Lost in the maize

A family business to the core, the Wolfe Island corn maze is more than a farm

The Walkers undertake the facilitation of the maze as a family.
The Walkers undertake the facilitation of the maze as a family.
The Wolfe Island corn maze has been running for 13 years, and each year it continues to grow and develop.
The Wolfe Island corn maze has been running for 13 years, and each year it continues to grow and develop.

If you build it, they will come — for apple pie.

That was Garth and Marianne Walker’s hope when, 13 years ago, they took a leap of faith and turned their small acreage farm into what most Queen’s students know as the Wolfe Island corn maze.

The maze, which opened in August, runs for the fall season until the beginning of November.

“We were trying to figure out how are we going to make this 50-acre farm pay for itself,” Garth Walker said, adding that his brother-in-law Leonard Debruin initially helped him plant the corn. “It was like eight acres the first year.”

Walker said that the first year, the family gave themselves a make-or-break goal to determine whether they should continue the maze the following year. After just meeting that goal, Walker said it was his wife’s perseverance that pushed him to build the maze again a second year.

It was difficult to advertise for their small seasonal business, Walker said, as news of the maze only traveled by word of mouth.

“Then one year we had this amazing group that came; it was Queen’s Walkhome and the nicest bunch of kids I’ve ever met,” he said. “We just had a ball and after that we looked at each other and said, ‘that’s our market, that’s who we should be talking to.’”

Once they decided to market their maze to the Queen’s community, Walker said that attendance began to grow from certain residence floors, to entire buildings, frosh groups, clubs and departments.

“[Students] would say, make it harder next year, and so that’s what we would do,” he said. “We’re dealing with really smart people and they really want to have fun, so we have to get really creative.”

After discovering the competitive nature of the student groups attending the maze, the Walkers decided not only to complicate their maze, but add challenges to the experience as well.

“We came up with this idea to have a sand sculpture competition, and in the early years we thought we’d give away a homemade apple pie as the prize,” Walker said.

Walker said that he was astounded at what students would create with the incentive of his wife’s pie.

“Sometimes we had to give away two pies because they were that good ... then my wife said, ‘I can’t give away this many pies,’ so she started doing homemade chocolate chip cookies,” he said. “We’d give away a pie for first place and homemade chocolate chip cookies for second and third.”

The Walker family all pitch in to get the maze up and running — a task that requires constant labour beginning in the spring. “It’s a business that we run for three months and it takes us three months to get it up and running,” Walker said. “It’s like a six month a year business for us where it consumes us completely from the time we start until the first week of November.”

Walker explained that the first few years of running the maze were difficult as he was new to the demanding farming lifestyle. Every year, Walker said he pulls the corn by hand to create the unique routes, curves and trails that he needs for the maze.

After discovering that tractors and fertilizer trucks would destroy the shape of the maze, Walker said he ordered a few thousand pounds of fertilizer so his family could take on the task by hand.

He said it ended up making a two-foot height difference for the corn.

“That’s when I learned about the magic of what fertilizer is,” he said. “It really tested our desire to keep doing this.” Walker said he begins creating the maze’s design in late June when the corn is only knee high.

“It’s almost like an artist would look at an empty canvas ... you decide where you’re going to start and you always have to be counter-intuitive,” he said.

To create a challenging trail, Walker said he pulls the corn in the direction he would least expect.

“There were years when I have to admit, I was ready to pack it in because we would be probably working for like a dollar an hour for a couple years because it took so much time to make the maze,” he said. “It’s one of those businesses where every

year you’re starting from scratch, that’s the hard thing about it.” Walker said while each year is a leap of faith, he is continuously inspired by his wife, Marianne, and his children’s determination.

“Every year I still have the same nervous moment after I make the maze, and I just hope and pray that the people will come and that they’ll spread the word,” he said.

Walker said that it’s because of the growing number of Queen’s students who visit that they continue to create the maze each year.

“I had one Queen’s student come up to me this year and tell me [he’d] been here 11 times in five years,” Walker said. “If students who are that intelligent are looking for something fascinating to do, [and] ... if I’m able to interest someone to that extent that they want to come back that many times ... that’s what makes me tick.”

Though the ferry limits how many visitors can access the maze at a time, Walker said they try to optimize each visitor’s experience — including hot chocolate for those who make the trek in the rain.

“I just wish that so many people in Kingston could see what we see. We see a very different picture of young people learning, going to university and learning to have a career. We see [how] well-mannered ... and how respectful they are,” he said. “I wish the rest of the city of Kingston could see that side more.”

Walker said that press surrounding events such as Homecoming give off the wrong impression of students at higher learning institutions.

“This one year we had this particular group, and they were Queen’s [engineering students], and we were sitting around a campfire ... and a fella looked at me and he said, ‘you know this is the most fun I’ve had in four years at Queen’s and ... the interesting thing is I didn’t have a drop of alcohol to do it,’” he said.

Walker said that Queen’s students find that the appeal of the maze was the mental break it offered.

“I guess that’s the secret of what makes it fun for people. They’re not thinking about a paper or an exam they got to write or the pressures they have, it’s just three hours of fun,” he said.

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