Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com
GRAVENHURST — The Ontario Fire College (OFC) may be closed and the OPP’s neighbouring canine training centre went to the dogs over a year ago.
Now it’s anchors aweigh for the police marine training centre at the same north-end waterfront site, which closed its doors to firefighters in March.
This is the final week of the 35th — and last year — for the OPP mariners at the OFC.
Since 1986 they’ve licensed thousands of male and female OPP constables and officers from various Ontario municipal and Indigenous police services, along with staff from the MNRF enforcement and other federal and provincial agencies off the docks on Lake Muskoka.
This week’s class will also be the last group to use a classroom at the college. Students are bunking down at the Marriott Hotel at the Muskoka Wharf instead of staying in the college’s small dorm.
During the four weeks there are two two-week courses with 24 students and six instructors per class for a total of 60 officers.
The students become fully-trained boat operators, some of whom have never been in a boat and others who have had pleasure craft experience with their own boats.
Sgt. Dave Moffatt has been the OPP’s provincial marine coordinator for the past three years. An officer at Bracebridge since 1997, he took the marine course in 2000 and became an instructor a year later and ran the south Muskoka marine unit until his promotion. He lives in Bracebridge, but works out of the Orillia OPP headquarters.
He says the OPP is only one of a handful of course-providers in Ontario to offer the training that’s based around Transport Canada guidelines. It’s also the only one with their own Seaswirl training boats.
After the 10-day course — including 35 hours on the water — “if the officers as students are successful, we offer them both a small vessel operator proficiency licence and a marine emergency duties A-3 licence,” says Moffatt.
“The two commercial licences allow you to operate boats or be a deck hand.”
And “because there’s an opportunity where officers can be deployed anywhere in the province — and in some kind of emergency situation where we have to send people to the Great Lakes — then no matter what lake officers patrol we give them this standard so they can operate in any lake in Ontario.”
Lake Muskoka “is so perfect. It’s absolutely perfect for what we need.”
That’s why leaving the fire college puts them in a predicament.
“I’m in a bit of a pickle, to be quite honest,” he says, “as to where we’re going to put the course next year.
“To move it to other places. … Like why don’t we move it down to Lake Simcoe?
Lake Simcoe only has a handful of markers. And it won’t benefit our officers to have the course out on Lake Simcoe.
“We’re so happy and we’ve been so lucky to do it on Lake Muskoka for all these years,” says Moffatt.
He’s had preliminary discussions with the town about another location in Gravenhurst, perhaps at the Wharf.
“We’d love to keep it here, but those discussions are so early now.
“We’re staying at the Marriott and they’ve been incredible to us. I’d love to see us stay in the Marriott. But it’s really about where we can dock our boats and where we can get gas.”
Retired OPP Sgt. Larry Butterfield, of Gravenhurst, was in the first marine class at the OFC in 1987 and says the OPP were using the site the year before.
He went on to be the OPP’s poster-boy for marine safety a decade ago when he was the friendly, familiar face featured in a number of TV and print ad spots, which today would have gone viral.
Now he’s just an occasional “violator” the students come across while paddling out in his kayak and officers get some practical inspection experience.
Few if any recognize him until after the exercise when they’re told who they’ve pulled over.
Boaters are all expected to have PFDs (life jackets) for every person, a whistle, bailing bucket, paddle, emergency lights and licence.
Butterfield remembers back in 1994 when the Muskoka Centre was going to be the OPP general headquarters and police academy, until premier Bob Rae’s one-term NDP government was unseated by Mike Harris’ Conservative who quashed the idea and everything ended up in Orillia — a Tory riding.
He notes — “for trivia buffs” — there was even a sign touting Gravenhurst as the new HQ.
The deserted old mental health facility was even abandoned several years ago by OPP canine and ERT teams that trained in its decrepit buildings.
Moffatt says he used to run courses for three weeks around the first or second week of June.
But last year “COVID cancelled all our classes.”
This year he says they did their three-week big boat course in Parry Sound until the end of April.
This morning after an 8 a.m. classroom start students went up Lake Muskoka with their instructors for an orientation and lake familiarization tour.
Thursday they’ll be done and that will be the end of police marine training at the former Ontario Fire College for this year — and forever.
Unless, of course, there’s a change of government again next year.
See video of Sgt. Dave Moffatt and more photos below.
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