Short on maps, strong on will: The early years cottaging on Twelve Mile Bay
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
L to R: Don Emslie, Scott Forbes, Dave Walden, Carl Walden, Ian Forbes, unknown. Leaving for a Moon River fishing trip, early 60s.
The sight of the Twelve Mile Bay Road exit sign off Highway 400 cues relief and relaxation for modern-day cottagers. Emerging from the Friday night tussle with heavy northbound traffic, the opportunity to unwind and destress in a Muskoka chair with a drink overlooking the serenity of the bay is but a quick, easy drive away.
For many, the cottage is a place to set aside the pressures of day-to-day life and find comfort and relaxation in the peace that the Canadian Shield landscape brings.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Those who came to cottage on Twelve Mile Bay first had a different experience, and it is because of their courage and commitment to grinding out the foundations for this special place that has brought so much to so many that we owe them a major debt of gratitude.
This is a tribute to the original cottagers of Twelve Mile Bay.
Initial 39 surveyed lots from the Department of Lands and Forests
When the provincial Department of Lands and Forest made 39 surveyed lots available for purchase along Twelve Mile Bay in 1957 -- 29 on the south side of the bay and 10 on the north -- convenience and relaxation weren’t part of the appeal in pursuing this venture. In contrast to the more developed area of Muskoka Lakes where wealthy cottagers had flocked for decades, Freeman Township, home to Twelve Mile Bay and Moose Deer Point Reservation, remained largely undiscovered and was known as a rugged, isolated wilderness owing to the lack of road access.
Reachable only by plane or boat through the turbulent waters of Georgian Bay, at $1 per linear foot water frontage, a densely forested lot on remote Twelve Mile Bay in the late 1950s offered little tangibly, but for the adventurous, hardworking and optimistic sort, its potential was limitless.
In the fall of 1958, 36-year-old Don Emslie was working full-time as a firefighter for the Toronto Fire Department and living in the city with his wife, Helen, and two young daughters. Having previously served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, Don caught wind from his friends Ian Forbes and Keith Gould that the government was offering lots for sale at a place called Twelve Mile Bay and thought that it sounded like the kind of opportunity for adventure that he was craving.
Wanting to see for himself, Don, Ian, and Keith borrowed a small, wooden boat from a friend and left the Parry Sound Department of Lands and Forests on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend headed for Twelve Mile Bay armed with a fearless determination but no map. Instead, they were working off of a verbal description of a wide mouth opening to a long, narrow bay, despite suggestions from seasoned locals that they might want to wait out an impending storm.
With waves threatening to swamp their boat, they made it to the mouth of the bay and quickly discovered the seriousness of the warnings from the OPP and the Lands and Forests Department that turning into the mouth of the bay in such weather could quickly capsize their boat, so they camped for the night on an island set to the soundtrack of gusting winds, crashing waves, and grunts and groans from curious animals who were attracted to the scent of their dinner. Rising early the next morning, they finally made it into the bay where they fished, camped, and took stock of what Twelve Mile Bay had to offer an adventurous man like Don.
When it came time to return to Parry Sound the next day in order for Don to return home in time for work on the holiday Monday, the validity of the storm warnings they received earlier in the weekend was reinforced. As they approached the wide mouth of the bay and the waves grew bigger, the prospect of being stranded began to seem more and more likely.
Fortuitously, their luck continued as they spotted a large fishing boat off in the distance, whose experienced Georgian Bay captain told the three men upon approaching that he was flabbergasted to see such a small boat out in such bad weather and confirmed that there was no way they were making it to Parry Sound on their own that day. Because he was doing a favour for a friend, the captain was running his charter a week later than usual and wouldn’t normally be out so late in the year. He invited the three men to jump aboard and towed their boat back to Parry Sound, feeding them Thanksgiving dinner in the process.
Feeling satisfied and exhilarated from the rush of adventure, Don purchased Lot 37 that winter.
Don Emslie’s original Lot 37 cottage. Don went to night school to learn to build his own cottage.
As road superintendent on MacTier council, Charles Hardwicke learned about the Twelve Mile Bay lots early, and, along with MacTier Reeve, Douglas Shaw, was the first to purchase on the south side of the bay in 1957. With responsibilities on council, a full-time job at the railway in MacTier, and a young family, Charles was attracted to the opportunities that the non-landlocked Twelve Mile Bay offered in the way of access to Georgian Bay fishing and outdoor adventure. Having had to trudge on foot through the dense, swampy bush between the Highway 103 (now the 400) and Lot 5 with his wife and three daughters in order to access their property, Charles knew that a road was crucial to the success of this cottage adventure for himself and the other originals.
At the time, the railway in MacTier was on a decline and council was looking toward developing Freeman Township for the economic benefit of the town. Charles knew that a road into the developing area of Twelve Mile Bay held a lot of potential, but a problem arose with local taxpayers not wanting to fund a road that would benefit the councilman and his Reeve friend. Charles and Douglas persisted for years in lobbying local groups for funds, and by the fall of 1958, they had succeeded in receiving grants from the MacTier Lions Club, the MacTier Legion, and $50 each from the original cottagers, totalling just enough for him to start the road that they had been pressing for for some time.
Beginning in the fall of 1958, Charles, along with Township employees Levi Norrie and Ernie Schell, would leave MacTier at 7am and return well after dark on his days off from council responsibilities and shifts on the railway, armed with just a compass, axes, and a tireless resolve in order to mark the foundations of the road, walking miles back to their cars at the end of each day. Facing the threat of animals, rattlesnakes, and the unknown, the initiative was a nightmare for Charles’ wife, Doris, but he was dogged in seeing it through.
The trail that was just wide enough for a car to pass reached Bloody Bay by the spring of 1959.
Township employee Levi Norrie working on road
Having grown up on a farm in the Ripley area of western Ontario and being familiar mostly with the beachy shores of Lake Huron, Eugene Walden and his older brother Carl were drawn to the opportunity to experience the rugged landscape of the Canadian Shield.
Not long after Carl received word of lots for sale on Twelve Mile Bay through a work colleague sometime in 1957, he and Eugene set off from Parry Sound in a small boat with a 15-horsepower motor going off of the same verbal descriptions that Don Emslie was given: look for a wide mouth opening to a long, narrow bay. Hours later, the brothers arrived in the sanctuary of the bay and cruised past the initial 39 lots while taking notes on the areas that appealed to them most even though the thick foliage made it hard to tell what each lot really offered. The stakes were the only thing clear to see.
The brothers made a pledge not to tell each other which lots they were pursuing before they filed their applications. Eugene initially coveted the island, but he and Carl ended up with Lots 7 and 3 in 1959, luckily avoiding the potential for a brotherly squabble in their system.
Eugene Walden’s original Lot 7 cottage
While it seems that people who are willing to embrace the unknowns of an undeveloped wilderness property wouldn’t have trouble finding common ground among them, it was primarily the tremendous amount of work that it took for each family to achieve their cottage visions that brought them together and fostered the growing community at Twelve Mile Bay.
Once notice of approval of application for a Summer Resort Location from the Department of Lands and Forests was received, lot owners had two years to erect a department-approved structure on their land or they would otherwise be fined. Apart from the areas covered in salt and pepper-coloured rock, most of the lots were dominated by spruce, pines and thick foliage which made the task of clearing enough space for a structure and driveway access by axe and saw rather onerous. A limitation on time and finances also factored in as full-time jobs and young families were the reality for most.
The task of getting building materials into the bay was the next challenge to be overcome. Throughout 1960 and 1961, the condition of the original bush trail started by Charles Hardwicke had been slightly upgraded through the availability of a grant from the Department of Indian Affairs -- the improvement of which would provide an opportunity for students on the reserve to receive their education in MacTier and no longer at the one-room schoolhouse -- but it still proved barely passable for the average car.
Because lumber trucks refused to travel down the private bush trail, the options were to hire a barge or risk damage while traversing the trail. While costly, barging was the safer option and many had their prefabricated structures brought in this way. Attempting the latter option, Eugene Walden purchased an international panel truck to transport his materials. Initially thinking it to be a successful mission, he noticed a crack in one of his windows while shifting them to his boat at the foot of the bay. Exasperated by the effort it took to get there, the cracked window remained part of his cottage for 30 years, an ever-present reminder of the struggles of the early years.
Each lot presented unique challenges in clearing land and putting up a structure, but the task of getting in and out of the bush trail was a common, ongoing chore for all, and it is often how cottagers came to meet one another. They learned quickly that it was best to wait to create convoys to tackle the mud and swamps to ensure that everyone made it through. Having to stop to cut down trees to get by, and getting stuck only to get out and get stuck again were as common as not getting out of second gear. Because of the toll the rigours of the trail took on cars, many opted to leave their preferred vehicle at the clearing at Highway 103 and used an older, secondary vehicle to take the brunt of the trail.
Carl Walden’s secondary trail vehicle.
By 1961, cottagers had formed the Twelve Mile Bay Community Association, led by president Don Dunford. The Association kept cottagers informed on issues facing a developing bay, like road status and road fees, a government dock, health codes, garbage disposal, and hydro prospects, among others. It was also used to plan dances, corn roasts, and regattas, traditions that would continue on for years - because they weren’t all work and no play!
Bulldozers became available for road improvements through government funding.
Charles Hardwicke and Douglas Shaw, on behalf of the original 39 owners, and other MacTier council members continued to advocate for government funding for improvement of Twelve Mile Bay Road for years after the initial efforts of the bush trail, making many trips to Toronto to lobby the provincial Department of Highways. Their efforts paid off in 1963 when the government committed to funding the upgrade of the trail to provincial road standards.
By November 1966, the road was officially opened for public use. It was given the name Ma Kah Ga Win Road, Ojibway for “Discovery Road” because it was the first direct connection between Muskoka and the eastern Georgian Bay shoreline, ending years of isolation.
By 1965, cottagers were able to put away their Coleman lamps because hydro had arrived in the bay, with help from Eugene Walden who coordinated poles through contacts at his work at Ontario Hydro.
For everything they accomplished in their commitment to creating a better Twelve Mile Bay, and for their endless courage and will, we are eternally grateful to the original cottagers of our wilderness paradise.
Thank you to Don Emslie, Doris Hardwicke, and Eugene Walden for sharing your impressive memories and stories with me; to Heather Walden Beitz for stepping in with her coordination savvy and all around unfailing support in this project; and to everyone who shared a tidbit of their memories with me. Every bit helped to paint the bigger picture!