National Geographic magazine has called Muskoka Region the world’s “number 1” summer vacation destination, a position it has held for over 100 years – not only for the rich and famous, but for families of all financial status and backgrounds.
Now, a new and very personal book, Exploring Hidden Muskoka, provides a key to the region, its dramatic Pre-Cambrian Shield landscape, forests, pristine lakes and fascinating history, for a whole new generation of explorers.
Author Andrew Hind has a personal connection with “the Muskokas.” His parents acquired a cottage in 1973, west of Rosseau, and for all of his childhood, he notes, “We spent the entire summer at the cottage.”
The family wasn’t affluent. Mom and kids would come up to the cottage in July and August, while dad continued to work during the week, joining them only on weekends. Then the adventures would begin.
“They piled us in the car and we did a lot of road-tripping,” he remembers, visiting locations that included scenic waterfalls, museums and Santa’s Village, billed as the summer home of Santa Claus.
The experiences and the memories have shaped his career, as a writer, historian and educator. “That sparked a lot of the passion,” he says.
For the past 20 years, he has been writing books about the history of some of Muskoka’s poshest and most historic resorts, as well as exploring the ghost towns, and ghost stories, of communities across Ontario.
Exploring Hidden Muskoka grew out of that work. Using his two decades of research and travel, he has put together a fascinating book that invites the reader into a world unknown to most of those who visit Muskoka.
It’s a history that began primarily in 1868, with the ‘Free Grants and Homesteads Act” that offered 100 free acres to any settler foolhardy enough to head into the northern wilderness and clear 15 acres of land.
Most of the farms failed, on the thin rocky soils that covered the Shield – but some evolved into the fishing and hunting camps, and the resorts, that embraced a more lucrative occupation than farming: Tourism.
The “natural splendour” of the Muskokas, its proximity to the city, and ease of access thanks to railways and steamships – and after World War II, the automobile – made it the destination of choice.
Exploring Hidden Muskoka is filled with information on fascinating destinations. Original resorts like Bigwin Inn and Deerhurst Resort are not only described in their heyday, but as they operate today, still welcoming visitors.
There is a salute to the industries, from logging to sawmills and gristmills, farms and general stores, that transformed wilderness into thriving communities – some of which are now no more than ghost towns, whose foundations and abandoned buildings can still be found.
There are places to stay, places to hike, boat rides on the restored steamships Segwun and Wenonah II, information on Muskoka’s waterfalls (like High Falls, the “Niagara of the North”), its locks, trails, museums and concert halls, good food and “great craft beer.” The destinations are presented in alphabetical order, and illustrated with photographs both from Hind’s personal collection, gifted from the people he has interviewed over the years, and from local museums and archives, happy to contribute to the work.
“There hasn’t been a real travel book about Muskoka for 30 years,” Hind notes, which is what he set out to create. In fact the book much more, crammed with stories and historic details.
Who knew that Lucy Maud Montgomery, beloved author of Anne of Green Gables, spent two weeks in Bala on a vacation, where she was inspired to write “The Blue Castle”? Or that the Bala Museum, which is a “loving tribute” to Montgomery, is housed in the very building where she dined while on that vacation?
Or that after the fall of Norway to the Nazi invaders during World War II, an airbase was set up in Muskoka that came to be known as “Little Norway,” where Norwegian fighter pilots trained to fight?
“History informs everything,” says Hind, noting that the history of an area is like the ‘terroire’ of a vineyard, imparting a special flavour to the region.
The biggest challenge for Hind was narrowing down the number of entries for the book, and limiting each description to only 2 to 4 pages.
After 20 years of research, he had piles of information on the history and people of Muskoka, and their stories, making it hard to chose. Only about half of his favourite hidden destinations made their way into Exploring Hidden Muskoka – but it’s enough to achieve the goal of any travel book: to make the reader want to get up and visit.
Destinations are listed in alphabetical order, but four maps at the end of the books suggest road trips for the explorer. Of course, while the pandemic lockdown continues it’s impossible to take a road trip, but this is the perfect time to buy Exploring Hidden Muskoka, available at Coles, Chapters, Indigo and online, and plan the trip to take once the lockdown lifts.
Muskoka – its wildernesses and destinations, its history and people – are unforgettable, Hind says.
“It’s pretty special,” he acknowledges. “I can’t put it into words, but for me – I could be having the worst week, and I get into the car, grumbling - and then you hit the Severn River and it melts away.” It's a kind of magic, tied to memory and the beauty of the place itself.
Hind invites the reader to discover the “magic of Muskoka” for themselves, and has provided the tools needed to do just that.
One thing has changed for Hind, over the years. As a child, his memories all centred around the cottage experience itself. “Now I appreciate my parents for the sacrifices they made for us to have that. It’s shaped who we are,” he says.
The book is dedicated “to my parents, Murray and Wendy, who sacrificed so much, so that we could have a cottage upbringing.”
Exploring Hidden Muskoka, by Andrew Hind, was published by Folklore Publishing on May 1, 2021.