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Ontario cottage country cleans up after severe flooding

Paul Hamill repairs his flood damaged dock at Deer Lake Resort Park just outside of Huntsville, May 17, 2013. Hamill, who lives in NewMarket, will spend most of his long weekend making repairs to both his dock and flood damaged cottage.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Instead of kicking back on the dock this weekend, Stan Tick and his family are going to try to fix theirs. And pick up the flotsam and jetsam, including massive logs, that have been deposited on the lawn of their Lake Vernon property.

"It was very – I'm not going to say scary, because you're used to the conditions – this was really quite out of the ordinary," said Mr. Tick, who watched from his cottage as neighbours' docks floated by during a storm last month. "It was just incredible."

Victoria Day weekend is traditionally a time of relaxation for thousands who head north to Ontario's cottage country for the annual rite of passage marking the end of a long winter and the unofficial start of summer. But not this year. Like the Ticks, many others will be assessing the damage after heavy rains caused more severe flooding than the area had seen since a major flood in 2008.

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This one came without warning on Friday, April 19 – the perfect mix of melting snow, heavy rainfall and dangerous winds. Water crashed through dams in Bracebridge and sent ice slamming into boat houses along rivers in Huntsville. Docks were lost in the torrent, boat houses were heavily damaged and homes were flooded.

Karen Sawyer's permanent residence on Muskoka Lake was among them. She said the day it began, she started moving electronics and other valuables up from her basement as a precautionary measure. By the end of the weekend, her basement – which housed her main living room and bedrooms for her 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son – had a new addition: four feet of water.

She's had to throw out baseboard heaters, rip up the carpet and subfloor and tear out drywall and insulation. "The worst part is, during an emergency, if Hydro needs to turn off the power, insurance will not cover me because of the flooding," said Ms. Sawyer, who estimates the flooding caused about $30,000 worth of damage. Hydro One cut power in her area two days after the flood started as a precaution. Nearly a month later, it's still not back on.

"We're just dealing with generators, candlelight and barbecues," she said. "We are surviving, but it's tough. The neighbours are letting us shower at their homes."

"A lot of people have had a traumatic experience either personally or with their property," Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith said. "I know a lot of docks and boat houses have been damaged, so people should be prepared to inspect their property when they come up."

When he went to check on his cottage two weeks ago, Mr. Tick, a Hamilton-based lawyer, was surprised to see water still "licking the floorboards" – and his cottage is on stilts, nine feet above the ground. He rebuilt it seven years ago on the site of the original, which was purchased in 1946 by his wife's grandfather.

Robert and Thersa Bowers' home in Bracebridge was destroyed in the storm. The retired couple have lived in it since 1976, and Mrs. Bowers said she has always wished they could move it to higher ground. They have been bounced between a neighbour's house, their daughter's house and finally a trailer. Mrs. Bowers said she's not very good at change.

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"You're in shock. You're kind of lost," she said. "You have difficulty in making decisions and you don't feel comfortable most places and you don't know where anything is."

Community members, under the leadership of the local Lions Club, are holding fundraisers to build the Bowers a new home. "We just can't thank people enough. Everyone's been so wonderful," Mrs. Bowers said.

Aside from Canada Day and Labour Day weekends, this is the biggest and most important for the local economy. Deer Lake Resort Park, just up the road from the Ticks' cottage, suffered extensive damage. Manager Susan Fry said that during the worst of the flood, the popular resort was nearly three-quarters underwater and that between 40 and 50 trailers were damaged.

But the major concern is a pile of debris that's been pulled into a narrow waterway that connects Deer Lake and Lake Vernon. Some 80 per cent of visitors bring boats, with the expectation that they can use the waterway to get onto the lake to fish. Ms. Fry said if the blockage isn't removed, it could significantly affect the resort's revenue – not to mention scuttling a winter's worth of long-weekend fishing fantasies.

"People are saddened and trailers are totally wrecked," Ms. Fry said. "Instead of enjoying the holiday and relaxing at their trailers, they're going to be working to gut their trailers and start all over."

Local organizations are calling on volunteers to pitch in. "We've got a robust local economy with a dozen supply stores and contractors and they are all prepared to be helping," said Mayor Smith.

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Despite the damage to her own property, Ms. Sawyer has donated items from the upper floor of her home to others. She has given away sheets, blankets, even a dining room set.

"I've been trying so hard to help other people," she said. "I have tons of stuff to give to flood victims. There's lots of giving and lots of help out here. … So I think I'm going to be okay."

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