Paradise closed: It's a lost summer for Americans with deep roots in this Ontario cottage country

Financial Post Friday, 7 August 2020
POINTE AU BARIL, Ont. — Ed Garner was sitting in the rector’s office of an empty church in San Luis Obispo, Calif., a college town between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was late July and the sun was shining, as it almost always does in that area, but it was not enough to brighten his mood.

He had been enlisted to update a bunch of old computers at the church. As a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, he was the right congregant for the job. But as the 82-year-old describes it, he had a feeling — a pervasive, wake-up-with-it-every-morning sense — that he was in the wrong place, even the wrong country.

“I have lived in five states and six different cities around the United States, but the one constant in my life has always been Pointe au Baril,” Garner, an Illinois native, said. “In many ways, Pointe au Baril is more home to me than any other place on Earth.”

Pointe au Baril is a tiny village in prime Ontario cottage country about two and a half hours north of Toronto, and roughly 4,500 kilometres northeast of San Luis Obispo. For its summer residents, the village is a gateway to eastern Georgian Bay and an archipelago of wondrous islands.

Those hunks of rock — greyish-pink in hue, some an acre in size, others much more, flecked with quartz and mica, surrounded by cool, clear waters, and topped by bent pines — are seasonally home, at least in pre-pandemic times, to hundreds of American families, who prefer the term “camp” to cottage when describing their northern summer digs.

Many Americans have roots in the area reaching back to the early 1900s. Most, with the exception of the odd cousin or two who married a Canadian, and those who live here year-round, feel the same way Garner does: as though another fleeting northern summer has come, and now almost gone, without them being able to access the place where they most feel like themselves.

“It is not so much about citizenship, being an American or a Canadian,” Garner said. “It’s, if you love Pointe au Baril, then you are from Pointe au Baril. It is home.”

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It’s impossible this year not to notice the Americans’ absence. It’s a hole punched wide in the community’s traditional summer fabric, and one acutely felt by Canadian cottagers missing, in many instances, lifelong friends, as well as by the permanent residents of Pointe au Baril village proper, who rely on their southern neighbours’ business to make ends meet.

Back in the day, there was a commercial fishery in the area, and lumber was king in the years before the Second World War. Now, cottagers, both Canadian and American, are the industry, and summer 2020 has been rocky.

Paddle around one island and hear the happy cries of Canadian children, splashing about. Paddle around the next and find a cluster of cabins all boarded-up, empty. No kids, boats or flagpoles flying the Canadian and American flags, and no Americans.

Andy Blenkarn, who owns the local Desmasdon’s Boat Works, has certainly noticed, since 30 per cent of his customers are usually American. Indeed, 30 per cent of the local township’s ratepayers are American.

Blenkarn, the type of person who is just as likely to greet longtime customers with a hug as shake their hand, and his team store their boats, haul them out for summer, do maintenance on their motors, sell them gas, fresh coffee and ice cream cones, open and close cottages and watch over their cars, ensuring they don’t get broken into when they are out on the islands.

“This has not been a fun summer,” he said.

What has saved Desmasdon’s from financial disaster are its boat sales and construction division. The American revenue stream has evaporated, sure, but Canadians are spending like mad, investing all their pent-up COVID dollars on new boats, motors, cottage repairs and renovations.

“If I didn’t sell boats and motors or have a construction division, this would not be a pretty picture,” Blenkarn said.

As it is, he is surviving, which is partly what the story of Pointe au Baril was about in the beginning. If there is a Christopher Columbus to that yarn, her name is Helen Davis.

Davis, originally from Rochester, N.Y., was an anomaly in the era she lived: Never married, (never interested), college-educated, career-minded and adventurous, she rose through the ranks of the YWCA to become the equivalent of a national vice-president.

In 1902, with no set destination in mind, she and some American friends crossed Lake Ontario and journeyed by train, boat and then another boat to a square box of a hotel on an island across from the Pointe au Baril lighthouse.

The hotel was a base for fishermen, and it served as a jumping-off point for Davis to explore the islands by rowboat. It didn’t rain for a month. She was hooked, and she bought a two-acre island at the end of her stay for five dollars, cheekily naming it St. Helena, since, as the story goes, she was never going to be sainted so she decided to saint herself.

For a little 2020 perspective: a two-acre island building lot today lists for $500,000, and the property tax on a $1-million cottage is $5,300.

The following summer, Davis’ younger brother, Hamilton, joined her on St. Helena, overseeing the construction of a simple cottage. The outhouse was named Elba and the cottage’s interior, in time, was filled with Napoleon-themed gag items, including two fireplace andiron owls, Josephine and Louise. Josephine was always positioned on the left, because she was the one Napoleon left behind.

Much like his sister, Hamilton got hooked on the area, and he hit upon an idea to build a hotel. It would be a rustic, northern retreat, intended not for the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the world, but for middle- and upper-middle-class Americans and Canadians with enough disposable income and a desire to flee an increasingly urban existence for a summer respite in the wilderness.

The Ojibway Hotel opened in 1906 and the Americans came – from Rochester, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland — and kept coming back. More islands were sold. More cottages were built. One generation passed into the next, until a century later a pandemic interrupted the summer cycle for everybody, including Helen Davis’s descendants.

“When I describe Pointe au Baril to people who don’t know it, I just tell them, ‘Imagine a neighbourhood where nobody ever moves, and they just add another generation,’” Davis’s great-niece Helen Garber said.

Garber is a retired market researcher who lives in a condominium about four blocks from the nightly protests in Portland, Ore. — she’s close enough that she can hear the sound of “flash-bang” grenades when she opens her windows — and she was initially optimistic about a summer 2020 return to St. Helena and the porch where she likes to sit, taking in the view and losing track of time.

Her kayak is there, as are her Canadian kayaking friends. But her older sister, Francie, and Francie’s kids, their kids, and all the extended cousins are not — not this summer. Neither is Garber. In late June, with the virus surging across the U.S., she parked her early optimism and bought a kayak to explore Oregon’s rivers and lakes instead.

“I did a couple of Zoom cocktail times with my Canadian friends,” the 71-year-old said. “I have heard from many through email, Facebook and phone calls how much they miss me, and it makes me cry. I love seeing the photos on Facebook, but they also make me sad.”

Bill Boughton is another American islander marooned at home in Ohio, resigned to looking at pictures on Facebook posted by his Canadian summer pals.

The 57-year-old retired teacher has never missed a summer in Pointe au Baril, until now. But he hasn’t entirely given up on 2020: should the border open at any point before Dec. 31, he intends to visit, even if it means cross-country skiing out to the family’s property.

Ancestor No. 1 in Boughton’s island family tree was his great-grandmother, Annis Richardson, another remarkable woman. A widower, with four kids, Richardson was a summer guest of some American families before buying an acre-sized rock of her own in 1926. She named it Treasure Island.

The original cottage burned down, but the island’s five sleeping cabins, sturdy little shacks tucked amid the pines, all date from Richardson’s first summer.

Her descendants, now numbering 61 families, share Treasure Island and two additional nearby islands they purchased in 1960 and 1972. The idea was to add more space for the growing family, and provide more privacy for the more senior members of the bunch.

Professionally, family members run the gamut from chief executives and diplomats to daycare workers and bartenders. Geographically, they are scattered throughout the U.S., and as far away as Germany. Practically, to operate as a big, happy whole, the Treasure Island “camp” has a board of directors.

Boughton is current chair, a position he was elected to when no else volunteered. Members pay an annual US$375 fee. There is a communal pantry, shared dinners, scheduled work weekends, a regatta for the kids and a wall in the main cottage dedicated to “board-fish.” That is, the “big” ones that didn’t get away, and whose outlines are traced onto a board and coloured in by an artistic family member, noting all the pertinent details: when and where the fish was caught, by whom, and how much it weighed.

“I have so many cousins that I am able to have a strong relationship and a shared history with,” Boughton said. “If not for that special place, and the ability to gather there, my life would be a whole lot different — and not nearly as good.”

Bert Liverance can relate, sort of. The Ohioan’s 100-year-old-plus family cottage is about an hour boat ride south of Pointe au Baril. He and his wife, Sarah, got out of the U.S. Air Force after 10 years in 1993. Their next move: immigrating to Canada to be closer to the family cottage.

“It is my spirit place,” he said.

Nowadays, Liverance is a successful botanical painter — his floral prints have appeared on coins issued by the Royal Canadian Mint — and reeve of the Township of The Archipelago, the municipality that includes Pointe au Baril.

Americans sit alongside Canadians on cottage association boards, pushing environmental issues, advocating for this and that, knowing they will be back the following summer because where else would they possibly want to be?

“I always used to say I would sell my house before I would sell the cottage, and I know most Americans in the area would say the same thing,” Liverance said.

But since the U.S. is a COVID-19 train wreck, they also say they understand why Canada is keeping its border closed.

It hurts, but maintaining perspective cushions the blow. Besides, Ed Garner said, simply talking about his “favourite place on Earth” can do wonders for the spirit. It is a form of island therapy, in absentia, and it is much better than checking on the weather in Pointe au Baril every 30 minutes.

Garner retired at 60 because it felt like the right time, but mostly because he wanted to spend more time at the cottage. His annual ritual would typically involve flying north in May to put on the same work clothes that have been hanging in the cottage closet forever. He would tinker about the island, getting everything just right, before flying back to the U.S. to pick up his wife, Kathy.

The couple would then drive north in June, meandering as they went, and stay at the island Garner has been coming home to for 75 consecutive years until the end of September. Or, as he frames it, until one of his Canadian buddies approaches him with a map and points to California, a clear hint that it is time to hit the road before the autumn storms roll in off the bay.

“Whenever I talk to my Canadian friends, or email with them, they all tell me how wonderful the weather has been this summer,” Garner said, erupting with laughter. “Sometimes I just want to tell them, ‘Shut up!’”

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