On an Anglican minister’s modest salary, owning a piece of cottage country near Toronto was inconceivable, even back in the 1930s. Yet this quintessential Canadian dream lingered in the minds of Rev. Leslie Hunt and his wife, Florence – newlyweds with a passion for the wilderness.
So it was with great glee they learned of an opportunity in 1937 to lease a lakeside lot in storied Algonquin Provincial Park, constructing in 1937 a small wooden cottage next to Smoke Lake.
Reachable only by boat, their summer home had no electricity, telephone, shower or toilet, which was just fine by them.
The Hunts have since passed away but the rustic cottage they built still stands, and is still in their family. It’s one of 326 private cottages that remain in Ontario’s oldest park – and that were, until recently, slated for demolition.
The provincial government is proposing to give cottagers a reprieve on their lease-termination date, set for Dec. 31, 2017, and allow them to stay until the end of 2038.
The cottagers have opponents, but they have also amassed several prominent backers, including former park managers who maintain the cottage owners are part of the fabric of Algonquin, and have been good stewards of the land.
Owned by a diverse cast of characters – from church ministers to war veterans, doctors to artists, Americans to Order of Canada recipients – the Algonquin cottages have faced the prospect of removal before. Invited into the park as early as 1905 to generate revenue for the province and to promote tourism, cottagers were declared incompatible with provincial parks by the Ontario government in 1954. The province immediately stopped granting new land leases, while existing leases, along with leases for cottages in Rondeau Provincial Park next to Lake Erie, were to be phased out entirely by the 1980s or so.
The threat of destruction was so real then that Garth Hunt, the Hunts’ son, was reluctant to bring his own young sons to the family cottage. He didn’t want them to fall in love with the place the way he and his sister had, only to see it destroyed.
“The lifestyle in Algonquin, as we see it anyway, is not the typical cottage thing,” Mr. Hunt, 68, said Thursday as he sat next to his eldest son, Scott, in their countryside bungalow west of Toronto. “This isn’t the Muskokas or Haliburton,” he added. “The things that are important and the values are different [in Algonquin].”
There is some opposition to allowing the cottages to remain. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is urging the province to stick with the 2017 lease-expiry date and boot the cottagers out. The group contends the recreational homes threaten shorelines and ruin the wild atmosphere Algonquin is known for in Canada and around the world
“The law has changed since leases were in the park and even since the last renewal,” said Janet Sumner, executive director of CPAWS Wildlands League. “The park now is governed by the new Parks Act, which says the park has to be managed for ecological integrity.”
Despite these concerns, the Algonquin cottagers have drawn strong support and prominent figures to their fight to remain in the 7,630-square-kilometre park, which lies roughly 300 kilometres north of Toronto. Algonquin’s previous superintendent, John Winters, who retired last year, backs the proposal to extend leases, although he says the government should consider eliminating the few handfuls of cottages built deep in the park’s interior, away from the main transportation corridor, Highway 60.
Norm Richards, managing director of Ontario Parks from 1981 to 1999, views the cottages as part of the park’s heritage, while Mike Wilton, president of Algonquin Eco Watch, said the owners have been good caretakers and advocates for Algonquin. His environmental organization has not found evidence the cottages have harmed the park’s ecosystem.
“The cottage owners have a good understanding of what the park stands for and what it needs for the future,” Mr. Wilton said, noting many of the leases have been kept within families – passed from one generation to the next.
Even a former Ontario premier supports maintaining the cottages. Bill Davis, Progressive Conservative premier from 1971 to 1985, has sent a letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources saying the cottagers were not detrimental to the park during his tenure. Mr. Davis suggested the province should consider making the leases permanent.
The Algonquin Park Residents Association is advocating for permanency. The group’s president, John Olsen, whose parents bought a cottage and park lease from a friend in the 1960s, said the province should do away with its lease-termination policy and give cottagers a sense of security. The group is also seeking several other changes to the government’s proposal, including maintaining current development guidelines and allowing subletting.
Owners – their cottages limited to one storey and 1,280 square feet – pay lease and service fees to the province along with property taxes. As part of its proposal to extend the Algonquin leases, the government is reviewing whether to raise these payments. Annual land rental fees range from $530 to $4,024, noted a spokesperson with the Ministry of Natural Resources. The yearly service fee, which covers services such as garbage collection and road-access maintenance, is $205 per cottage.
Next year, the Hunt cottage will welcome its fourth generation: Garth Hunt’s first grandchild. Like he and his sister did, Mr. Hunt’s sons, Scott and Bryan, have fallen in love with Algonquin and the family’s rustic summer home by Smoke Lake. To this day, there is no electricity, shower or toilet, although they do get cellphone service.
Aside from their passion for the wild, the cottage offers the brothers a link to their grandmother, Florence, who died well before they were born. It was her childhood memories of camp summers in Algonquin that led the family here.
“This is the one place where we have a connection to her,” said Scott Hunt, 32. The cottage still has the curtains his grandmother stitched, the utensils she used, and many other knick-knacks she brought over by canoe. “That place has always remained the same,” his father noted. “There is a timeless quality to it.”