Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eenie Meenie Miney Moe

Summer. Things to do. When the best weather arrives in Muskoka, you still have to make things happen. Unlike the city where people feel trapped in the heat and need to let loose at a string of public events, a street concert, a carnival, a book fair, there isn't much doing when everyone's come to get away from it all and relax. Fairs are for the fall, though every town puts on some sort of summer attraction. A charity fundraiser at the community hall, hot dogs, hamburgers and beans for cancer research, a beer tent and band, maybe a carwash for junior league hockey, a horticultural show and sale of houseplants, a nature club slide show, local arts and crafts in stalls and tents, an antiques show. One thing the locals share with the cottagers, they're marching into retirement. Now and again there's a little excitement.

Monday, October 29, 2007

What A Nifty Gift Shop

Summer. Port Sandfield Marina, what a nifty gift shop. The big marina too, has such a glossy feel to it, dozens of fabulous yachts and cruisers you could buy or rent. Fell in love right here with this classic beauty. And she's got a sister berthed beside her. Reminds me of the way I used to feel about cars. Reminds me too of the glamorous days of old Muskoka. A lot of the action then was at the grand hotels. Like those left at Cape May, New Jersey. They vanished in fire, one by one, in the lonely off season. If you're up at Pointe au Baril Station, one of the last, the Ojibway Hotel, built by a timber baron in 1906, survives as a cottagers' clubhouse. If the grand hotels disappeared like lovely Victorian ladies in the fog, the big resort operators mushroomed in with their golf courses, spas and pools. Not exactly native ecofriendly tourism, more like vacation theme parks, without the Muskoka flavor. Pools in Muskoka when you've got a thousand lakes? You could be in Beverly Hills, or as the NY Times calls it, Malibu of the North, which is nice enough.

The Inflatables

Summer. Port Sandfield Marina, The Boathouse Gift Shop overflow. The Inflatables. They were a lot smaller when I was a kid. One thing you don't see much is kids with so much stuff available for them. That goes equally for cottagers, the 40 somethings and over, and the town folks blasted by winters, who look older. We import them now I suppose. Not Latinos like in the US, but Jamaican girls to clean the rooms at the fancy Muskoka resorts. Downsizing of families even in small towns is a surprise at first. You think maybe it's that unconscious modern culture shaping us again. But you see why soon enough. The small paychecks for small jobs in retail and the seasonal jobs. That's how small families get by.

The Old-Timers

Summer. Port Sandfield, part of the old marina. When this boathouse was new, there were still a lot of cottagers. At a Jazz Night do at some old community hall I ran into a table of them. Asked these old-timers how they got here. For one thing they didn't look like old money or new. And the cottage and boat talk wasn't about fixing a hole in the roof of a cabin. Still are cottages like that, $120,000. They were old cottage friends, several tables of Canadians and Americans, colorful characters. Basically there were two stories, the Canadian and the American. Most Canadians had family cottages handed down to them. Most Americans bought land when it was cheap. For real cheap you have to go way back, but a couple said their grand uncle left them some Muskoka land as a gift, paying a dollar an acre to the government. It was no good for farming, so they gave it away, millions of acres, whole islands for $200.00. Others built a little more every year, subdivided their lots and built and subdivided. All nodding together, big grins. Never could afford my own place now!

The Cottagers Parade

Summer. Port Sandfield. That's the thing about cottagers, they're at the cottage. A walk by the boat channel. Town's a tiny place. One general store with ice cream to go, a luxury cottage furniture shop, The Loft, and the fabulous marina, plus cottagers around somewhere of course. Maybe we should parade them out, declare a public holiday. Cottagers parading with fistfuls of asparagus at $7.99 a bunch, cottagers with yacht caps and inflatable rafts, cottagers line dancing with Molson Canadians, cottagers marching smartly with golf bags on their shoulders, cottagers and card tables, cottagers waving from convertibles, c'mon let's have some fun!

Like America But Cleaner

Summer. Port Sandfield and the boat channel between Lake Joe and Lake Rosseau. You could spend years of happy boating through these huge lakes and Lake Muskoka connected to the south, with well over a hundred islands and a thousand bays. Europeans go agog over this. They can count their lakes on one hand. Americans who are probably a third of all the cottagers in Muskoka, mostly from the North East and with plenty of water too, must be impressed. Of course the waters here are quite clean.

Cottagers For Life

Summer. Port Sandfield Marina. If you come for a visit you might wind up buying a boat. Many tourists wind up staying, transformed into cottagers for life. I dunno. It can be boring. It depends how boring your friends and family are. There are always a lot of, pricey in the extreme, dream cottages for sale in Muskoka, but hardly any for rent, booked months in advance. My theory, based on solid barroom research, is it's great if there aren't any hassles, pretty good if the hassles only last a summer, not so good when the pipes freeze and you've got to dig yourself out of the snow to go into town a half hour away for a quart of milk, and beg the guy at the store to fill your jerrycans with water so you can take a bath or do your laundry. If you're a happy camper or boater maybe you should leave it that way, or at least come up for a winter of cross country skiing and snowmobiling, before you buy that dream cottage thinking that's where you're going to retire, when even the birds fly south, and Canadians too.

The Heart Of Muskoka On Peninsula Road 7

Summer. Port Sandfield on Lake Rosseau. If there's anyplace that has more well-heeled charm in Muskoka it must be some island pleasure dome like the Whistling Pines Beach and Boat Club Resort that hasn't been built yet. But this winding isthmus, oddly on Peninsula Road 7, between Lakes Joseph and Rosseau was breathtaking even before the money came, old and new. You should go. For a day trip, start in Parry Sound and take the scenic and smooth Hwy 141 East. Stop for coffee or breakfast at Bent River's only Minature Golf-Gas Station-General Store-Restaurant. If you can extricate the kids, keep going to the undiscovered Village of Rosseau at the north shore of the lake for antique shops, and lunch at The Crossroads, an excellent upscale cottagers' hangout. For a fine light lunch instead, try Coffeeville. Then head south on the pristine blacktop 2 lane road through the hills and lakes to Minett, Port Sandfield and cool and trendy Port Carling for dinner. If you've still got time, take Hwy 169 South to Bala, where Muskoka begins. Try biking it or on a motorcycle, but be careful. Bikers wipe out even when it's bone dry.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thunderheads And Lightening

Summer. On the beach at Parry Sound. A late swim with what looks like a menacing thunderhead. Locals aren't worried. They're common enough. About three weeks ago my neighbour's car was hit by lightening. Not a scratch, but then she wasn't in it. The car's fine.

Before The Stars Come Out

Summer. On the beach at Ranklin Lake. This is why us city slickers (some locals still call us that out of earshot) keep coming back here or turn the summer cottage into a year round retirement event or at least send the kids to camp.

5 Minutes To Having Some Fun

Summer. On the beach at McKellar. Country kids still have the advantage. Growing up in a place where you're closer to the basic elements of life, sun and stars, water and sky, woods and animals and friends you know, is a reality-based life instead of a TV show. It's also a safety net city kids don't have. Social workers and therapy, and now drugs from doctors for ADD and XYZ is the dumb city solution. If you get processed enough maybe you'll perform better without the things you need.

Since Elvis

Summer. On the beach at Parry Sound. Country or city kids? Big schools, even here, and television, the telephone, celebrity cults in movie and pop music culture, have been levelling the difference since Elvis. With the quantum leap to the Internet and especially for kids, their ipods and cell phones, they're in some other reality we don't share.

A Swim In The Sound

Summer. On the beach at Parry Sound. From mid-April to late September the sands are warm to hot. The water never is anything but glacial. Locals know where the shallows are.

Kick Off Your Shoes

Summer. On the beach at Parry Sound. If boating is the number one thing everybody wants to do, lazing on the beach is what everyone winds up doing.

Check Your Kids' Pockets

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting back. Nintendo Alert.

All Aboard For The UN

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting there. The Island Queen V based in Parry Sound. It's like a General Assembly at the UN aboard. For tourists on the go who want to see everything from their car or bus window this is the Ultra Georgian Bay Experience. Mind you just about every one else has a great time, even me.

Fying In And Around

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting there. Georgian Bay Airways based in Parry Sound will fly you around the Islands. If you're in a hurry to get out of Toronto, they'll fly you here. Their charter rates are reasonable and it's a first class outfit. Central Helicopters on the edge of town also do deluxe tours and charters.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Where The Locals Gossip

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting there. Aboard the Chippewa III based in Parry Sound. About the best way to see the Islands and chat with the locals. They know the best places and best deals. In a coffee shop or bar they're rather tight-lipped. It's their place and they want to keep it that way. If you're from the city it's what you get in any small town. They all seem to have had perfect childhoods, growing up in these backwaters, and they don't want a blessed thing to change.

A Cruise Through The Islands

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting there. The skipper and first mate aboard the Chippewa III, based at Parry Sound. A great way to spend a few leisurely hours, as mellow as your favorite daydream. Because she's built to hug a shore, she can dock for lunch at some of the Islands. If you've wondered who the faces are behind the mansions dotting the Islands, you'll see some of them on this cruise, at the marina bars and restaurants, their float planes and yachts parked out front. Before you get too green with envy, remember every stick of furniture and every bag of frozen vegetables has to be boated over. To build a dock or boathouse you'll need a barge. Still green? You're right. It doesn't bother them. Somebody else has to sweat it while the bored of the manor are having their cocktails on the beach.

The Friendly Chippewa III

Summer. 30,000 Islands and getting there. The friendly Chippewa III based in Parry Sound. A favorite with locals and tourists, she's spent all her days sightseeing, first as a Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls and now around the Islands. If you don't have a boat, or your canoe and kayak skills are iffy in these great waters, you could rent something or climb aboard right here.

The Perfect Cottage Vacation

Summer. 30,000 Islands. The Craganmor Point Resort on McLaren Island, between Parry Island and The Massasauga Provincial Park and its islands. For the genuine cottage experience, this is it, cozy and quaint. The resort side of it is you will have all you need for your stay, like at the biguns, but at a moderate price, with traditional creaking floorboards and a wonderful private sandy beach. Don't worry, you won't have to chop wood to feed your Elmira Stove, like cottagers used to do. At $650 and up for a small bungalow per week, it's a really good deal for a family vacation. Locals without cottages would like it here. But with money tight in small towns, locals think twice about a summertime splurge. Save for a boat instead or take a last minute package deal down south when the water turns to ice and the place is buried in snow. But cottage colonies like the Craganmor are always full and there are hundreds of them on the lakes and coastal islands of Georgian Bay. You'll never hear about most of them though, no websites, no advertising, no guidebooks to them. Drive or sail or ask around, get lucky with a vacancy or book for next year. It's the next best thing to owning one. If you're thinking of buying a cottage get your feet wet renting a cottage here and there first. Cottage fever can cost you plenty. People at a fantasy resort who'd spend $5 or $10 million for that one across the lake, will get a better idea of what to expect where they are, after their $150 tab for lunch.

History Sinking

Summer. 30,000 Islands. A Canadian Coast Guard ship on patrol. Classic bent pines of Georgian Bay. In the old days when ships were the only way to go up north, not a few were lost. Sudden squalls in November and unseen rocks ran most of them to the bottom. Search and Rescue by the likes of the Cove Isle and flashing buoys make it safer today, but the lighthouses are largely gone along with a lot of living history. It's hard to imagine what things were like even a hundred years ago, for all the heritage plaques and town museums, which you'd probably enjoy if you were from Mars. Don't know who else goes. I guess they'll be popular in another hundred years when no one will have a clue what we were all about.

The Island Mystery

Summer. 30,000 Islands. Two flower pots in sight. But if you look closely (left click) there's something mysterious going on, a dock with berths for 6 cruisers, another dock like a bunker and a gazebo big enough for a corporate BBQ. We've been expecting you, Mr Bond.

Pretending To Be Famous

Summer. 30,000 Islands. Somehow you know you've made it. You get a lot of grins like that from the boating crowd.

Shaken Not Stirred

Summer. 30,000 Islands. From flower pot size to big enough for a country. These are some of the planet's oldest exposed rock, at about 3 billion years old, gneiss and granite, the sparkle of mica schist, the dark smokey gneiss veined with yellow and white quartzite or pink feldspar granite, mostly layered like cakes and then called banded gneiss. It wasn't until geologists had a good look, that we found out that this archipelago of brooding islands had been stacked a lot higher, into mountains and whole chains of them. The last ice age and a few more besides bulldozed them.

A Boston Fern Escapes

Summer. Wild Plants by Georgian Bay near Killbear. Refreshing to see houseplants in their native setting. A long time ago, like 300 million years before people started potting them, giant ferns grew like forests in these parts, and conifers too. A Boston fern a long way from home.

A Miniature Garden

Summer. Wildflowers by Georgian Bay near Killbear. In miniature these plants are a children's dream. Walking through woods, breathing air so clean and pungent with the heady tonic aromas of an ancient earth, is perhaps the best antidote to modern life. You wonder why architects and builders, bankers and businessmen, have turned their backs on all this for concrete and cash. Well, they haven't entirely. A lot of them have 3-4-5-10 million dollar cottages around here, going on their nature walks in ATV's and golf carts.

Pockets Of Light

Summer. Wildflowers by Georgian Bay near Killbear. Tiny flowers and ferns poke up out of pockets of light in the deep woods. Killbear as a Provincial Park and campground, protects its wildlife. You might see bears or moose, certainly deer, rabbits and other small friends. If the name puts you off, don't worry. It was never about killing bears. An Indian name for the place, rendered phonetically into English, probably not very well.

A Wild Marigold

Summer. Wildflowers by Georgian Bay in Killbear. If you want the super camping experience, this is it. The peninsula juts out into the bay with rock and beaches on all sides. The rich and eerie forest is what the Huron Indians knew in the days of Samuel de Champlain.

Tickle Me

Summer. Wildflowers and bug by Georgian Bay in Killbear. The park deserves a special star. It's the only old growth forest in the region, saved from logging and redevelopment by a kind-hearted and dedicated forest ranger who persuaded the Ontario Ministry of Mines and Natural Resources to buy the land. The luxury of a million tons of big old trees. And you can camp there. Book early.

New Arrivals By Georgian Bay

Summer. The new growth rushes in along the shores of Georgian Bay. Nature's always in a hurry before autumn runs her into the ground. Most trees aren't as young as this, but as you walk around, you can't help noticing the old ones are missing. They'll be back, but what's taking them so long? During winter they aren't doing much, but when they could be at their busiest in summer, the lack of rain and thin dry soils slows them right down.

A Warm Silence In The Woods

Summer. Forest Floor at Bala. With nature doing all the work, why not parklands linked by trails cutting through our cities? If you think it impractical, go see how it works at the enormous Englischer Garten in Munich, Germany. Bigger than Central Park, New York, it stretches about 5 km overall and includes a lake and 3 islands, plus 8.5 km of streams and 78 km of footpaths.

Friendly Foliage

Summer. Wildflowers at Bala. Country lanes and trails are the best shopping malls. And you don't have to buy anything.

Lovely Grasses

Summer. Wild Grasses at Bala. The cranberry marsh at Muskoka Lakes Winery. The footpaths along acres of green fields touch on gentle woods and water. One thing we don't see enough of are the great variety and abundance of wild grasses that used to cover the prairies and meadows. To see them now you have to go to a special reserve in the US, Wind Cave National Park, near Hot Springs, South Dakota. The beauty of these grasses is phenomenal. To think that all we've got left are lawns and golf courses and some grass in ditches. The cave gets top billing because it is fabulous too, 300 million years old with amazingly long corridors of rare calcite boxwork stretching over 116 miles, though so compact the cave system occupies an area somewhat over a mile square. You can camp there at Elk Mountain year round.


Wildflowers, ferns and grasses, bushes and berries. Water lilies on the Seguin. This is the real deal. The rest of the year seems one endless packing up and moving, the great unpacking in Spring. Finally Mother Nature takes a rest.

In Muskoka and all through Georgian Bay, the people come out. Mostly in cars going somewhere, to the cottage and back, to another golf course or resort, along a river or lake to fish. For the extreme wilderness experience, going back way before Survivor, there's flying in by float plane into the bush. But what everyone dreams of is the boat on your own lake.

Canoes, kayaks, sailboats are the friendly alternative to getting around. Once you hit the big lakes and the wide open waters of Georgian Bay, it's the scream of the outboards and powerboats. Though they're everywhere, you don't often hear them. Most of the time they're docked at the marinas or in driveways. Basically it's a pain to get these beasts up and running after months of mothballing over the winter. And even if you're all set, the trailer hitched by noon, an hour's drive somewhere to some public boat launch you can't find, the clouds roll in and boom, it rains. If you've got the dough, buy a cottage with a boathouse.

Yacht's do better. Everyone seems to like them, the friendly waves from ship to ship and ship to shore. These are the gypsies of the lakes, the high-end tourists, who with the help of canals and locks, can arrive from Tampa and New York. Even the occasional full blown mega metal cruise ship loaded with Germans, makes it to deep harbor Parry Sound. Most drive-thru tourists take the local cruise ships from Gravenhurst, North Bay, French River, Parry Sound, Orillia, Penatanguishine, or the picnic style canvas-topped floating golf cart class from dozens of marinas. The big draw is the 30,000 Islands in Georgian Bay, a definite must for Japanese families from spring through fall. The endless green and then the reds and golds of autumn astonish the kids.

My favorites though are the tall ships, only a rare sight in summer, but a glimpse of one takes you to some deep place, while the last of the romantics would have to be the tugboats rescued from retirement and rust. A lot enjoy a new life in the hands of would-be old salts, who've done a great comic opera job on them, many strings of flags flying merrily on these bright spots of memory.

Relax and enjoy a summer in the country.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Last Day Of Spring

Spring. Thunder Creek on Georgian Bay, near Parry Sound. The nice thing about small towns is the country's never far away. In this case an easy 20 minutes on foot from downtown to the beach and another 20 along the jagged shores of Georgian Bay. You can't drive there either. One day you take your jacket off and before you know it, the fresh cool spring blasts away into the mighty heat of summer.

Country In The City

Spring. The Fitness Trail, Parry Sound. More the go for a stroll or walk the dog. The kids prefer the skateboard park. Snowmobiles in winter. But it is a great walk and you're still in town with the Sound a stone's throw away, two sandy public beaches ahead and a hike at the far end on the Rough Trail.

The Relief Of Spring

Spring. At the mouth of the Seguin River in Parry Sound. The firs always keep the country bright and stately, in winter doing double-duty sheltering the other browned-out woodlands in snow. Finally by May the bare branches go ahead again with a dance of sparkling yellow-green. The relief of spring.

Full Throttle

Spring. The Mag at full throttle. Every time I look through the viewfinder, I try not to settle for a jigsaw puzzle or picture postcard. I couldn't resist this one.

Water and Rock

Spring. Water comes alive on the Seguin River, a torrent rushing through your ears. Tap water spoils us. Always does the same old familiar routine.

Get Your Feet Wet In The Falls

Spring. On the Seguin River, the icy waters bubbling with snowmelt in the bright sun and you're wearing one too many sweaters. You could cool off, but it won't be relaxing. With so much water you would expect waterfalls a little bigger than this one, and there are 22 respectable ones around Bracebridge. In May, the only big spring event in cottage country, is the Bracebridge Festival of the Falls, you should definately check out for other good reasons. Bracebridge itself is a pretty nice town built high over a thundering river. A good place to stop and shop, the small-towners say, tired of jeans and T shirts. The action's beside the big dam downtown, a food fair with local arts and crafts, a children's fair, some wild Fire Department guys who let loose about a hundred thousand toy ducks over the falls, and people rowing after them, and bonus voyageurs and lumberjacks performing, and if you can't find the other 21 falls, well they've got free buses to them. I had some good shots but at low res because of a default setting you get after you replace your dead batteries. I'm a film camera kind of guy.

Aren't You Glad

Spring. Big Sound on Georgian Bay, near Parry Sound. The snow's finally gone.

Down A Cottage Road

Spring. The waters start to flow. A lake off the Seguin River. In these remote spots, you can get lucky and find some British couple who've built their dream place, a marina, a restaurant, B&B, or a nest of cottages. Follow the signs for their side road destinations, though be prepared for some odd encounters with crusty old locals who might prefer the dilapidated cabin fever style of hospitality. What you'll usually find are cottages and more cottages on both sides of the road. Of course you should have got your coffee back in town. Stopped at that gas station. Now there's no place to stop. You keep driving, hoping for a public beach or at least a boat launch. After a half-dozen of these cottage malls, you realize they don't have any, every foot of lake and riverfront, private property. Locals and cottagers walking along their gravel road visiting each other, will be friendly and puzzled. A what? Oh, well, no, not over here. Try that next town. But keep going and you'll get lucky somewhere.

The Milk Run

Spring. Canada Geese on the big arm of the Magnetawan River to Lake Cecebe, near the friendly pocketsized town of The Mag. You always see the geese and ducks circling, assembling in the fall. When they return in spring they must sneak in. A few here, a few there, along the Muskoka route home. The express out and the milk run back. The trees always remind me of people.

A Slippery Walk

Spring. Not a lake, but a lot of snow turned to ice and melting into slabs, in the Magnetawan.

Terra Incognita

Spring. An anonymous lake in the Magnetawan mellowing in the warm April air. Even the best map you can find won't give you a name or the one lane track to it. There are thousands.


The first cold breath of Spring off Lake Rosseau. Not a sign of a cottager yet. Near the dock, a beaver poked his head out an icehole and ducked under a few seconds later.
Animals, the real natives, provide us with the magic of this place.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


TERMS OF USE. All text, the photo gallery and individual photos of Through the Eye of Alan Gillis are copyright (c) 2007-2008 Alan Gillis. Non-commercial, private use is granted, but all other commercial rights are the property of Alan Gillis.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Travel books and tourist guides and travel magazines wear me out. Rarely do you get a sense of place and what's really going on. It's the fast food approach from people on the rush through fabulous must-see destinations.

Instead of a cluster bomb experience, on this blog you can spend some time absorbing the life of a particular place, Muskoka on Georgian Bay. It's home to many who can't play at the 101 golf courses or lounge around the resorts, the townsfolk who don't have 5 million for a cottage, but who make this place work for everybody else who comes. These pictures are what they see and live.

Others do come in droves, calling Muskoka and the Parry Sound District further north a second home, doubling the local population every summer, the cottagers from Toronto and the American Northeast who've been at it for a century and think to and do retire here. The many more tourists in cars, the fifth wheelers and doggone campers and luxury RVers and busloads from everywhere in Canada and the US, not forgetting the obvious Germans and Japanese nature-lovers. It is one of those must-see destinations, perhaps because it's immense ancient rock, lakes and rivers everywhere, forests pushing up over our heads. After five years here, I'd say it's a friendly place that beckons any traveller to return. That's why after all the mosquitoes, black flies and noseeums (only in spring), the pricey this and that, they're all here. Welcome to Muskoka and Parry Sound.