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People enjoy the natural water falls at High Falls, also the site of the High Falls Generating station on the North Branch of the Muskoka river in Bracebridge Ont. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

There is a lovely, lightly splashing waterfall at the end of this small pipe-shaped lake that pokes its stem into the western boundary of Algonquin Park.

The water tumbles from an unnamed creek down a long ladder of glacier-planed granite into this tiny lake where the only summer residents are two loons and their baby. Here the water is so clean that humans on the next body of water over drank it straight from the lake for decades and still could if they so wished.

The water flows by a campsite where someone with time and a chainsaw on his hands has carved a giant penis from a dead, but still erect, pine. It passes over two dams into the East River and soon past a strange stone monument in the middle of the bush where, three storeys up, lie the ashes of Clifton and Betsy Dyer, a wealthy, childless couple from Detroit who camped here during their honeymoon.

Rivers of Canada

This is the third in a Globe series on Canada's rivers, from coast to coast. 

Part 1: The story of the Red River Valley

Part 2: The story of the Ottawa River

Part 4: The story of the St. Lawrence River

At Lake Vernon the water flows into the town of Huntsville where, for the first time, it is known as the Muskoka River.

It is a river that flows in one direction but is pulled in many – the competing forces of locals versus cottagers, development versus preservation, the past, present and future endlessly debated and often at odds with each other. Perhaps this is inevitable in a place that is north but not north, wilderness but not wilderness, an exquisitely beautiful area of Central Ontario – known as Cottage Country – that is just far enough from the urban south to feel like escape, still close enough to be easily within reach.

The signs of development are hard to miss. The Muskoka works its way past Port Sydney, where it becomes known as the North Branch, and on to Bracebridge, where it roars over three impressive falls and past the town’s hydroelectric generating stations. Here the river doubles with water from the South Branch, which has come down from the Algonquin Highlands via the Oxtongue River and Lake of Bays, then takes a twisted route to Muskoka Falls and four more generating stations. A plaque in downtown Bracebridge notes that in 1894 the town became the first municipality in the province to own and operate its own hydroelectric generating station. Power – electrical, political and grassroots – was the story then, just as it is today.

The Muskoka River is whole, finally, as it pushes through the town and on past Santa’s Village, where it is possible on a hot August day for a grown person to head out onto Lake Muskoka on a giant swan while singing along with the recorded music: “… walkin’ in a winter wonderland…” Moving ever west, the Muskoka waters pass by $10-million monster summer homes, which locals often call “hockey-player cottages.” At Bala, there are two more falls – a tourist attraction to rival Bracebridge’s Santa – before the flow splits into the Moon and Musquash rivers and soon after pours into Georgian Bay.

From its source, the Muskoka River, in all its various permutations, will have fallen 400 metres and passed through 42 dams, most to do with water-level control, 11 for the production of hydroelectricity. Plans in Bala are for a new hydro project that would reroute the water into a generating station that will, among other things, mean an end to Purk’s Place, a boat livery and bait shop that has sat there for more than a century.

Bill Purkis, who took over from his father, says he will fight this idea to the end, if necessary. “They can scrape me off the rocks,” growls the 69-year-old, “and take me to the dump.”

Luxury Muskoka cottages and boat houses dot the shores of Lake Muskoka and surrounding waters. Locals call them"hockey-player cottages," and they are perhaps the most visible sign of the divide between locals and cottagers that has existed in the region for more than 100 years. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

A ‘great gulf’ between locals and cottagers

Never refer to this area of Canada as “The Muskokas.” The locals cringe. And they didn’t much care for a recent newspaper story that tagged them “The Hamptons of the North.” It’s “Muskoka,” nothing plural and, in their minds, nothing compares.

The great map-maker David Thompson paddled up the Muskoka River in 1837 in search of a safe military route between Ottawa and Lake Huron. When he paddled into the large, bay-and-island filled body of water that is famous today as Lake Muskoka, he named it “Swamp Ground Lake.” He found the “musketoes” horrible and the rocks “rude.”

Not everyone agreed. John Campbell and James Bain, Jr. count as the first summer visitors to Muskoka, leaving Toronto’s Union Station on Aug. 5, 1861, transferring from train to steamer at Barrie and making their way from Orillia by rowboat and walking. When they dropped in at McCabe’s very rudimentary tavern where Gravenhurst lies today, they were officially in Muskoka. McCabe told them they could use a scow he had on Muskoka Bay, and they rowed out to an island where they collected plants and took a nap. The locals had no idea what to make of such strange visitors.

When Campbell and Bain got back to the city, they raved about the beauty of the landscape. Soon their friends began planning their own summer adventures in the north. By 1864 they were calling themselves The Muskoka Club.

Summer visitors and old cruise steamers at Muskoka Wharf are seen in this turn-of-the-century photo. (Handout)

Settlers began moving into the area in large numbers after 1868. Many would find their free land grants a bitter disappointment. Apart from rare pockets, farming was impossible in the Canadian Shield. Poet Al Purdy had good cause to call it “the country of defeat.”

There were, however, alternatives to farming. First was lumbering, the Muskoka River watershed ideal for spring log runs. Sawmills soon became centres of small and growing communities. Before the railway and passable roads made the near north accessible, steamboats were used to tote supplies, transport early cottagers and bring in and take out guests to the dozens of lodges and resorts that soon dotted the picturesque lakes.

Muskoka proved most attractive to Americans, especially wealthy families anxious to escape the oppressive summer heat in industrial cities like Pittsburgh. One late 19th-century writer described the steel city at night as “Hell with the lid taken off.” By comparison, the cool Muskoka even breeze was air-conditioning.

Vacationers could catch the train north to Gravenhurst, where they would board a steamer heading out to the resorts and islands. One part of the lake now known as Millionaire’s Row was first nicknamed Little Pittsburgh.

Over the years as many as 150 resorts operated in the area, with new cottages rising each year. Come summer and the area would transform dramatically, the population exploding. Big bands played at Dunn’s Pavilion in Bala and Bigwin Inn on Lake of Bays. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the Dorsey brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, were familiar entertainers. Clark Gable and Carol Lombard were guests. The royal family came from the Netherlands, the Rockefellers from America.

Not surprisingly, there were members of The Muskoka Club who were aghast to see how their promotion of roughing it in tents was gradually morphing into evening wear at the lodges and comfortable cottages along the shoreline. But the transformation, once begun, was unstoppable. A well-kept summer house was a priority, claimed Canadian Architect and Builder magazine in 1900: “People do not now play at temporary barbarism as they used to.”

The discouraged settlers must have found the discrepancy between their lives and the lives of the summer visitors shocking. When the family of Pittsburgh industrialist James Kuhn arrived after their cottage on Bell Isle was completed in 1902, they came with more than 30 massive trunks. Their “cottage” had eight maids, two butlers, a housekeeper, a chore boy, two handymen and a captain and crew for the family boat. No wonder so many locals soon found it far wiser to work the lakes than the land.

People canoe and kayak on the North Branch of the Muskoka river in Port Sydney Ont. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

As the steamship era passed and wealthy visitors began demanding their own boats, a new industry was created: the building of fine, mahogany-and-brass cruisers. Names of local builders – W.J. Johnston, Bert Minett, Henry Ditchburn, C.J. Duke, Thomas and Ernie Greavette – became famous for the boats that are today prized possessions, the annual Antique Boat Shows drawing thousands to the various wharfs to drool and imagine what it was once like to be very rich and very idle on Lake Muskoka.

It all seemed such a perfect, symbiotic relationship – the visitors and the locals. Author Ann Hathaway wrote in her 1904 Muskoka Memories that, “The very name ‘tourist’ has a charm in Muskoka; even the sunburnt settler children look forward with delight to the time of their arrival and burst out of the little schoolhouse singing, ‘The tourists are coming, hurrah, hurrah.’”

They may have cheered the money arriving, but not so much the rich visitors who regarded the locals as hired help, which in fact they were, and took rather a colonial attitude to the relationship. It persists to this day, though the summer visitors now drive up from Toronto and Southwestern Ontario rather than arrive by train from Pittsburgh.

Ann Hathaway saw the side of the story beyond the cheering. “For the past few years,” she noted more than a century back, “the population of Muskoka has been gradually dividing itself into two classes – tourists and settlers, otherwise capital and labour, pleasure and toil, butterflies and bees … and between the two there is a great gulf fixed … one thing is sure, each class would be badly off without the other.”

While Muskoka's original tourists stayed in tents and lived off the land, it wasn't long before grand, luxurious cottages became the norm. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

If the grand cottages of her day bespoke of old money – the Mellon banking family of Pittsburgh and the Eatons of Toronto, for example – there was at least a discreetness to them, something almost entirely lacking today. Over the past few decades, new money has dotted the shorelines of the Muskoka watershed, vast modern palaces owned by wealthy athletes (mostly hockey players) and high-tech billionaires and the odd Hollywood celebrity such as Goldie Hawn and daughter Kate Hudson.

Area golf courses and high-end resorts have struggled in recent times, but last year Christie’s, the international real-estate powerhouse, said there had been a 66-per-cent increase in top-end waterfront purchases. Property sales in excess of $2-million set a new record in 2014 after several years of sagging sales. Perfectly good summer cottages are often razed to the ground and replaced with garish all-season structures.

“I have to be careful how I say this,” says Ken Black, “but I have a certain distaste bordering on disgust for the ostentatious cottages of Muskoka.” Black has lived his entire 83 years in Muskoka, and today the retired educator and politician lives right on the Muskoka River in Bracebridge."On the other hand, they employ a hell of a lot of tradesmen. I just wish more were like the originals … ”

Muskoka's Bala Falls are the site for a proposed hydroelectric dam. But locals say the project is “Too big, too ugly, too dangerous and bad for the area’s economy.” (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

‘We’re doing everything we can to keep this from happening’

Bill Purkis is standing at the foot of Bala’s gorgeous north falls. He is breaking the law and couldn’t care less. He is leaning out over the boiling, roaring water and has a powerful right hand wrapped around a red caution sign as if he were about to throttle it.

“Notice,” the sign says. “Public use of this land is prohibited pursuant to Section 28 of the Public Lands Act.”

Mr. Purkis and others have been warned they could be charged with trespassing. The signs are on Crown Land, but it would be leased by the government to Swift River Energy, the company that was approved back in 2006 to construct and manage the new dam.

Swift River spokesperson Karen McGhee, an engineer, points out that “the project is actually located at a site where two existing dams are located. These dams were erected over 100 years ago.” Bala also produced hydroelectricity until the 1950s – and still has one small generator operating that is mostly out of sight – and Swift River argues that its project is hardly a departure. “Back to the Future,” is their motto. “Building on Bala’s Legacy.”

So many locals are against the project, however, that it has fallen several years behind schedule and ground has yet to be broken. The company says that it would be a good neighbour, would produce clean energy and create local jobs during the construction period. It also says there would be no effect on the water quality.

The old familiar themes of the Muskoka watershed are being played out here: the past competing with the future, locals up against outsiders, differing pulls on water that only knows to flow in one direction – down.

This is of increasing importance to area people. Ken Black was one of the founders of the Muskoka Watershed Council nearly 20 years ago. “There was no conservation authority in Muskoka,” he says, “no single agency responsible for water quality throughout the watershed.”

Mr. Black says he used to tell Hugh Mackenzie, then mayor of Huntsville, that “when you flush your toilet, I have to drink that water three days later.” Eventually, the watershed group convinced all the municipalities to improve their treatment systems and today, considering all the development, the water quality is surprisingly high.

Tradition also matters. The Muskoka Conservancy, which is dedicated to preserving the natural heritage of the area waters, is now one of the country’s largest land trusts, accounting for nearly 10 square kilometres of land and more than a thousand metres of sensitive shoreline. Many in Bala feel the falls deserve heritage protection. All over the area there are “Save the Bala Falls” and “Stop the Hydro Plant” signs, including a massive one right in front of the old bait shop.

“The Muskoka River has been almost totally dammed,” Mr. Purkis says. “We’re doing everything we can to keep this from happening.”

“I was a hippy, so I’m used to going up against authority,” Mr. Purkis says. “This is such an easy one to fight.”

Township of Muskoka Lakes councillor Sandy Currie, who opposes the project but is usually outvoted by councillors who support it, is convinced that nothing good can come of damming the falls. “It’s not just ugly and unnecessary,” he says, “it’s going to harm businesses here.” The general store is closing down. Swift River says this is an unfortunate reality of cottagers’ changing shopping habits.

Every day, Mr. Purkis says, a few more names are added to the petition that his group hopes will stop the project permanently. One of the most recent signatories was James Bartleman, who served as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario between 2002 and 2007, was raised in a Métis family living at the site of the Port Carling dump, and went on – thanks to the largesse of a wealthy cottager from Pittsburgh – to graduate from university and pursue a distinguished career in the foreign service.

He was happy to sign on. “Once it’s gone,” he says, “it’s gone forever.”

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