Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2009

Muskoka: Cottage Country Canadian-style

The Lady of the Lake

She waits patiently for us on a lovely fall day. The passion of summer has subsided; it is the serene season. She takes us on an evening dinner cruise over lightly ruffled waters on which are reflected the seasoned reds, golds, and greens of a Canadian autumn. We are transported peacefully across the lake and into one of the most resplendent sunsets we have seen in our many decades in cottage country. In the tranquil course of events we let slip our sense of time and become absorbed in an easy state of mind which is the essence of Muskoka.

The Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company

The lady in question is the Segwun: one of the most successful naval restorations in North America; the continent’s oldest operating steamship still in commission; and tangible evidence of one of the first Golden Ages of travel and tourism in Canadian history. It was here in Muskoka, a 1600 square mile area of granite, pristine lakes, and abundant forests, that Canada saw the birth of a home-grown tourism industry.

The Segwun was constructed in the shipyards of Glasgow, Scotland in 1887. Built of of Welsh iron, and transported to Gravenhurst, Ontario where it was assembled as a side-paddlewheel steamer. A “Royal Mail Ship,” it carried mail, passengers, and freight through what are still considered to be some of the most beautiful lakes in North America. And it was the only means of travel throughout the area at that time. This was long before roads reached the region, which today lies about two hours by car north of Toronto; minutes by private plane.

In that Golden Age however, visitors arrived by train. An equally romantic journey — at least from today’s perspective — the trip by train to the Muskoka Lakes in the 19th century took its passengers through what was still in many respects a wilderness. And it was this escape to a true wilderness that was the prime appeal of Muskoka; the urban areas to the south had already created a hunger for the solace and solitude that forests, lakes, and private spaces offered.

This wilderness today is considerably “managed” (understatement) but Muskoka is still Ontario’s principal exurban getaway from the cities and the megalopolis to the south. One can still feel re-integrated into a natural way of life where time and stress dissipate of their own accord. And despite the gentrification and amoeba-like reach of the urban culture — especially the soulless invasion of unnecessary internal combustion engines that drive the Muskoka faithful nuts — this is still a region where, if a canoe is your vessel of choice, you can enjoy a peaceful, private morning paddle on the mirrored surface of a lake, and have a quiet word with the loon who glides gracefully by on a parallel course.

The steamship era

The Steamship Era on these lakes (1893 to 1929) was a time of innocence when city folk from Canada (and our American neighbours across the Great Lakes) travelled in style and comfort, before the great pre-boomer cottage boom began. And the Segwun (Springtime in Ojibwa) was not the only lady of the lake in those days. The Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company had a whole fleet of steam-powered ships, of which the Segwun was the flagship, that conveyed families and visitors to their remote cottages and island properties as well as to elegant resorts where the amenities were plentiful but also reasonable and appropriate to the natural environment.

Grand resorts

Initially it was the grand resorts that hosted the urbanites and today their numerous, world class, contemporary descendents still provide an all-season, full-service Muskokan experience. It was a certain William Pratt who in 1870 built the first grand resort (Rosseau House) and by 1890 there were 19 altogether in the area. By the beginning of the 20th century, the number had increased to 57 and seven years later the number jumped to 76. Muskoka, once a lumber and logging boom area, had been transformed into a travel and tourism industry.

The human habitations that were scattered throughout this region and accessible only by the Segwun and her sister ships were themselves models of environmental integrity. This is not surprising given the numbers of people and the relative vastness of Muskoka — and given that the automobile had not yet transformed the landscape. And even though the economic realities of the 21st century are very different from the “good old days,” Muskoka still is an ideal at which visitors from densely populated areas on the planet marvel.

Come aboard

Perhaps you would like to pause for a moment and visit The Muskoka Fleet and take a virtual cruise on our lakes and into the past. I’ll meet you back here with some more goodies.

Muskoka’s Exurban Culture

Cottage, cabin, lodge, camp — or just “the lake.” For most Canadians (especially Muskokans) the words are Proustian, not unlike the psychological/philosophical thoughts and feelings of a Walden Pond — or even a Golden Pond. (Canadian cottage life is not without its family squabbles.)

Muskoka may not be as comprehensive an examination of the state of the nation and the human species as Walden Pond, but I know that Muskoka residents (permanent or seasonal) would nod their heads in agreement with statements by Thoreau such as “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Or better yet: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Muskoka is an uncommon dream realized, and a template for all “cottage life.” It is the stuff of dreams in the New World to which people came to escape the madding crowd and to take profit and pleasure from this world’s extensive natural resources. The challenge now — this is a global issue — is to keep those resources sustainable.

The Muskoka Lakes are numerous and of all shapes and sizes but the three main ones are actually interconnected lakes: Lake Rosseau, Lake Joseph, and the larger Lake Muskoka. The name Muskoka is presumed to come from the name of an Algonquin chief “Misquuckkey.” It is also an area that was explored by great names in Canadian history such as Samuel de Champlain, John Graves Simcoe, and David Thompson. The area was opened up to settlement when the government began buying land through a treaty with 36 Chiefs of the Ojibwa Nation. This was also part of the government’s concerted policy of expansion northward into what was called Canada West. It was also part of the Free Land Grant Act of 1868 under which homesteaders were given land in exchange for opening up the region.

Having come from crowded Europe, early settlers found in the Muskoka area an idyllic landscape and relatively easy to get around in because of the inland waterways. But it was an ordeal to get there from the southern regions which were already populated. And that of course is the conundrum; Muskoka was what it was because of where it was.

And as the region developed as a major travel and tourism district, the scenic splendour drew more and more people. Today, it is the destination of choice for many Canadians in the southern part of Ontario but also for visitors from overseas and from the United States for whom the natural amenities, the diversity of accommodation and activities, and the favourable currency exchange rate are the main attractions. Fortunately, Muskoka has not yet experienced what that great philosopher Yogi Berra described when he said, “The place has gotten so popular that nobody goes there anymore.”

In many ways, Muskoka is the extension of the frontier spirit. It may seem rather incongruous that early settlers came to this country, made long journeys through the Great Lakes system, and built their cities and towns in what was virgin territory, only — at the beginning of the 20th century — to begin escaping those cities again and heading back to nature. We are such a restless lot. For some, the disagreeable memories of industrial cities in homelands such as Britain soon started to raise their ugly heads again. And of course today, as is the case in so many developed nations elsewhere, there is a love-hate relationship with cities but an even stronger love relationship with the kind of natural beauty that Muskoka offers.

Exploring the Canadian Shield

To understand Muskoka, you also have to understand rocks; the Canadian Shield to be precise.

They are one of the first things you notice when you drive north on Highway 11 and enter Muskoka. Great pink and grey granite outcroppings along the side of the road — and through which that road has often been blasted — are just the tip of the geological iceberg. The Shield is a vast area that (if you look at a map of Canada) surrounds Hudson Bay and covers much of Ontario and Québec in a shield-like formation. The more you enter the heart of Muskoka, the more you realize that these hard crystalline rocks (granite and gneiss) with their streaks and bands of minerals glinting in the sun are quintessential Muskoka. Later, when you sun yourself on these same rocks beside the water, you start to realize that Muskoka has its own unique beauty but also a topographic texture that is not found in too many other places.

And what you are sitting on, swimming beside, hiking through, are rocks as old as the Earth itself. Welcome to Precambrian Canada; to some of the oldest mountains on the planet. They are now worn down through rough and tough glaciation — which only took millions of years — but their solid core is as enduring as Muskokans’ passion for their cottage country. And if you are a golfer (more on Muskoka as a golfer’s dream shortly), you quickly learn to hit the ball straight because if it hits one of the Muskoka rocks, it will end up in Cleveland.

And the gouging effect of those great ice sheets that covered this part of the continent also created these blessed lake basins as well as a spider’s web of secondary waterways, bogs, ponds, and swamps. The debris of the great Muskokan landscape project was scattered hither and yon amongst the deciduous and coniferous forests (visualize slender, elegant white birch) forming a terrain that was and is intransigent in terms of farming, road and rail construction, but for human recreation and metaphysical emancipation this land of lakes is the sine qua non.

Have a look for yourself

Time for another break. Have a look at Muskoka.

Visit The StoneHorse Studios for a slide show, or

Steve Blackwell’s Images of Muskoka.

When you are feeling dreamy and relaxed, come back. I’ll meet you here.

Resort Haven

In an archival photograph from 1910, a group of summer visitors are gathered on the dock of a resort on Lake Rosseau. The “ladies” are dressed in long ankle-length white dresses with long puffy white sleeves. Some also wear large brimmed white hats. The “gentlemen” are dressed in suits and ties and fedoras or jaunty straw boaters set rather rakishly on their heads. Even the little children are dressed in miniature costumes of those of their elders. A few daring young women are sporting white dresses that show their ankles (the latter of course modestly covered by dark stockings).

Tied to the dock is a flotilla of cedar strip canoes awaiting this happy party. Two young women have already embarked on a morning excursion and can be seen sitting erect and ever so proper in their watercraft. Because it is a still photograph, I can’t tell if they are using the proper J stroke when they paddle but I suspect that they are: this is, after all, Muskoka.

In another photograph, a group of young ladies in knee-length dark “bathing costumes” are enjoying the waters of Lake Muskoka just offshore at one of the area’s famous resorts. A rather stern looking gentleman on shore is standing with his hands on his hips monitoring the scene.

These 19th-century resorts, many named after vacation areas in Britain, were idyllic getaways for these proper ladies and gentlemen and their offspring. The terrain is the same as modern Muskoka of course, the sense of being comfortably ensconced and close to nature is also the same, but that’s where the similarity ends. I wonder what these early visitors to Muskoka would think if they saw the modern, world class, activity-oriented resorts of today. And I would love to see their reaction to the summer garb and free body language of today’s “young folk.” (“It’s enough to curl your hair!”)

The resorts of Muskoka today are full-service properties that provide vacation opportunities for every budget. And as you can see from the Discover Muskoka website, there is a wide range of accommodation for visitors: B&Bs, RV and campgrounds, cottage resorts, hostels, inns, hotels, motels, overnight marinas, private cottage rentals, spas, and even pet resorts.

The full-service resort experience however has always been very popular. A fine example of this very Muskokan vacation experience is Deerhurst Resort. This inclusive resort has been a staple of the travel and tourism industry of Muskoka since 1896. It has also been recognized as a top international family resort. The book 100 Best Family Resorts in North America names Deerhurst as one of three in Ontario and one of 12 in all of Canada.

The Algonquin Experience

Muskoka is a travel experience that is multi-dimensional and multi-faceted. This superb natural resource is home to many different outdoor experiences. Within Muskoka or in close proximity to it are a number of provincial parks that are maintained as true wilderness reserves where the environmental and ecological integrity of the parks is carefully monitored.

The prime example of this wise public use of the natural resources of Muskoka is Algonquin Park. “The Park” is Ontario’s oldest and one of the largest in Canada. In this 7725 square kilometre park you will find prodigious forests, spectacular scenery, and a great abundance of wildlife: 262 species of birds, 50 species of fish, and more than 1000 species of native plants. Like all of Muskoka, Algonquin Park is a naturalist’s dream.

Algonquin Park is also very important to Canadians because it was the inspired venue for one of our most important painters, Tom Thomson.

Take an art break

Thomson was known for his evocative paintings of the rugged northern Ontario landscapes. When you have seen his work and then visit Muskoka, you will recognize why this part of Canada has such an appeal to artists. So I invite you to peruse Thomson’s work at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery (a day’s outing from Muskoka). If you meet me back here, I have a few other things I want to tell you about Muskoka.

Muskoka Reading

Muskoka has also inspired many writers both professional and amateur. Family journals, community archives, local art and photography publications, and numerous books extol the region’s history and appeal. The titles of the books speak for themselves:

Adventures of a Bigwin Inn Postmistress;

Treasure Chest of Muskoka Memories;

When Giants Fall: The Gilmour Quest for Algonquin Pine;

Muskoka: Change of Seasons;

Browning Island, Lake Muskoka: Cottagers Remember the Good Old Days;

The Gilded Cage: Gravenhurst German Prisoner of War Camp 20;

A Nineteenth Century Algonquin Adventure;

Halfway to Elsewhere: Selected Poems.

For more information on these publications and others, visit Fox Meadow Books.

Foremost Muskoka

I happen to believe that golf is a very complex human behaviour and ritual. I also think golfers can be unnecessarily stereotyped and misunderstood. And I will dare to go even a step further and suggest that this “game” is a primal human experience that is best played in an environment that reflects the game’s inherent values.

If golf is your passion, Muskoka is calling.

The first thing you should know about golf in Muskoka is that here you will find lots of world class courses and the kind of low-key but challenging courses (where your powers of concentration will be put to the test because of the views) that appeal to the likes of the golfer-aesthete-philosopher.

So, pack your clubs and start by checking out The Muskoka Golf Trail. The five spectacular courses featured here will not disappoint you. The pictures you see on this website are very much in the “what you see is what you get” school of tourism promotion. (I’ve been there; golfed at least two of them and drooled over the others).

But let me also make a personal pitch for two other courses.

In my experience, Taboo is the ultimate in Canadian golf. This is a course that is sculpted out of the Canadian Shield. It is also the home course of a local Canadian boy who made good: Mike Weir of Masters fame. It’s not cheap but neither is any other once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But let me also tell you about one of my favourite golf courses in Muskoka; Diamond in the Ruff. But don’t tell too many people because my friend Fay and I like to have a quiet game here on a beautiful Muskoka summer or fall’s day and to be able to take our time and breathe in the beauty of the place.

And when I say beauty, I am talking about a golf course as a medium for aesthetic and contextual appreciation. Like the boutique hotel phenomenon that offers an alternative to the stunning grand hotel, Diamond in the Ruff is, as the name suggests, a jewel of a course that is on a human scale but is also perfectly integrated into the Muskokan landscape. In fact, it is Muskoka encapsulated.

Transitional Muskoka

In addition to being a premier Canadian travel destination, Muskoka is also representative of the challenge that faces all areas of natural beauty — wherever on this planet — and the travel and tourism industries that provide mechanisms and infrastructures so that the general public can enjoy these destinations. But how do we visit paradise without corrupting it? First nations peoples for whom Muskoka was for thousands of years prime hunting and fishing territory are often credited with having the kind of non-invasive and collaborative approach to their natural world that veteran Muskokans strive to emulate.

This is easier said than done. Cottage country and Muskoka have become ideals because of their natural resources and therefore have drawn urban populations to them. Traditionally, Muskoka has always been an escape route to a simple and pure existence for those for whom urban centres, while being important economic engines of society, have also become alienated from the natural world. But when the city moves to cottage country and urban mores and material concerns are transplanted here, a negative impact on the social and natural environment can ensue. And those who are Muskoka-wise know that when cottage country becomes an extension of the city as opposed to a separate resource, a Rubicon has been crossed.

To experience Muskoka fully is also to understand the delicate balance of human activity in the natural world.

CyberMuskoka

Here are the principal websites where you can get all kinds of additional information on Muskoka.

Discover Muskoka

Muskoka Magazine

Where Muskoka magazine

Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce

Muskoka Airport

Muskoka District

Other stories about Muskoka from the Philosophical Traveller

Zen and the Art of Muskoka Wooden Boats

Norman Bethune: A Doctor Without Borders

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