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"Cottage Country” - Muskoka's Treasured Boating History

boating in Muskoka
There's no place like Muskoka / Photo - Steven Bull

For over 150 years, Muskoka has lured vacationers from the hustle and bustle of the Greater Toronto Area to the rugged majesty of the lakes that are carved into the rocky terrain of the Canadian Shield.

And since the very beginning, boating has been a big part of it.

Muskoka isn’t a town, but rather a region. Officially, it’s the District Municipality of Muskoka which includes the towns of Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, and Huntsville (the largest by population) as well as the townships of Georgian Bay, Lake of Bays, and Muskoka Lakes. It’s just north of Lake Simcoe and it stretches from Georgian Bay to the west to Algonquin Park to the east, covering approximately 4000 square kilometres.

That’s larger than the entire state of Rhode Island! In other words, there is a wide range of things to do and its 1600 lakes have always been at the forefront.

Well before personal powerboats took over, it was steamships. And some of them still ply these waters!

In 1866, the Wenonah became the first steamer on Lake Muskoka. The following year, RMS Segwun joined it and she still sails – under steam power – to this very day.

If you’ve been to Gravenhurst and seen the replica, Wenonah II (built in 2002), or the Segwun in port, it's easy to take them for granted as something right in your backyard. But this is truly unique and was almost lost. In 1958, she took her last trip and was decommissioned before being converted to a floating museum. But, in the 1970s restorations began. In 1981, she began her new career as a passenger vessel.

Despite the fact that Segwun no longer carries mail in retains the RMS status with Canada Post which stands for Royal Mail Ship. According to the Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst, there are only two other active ships in the world that carry the RMS or RMV (Royal Mail Vessel) designation: RMV Scillonian III and the RMS Queen Mary.

In the summer you can tour the lakes on these gorgeous vessels and take a step into the past while watching the latest and greatest pleasure craft ripping around the waters and get a look at some of the opulent waterfront “cottages” that dot the shoreline.

For 2023, a “new” addition is being added to the fleet -- the Wanda.

Originally the Eaton family’s private steamship, it has been sitting, unseaworthy and unused, for years. But, to my delight, restoration work was underway when I visited and they graciously gave us a sneak peak while it's being converted from steam-to-green. This will be a silent, battery-powered cruiser when it hits the lakes once again. But even with some modern upgrades, Wanda was always on the cutting edge, as is evidenced by its remarkably narrow hull for a boat of that time period.

Wanda is nearly 100-feet long but only has a 12-foot beam, allowing it to slice through the water. And that wasn’t just to show off. It was built for speed. When the Eaton family would take the train to Gravenhurst they would hop on the Wanda and race north to their cottage, using the lake system to get there. The first boat(s) that reached the Port Carling lock got through immediately, while stragglers would have to wait for the next turn. Being first through the lock meant more time at the cottage. Times have changed, but the desire to get away from it all hasn’t!

Within the Discovery Centre itself, you can learn about the long boating history in the region, from steamships through to the golden age of wooden pleasure boats. In fact, the Murray Walker Grace & Speed Boathouse houses some stunning private vessels, on loan for the season, from the local community. Doubling down on the history factor, the boathouse is actually on the site of the Ditchburn boatbuilding factory.

There’s a good ramp and lots of parking and a hotel if you want to get out on the water on your own boat and aren’t fortunate enough to have a waterfront property - or have a friend who does!

Sixty kilometres northeast is Huntsville, which also has a steamboat heritage of note. In fact, the mark steamships made on these lakes is even more direct. The canal linking Peninsula and Fairy Lakes, which is still used by thousands of boaters even summer, was man-made and the main reason Deerhurst Resort has thrived here for more than 125 years. In fact, when it opened in 1896, it could only be reached by steamship!

Originally a small swampy creek, the canal that now runs alongside one of Deerhurst’s golf courses was dredged deep and wide in the late 1880s. This allowed steamships to reach Pen Lake and, along with the Brunel Lock that connected Mary Lake to Fairy Lake, turned this into a boatable four-lake chain. The steamers have long departed these waters, but their legacy of connectivity remains.

If you do end up in Huntsville, ideally tied up to the free town docks right in the centre of town, you can see some world class art. In fact there are 80 reproductions in the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery spread around this part of Muskoka.

Today, the overwhelming number of boats on Muskoka’s lakes are private vessels, with tour boats being in the minority. From restored vintage classics to personal watercraft and pontoons, you’ll find just about everything here, including what has to be a disproportionately high number of wakesport boats.

The glory days learning to waterski

And, as you might expect, wake boats and towsports have a long history on these lakes as well, over and above the generations of families that have waterskied, wakeboarded, and wake surfed over the years. In fact, this is where I first got a taste of boating and was hooked back in the late ‘80s (despite having to wear a bright yellow keyhole lifejacket!).

If you happen to be in this part of the country on a Tuesday, make your way to Windsor Park in Bala to catch the free, weekly, SWS Ski Show.

For more than 50 years the folks at SWS Muskoka from nearby Minnett have put on a weekly demonstration. Today, it features ski jumpers, barefoot skiers, flyboards, clown acts, and multi-person pyramids. They pass the hat around afterwards for tips but there’s no charge, just bring a folding chair and make some noise!

Of course, it serves as good advertising for their camps and lessons. And, from personal experience, anyone can do it.

On a rainy Wednesday after witnessing my first ski show, I took them up on their offer and did a wake surf and flyboard lesson. You can see how it went in Episode 3 of Water Ways!

Since before Canada became Canada this has been a boater’s paradise and I’m pretty sure that’s not changing anytime soon.

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