Kittyhawk – one word, not two – is a celebrity in Georgian Bay’s crowded waters.
As Guy Johnstone pilots the three-tonne mahogany cruiser between the islands of the bustling Lake Huron bay, a languid summer getaway suddenly experiences a kind of red-carpet frenzy.
Heads turn, children wave excitedly, broad smiles break out on impassive sun-glassed faces, and faster yachts slow down so boaters can play paparazzi, pulling out their iPhones to record the moment for posterity.
The evocative power of history resides in Mr. Johnstone’s low-slung 32-foot boat: Kittyhawk once belonged to Orville Wright, and remains the most vivid reminder of the airman’s surprising connection with these sparkling waves. Nearly ever year from 1916 to 1941, the first man to make a powered, controlled airplane flight spent restorative summers on an island in Central Ontario’s cottage country.
“It gives me goosebumps just getting into that boat,” said Mr. Johnstone, a 75-year-old retired businessman who has meticulously restored the cruiser from its former derelict state since acquiring it in 1972. “This is the last remaining major Wright artifact in private hands, and the closest link with what might be the happiest part of his life.”
As a beautiful inanimate relic, Kittyhawk handles the attention-getting side of fame more placidly than Orville Wright ever did.
Orville never wanted to be a celebrity. In 1903, the native of Dayton, Ohio, soared for 12 seconds above the windswept dunes near Kitty Hawk, N.C., which was just enough time to change the world and his life.
That feat became his curse: He resisted the adoring crowds that distracted him and his brother Wilbur from meaningful work, and he could never face up to the requirements of being a national hero: awards, committees, speeches, too much attention. Orville Wright just wanted to get away, to tinker with compliant machinery and re-engineer his life to a point where he was back in control.
“Orville hated being in the public eye, and that’s one of the main reasons he came to Canada,” said Mr. Johnstone, whose father-in-law serviced local cottages and got to know the aviator. “Here he found friends who didn’t want anything from him except to be his friend. He could sit around a campfire singing songs, or enter sailing races or just putter around – he loved to putter, and if you love to putter, boy, the cottage is the best place to do it.”
As he steers the Kittyhawk past Wright’s former home of Lambert Island, he points out the site where the tireless aviator built a steeply inclined railway to carry heavy loads to his hilltop home – setting a new standard for summer-cottage puttering.
For three or four months of prolonged cottage-country summers, Wright went completely native, inhabiting the Group of Seven landscape with the leisurely single-mindedness it deserved.
He liked to spot the blueberries among his island rocks and turn them into pie, lead nature walks for the small children whose company he treasured, tinker with grumpy engines that always responded to his touch, and offer up the services of his capacious cruiser for the neighbourhood grocery run, fetching milk from a native woman who supplied it still warm from the cow.
“And who do you think we have as a milkman?” no less a Georgian Bay visitor than the painter A.Y. Jackson liked to ask his friends, hoping to astound them with the ordinariness of a man who couldn’t stand being extraordinary.
His first visit was intended as a cure for depression. The more assertive and cerebral Wilbur had died of typhoid fever in 1912, leaving Orville to contend with the earthbound consequences of their aeronautical success: patent disputes, business struggles, bitter feuds with rival aviators and with the Smithsonian Institution, which stubbornly refused to recognize the scale of the Wrights’ achievement.
It was all too much for a man whose body was racked with pain from a 1908 plane crash. By the time his friends and family cajoled him into making his Canadian escape in 1916, he couldn’t even answer letters.
And just like that, the burdens of being Orville Wright disappeared. “His whole life changed because of that summer,” Mr. Johnstone said. “He just felt great up here.”
Canada’s restorative lakes and rivers and seashores have long served as a hideaway for America’s rich and famous, but Orville Wright was different: He did his hiding in plain sight, finding a soothing kind of normality in the alternative life of a tightly knit summer community.
In his own mind, he stopped being the too-famous Orville Wright the moment he drove his souped-up Pierce-Arrow across the border. This intense aversion to self-publicity was put on display when he bought the slightly used mahogany cruiser in 1931 and refused to give it a name.
His Georgian Bay neighbours wouldn’t tolerate this untraditional anonymity: They presented him with gleaming letters that spelled out Kitty Hawk – which local craftsmen, having little awareness of Orville or history, installed as Kittyhawk.
The perspective seems entirely right, a tiny in-joke for a highly introverted man. But Mr. Johnstone insists that the Canadian Orville was much more outgoing.
“I’m not sure how he made out with 20 people around the campfire, but in small groups he was probably the most interesting guy you could talk to,” he said.
All traces of the Wright habitat that might evoke those conversations are gone – demolished by a subsequent owner who tired of the gawkers and scavengers that the Orville Wright legend attracted, even in Georgian Bay.
Only the Kittyhawk remains, and Mr. Johnstone is of an age where he knows he must dispose of the big boat that is becoming too much to handle.
And this, at last, is where celebrity could have its value. He says he’s turned down an offer of $500,000 and wants more for the craft he’s had restored three times. American institutions, appreciative of the Wright connection, would happily accept it as a donation.
But for Mr. Johnstone, who knows the Kittyhawk’s role in Canadian history better than anyone, the Americanizing of the boat would not be right.
“The best place for it,” he said, “is right here in Georgian Bay.”