said, “Resources are just that but it’s the people with their passion, enthusiasm and knowledge who bring them to life.”

Middleton added that community support has always been crucial for the Centre. “The Centre would not have been possible without Ray Fenton and his colleagues who established the concept of outdoor education. “He presented to the Board that it was a place to understand one’s heritage, one’s roots and basic independent beams of knowledge.”  He went on to say, “The night was not a comfortable place to be for many but, for them to lay on the ground on a starlit night in the snow and look up at the stars, all ages experienced a peaceful quiet … they discovered something of a world that was theirs and came to love the stars in the night that they had once found fearful.  Mystery is not about travelling to new places, it’s about looking with new eyes.  That is what the Centre is about – opening new eyes.  That’s what the teachers did and do and will continue to do. It has brought about remarkable devotion to education.  Without the Foundation, this could not have happened. We had a unique opportunity to open the young mind and eyes that led to discovery that brought great joy.”

The barn in winter

Looking Back

Fenton, a former Bruce County teacher, principal, trustee and Board of Education Foundation President, spoke from an historical perspective.  “I started teaching in 1964 and, in 1969, came up with the concept of an outdoor education program.  I travelled to other centres in the province and, before purchasing this site, I walked the property with the trustees … and it was then that something happened.  I realized it was a crossroads where the glaciers and people before us chose to cross.  The Board of Education purchased the property and it is now in a public trust that will maintain it for future generations.”

Saugeen Times file photo

Also at the celebration, was former teacher Stewart Nutt, the first student teacher at the OEC.  “I came to Bruce County as a student teacher and never left,” Nutt laughed. “It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed.”

An avid volunteer with various organizations, Nutt most recently received the prestigious Elizabeth Collins Ralph, for having made outstanding contributions to competitive swimming in the field of officiating for several years.

Former history teacher at G. C. Huston Public School in Southampton, Doug Pedwell, said, “I came to the OEC each year with my grade six classes and was seconded to the Centre.”

Today, Pedwell is an avid birder and leads a group in the annual Huron Fringe Birding Festival at MacGregor Provincial Park.

Outdoor Education Specialist, Arthur Murgatroyd, lauded those early educators.  “We stand on your shoulders and the legacy that you have given us.”

Murgatroyd, with a Masters degree in Education, also paid tribute to 100 Women Who Care and the Society of United Professionals who had given donations to the Centre.

He added that the centre is considering opening up to rentals by Universities for courses.

He said that he had worked at many centres, including in Australia and throughout Ontario.  “This is truly the most unique centre I have worked in.”

Murgatroyd has developed a time capsule that will be opened in 2073.  “If anyone has memorabilia that they would like to put in that pertains to the centre, they can send it to me here at the Centre or drop it off.”