Known for our otherworldly bubble tents, our accessible accommodations, our off-the-grid power and our passion for bringing more people to the great outdoors - more and more people are asking us - “how did this all begin?”
Come behind the scenes and learn more about how Four Corners started, the values that underpin our business and our hopes and dreams for the future!
a small business in Ontario: Becoming glamping entrepreneurs
John and I have eclectic backgrounds. Together and apart, we’ve learned lots of different skills and pursued lots of different jobs that weave together in interesting and delightful ways.
Along the way, we’ve learned so much - about ourselves, each other, and about what we consider the meaning of life. Our life.
Entrepreneurs in the making
Fresh out of high school, John started in the trades with an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker/machine builder. He loved the fast-paced work environment and often got to travel to far away places like Mexico, the US and Europe to install in the final factory setting the equipment they built in the shop.
For a while he worked prototyping delicate research equipment, which was interesting in a whole new way. After more than twenty years, when a new opportunity appeared unexpectedly, he turned his trade skills in the direction of construction where he became an early adopter of energy efficient technology like insulated concrete forms.
As for me, I don’t ever remember a time when writing wasn’t my thing, which ultimately makes me a storyteller. Over the years, I’ve told technical stories, magazine and newspaper stories, stories about individuals, groups and communities, about research, about events, and so-o-o often, stories about hopes and dreams and wishes for a bright and happy future. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time fact checking stories (a really interesting job, but not very pretty these days). At first I worked for others, but now I only take on creative projects with personal and professional meaning that combine with social benefit, because this is the space that feeds my own values, creativity and hopes for a brighter future.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The craft of telling stories in a more or less western tradition makes this all sound like a very compact, efficient, linear experience… like we moved from one thing to another in a straight line, success only. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The story I just told you doesn’t even hint at the curve balls life threw at us. More than once. Many times we stood at crossroads where it was clear we had a choice to make, and many times the options were less than ideal. That’s the way life goes.
But we wrestled sincerely each time with the questions: Which way do we go? What can we learn from this?
Let’s build a glamping site in Algonquin!
This is where a series of curve balls came together and created a rare moment of pause in our world, which gave us enough space to let our imagination take over.
Truthfully, in the moment we weren’t sure if we were being courageous or just crazy (they sometimes look an awful lot alike).
In the empty space before us, we made a decision, banked on courageousness, and chose to invest in ourselves and our own ideas. Six years on, that investment has paid dividends in joy.
Pitching our tents
2018 was the culmination of about a dozen years of hard slogging for us. In that time, John had become self-employed, and I had returned to school to complete a degree - all while raising three young children and doing all the things moms and dads do. We had already chosen the path less traveled, but it was worth the sacrifice because it allowed us to be present in our children’s lives while they were young in a way that’s just not possible when we worked 9-5 jobs. The best job I had ever known - postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta’s Library School in the Faculty of Education - was coming to a close, and John and I were trying to decide what to do next. Find employment? Go it on our own? Retire?
Needless to say, we were too young and too in-need-of-income to stop working. But instead of talking about retiring from work, we talked about retiring to work of our choosing. We took stock of the assets we had on the table: 100 acres of land, mechanical and construction skills, experience with rural cultural heritage, and a completely unreasonable level of fearlessness. John, who has always been a kid at heart, loved the outdoors: fishing, camping, living off the land. We both loved South Algonquin.
When we googled ‘prospector’ tent in the winter of 2018 and found three for sale, the line had been cast, the bait set, and we were hooked. We found two more tents at auction, built the sites, ordered portapotties and hung out our shingle on Airbnb.
Building dreams from our valueS
No one expects to have children with health issues.
It never even crossed our minds until it happened to us. So while we were living our life, doing all the things, and trying to keep our family van on the road of life between the two ditches shiny side up, we were also managing a crisis medical situation in our family.
At first we thought if we can just get past this emergency, everything would be fine, meaning life could go back to ‘normal’. But there was another emergency, and another after that, and in the years it took to settle down, we grew accustomed to living in a high-stress environment planning for a future that we didn’t realize for a long time would never arrive. What felt to us like just ‘getting on with it’ actually meant a great deal of extra effort, extra thought, extra compensating for the differences - extra work that was made invisible because we rarely talked about it because people rarely understood. On a different path, we did a lot of bumping up against ‘normal’, and helper systems that we discovered actually have the opposite effect. I internalized a lot of conflicting messages.
Eventually our situation became chronic and we are enormously thankful because we know very well it could have gone a different way. But there were other diagnoses that followed renewed periods of difficulty, and such profound experiences change you. You see things you previously took for granted in a new light. Your skill increases. You learn to anticipate and predict obstacles that most wouldn’t even notice. You learn to spot organizational laziness, disregard and discrimination and yes, you even get angry. Instead of accepting obstacles as normal, you start to call them by name and you imagine that if you can just move them out of your way, it will be easier for the mom who comes after you who is too tired or too weak from her labours to get across. You adopt a no-one-left-behind mentality. And you bless the people who tell you you’re expecting too much when you ask for a second - or how about even a fair first - chance for your kids to live up to their potential. Because in the conflict, you realize two things: These people have given up, and they don’t know you never will.
Creating accessible tourism in Canada
Over the years we spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out what we were supposed to learn from all of this. By 2018, we had the answer. It was clear that the most disabling elements in our life were not the physical or cognitive challenges, but rather attitudes and environments. We could control for both in our little kingdom, so whatever we did with our new camping and glamping business, it was going to be accessible.
Even good intentions start small. In 2019, we applied for an accessibility grant to build our first comfort station. Overjoyed when we received the funding, we started construction in 2020 and opened in 2021. All of the rooms are barrier free. I also insisted that we tackle period poverty by offering free access to feminine hygiene products. Why? Because it’s time to do the equitable thing. We don’t charge for toilet paper - we’re not going to charge for tampons.
Timeline: from breaking ground to adding new sites
How the Bubble Tents Came to Be
By the time we opened in 2018, we had two different kinds of safari tents, and five pole tents in storage for expansion.
Our goal was to offer camping experiences in many different kinds of tents to fit different group sizes and different needs. Along with the practical safari tents, we were thinking about heritage re-enactment tents, teepees, group tents, and pet friendly tents. Despite the differences, we were still thinking generally in terms of mainstream canvas tents.
Like many, I first saw the idea of transparent domed tents in the news. I did a little poking around and found them available in remote locations in Europe, most often parts of Scandinavia. The more we looked, the more we found - first France, then Australia, then Saudi Arabia. When they appeared in Toronto in the form of domed dining tents under the Gardiner Expressway we began to seriously consider the idea of buying our own to add to the range of experiences we could offer.
We researched North American suppliers. I began an email conversation to discuss cost and logistics of shipping and importing. John talked with the manufacturing division to figure out whether this particular brand of tent could stand up to the Canadian climate. In February of 2019, we took a chance and ordered three bubble tents.
We were really excited about the potential for a really unique camping experience with these tents - especially stargazing. We loved that they were bug free. We were not at all sure about how we were going to run them using solar power. That first summer we ran one off of an extension cord connected to our sea container ‘office’. It was only open for a couple weeks but we learned three important lessons:
First, the tents needed to be waterproofed upon arrival.
Second, we really needed a dedicated power source if we planned to run all three round the clock all summer with zero down time.
Third, the bubbles take a lot more work than our regular canvas tents - they’re more like an organism than a structure.
The next summer was impacted by COVID and we decided not to run them at all. In 2021, we deployed two bubble tents with a dedicated solar powered system that cost more to buy than the tents themselves. In 2022, we added the third bubble.
Now that we have ironed out the intricacies of bubble tents and deployed the three we have, we have set our sights on acquiring more and getting them up to the top of Granny’s Cliff. At 460m above sea level, the view from here is second to none in the region. No date on this yet, but we are hard at work planning.
Becoming glamping and vacation hosts
One of the great things about the work we do is that we meet really interesting people from literally all over the world.
We’ve hosted film production crews and a producer who was here to screen a film at TIFF. We’ve hosted diplomats, doctors, lawyers and business people. We’ve hosted teachers, preachers, bikers, military personnel, paralympians and musicians. Our youngest camper was about 4 weeks old, and our oldest campers were well into their eighties.
We were once asked if we had a place where a guest could practice throwing flaming batons. In the end it didn’t work out, but I would have loved to see that talent live. Amazing!
Advocates for accessible tourism in Canada
My favourite camper experience was a young man who used a powered wheelchair who came on a spontaneous stop as he traveled through Ontario. I am keen to get to a point where serving people with high level needs is a normal part of business, but on the phone that day I couldn’t say with any certainty that we could meet his needs because we had never been called on to try. I suggested the group stop by and we’d show them around, and then he could decide for himself if he felt safe here. He was very enthusiastic to give it a try, and I am ever grateful for the experience because we learned so much from him about how we could improve the accessibility of our campground. He helped us raise the bar.
Because we are so open about talking about accommodations for disabilities, we’ve had some very moving conversations with guests across the disability spectrum from families caring for loved ones with dementia, anxiety or autism, to people recovering from surgery or managing chronic illnesses. We don’t push or ask for details, but we also never shy away from these conversations when a guest initiates one because we recognize that all guests, no matter their differences, have one thing in common: human dignity.
We always encourage anyone who stays with us to ask questions and to let us know if you need something we haven’t already anticipated. From experiences, to extra instruction or wellness checkins to calm your first-time-camping worries, we will help if we can. And we’ll be honest if we can’t.
When we became campground operators and hosts, I’m not sure we anticipated just how profoundly your stories would impact our lives, our motivations and our decisions. Or how much they would confirm the need we’ve tried to fill. People have such precious little vacation time, and financial resources are tight for so many these days. The COVID-19 pandemic stretched tourism to the brink. We are so very grateful for your support over these last five years, because it was your trust and belief in us that allowed us not just to grow, but to support our community through difficult times as well.
Future goals and dreams
We have so many plans that the future feels bright white.
Some of the exciting plans we have on the agenda for discussion include:
We will roll out new software in time for prebooking the 2024 season that will consolidate our tent reservation, equipment reservation, space reservation, and programming into one interface that we hope will be a simpler guest-facing solution.
Opening a second location in Madawaska along the Old Rail Trail. This 60 acre campground site will only be accessible through the old rail trail by ATV or bicycle, walking, or possibly by canoe or kayak down the Madawaska River. We are in the planning stages for this. While we’ve already acquired the property, we haven’t applied for permits yet, so this will take some time. We are also exploring parts further afield - Tobermory anyone?
Two new bathroom buildings that will begin construction this summer. The first will be the same as the existing one, just located at the back by the pet friendly section. The other will be at the end of the pet-free section and comprise part of a larger garage/workshop building. We are anticipating these buildings will be available for use by spring 2025.
More bubble tents! No date yet, but we hope in 2024.
Adding a Makerspace to our programming by spring 2025. We will house various workshops (woodshop, machine shop, fabric shop, paper shop etc.) that guests can use to be creative. This space will become the future hub of our programming so stay tuned for more details and updates on this next year.
I am also hoping that as brand awareness grows for the work we do, we will be able to engage with more non-profit and charitable community partners to bring special interest groups to enjoy the benefits of the great outdoors here at Four Corners Algonquin.
Our first initiative - an affiliate partnership with the Dolly Foundation’s Imagination Library - has resulted in delivery of more than 600 books to children under the age of five in our community. That’s 600+ stories shared over and over again at our local daycare, our local schools, and in the homes of more than 40 children and families. By the time these children start kindergarten, they will already be well on the road to reading readiness.
As I said earlier, the future feels so bright.
Won’t you join us and meet this new season together? We will accomplish some amazing things if we’re all willing to play a small part.