Muskoka Scenery, Artifacts & Writing

Each is an echo of the other, yet distinctive. These books engage and educate about the "mystique" of Muskoka, yet without forfeiting realism about our District's struggles.

Summertimes, the first of the three to appear, was published in 1994 to celebrate the initial hundred years of the Muskoka Lakes Association. The MLA is a vitally important organization, not just because it boasts North America's longest running summer aquatic regatta, but because for decades its members and activities have interwoven tightly into the very fabric of Muskoka politics, economics, society, and culture.

The MLA tapped authoritative authors for this commemorative book, from Richard Tatley and Susan Pryke to Judy Ross, William Gray, Ron Reid, and seven others. Their astute integration of so much information about Muskoka is displayed through a dozen chapters richly detailing the natural history of Muskoka, the First Peoples, Muskoka's explorers and surveyors, early settlers, the lumber trade, summer visitors, the golden era of Muskoka resorts, cottage life, transportation in and around Muskoka, and a century's worth of issues and concerns.

Informed writing about Muskoka by authors with different perspectives is, however, only half of Summertimes. This book also tells Muskoka's story through a superb array of images.

Many black-and-white and sepia toned photographs from early years of logging, farming, boating, and community life manage to simultaneously convey realism and nostalgia. Spectacular colour pictures of lakes, rocks, trees, joyous swimmers, and avid boaters capture the energies of Muskoka. Reproductions of charts and architects drawings, of souvenir matches from "Norma's Lunch" in Port Carling and a Gravenhurst steamboat brochure advertising daily scenic cruises through 100 miles of matchless Muskoka Lakes beauty "reached four hours or less from Toronto by train or motor," evoke a tangible sense of our District as well.

Anyone who'd read Summertimes might well have thought the story fully told. Yet a decade later, journalist Andrew Wagner-Chazalon and photographer Bev McMullen teamed up to present the same Muskoka history through a different lens in Muskoka Traditions. The focus is tighter because the storyteller has a single voice, and because the photography is by one woman's camera (although supplemented by historical photographs, as in Summertimes.)

The through-line of this book are the traditions Muskokans adhere to: the place of churches, the thrill of regattas, elegant slow boats, sporty speed craft, the "panic season" as resorts and marinas gear up for another summer, and many more. Wagner-Chazalon's thesis is that these traditions embrace both continuity and change.

"Muskoka is growing and changing," he writes, "and longtime residents sometimes wonder where it is heading. The cottages and boats grow bigger and more numerous every year, and so many of the traditional ways of life seem to be fading into memory." When he probes more deeply, however, "it becomes clear that those traditions remain alive, and provide the roots that support so much of life in Muskoka." Muskoka Traditions thus chronicles both continuity and flexibility.

Their chapter "The Path Away from Farming" describes the "lottery" by which some settlers landed on pockets of rich soil and others on nearly barren rock, and what ensued for those pioneers and their descendents in the decades since. Bev McMullen captures fields and barns, workhorses and farmhouses, abandoned farm machinery silently rusting away in hoar-covered grasses, and a pioneer's smiling great-great-grandson making maple syrup on a farm he still works today.

In all such chapters, Wagner-Chazalon's gift for observation and talents in storytelling richly engage one, and it is easy to feel and smell the rickety old boathouse, a crowded general store, or intricate Indian wicker baskets. In tandem, McMullen's eye for detail and her artistry in capturing moods are hallmarks of complementing colour photographs throughout the 160 pages of Muskoka Traditions.

The authors' sense of whimsy is neatly captured in a chapter about a most enduring Muskoka tradition: "Find Something High and Jump From It." The photos include seven youngsters leaping off the Dorset bridge "where it takes more than a No Jumping sign to stop people"; a boathouse on Evangeline Island "with different roof heights to accommodate different degrees of bravery and daring;" and an array of solo divers and coordinated mass rushes in which even a dog joins the jumpers. Wagner-Chazalon describes how such "daredevil routines" have persisted through generations, wherever there are rocks high enough and water deep enough below.

In 2010, John McQuarrie pushed this genre of Muskoka book to a new high. The strong appeal of his Spirit of Place: Muskoka Then & Now is conveyed by the title itself. This book pushes through the details of history to exude the energy and vitality of Muskoka, and one truly does feel the "spirit" of our District in these jam-packed 250 pages. His "then and now" theme involves juxtaposition of historic photos with his own exceptional colour images taken recently. McQuarrie is a photographer of the first-rank.

For text to fill out the story McQuarrie published existing work of ten others who recently wrote or spoke about Muskoka – much of it adapted from the Ontario Visual Heritage Project's documentary film "Life On The Edge" – with addition information from a number of Muskoka websites.

As a bonus, the book also features colourful reproductions of Muskoka scenes by Canadian landscape artist Gordon Harrison. Coverage is complete, taking in Georgian Bay on the west and Algonquin Park to the east.

The composite result is that Spirit of Place is a sensual, artful, breathtaking, and engagingly informative portrait of Muskokans and our surroundings, both natural and man-made.

The integration of past events with contemporary Muskoka ways is the common hallmark of these three superb books.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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