Waskesiu Heritage Museum
Waskesiu Heritage Museum

History of Shack Tenting

What is a shack tent anyway?

In the early days of Prince Albert National Park, visitors camped along the shore on the beach. Parks Canada moved the campers up the ridge into the trees. Sleeping on tree roots wasn’t comfortable so an inventive camper pitched his tent on a small wooden floor. Soon plywood walls were attached to the floor, a ridge pole attached, and a tarp formed the roof. This was the birth of a shack tent.


Parks organized the shack tents into streets along the waterfront, naming the blocks by a letter and the lot by a number like A8 or C13. They provided community pit toilets, garbage cans, firewood, and camp kitchens in the area. 

The camping permits were several dollars for the season. Many families would use the shack tent during their holidays and lend it to family and friends in the other available weeks. Shack tenting was an affordable holiday for average folks


Hair washing time

How were they constructed and furnished?

Shack tents were put up in the spring and taken down in the fall as nothing could be left on the lots over winter. The regulation size was 12 feet by 15 feet.  The floor came in two sections and the two ends and two sides would bolt together.  Rather than breakable glass windows, the shacks featured screen and canvas flaps propped open by sticks. The canvas tarp was waterproofed using a mixture of paraffin and kerosene. 

The furnishings included an ice box, wood stove, bunk beds, a metal bedstead, a table and chairs. Wooden crates held basic kitchen supplies. Curtains were used to separate the bedrooms from the dayroom. Oil lanterns were used as there was no electricity or running water. Some shack tenters owned one of the two popular models of wire and metal sofa beds known as a “Winnipeg” or a “Toronto” couch.


Shack tent block C on the waterfront


Bolting the sections together


Moving the furniture in


Lunch behind the shack tent

What was the Waskesiu Livery Service?

The Fern and Eldon McLachlan family business, the Waskesiu Livery Service, developed a system for storing the shack tent components and built warehouses to store the basic furnishings. Before vacationers’ arrival, they would call to have the Livery deliver their shack tent and furnishings to their lot. The Livery could be hired to assemble and take down the shack tents as well. 

The Livery also delivered blocks of ice for the shack tent ice boxes. The McLachlan’s crew harvested blocks of ice from the lake in winter and stored the ice in a huge pile insulated with sawdust. An excellent model of this, made by Marvin McLachlan, can be seen in the Museum and photos of them ice harvesting are at https://waskesiuheritagemuseum.org/supplying-ice.


When did Shack Tents become more permanent?

  · The Parks service relocated some of the shack tents to the other side of Waskesiu Drive forming Blocks L to Q (between currently named Bluebird Street and Heron Street) in the mid-1940s in order to create Subdivision II for cottages. These lots were 30 feet wide. 

· In 1967, the Park service brought in a policy of attrition saying shack tents (and the underlying rights to camping permits) could no longer be sold, but lots would gradually revert back to the Park. The cabin owners, united under their president, Mary Jackson, battled Parks Canada for many years to have this policy reversed and succeeded in having this policy cancelled. The acrimonious fight left a legacy of mistrust between the two parties for many years.  Yet the cabin culture persists in Waskesiu to this day.

· The attrition policy gradually reduced the number of shack tents until they were all relocated to the east side of Waskesiu Drive, leaving the waterfront open for use by the general public.  

· In 1971, owners were allowed to put a wooden roof on the shack tent, leave it up year round, and bring in electricity.  


Waskesiu townsite map 1951


Photo taken in 1971 before wooden roofs were allowed

Why was a camp kitchen important?

The Parks service supplied each row of shack tents with a camp kitchen to share by residents. The shack tents were very small and the tarp made them very hot. The tarp was also very flammable. Camp kitchens were the preferred venue for cooking meals and socializing, for keeping cool on hot days and warm near the fire on chilly days.  Families and neighbours prepared and cooked food, ate meals, and played games together. The strong sense of community grew from this communal shack tent life style and has played a large role in the development of Waskesiu as a unique community in a National Park. 

Local lore contains stories of practical jokes played on neighbours in the camp kitchens and of the shared meals. The size of the bears scavenging in the garbage cans is legendary and campers stayed alert during late night trips to the “biffy”. Children chased the tractor fogging for mosquitos and played Anti Anti I Over over the shack tent roof. Paper boys hollered the paper’s name as they canvased the streets and the ice man shouted out “Ice” as he made his deliveries too. Shack tenters taking the garbage out or heading to the bathroom may be gone half an hour or more if they got stopped chatting with neighbours. This friendly, relaxed summer lifestyle keeps bringing families back to Waskesiu to this day.  

For more stories see: https://waskesiuheritagemuseum.org/camp-kitchen 


An early design for camp kitchens


A later design for camp kitchens

What is a “dog house”?

Each cabin owner is allowed to have one out-building or shed on the lot. These sheds could be 6 feet by 8 feet and provided very necessary storage for fishing gear, sand toys, bikes, lawn chairs, etc. 

At one point in time, people were allowed to turn their shed into a bathroom if they hadn’t rebuilt their cabin to accommodate sewer and water. Some still continue today with this purpose. 


Aerial view of the portable cabin area, sheds visible on many lots

What is a portable cabin?

In the early 1950s, 40 foot lots were created on Blocks R to X, between currently named Jay Street and Pelican Street. On these slightly larger lots, summer visitors could build a 14 feet by 20 feet cabin on skids which became known as “portables” as they didn’t have a permanent foundation on the lot but could be removed relatively easily. These cabins had a permanent roof and electricity from the onset. Usually the interior configuration was a combined living and kitchen area, with one or two small bedrooms, often just the size of the bunks or double bed. 


This row of portable cabins looking from Tamarack Street toward Lake Waskesiu is now Mallard Street. 


This is an example of the public washrooms that were provided by the Park service in the shack tent and cabin area.

Improvements to the cabin area

  · In the early 1980s, new washroom buildings and shower buildings were constructed by Parks Canada for use by shack tent and cabin owners. 


· In the early 90s an access road called Tamarack was built and the blocks were given street names of the birds found in the Park, arranged alphabetically, with shack tents from Bluebird to Heron and portable cabins from Jay to Pelican Streets. 

· In 1998 the cabin owners worked together to install water and sewer lines to the area. The original shack tent and portable cabins have gradually been replaced by fully modern cabins including bathrooms.

· There are no longer camp kitchens or washrooms provided by the Park service and the lots they formerly occupied have been turned into green spaces by the residents.  

· The Cabin Owners Association worked with Parks Canada officials to develop cabin guidelines for a larger design with a partial second storey. 

· In 2007, the cabin owners were granted a 42 year lease to replace the annual camping permit in what is now called the simply “the cabin area” or “the Bird Streets”. 


Cabin with vaulted ceiling in single storey on the front and cantilevered second storey on rear


The era of the “shack tenters” is no more.

photo circa 1950