Why My Muskoka Will Never Be The Same

IMG_3885My parents bought our cottage (for next to nothing) in a little known cottage country two hours north of Toronto, the summer that I was born.  This year will be our 33rd season on Lake Joseph.  For the first ten years or so, we had pristine views, unobstructed by any neighbouring cottages.  Muskoka was a hidden gem; quiet, peaceful, and all natural.  All of our neighbours respected the woods and the lake, and built their cottages at least 100 feet from shore (a law at the time), and you could barely even tell they were there, because they were shielded by the beautifully majestic hemlocks and cedars.  I can remember our regular boat rides to Port Sandfield, a quaint little marina complete with a mom and pop ice cream shop, and afternoon trips to Port Carling to window shop in the characteristic local country boutiques.  We slalom-skied first thing in the morning when the water looked like glass, or just before dinner, so our wake didn’t disrupt the others in our bay, and there was an unwritten rule that every cottager knew, that you waved to every boat that passed you by, and they would always return the friendly gesture.  We spent quiet mornings fishing with Dad at our usual spots, slowly drifting over abandoned cribs (remains from an old resort dock), and every summer my brother and I practiced intently for our favourite events in the Foote’s Bay Regatta… mine was the ‘hurry scurry’, a two-man canoe race where every time a whistle blew, both partners had to jump out of the canoe and then climb back in (without tipping or flooding your vessel).  On clear dark nights, Dad would set up his telescope, and we would gather around the deck with hot chocolate, and marvel at Mars, Jupiter, and the rings on Saturn, as they appeared above us in the southern summer sky.

IMG_3883But sometime during the 90’s, everything changed.  A handful of celebrities (including the likes of Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, and a bunch of NHL-ers) bought cottages in the area, and suddenly Muskoka was on ‘the map’.  Prices began to steadily climb, and the population grew, and grew, and grew.  Today, there is no peace or quiet, and our once quaint cottage hideaway has become a who’s who Hamptons of the North.  Where people used to pull up to the marina in their tin fishing boats, they now park their Benz’s and Range Rovers, and it’s a fashion show of high-end ski boats fully loaded with obnoxious sound systems and Prada-clad passengers.  Even the mom and pop country shops have now made room for LuluLemon pop-ups, and the once quintessential campy Muskoka resorts like Cleveland’s House, now sit in the shadows of the gargantuan Marriott… because nothing says cottage country like indoor pools, plasma TVs, and lavish spas, right?!  Our peaceful afternoons on the dock are now disgraced by the sounds of over-powered jet-skis zipping around aimlessly and dangerously, the water is always too rough to slalom, and nobody waves anymore.  The cute log cabins once hidden by humbling 200 year-old trees, have been leveled to make room for 10,000 + square foot mansions complete with wait-staff (the most ridiculous of which was recently listed for a cool $25 million), and a new trend has emerged of boathouses boasting glass garage doors, so everyone can see the luxury whips parked in your boat slips.  At night you hear loud music and laughter crisply carried across the lake from one of the many dock parties riddled with the entitled socialite generation that have taken over this former Canadian paradise.  A few years ago Dad finally gave up and sold his beloved telescope, because there is far too much light pollution now to see the planets anymore.

Suffice to say, Muskoka will always be my second home, and the backdrop of my most precious childhood memories.  I have spent every summer of my life diving into the cool green water of lake Jo, and navigating my way through the scattered islands and inlets from marina to marina.  But while I long to hear the sounds of the loon calls as the sun sets over our bay, I reflect on the inevitability of change, and wonder how this new place, it’s evolution, and it’s nuances, will impact my own children growing up… because I know for certain, that my Muskoka will never be the same.


  • Jess

    Sounds like it’s time to move to Georgian Bay where we are still fortunate to have pristine waterways and people are not competing with one another for the bigger better cottage.

    • Emily Van Allen

      Except for all those huge power boats throwing huge waves. Not exactly conducive to pristine and peaceful.Its happening everywhere even Georgian Bay

  • Mac

    I’m a third generation cottager on Joe, and for the last 20 or so years, year-round resident. I share your sentiments, but with a couple of memories of my Grandfather. I clearly recall the day, standing on the end of our little dock, complete with cedar stripper 10 horse, while my grandfather and his old buddy lamented that, across the bay, the buddy had sold 2000 feet of frontage. He said he had made a big mistake by not waiting till spring to do that sale, because “this year I coulda got 12 bucks a foot for it ‘stead of 10.” I think that was about 1962. Only a few years later, Grandfather made another observation. He had come to the conclusion that there would be no more building of cottages in Muskoka….”all the good land is filled…wouldn’t want to be a builder from now on”.
    Over the decades these sentiments have cycled, over and over. After every boom in the markets, we sit back and relax….this has to be the end of it!…..and yet on it goes.
    I am reminded of a friends cottage in Quebec, about 60 miles north of Montreal. Back in the ’70’s we visited often, both summer and winter. As a kid from Muskoka, I found it to be quite alien to me. There were about 3 or 4 rows of cottages leading back from the waterfront…..rings of homes around this relatively small lake. So many of them had no waterfront at all. It was very suburban.
    I am sure that this will be the future of Muskoka…not in my lifetime I hope. But the signs are all there, not the least of which is the money. And that is the difference between these 2 areas. Muskoka has become all about the money. This new crop of “cottagers” seems intent on proving to us all just how wealthy they are. And they are willing to build on anything, and come from thousands of miles away to do it. I have lived on this lake for almost 60 years, and I know almost nobody. The more simple folk, and all my friends and their families, took off years ago, trading in their legacies for good schools for the kids, a little travelling, and for some, maybe a little piece of a more northern paradise.
    Look out Magnetawan…They are coming your way!

    • Eby Emm

      For many, many years, I had a simple, tantalizing fantasy to return one day to the cherished Lake Muskoka experiences of my childhood. For three consecutive years, beginning in 1962, my parents and I spent 1-2 weeks in idyllic bliss on Lake Muskoka. We towed our boat, named after me(!) all the way from southern Ohio. We stayed at a site of small, rustic cabins situated just up from the shore. I explored among the huge rock formations behind our cabin daily. I was awestruck by the first white-barked birch trees that I’d ever seen, along Lake Muskoka’s shore. I learned to swim in Lake Muskoka. My father taught me to fish on the lake, and we boated to the nearest grocer-on-the-lake. What a privileged time in my life. Lake Muskoka became synonymous with tranquility and paradise.

      So… it was with extreme sadness when I Googled Lake Muskoka a few years ago, and discovered that “my” Lake Muskoka is no longer what I recall. What passes now as a “cabin” is a misnomer: a huge, multi-level structures with tiered wrap-around balconies and a boat house… lifestyles of the rich and famous.

      Yes, I am “selfish” (and unapologetically so) in this instance… Lake Muskoka is no longer the idyllic “fanfare for the common man” it seems. Alas. Paradise lost.

      “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as ‘Camelot'” (or… Lake Muskoka).

  • Mark

    Correction. 100ft setback was not the law. Many cottages were built near the shore for ease of building by barge before more of the roads were built. It is a truly selfish view that laments the gaining of fellow cottagers to a lake. While some points such as the mega cottages have some validity, complaining that more people than ever can now enjoy muskoka is selfish. Why are you special that you would not allow more to enjoy the lake simply because your family was there first? Saying that all the parties are entitled socialites is ridiculous. Do you not laugh and play music while at the cottage? Your apparent but unspoken desire for regulation to limit growth is the same desires that have caused local economies to be restricted to only servicing cottages. But we have that at least. This would be an even more poverty stricken area if the reduction you desire occurred. Don’t like it? Buy your own entire Lake. Then you can govern as YOU wish. Or move farther north. As the population grows, why shouldn’t they also get a chance to.enoy muskoka? Why should you select few be the only ones?

    • Jae

      It is not selfish to want to keep the peace and quiet that we came here for. We shouldn’t have to move so more people can make this into another “city”. It about respecting your neighbours.

      • Dirk

        Ugh… This blog just irks me. It’s an extremely selfish view. Somehow you feel entitled to all of Muskoka because you were there first?

        It’s a beautiful space to be enjoyed by all Canadians.

        Change is inevitable. If you’re not happy with what it’s become, move to somewhere you’ll be happier.

        Ps. I don’t see you complaining about how much your property has appreciated in value.

        • Rob

          Couldn’t agree more. Very shitty situation when your family cottage has appreciated a couple million odd dollars over the past 30 years. Sucks doesn’t it?

          Unfortunately for you (and the rest of us with property on one of the big 3 lakes) change is indeed inevitable. Why not embrace it instead of pretending you are somehow entitled because your family has been around longer and is more of a “Muskoka family” than the dude next door with his Tesla and three hot wives. Live a little.

        • Fraser

          Property appreciation is not entirely a good thing.
          Only for those who want to sell and move is it beneficial.
          My children are 5th generation residents who may have to move away to find a home they can afford to buy.

          • Derek

            Another story of the “wealthy ” killing everything that the working class could afford!!!!….where were you assholes in the 60’s thru the eary 80’s????….thats right,you wouldnt be caught dead up in “hick” country with the bugs and the wildlife!!!!.you were to busy taking your posh vacations to the alps,bahamas and everwhere else that would impress your fake friends!!!….oh but wait,now all of the sudden muskoka is the place to be!!!….well…well…well….lets all buy places there,drive the value of property of a once very affordable place to own a vacatiin spot,thru the roof,and destroy it for everyone but the wealthy…..lets tear down decades of family owned cottages(owned
            by families who can no longer afford the property tax)and build “our” version of the muskokas….new “cottages”….i guess thats what they still call them…..unreal….but by all means….enjoy what you have created,and when there isnt one more inch of buildable land on any lake in the muskokas,you may finally see that what you have built is no different then the over populated rat race city,that you were so eager to get a break from!

    • Andrew

      I’m not sure you can use the phrase “This would be an even more poverty stricken area if the reduction you desire occurred.” when talking about the Lake Joe / Rosseau area.

      • Mark

        Sure can. The average income for permanent residents here is 23,500 which is 1500 below the poverty line. Just because we are surrounded by obscene levels of wealth, that does not mean those that live here share in that.

    • Mimi

      Oh Mark, you completely missed the point of this article. It’s the sad empty souls like you, (seeing everything as a commodity to be used as opposed to natural spaces to be respected), occupying that once beautiful space that completely deter me from ever vacationing in Muskoka. I prefer to drive all the way to Lake Superior and hope that your kind will never discover it as “The Place to Party”.

      • Mark

        Really? Coming back 4 years later to throw shade at me?
        YOU entirely missed the point of my comment.
        A) never said it was “the place to party”
        B) its a shared asset, not yours to dictate how it is used. Selfish, entitled, and sad behaviour. Enjoy your space, and stay out of others.

      • Mark

        Im the sad empty soul, throwing shade at someone on a 4 yr old comment when you know literally nothing about me?
        I guess my 25 years of experience in water quality (septics, wells, and municipal lake control) combined with my 30 years of environmental work in Muskoka have no bearing on your opinion of “a party place” (which I did not call it). Enjoy your space, but let others enjoy theirs. NIMBYism is such a low intellect debate.

  • Sylvia

    You are right about change being inevitable. However you are also on the mark about the new wave of “cottagers” on the Muskoka Lakes. My brother in law has been a builder of docks and cottages in the area for over 50 that’s right 50 years and he is still going strong. Not because of the “new wave” of Elite but because of people just like you and your family. He has always said “take care of the ‘old Muskoka money’ and it will take care of you”. He will have nothing to do with what he refers to as “found money” meaning the hockey players , movie stars;, and lottery winners. It is the people such as yourselves that have helped him build his business and his life, raise his family. He is greatful to your families and is highly respected in the community for his work. When you are now working for customers who are the children and grandchildren of the people you started out with that say everything about your integrity and character as both a person and a contractor. He has many customers who will wait as long as it takes for him to be able to accommodate their needs and that is because of his work and the fact that the “original families of Muskoka cottagers know the value of a dollar and know that they will get their money’s worth from him just as their families have for generations. So yes we have to put up with the rudeness the self entitlement and lack of respect from the “found money” but remember you are part of something much greater and better. As for the comment from “Mark” she can’t afford her own island or lake because the self serving fools who think they are entitled to everything have bought it all up. She’s not asking for anything more than respect from these assholes. Something they just don’t know how to give.!

    • Mark

      You can buy entire lakes in the north (not your north, the real north ) for 50k-100k. If you can afford the million plus for a bare lot on the big 3, you can EASILY afford your own private lake you can be a dictator on farther up north. It’s not all bought up, you would just like to believe that. Live and work here, you’ll be surprised.

  • Victoria

    Beautifully put, Julia. I grew up in Muskoka in the 1970s/80s and my family still lives there. The change has been so sad to watch. Instead of adapting cottages to the landscape and fitting them in subtly behind trees, the shoreline is clear cut and the granite blasted away to show off multi million dollar cottages with billiard table lawns and hundreds of year-round lights blazing so brightly that you can no longer see the Milky Way at night. My heart aches for the beautiful landscape we used to have, and for the loss of that respect for nature and quiet peace that made Muskoka so special.

    • Kimberley

      Victoria, I agree with you and as a cottager on Lake Joseph (Avon Bay) for 40 years, my heart also breaks.
      Both our dad’s might suggest we make our way to Georgian Bay instead as some special places still exist like “Elm Tree Island”:)

    • gr8gran67

      I was raised in Bala from 1944 to 1967, went to public school there and high school in Gravenhurst.

      • gr8gran67

        Some of you have no idea of the changes we old timers have seen..I don’t want to be mean, but some of the “cottagers” were rude and destructive during the summer months. So I guess that part has not changed!

  • Karly

    Thankfully our cottage before it sold was located on a lake where the majority of people were still people. They waved as they boated by the dock, if you happened to pass close enough to their boat small conversation would begin about the weather, it was nothing to have someone stop infront of the dock to make small talk about how the fish are biting or wave passing you walking on the road, slowing down and moving over. It is sad to see how our once beloved Cottage Country is turning into such a stale place, where people feel the need to show off massive mansion cottages, boathouses bigger than most people’s houses! These items are not what makes Muskoka. The outdoors and serene views, gentle people, lakes, bush and wildlife all make Muskoka home. There is so much more to it than a huge cottages or boats, there’s a world of beauty around to be explored and taken care of. It can teach us and show us so much. Let’s love our surroundings and not destroy them and be kind to each other.

  • a. wolfe

    ….and this is why we sold our cottage, and, retreated to our home in the peace and quiet of muskoka’s bush..

  • Elizabeth Munro

    Yes, it is a sad change for most Muskoka lakes, too bad the planning departments didn’t limit the size of cottages ( why allow 10 Bdrms and 10 Brms? ) seems taxes collected are bait to the municipalities. We all love the serene beauty of the North, but ecology protection was/is not protected from those seeking urban living in our beloved Edens.

  • Melissa

    What do you think all the indigenous peoples that have lived there for thousands of years think of all is white folks coming in and taking over lands? Haha call the citiots or whatever you want but the white settlers that live there must also acknowledge indigenous presence that long preceded you ever being there. So I’m sorry, but who’s Muskoka is it?

  • Ed

    I do agree with some of the things she is saying. If someone read this article without ever experiencing Muskoka they would think it’s been destroyed and a dreadful place. It’s not, far from it.

    Muskoka is made up of 1600 lakes. Sure there are mansions on the big 3 lakes but that is a very small percentage of overall shoreline. I find the ski-boats and music are tolerable and they disappear after a few weeks of peak summer. There are many beautiful, peaceful areas to enjoy and build lasting memories.

  • Alli Di

    It is truly sad. Change is inevitable, but unfortunately change these days is all about acquisitions and showing off possessions. Those people aren’t there to “cottage” and enjoy nature. They are just trying to keep up with all the rich folk that landed there before them. I wonder if Russel/Hawn have an opinion about how much it has changed since they first decided to have a nice get-away up there….

  • Ryan

    Oh my god, there are Range Rovers now! I miss when this giant slice of this country was just for me!

    Get some perspective. Things change. The world is not made for you.

  • PM

    You should explore Northern Ontario and Quebec. There are thousands of lakes that are exactly what you are looking for just a few hours north.

    • Derek

      Shhhhhh. Don’t let on or all these idiots will be flooding into our (still) pristine wilderness.

  • elmer fudd

    100 feet is a bad rule. On our lake 90% are closer and many many old cottages were built over the water. this is a classic nimby story. Sorry other people want what you want. You should have bought 20,000 feet if shoreline at 12 bucks and retired to northern Saskatchewan.

  • SarahT

    If you aren’t happy with something in his world – do something to impact change. Why not find something still lovable about this area you treasure and work to preserve that? Interesting what this article complains about – the privilege of some people and having to hear laughing from across the lake? To be in such a situation to even complain about these things, you yourself have some of these privileges you are complaining about. If you are upset about a situation, do something to change it.

  • Muskoka Mike

    I am a relative newcomer to the North… coming from a place like Dresden Ontario, every twig in this area is absolutely awesome. The Audis and Beemers don’t seem to fit but provide inevitable contrast. Imagine the wealth of those early settlers who could afford to take the entire summer off and just whip up a massive classic cottage using steamships and barges… those were the yuppies of 1910. They were prospectors just like the ones showing up today. Land bankers, shmutamen, CEO’s and artists, although the artists usually stayed in the junkies of the wealthy. I live on the Moon River. It is below Lake Muskoka, Joe and Rosseau in all perspectives and, being a “middle class” water body, doesn’t suffer from “too many rich people-itis”. There are a couple of architectural aberrations reflecting more wealth than style, but still lots of those tarpaper shake attacks… and not quite enough of those rich red hot momma’s on Jet Skies… so for the ladies from Lake Joe, there are plenty of places to stretch out and tan… where clothing is not even required. If you need directions… find me at the Low Art Pizza Place.

  • Braden

    One of our fellow classmates asked me what my relationship was to Muskoka a few years ago. The best I could come up with was that I was haunted by it. I meant that it gnawed at me the way it has turned into a strange facsimile of disneyland for people who want to like the outdoors, but really don’t. It unsettles me that the de-industrialization and movement to low-wage service jobs has gone almost unnoticed under the veneer of “cottage country”. I sometimes think about going back. Then I remember that the place I grew up doesn’t exist anymore. In it’s stead I find some strange simulacrum purpose-built for those who never have to contend with its unforgiving realities. This is strange to be sure. Ask anyone from a city and there is no sense that the place they are from has vanished or been taken over, yet this is exactly what has happened to Huntsville.

  • Rob Green

    My lake is still beautiful and prestine, but I don’t dare tell you where that is!

  • Christopher

    The best lakes of course have no cottages on them whatsoever. Unless you are willing to hoist your craft on your shoulders and trek the narrow path through the woods, you don’t get to see it. Roads began the wreckage. There should b more lakes with no cottages on them. Is this unrealistic? Sure is. But it is the same continuum. Just a question of what you feel constitutes ruin-ation. I knew a trapper in Muskoka who was already very old when I spoke with him in the late 1970s. He thought the area was already quite wrecked – ten years before the ‘deep roots’ of your Bailey family tradition touched the shield on which he had snow shoed since before your father was born.

  • lloydwalton

    I bought an electric boat and everything has changed ! My previous cool power boat was an object to get you to your destination. Now, as we set out in silence on Lake Muskoka, every moment is a destination. Yes it’s slow but so what ? It makes us feel in the moment and in paradise.

  • Shelley

    How do you think the local populations feels?; people who struggle to pay for their groceries (that went up in price over the summer months) people who trudge through the mountains of snow we get in the winter to chop wood for our fireplaces, who pay more for hydro just because we are rural; people who struggle to survive working for minimum wage jobs (mostly in tourists jobs, picking up other people’s mess or construction jobs were our husbands are expected to work 6 days a week just to satisfy some ungrateful tourist who demands to have their cottage complete before the summer months are over); people who can’t find affordable housing because the housing costs have increased by 40% in 10 years.

    Or how about lakefront properties that have been in the family for generations and are now being sold to the tourists and builders because taxes are outrageous and retired seniors can’t afford to live in the home they have had for generations. Sadly, they are unable to pass the property onto their family because it is now priced too high to be sustainable.

    Change is inevitable however, rich people get around the zoning bylaws, they build homes that are inspected and then they disregard the laws; they add illegal kitchens, bedrooms, additions and docks without permission and permits. They damage the waterways, kill the wildlife, interfere with the ecosystem and pollute the lakes. But alas, they have money and care little about anything but their next thrill and how fast they can navigate their overpowered speed boat.

    Welcome to MUSKOKA citiots! We need you; believe it or not but we don’t necessarily love you or for that matter even like you? However, I always feel gratitude that 12 weeks isn’t that long.

    • LGM

      THIS. I had to move from Muskoka because I couldn’t afford it. I was working a full time and a part time minimum wage job and had to choose between groceries and rent. There’s no work for regular people, and you get treated like trash working minimum wage by the cottagers because they seem to have this ‘better than you’ attitude. My entire family has lived in the Muskokas before it even had roads. I think the first person in my family settled in sometime in the 1880s. My grandparents just sold their family home that was built in 1889 and has been occupied every generation up until now because they just couldn’t afford the taxes and hydro anymore, plus the neighbours build a massive party house and keep music blaring until 2am. I hate where I live now, I can afford rent and have a decent job but I just want to go home so I can visit my family more than once every few months, but gas to go back and forth is expensive and there isn’t public transit from here to there that wouldn’t take 5 hours and three transfers. Mot of my friends and the younger generation in my family have all moved too for the same reason. My parents just went bankrupt because they couldn’t afford to keep up with the tax hikes.

      Forget what happened to cottage Muskoka, what happened to me being able to live where I consider home? I’d be willing to tolerate cottagers if I could just afford to be with my family.

  • Julie

    As a permanent resident of muskoka I think I’m speaking for everyone when I say
    We HATE it when you “cittiots” come up for 3 months of the year
    It is soo peaceful for the other 9 months
    And you come up with your fancy cars, boats and spoiled children.
    You all can’t even make it without your hydro or your lattes !
    If people don’t wave back, they’re probably locals out to fish – pissed because of how much traffic there is on the lake
    To be honest- we travel north too – to get away from you privileged people

  • Fraser

    I am a 4th generation Muskoka resident.
    Permanent resident.
    It is a crime in my eyes that when sections or even all of my family’s homestead properties come up for sale, the prices are way out of reach for most of the locals, along with the property tax cost.
    Muskoka locals will eventually be driven away, because we can no longer afford to live in our ancestral homes.