The doors closed on Penhold Air Cadet Summer Training Centre on Friday after 48 years.
About 1,250 air, army and sea cadets, age 12 and up, came this summer from across the Prairies for classes in survival, physical fitness, air rifle marksmanship, music, drills and ceremonies, and gliding. Some cadets also worked on getting their private pilot licences.
As many as 600 cadets at any given time bunked at the camp since classes started on July 6.
Sea cadet Robert Human, 15, of Selkirk, Man., was at Penhold for the second year in a row for its popular music program.
“It’s all music and band all day,” said Human, a trumpet player who wants to be a doctor in the navy.
He comes from a long line of cadets who attended the Penhold camp, including his dad, grandfather, uncles and aunts.
“It’s sort of weird being the last person in my family to be able to enjoy this experience,” Human said.
The Department of National Defence announced in 2012 that it would end its annual three-month lease at the former Royal Air Force base due to infrastructure costs.
Next year, training for cadets from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories will be spread out between six other camps in Rocky Mountain House and Cold Lake; Gimli, Man.; Whitehorse, Yukon; Vernon and Quadra B.C.
Human said Penhold instructors were great and he met “tons of new people.”
And the camp had an added bonus — the tastiest chow, he said.
“It’s a big thing in cadets. It’s funny. What camp has the best food? Penhold is my favourite by far.”
The former Penhold base opened in 1940 as Manning Depot for the Royal Air Force to train Commonwealth pilots as part of Canada’s contribution to the Second World War. In 1994, the base was decommissioned.
The residential portion of the base was renamed Springbrook in 1995 when private developers purchased the land and homes.
The military portion of the base was sold to Harvard Park Business Centre Ltd. in 1996.
Kristian Westgate, 26, of Sylvan Lake, said snapping photos was rampant during the camp’s final summer.
“Everybody is trying to get their last memories,” said Westgate, who spent one summer as a cadet at the Penhold camp and three years on staff.
When he was a cadet in 2005, Penhold attracted cadets from far and wide.
“Meeting people from all over the country, that was the best part.”
Westgate, who now oversees staff cadets teaching leadership skills, said cadets learn by example and by taking hold of the reins through opportunities to lead fellow cadets at camp.
He said anyone can learn to be a leader. Teamwork is “first and foremost” the skill needed to develop leadership to help cadets in their daily lives, and in turn help the country and maybe even make a global impact.
Marc Halas, 32, of Calgary, officer in charge of the drill and ceremonial instructor course for a third year, was a cadet at Penhold for two years and agreed that the camp had a way of bringing people together.
As a cadet, he recalled walking across a room and chatting with a cadet from Toronto and finding out how much they had in common.
“I remember a lot of the good friendships I made,” Halas said.
There’s a lot that cadets take away from the program no matter how long they stay with it. Some may think being a cadet is about following strict rules, but maybe they should give it a try, he said.
“It’s like any youth organization, there’s going to be a certain format to it and it’s all about whether that format appeals to you and whether it’s something you’re interested in that counts.”
He said cadets attract youth for different reasons.
“Quite a few of them look to it as an avenue to get to gliding and flying. But there’s something for everybody. There’s the survival scene. There’s fitness. If you’re a little more military-minded, there’s the drill aspect,” Halas said.
Human said conforming to cadet standards is part of the camp. Uniforms have to look good at all times. Living quarters must be kept in order. But that’s the way it is for everyone at camp, and it can be sort of be fun working as a team to complete tasks efficiently.
He said some people his age don’t want someone telling them what to do. They don’t understand that in a few years, once they have a job, they can’t avoid following orders, and cadets encourages discipline and respect.
Human’s white sea cadet cap has led to some teasing back home. But those who make fun of cadets don’t realize all the opportunities and benefits that go along with the program.
Lt.-Col. Allan Dengis, commander of the Penhold Air Cadet Summer Training Centre, said a push is on to proactively showcase the cadet program, also know as “the best kept secret in the country.”
He said more people are coming to understand that cadets is a youth activity program that gives young people the values and principles to move ahead in society.
“Even though it is sponsored by the Department of National Defence, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with being a recruiting tool in any shape or form for the military. It’s simply sponsored by them because they recognize the value and benefits of developing good citizens for the country,” Dengis said.
Saying goodbye to Penhold, although it’s a link to Canada’s aviation history, they are simply buildings of mortar and bricks, he said.
“The real spirit is the people. It’s the spirit, the drive, the ambition, the enthusiasm they bring into these facilities that bring it alive.”