by Heather Atkinson

There are rare critters afoot in Blakeney Park. The park is an out-of-the-way patch of nirvana in the hamlet of Blakeney just outside Almonte, Ontario.

I reckon these critters will soon be on the endangered species list because they are indeed a rare breed, a certain type that I fear might die out if their small numbers aren’t soon replaced. You likely won’t see them, but you’ll know they’ve been there by what they leave behind. They thrive in the early hours and after dark, and they leave behind traces of themselves, a footprint, but not the kind of footprint we’ve come to associate with climate change and environmental destruction. The telltale signs these critters leave behind are rooted in hard work, in selfless generosity, and everything they touch is better for it.

They call themselves the Almonte Fish and Game Club, a deceptively quaint name that doesn’t come close to describing who they are and all they do. This small flock of kindly spirits have been driven against all odds to leave their small part of the world better than they found it. They are not fly-by-night. They have been doing their quiet work for decades, and after all these years they still love what they do.

I recently nabbed one of them on the fly, one Tony Jones, and got the low-down on what makes him and the rest of this small-but-mighty band tick, what drives them to perform their small miracles year after year, decade after decade.

What follows is a transcript of my interview with Tony on July 2, 2021.

Me: So—who are you? I mean seriously, who has the time to hold down full-time jobs and still find time to do all this wonderful work?

Tony: We’re a team, many of us are in the construction or the building trades and we’ve been doing this for 30-odd years. People like Paul Laforce, Brad Barr, Don Waghorn, Greg Yuill and Glen Munroe and the rest of the team on our executive. Twelve of us on the board plus a whole gaggle of volunteers that make the whole operation hum.

Me: Can you describe all you do?

Tony: If you’ve been down to Blakeney Park recently then you’ve seen some of what we do. We open the park up every year, keep it clean throughout the season and do what we can to make it better.

Me: Open up?

Tony: We hang up the sign, bring out all the picnic tables that we put away for the winter and chain them to make them harder to steal. You may have noticed the new bridges.

Me: The bridges are lovely! My grandkids head straight for them.

Tony: Paul and I constructed those using donated material, the steel and the wood.

Me: You mentioned people steal the picnic tables. You’re kidding, right?

Tony: Nope. A while back, we lost a few of them that were at the far end of the park. They were chained, but I guess folks figured a way to get them out.

Me: You must have been angry.

Tony: Not really. Whoever took them must have figured they needed them more than we did. Not to mention the energy it would have taken to haul them out. We replaced them all, poured concrete pads and anchored them right to the rock!

Me: I’ll keep my eyes open for anyone lugging a picnic table! What’s the new concrete pad for?

Tony: We’ll be installing wheelchair accessible tables. So folks can just roll on up.

Me: Why Blakeney Park?

Tony: The park and most of us have history. We used to bike out there as kids and enjoy ourselves in the rapids. We want to make sure everyone can keep on enjoying it the way we did.

Me: Keeping Blakeney Park clean and pretty is just part of what you do. What else?

Tony: We like to support kids so we sponsor the Almonte chapters of the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts. And we sponsor the Louis Ladouceur bursary at the Almonte and District High School to support students who are interested in the environmental and outdoor sciences.

Me: Outdoor sciences?

Tony: Forestry, wildlife conservation, that sort of thing. We used to sponsor shoreline surveys to keep track of the local plants and animals. We hired students for that. The late Bill Tuffin got us the grants for that. Some of us on the team are local firefighters so we also put out books for kids about fire safety at the local libraries. “Learn NOT to Burn” for example.

Me: I live down the road from Blakeney Park. The pandemic really took a toll on it. So many flocked to the park, but I was sad to see evidence of visitors relieving themselves on the grass and leaving mounds of garbage behind. It was obvious what your team does by what happened to the park without you taking care of it.

Tony: We had to follow the local guidelines. That meant closing the park, removing the cans, taking out the tables and benches and closing the public washrooms.

Me: I am happy to see the park is back to its normal pristine self. What’s a typical week look like for you and the rest of the volunteers?

Tony: We spend about four hours a week. We empty the four garbage cans at the far end of the park, mow the grass, get out the weedwhacker to keep the paths clear, do maintenance like sandblasting some of the benches. We use wheelbarrows to haul out the garbage and take it to the dumpster at the back of the Almonte arena. The town takes the rest. Our board meets throughout the year, except for summer. We meet twice in February.

Me: What makes February special?

Tony: That’s when we hold our annual fundraiser dinner, at the end of February. We’ve also got a couple of grants from the town for things like the picnic tables. We plan to cover the tables with a layer of aluminum so folks will find harder to engrave their initials in them!

Me: Fundraiser dinner? What’s involved?

Tony: We roll up our sleeves and do the cooking and serving along with all the other volunteers, including the Civitan, who show up to help us every year. That’s partly how we fund what we do for the kids, the Scouts, and pay people to check the washrooms have toilet paper, that sort of thing. We’re also licensed to sell lottery tickets. Bill used to handle the grant applications to the Ministry of Natural Resources, which owns the park. But with his passing we don’t do that. You wouldn’t believe the paperwork involved!

Me: You enjoy doing this?

Tony: Of course. Wouldn’t do it if we didn’t! But extra hands would great.

Me: In closing, I’d like to send virtual hugs on behalf of all of us to all of you for making our little corner of the world a better place.

To find out more, including how you can help, contact the Almonte Fish and Game Club.