Foley’s Forest Family: Meet Rebecca Whitman

To think Rebecca Whitman once planned to be a doctor.

Today, Foley Mountain's long-time site supervisor can't imagine doing anything but her dream job: living on Westport's beloved wild mountain and delivering outdoor education programs for hundreds of school children, day campers and families each year.

"I look at my life and think it's a dream," said Whitman, who has also been raising her three children on site since she and her husband arrived 16 years ago. "It's just such an ideal scenario for us. It comes with its challenges, but it has so many benefits." 

2007 versus 2021: Rebecca Whitman, eldest son Aydon and husband Jeff began taking family photos on Spy Rock their first Christmas in the park. A lot has changed since then!

This somewhat unconventional life – raising her family in a public park – wasn't always what she pictured for herself. Whitman was pursuing a biology degree with plans to go to medical school when she took a children's programming job at Darlington Provincial Park for the summer.

"About a week after I got there I was like, this is it. This is exactly what I want to do," Whitman said. "So I shifted my plans."

She completed teacher's college with an outdoor education focus at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where her then fiancé and now husband Jeff also studied to be a teacher. They moved marginally closer to her childhood home in Russell, Ontario when she took an outdoor education position at Ganaraska Forest northeast of Oshawa. 

But not close enough.

"Living three hours away from family didn't feel like a big deal until we had a baby," Whitman said. She jumped at the Foley Mountain position when her eldest son Aydon was just shy of one, finally moving her family back to Eastern Ontario once and for all. 

Rebecca and her dog, Beau, outside the McCann House on Foley Mountain.

Family, Friends and Forest School

The Whitmans moved into the old McCann farmhouse on top of the mountain, which has served as living quarters for Foley's site supervisors since Barry and Peri McQuay first took up the job in the early 1970s. It's been heavily renovated, expanded and changed over the years, and the surrounding lands are nearly unrecognizable from the days when cattle grazed their clearcut fields.

Just like the McQuays, the Whitmans quickly settled into life at Foley Mountain, welcoming children Quinn and Hazel to the family as well as a huge, fluffy pooch named Beau.

The kids run free and spend their time building forts, climbing trees and exploring. While the lifestyle can lead to the occasional twinge of isolation, for the most part the Whitmans wouldn't have it any other way.

"I think the kids do envy the neighbourhood scenario," said Whitman, whose children are now 16, 13 and 6. "But we're a pretty close-knit family and we really value that. We have purposefully developed a family that feels that way."

Eldest son Aydon, 16, said he "feels privileged to have access to all this land" and expressed appreciation for the wildlife and privacy his upbringing affords him.

"It is amazing to be able to go out in your backyard and to be able to not see any neighbours at all," Aydon said. "I've enjoyed living here very much." 

As Rebecca's family has grown, so has Foley Mountain's offerings.

"After I took over for Barry, I started to update the programs and change them around a little bit," said Whitman. That was not always an easy or popular task, as Barry's legacy loomed large both for her and the public. "I still get people coming and saying, 'When I was a kid there was a guy with a hawk!'" Whitman laughed. 

The heritage Silversides Barn and new washroom facilities have transformed Foley's outdoor education capabilities.

Still, Whitman knew Foley's potential was limitless with the right resources. She got to work with RVCA and the Friends of Foley Mountain to upgrade some of Foley's facilities to support more programs in the cooler months. In 2011, the heritage Silversides barn was moved to Foley from Perth Wildlife Reserve, another RVCA property. The Friends helped add solar panels and supported the cost of installing washrooms and running water at the site.

Suddenly, Foley had a second outdoor education station that could be accessed year-round, even when the Interpretive Centre was cut off due to snow, ice or flooding on its steep hill.

"That was a big turning point for the education programs," Whitman said. "Even though the building is more rustic, having flush toilets, running water and an indoor space has really made a difference." 

Forest School soon followed, blazing a trail in an area lacking similar programs at the time. The program opened Foley to a whole new community of visitors and participants.

"Now we were shifting to these long-term relationships with local families and local children who were returning season after season," Whitman said.

This is a critical part of outdoor education for Whitman, who witnesses her students connecting to Foley's land week after week as though it belongs to them. And in a way, it does.

"They know this land, they love to go back to their favourite places, to show their parents and their family," she said.

Forest School allows children to learn in nature, through nature.

Whitman has noticed the same phenomenon with her own children.

"For them it's just normal to be able to go out and walk on the trails and have no neighbours for 400 acres behind us, to have that freedom and to be so immersed," she said. She hopes her kids will carry that with them into other spaces, too.

"Obviously they're going to have a very strong connection to this land and this space, but translating that to nature in general is really important," Whitman said. "My biggest hope for them is that they have a really strong connection to the natural world."

She and Jeff also encourage an attitude of gratitude when it comes to living on the land, having set up a huge vegetable garden and chicken coop at their house – just like the McQuays before them.

"Being grateful to the land and to what the earth gives us is really important for me to teach my kids," Whitman said. "I hope my children take that from here." 

Foley Mountain Conservation Area celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023. Follow us on Facebook to keep up to date with planned celebrations. 

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Saturday, 02 March 2024

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