Newsletter December 2009

“Laughter is an instant vacation.” – Milton Berle
Winter is here and we send seasonal greetings to all our readers from the Gough family. The weather may be chilly now, but already we are eagerly looking forward to a new cottage season. In spring, Fancy Free Island will once again turn a lush green, buds will swell, the tiny, iridescent hummingbirds will return to the porch feeder, winds will chase themselves among the gardens and laughter will once again ring out over the water as another season of cottage fun begins at Fancy Free.

Why is an island location so eternally popular for a holiday? It’s the water, of course. Sparkling water all around, everywhere you look. The Swiss Family Robinson-like thrill of having a private island to roam, fish and swim in, a place separate from the mainland and just for you, is an indescribable delight.

It’s also the privacy: peace and quiet, with the rush and roar of the city quickly forgotten, to be replaced by birdsong, lapping waves, the splash of paddles in the water, and a thrumming boat engine every now and then. An island is “a place away,” a perfect spot for a retreat with friends and family.

It’s fascinating to live in a cottage, such as Fancy Free, that was built in the 19th century, since the contrast between the way that people lived in times past and the way that we live now in the 21st century is so easy to discern. Fancy Free was built in the late 1870’s and was one of the first cottages on Big Rideau Lake. Historians tell us that it’s the oldest cottage still standing on the lake, and probably the oldest in the area. Aside from the fireplace and chimney, the entire cottage infrastructure is made of wood, as are almost all of the furnishings. This wood was sourced from local trees, cut and planed in Smiths Falls or a nearby community, put together by hand or with simple tools, and brought by barge from Smiths Falls. Even the floors are made of planks that our carpenters tell us were sawn, cut and assembled in a way peculiar to the local district. Is it possible to build so locally or with such a low carbon footprint today?

With global warming being in the forefront of major issues, we thought you would like to hear about the environmental initiatives that we have undertaken at Fancy Free. It’s one of the things that make Fancy Free is so unique.

Fancy Free Island is in Big Rideau Lake, a large, healthy, clear lake. Big Rideau Lake has an abundance of fish, birds, and other forms of animal life because the area is densely forested and the water is clean. On one of the other islands in Big Rideau Lake, we have a resident population of ospreys, which are a very rare kind of hawk that dive for fish. They often soar over the channel that separates Fancy Free from the mainland, and if we are standing on the dock it’s not unusual to see an osprey overhead suddenly close its wings in mid-air, and plunge into the channel to catch a fish. The splash it makes is as loud as a human’s dive would be. It’s always a thrill to see the ospreys flying over the island since they remind us that we are in a pristine area with the kind of unspoiled habitat that enables these rare birds to thrive. It’s not exactly wilderness, since there are towns and villages nearby, but pretty close.

Fancy Free Island, Christmas, 1904.
Fancy Free Island, Christmas, 1904. Note people sitting on the dock and windmill visible in the right upper corner.
Although the island has electricity now, this is a relatively new development, historically speaking. For the first half-century of its existence, up until some point in the mid-1900s, Fancy Free was lit by oil lamps, some of which still survive and are in the cottage to this day. The water used for cooking and washing was originally pumped from the lake by a windmill on the island. Wind power is making a comeback now, but the resourceful people of eastern Ontario made good use of the wind long before the current era of “peak oil.” We have photos of the island from Christmas of 1904, showing the windmill on the north side of the cottage. Although this windmill no longer remains, the cottage still runs on renewable energy. It is powered from low- impact sources of electrical generation produced by a company called Bullfrog Power (see When we say that Fancy Free is “bullfrog-powered,” people laugh at the phrase, but in fact it’s true!

The boats that were so plentiful in the early days of Fancy Free were all canoes, rowboats, or sailboats. Before the gasoline engine was widespread, wind and human muscle-power helped cottagers get about, not fossil fuel. We still continue the tradition of low-impact boating at Fancy Free with our fleet of three canoes, the sailboat and the new kayak. We encourage our guests to go out in the hand-powered boats as much as they feel comfortable with, since they are so much more fun than motorized boats and far quieter and easier on the lake’s nesting loon pairs.

In 2001, we replaced the original septic system, which was built to outdated standards, with a new system especially designed for islands and other areas where space for septic beds is at a minimum. The new system is inspected and maintained regularly to ensure that the lake is not impacted by any waste water seeping off the island.

We also use no fertilizer or pesticides on the island’s lawns and maintain the trees and the littoral area near the water carefully so as to maximize habitat for fish and other wildlife. Fancy Free island is home to many breeding birds as well as to a family of red squirrels, which entertain us as they run about the lawns and chatter in the trees. We often spot great blue herons and kingfishers fishing in the channel between Fancy Free Island and the mainland, and minks and frogs are found at the water’s edge. People ask us how terrestrial animals such as the squirrels came to be on the island. The answer is simple- they swam, just like the minks and frogs. It’s not far from the mainland and with all the oak trees on Fancy Free Island, the squirrels knew paradise when they saw it.

Guests have told us on many occasions how much they enjoyed the feeling of happiness and serenity that they experience at Fancy Free. Some have commented on how they feel that a sense of pervading kindness, love of the outdoors, and enjoyment of the pleasure of being together with loved ones seems to have been passed down from one generation to another. This sixth sense of serenity is one of the intangibles that cast a spell over people that visit. We invite you to come and experience for yourselves the peaceful atmosphere of this very special “place away” amidst the unspoiled beauty of Big Rideau Lake. You will agree with the squirrels: it’s the best of all worlds.

Pamela and Tom Gough