Author: Pamela Gough

Newsletter June 2020

Summer is a time for joyful renewal in Canada. This year, it seems that more people than ever are seeking a nature-based retreat as a way to counter the stress and strain of our weeks of lockdown due to COVID-19. It’s been a very difficult year for many. We are putting together summer plans in the midst of much uncertainty about what government restrictions will stay in place, and what this will mean for the cottage rental season. 

As Fancy Free’s owners, we want to ensure complete compliance with government regulations on the use of cottages over the summer. We have modified our procedures so that when the way is clear for our guests to come, they will be safe, and they in turn will keep those around them in the Rideau Lakes community safe as well. Since this year is an exceptional one, we have loosened our cancellation policy to make sure that our guests will not be out of pocket if they (or we) need to cancel as a result of a COVID-related change in plans. 

One thing that is certain is that summer is coming, and it will be beautiful. So to put you in a summer mood, we’ve gathered together some photos from our album that show Fancy Free in June, which is one of the most spectacular months of the year. 

First, with an island cottage it’s all about the water. Big Rideau Lake’s water levels are controlled by Parks Canada using the dams and locks in the Rideau Canal system. In the spring, the water level is allowed to rise to let the spring meltwater work its way through the system.

The water level changes a lot during the course of the year, with the spring having the highest water level and the fall having the lowest. Here’s a shot of Fancy Free Island in late May, when the water is high enough to wash over the front dock but the back docks stay clear. You can see Fancy Free’s boathouse clearly and just catch a glimpse of the cottage through the trees. 

Fancy Free island with boathouse at right

The channel between Fancy Free and the mainland is at its most beautiful during the quiet weeks of spring and early summer. We see loons and merganser ducks here, and sometimes we’ll hear the cry of the osprey overhead, fishing in the channel. 

The Channel

What would country living be without the delights of down home cooking? We like to stop at the local markets like Coutt’s Country Store outside of Perth to get some  delicious, freshly made baked goods as well as locally sourced eggs, meats and vegetables from the nearby family farms. Here’s a shot of Coutt’s strawberry-rhubarb pie with maple butter and bread.

Then it’s back to the cottage for a rest on the porch…

…with a glimpse of the hummingbirds, newly returned from the tropics, at the porch feeder…

…and a canoe ride after supper…

… with a beautiful sunset to end the day.

I hope these photos have put you in the languid, mellow frame of mind that typifies cottages in summer. If you would like to be on our newsletter list, just drop us a line. Have a safe and healthy June!

Pamela and Tom Gough

Newsletter January 2020

As we move into a new year and a new decade, I’d like to take a few moments to thank the many people who have helped to make Fancy Free the very special spot that it is. Some of these are friends, some are family, some are neighbours, and some are guests who over the years have made Fancy Free their home away from home for a week or two and often return or keep in touch in various ways.

All are important to us, as they are part of that rare, intangible sense of connectedness to the past that people feel once they settle into a day or two of life on Fancy Free island.  History and the present day meld together seamlessly. Indeed, our introduction to all guests includes the idea that just by being there, they become part of the history of Fancy Free too.

Not much has changed over the years on Fancy Free island, since somehow the beauty of the island and the recipe that was first used to build and furnish the cottage at Fancy Free is so timeless that there seems to be no need to improve upon it.

The views out of each window of the sparkling waters of Big Rideau Lake are endlessly hypnotic. The joys of swimming and boating, of reading on the porch or slacking off in the hammock, of group meals al fresco around the picnic table by the barbeque, or gatherings around the fire pit, or playing ball or badminton on the lawns or board games around the table, all have been enjoyed in much the same way by generation after generation for almost 150 years. 

One of the comments that we hear often is the sense of peace, family togetherness and psychic restoration that people experience on Fancy Free.

This sense of timelessness, or of time standing still, is enhanced or perhaps even created by the fact that at Fancy Free you are actually of course on an island and are physically separated from the hectic realities of everyday life as experienced in the world on the other side. You have a boat trip to take, a rite of passage of sorts, every time you arrive or leave Fancy Free.

Although Fancy Free island is so close to the mainland that you can swim over the channel to it in just a few minutes, it’s still a place apart. That makes it different, and special. It gives you a chance to create your own experiences with few interruptions from the outside world.

Another way of looking at is that you can better develop mindfulness, a sense of being in the moment or being closer to the others who are around you, when you are at an arm’s length from the mainstream.

That’s the timeless secret of the “bolthole”, the cabin, the retreat, the canoe trip, the journey on the footpath. A change of perspective is refreshing, and necessary, from time to time. 

Another nod to the past is the way that our operating principles have stayed true to the old-fashioned theme that a good welcome to the island is very important.

In this age of the instant and the impersonal, we believe in the importance of the slow and the personal. All new guests are greeted at the mainland dock on their first day, and brought over to the island for a short tour and introduction. They are shown how to run the motor boat, and where to find the things that they’ll need, and they can ask all the questions they want. We simply would not dream of doing it differently.

And then when you are comfortable, we turn things over to you. The island is completely yours to relax in and enjoy a type of privacy that is granted to very few.

It’s the allure of the private island. If you haven’t experienced it yet, give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

For those of you who have already been Fancy Freers, please come again. There’s a warm welcome waiting.

Newsletter March 2019

It’s with great excitement that we launch our newly updated website! Many thanks to our current webmaster, Mary Bella (Maestra Web Design) of Etobicoke, Ontario, for all her hard work. Our deepest gratitude goes to our outgoing webmaster Anshu Mathur of Waterloo, Ontario, who kept the Fancy Free website updated for 10 years.

We hope you like our new site. It’s got all the features of the old site: the history, the photos, the happy comments from guests. With this update, the site is more dynamic and easier to use. And there are lots more pictures!  Fancy Free Island is so photogenic that you can really never get enough pictures.  

Over the last few summers, Fancy Free has had some intensive renewal projects done. The boathouse has been strengthened and slightly enlarged, and now boasts Cape Cod siding, skylights and a lifetime-warranty steel roof.

The new French doors on the second floor have opened up a hitherto hidden view of the channel that is quite literally breathtaking.  You can see the full sweep of the shoreline and the sparkling water of the channel stretching along for miles to the northeast, the water dotted with islands large and small. It’s the kind of view that you can look at for hours.

Fancy Free cottage has also had its roof replaced and last year got a complete exterior paint job. When you’re 140 years old, you need a bit of a facelift now and then.

We are looking forward to opening in May for another much anticipated summer season. One of the rituals of opening is hanging out the Fancy Free welcome sign. It’s a little plaque, a sort of tchotchke, made in nearby Westport years ago from a slab of wood cut along the grain.  Etched on it are words that are as meaningful today as when it was first made:

“Knock gently friend, whate’er betide,
The kettle’s on, so come inside.”

Come and visit- the welcome mat is always out!

-Tom and Pamela Gough

Newsletter May 2018

It’s sunset on the Sunday night of the third week of May 2018. Cottage opening weekend for Fancy Free Island. I’m sitting on the back porch of Fancy Free cottage looking out over Big Rideau Lake, now a golden glimmer in the setting sun.

All around me on the island there are sounds. The air is alive. Somewhere close by I can hear loons calling to each other in their haunting low wail. A song sparrow lifts its voice melodically over and over close to me in the honeysuckle bush. A kingfisher is sweeping low in between Fancy Free island in the channel, and as it flies it makes its chattering call. There’s a phoebe nesting out under the rafters of the boathouse. Its call is so insistent, Phoebe Phoebe.

A pair of robins have decided to build their nest right on our front porch, weaving bits of grass in and out around a three-pronged hook that we usually hang our hats on. We found the first egg this afternoon. This has created a problem. Now we can’t go out onto our front porch lest we frighten the robins off the nest. We can’t use the door that we normally use to get into the cottage and have spent the afternoon sneaking in and out by side doors and back doors.

I am struck by the idea that we humans on Fancy Free Island really only borrow this place for a few days of the year from the animals that live here all year round .

The lake is very peaceful now, very still, only a few ripples on the surface. The trees that fringe the island are silhouetted in the slanting sunlight. The water was golden only a few minutes ago and now it’s turned pink and orange as the sun slips beneath the horizon.

This must be what it’s like living inside a poem.

Newsletter March 2017

Welcome to spring! It’s been a busy couple of years at Fancy Free and her sister island Footloose. We’ve embarked on a series of rejuvenation projects aimed at ensuring that the historic features of Fancy Free’s cottage, main island and boathouse are preserved and that all structures are kept in excellent condition. The boathouse has received a new roof, new siding, and new foundations, and has been very slightly expanded to add more storage space. The summer of 2017 will see upgrades going on in the cottage itself, mainly in the kitchen, as well as a complete paint job. We will not be engaging in rentals this season as a result. Look for future updates to come out as work progresses in our renewal project!

Newsletter September 2015

What magic is there in the simplicity of a rustic Canadian cottage lifestyle embedded in experiences of nature? Fancy Free tends to have a remarkably therapeutic effect on people. Looking at the many comments in the guest book, it’s clear that for decades people have found the experience of living on Fancy Free Island, in a century-old house so close to the wilderness and on the water’s edge, very refreshing- even invigorating. Comments like “so great to recharge,” “the stresses of city life were forgotten by day two,” and “pure relaxation” crop up continually. The joy of a chance to reconnect with family and friends in a place away from urban tensions is also an enduring theme.

Whatever it is, Fancy Free does seem to create the condition for a sort of supreme tranquility that creates happiness and contentment, a feeling of being in the moment.

Is it the proximity to the water, sparkling from every window continually in the summer, lapping at the shoreline, swishing and booming on the island’s rock wall as strong waves from across the lake reach it on a windy day, accompanied by the cries of osprey, seagulls and terns as they fly across the channel? Is it the heightened sensation of the wind, so necessary to develop on an island when a boat is only means of egress? Is it the drenching sunshine and heat of a summer’s day that calls you to jump in the water and swim, or enjoy a quiet read on the hammock because it’s just too hot to do anything much?

Is it the quiet of the deep, dark nights, the sweep of brilliant stars and constellations across the sky so vividly clear you want to do nothing more than just lie on a dock on watch them move over the hours? The call of the loons across the lake or the owls in the mainland forest, the sounds that travel for miles because it’s just so quiet? The frogs and crickets that make their music near the docks after twilight has fallen? The fireflies twinkling in the bushes at the water’s edge in the dark?

Perhaps the cottage itself has been steeped in summertime vacation happiness so long that it’s somewhere in the walls, intangible but felt by all who enter.

Whatever it may be, we invite all Fancy Free-ers to make their own comments, in the guest book or to us directly, to describe their experiences and what it was that made their Fancy Free visit memorable.

Newsletter January 2015

As I write this, in mid-January, the snow lies deep on Big Rideau Lake and the ice is getting thick enough to drive a car on. Next weekend is the Skate the Lake event, a long distance speed-skating race hosted by our local village of Portland –“one of the few towns in Ontario that owns a Zamboni but not a hockey rink” according to Rick Mercer, Canada’s court jester. Watch Rick at Skate the Lake here to get a glimpse of Big Rideau Lake’s winter fun fest.

shelter Although Fancy Free is in a snowy slumber for the next few months, we are gearing up for another perfect cottage summer. We have received permission from all authorities to repair and slightly expand the Fancy Free boathouse. It took longer than expected to say the least but our perseverance and persistence has been rewarded with a successful application for a building permit. Many thanks to Kathy Sonnenburg of Parks Canada’s Smith’s Falls office for her advice and guidance.

The newly repaired Fancy Free boathouse will add extra storage for boats and equipment. Materials and design will be in keeping with the original heritage architecture of Fancy Free cottage. Our goal is to increase the aesthetic charm of Fancy Free island’s built environment, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Fancy Free is the oldest cottage on Big Rideau Lake and we are pleased that the boathouse on the island will shortly be as pretty as the cottage, as well as being stronger and more able to shelter our boats from the storms that occasionally blow across the lake.

The construction period will be timed to avoid any inconvenience to guests and to comply with restrictions on building on the water during fish spawning season. Stay tuned for more developments and photos of the newly repaired boathouse.

Newsletter October 2013

The summer has slipped by and the maples on Big Rideau Lake are tipped with flame. There is no question about it, autumn brings the most sensational vistas of the lake at Fancy Free. The serenity of the water combined with the stunning colours of scarlet, gold, green and purple that line the shoreline create glorious contrasts in colour. There comes a day in September when the fading warmth of summer is suddenly replaced by a briskness in the air that makes itself felt in the urge to get outside and do things vigorously … no more lying about reading on lawn chairs and swimming! This is the time that friends visit one another to catch up around the fireplace and savour a bit of warmth along with good conversation and a mug of something hot.


The summer of 2013 will go down in the annals of Fancy Free as the Year of the Dishwasher. That’s right… a super-efficient whisper-quiet Bosch dishwasher is now cleverly installed in the kitchen, next to the double sink. We have always prided ourselves on the Victorian authenticity of Fancy Free, and wondered how we could ever manage to put a dishwasher into the kitchen without (a) taking up far too much space or (b) having it look out of place and ultra-modern. Well, we found a way and you would never know there was a dishwasher there… but there is, hidden behind an original cupboard door. Dinners for eight are now a snap to clear up, and the dishwasher is so quiet that you can barely tell when it’s on. Island living has become much easier all of a sudden.


We continue to work on plans to very slightly enlarge the boathouse, while being careful to stay within all guidelines of Parks Canada and the municipality. We plan to increase the amount of storage for boats and to create a slip that will shelter the motorboat from the weather. This will be the next big project and we can’t wait to get started. Meanwhile, the leaves are beginning to fall and Fancy Free is starting to fall asleep for the winter. We will open it again in the spring, ready for another year of fun. Our office is, of course, open all winter long and we look forward to hearing from all friends of Fancy Free over the next few months, as we embark on another season of cottaging on the Rideau. Have a good winter and see you next year!

Newsletter May 2012

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote:
“Methinks an island would be the most desirable of landed property, for it seems like a little world by itself; and the water may answer for the atmosphere that surrounds planets.”

What a beautiful description of the sense of intimacy and yet completeness that islands promote. They are like little worlds unto themselves, encircled in a loving embrace by the sparkling water that surrounds them, little ecosystems that are just a bit separate from the rest of the world- far enough away from the mainland to develop a distinct identity and exclusivity, but close enough for regular contact if needs be.

Here is our update as of May, 2012: Spring has been exceptionally warm this year, and the summer is predicted to be a hot one. We opened Fancy Free early this year since the season has been so advanced. The swimming season has already started, and although the water is still a bit cold, it will warm up quickly over the next few weeks. The female hummingbird has returned to Fancy Free’s porch and is sipping nectar from the beautiful flower baskets hanging there. Swallows have returned, and warblers, as well as the loons and ducks. The island is a cacophony of birdsong and lush growth, and the water is as inviting as always. The new swimming raft is sure to provide hours of fun on the water.

Annual repairs and grounds-keeping are taking place, and Fancy Free is once again “open for summer”! The anticipation of five months of island life on the Big Rideau is a delicious sensation. 

Attention, naturalists, photographers, and history buffs:  the Rideau Roundtable is preparing some wonderful excursions in the Rideau area to celebrate Environment Week. Max Finklestein, a legendary canoeist and friend of Fancy Free, is a featured interpreter: 

CELEBRATE ENVIRONMENT WEEK with TREASURES OF THE RIDEAU – the perfect voyageur canoe interpretive tour to experience the Rideau’s cultural and natural highlights.

The Rideau Roundtable is pleased to present Treasures of the Rideau tours in collaboration with the Rideau Canal Visitor Information Centre to celebrate Environment Week in Smiths Falls, Saturday June 2 and Saturday June 9, 2012.

Starting at 10 am at the auditorium of the Rideau Canal Visitor and Information Centre with an overview presentation of Ontario’s UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, The Rideau Canal, this will be followed by instruction in paddling the 34 foot replica Voyageur Canoe.  Visitors will experience the passage through the Detached lock, into the Swale, a provincially significant wetland. They will learn about the heritage and natural history of the area from our regular costumed Voyageur interpreters – wildlife biologist Stew Hamill, historian and teacher Jim Penistan and actor and natural history educator Andrea Howard as well as guest interpreters.  

Saturday, June 2, we welcome canoeist icon, biologist, author and environmentalist, Max Finkelstein, as our guest interpreter. Max is the retired Communication Officer for the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, Canada’s national program for river conservation. Max Finkelstein’s canoe explorations of Canada are modern legends. His expeditions demand ingenuity and courage. His book, Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie, retraces explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s historic paddle some two hundred years ago across North America. Paddling the Boreal Forest: Rediscovering A.P. Low is another work that he co-authored with paddling partner Jim Stone. They traced the routes of the 19th century “iron-man” in the Quebec-Labrador border. 

Max will be leading the “Capital to Capitol” Voyageur Canoe expedition from Ottawa to Washington in September.    This goal of this 1800 km, 5-week long expedition is to draw attention to the need for collective efforts to restore our rivers and waters

The cost of these 4-hour Treasures of the Rideau, on Saturday June 2, including a morning on the water, lunch and discussion with Max Finkelstein, is $65.

The following Saturday, June 9, the guest interpreter will be naturalist/photographer, Simon Lunn. Simon has spent most of his life exploring and learning about the natural environment. With his considerable photographic, interpretive and presentation skills, he generously shares his experiences with others. A graduate of Acadia University, Nova Scotia in biology and wildlife conservation, Simon enjoyed a career spanning several decades with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Canadian Wildlife Service, and, for the past 30 years of his work career, Parks Canada. During that time, he worked and lived in park sites and other natural areas across Canada; worked eighteen years with the Rideau Canal as the Visitor Services Officer and prior to his retirement in 2004, as Ecosystem Scientist. Simon continues to contribute citizen science through various wildlife surveys, research, and also volunteers with the Rideau Waterway Land Trust. 

Simon will provide our participants with insights into the natural history and secrets of the Swale, a very important marsh that will be full of life and photographic opportunities at this time of year. 

Following lunch in a private dining room, Simon will share with the audience a slide show of the four seasons of the Swale, after which he will lead a hands-on photography workshop from 2 pm – 4:00 pm. This will involve an easy stroll to different spots along the canal between Smiths Falls Detached and Smiths Falls Combined Lockstation, and will provide participants with practical tips and suggestions on how to photograph what makes the Rideau Waterway so special. It should be an active, fun and memorable day that will include a search for the “falls” referred to in the town’s name!”

The cost of the whole day is $85, including lunch, the morning paddle and the afternoon photography workshop. 

Please visit: www.rideauroundtable.ca or call 613-269-3415 for reservations or more information about Treasures of the Rideau.

Newsletter September 2011

The summer of 2011 was almost perfect. Long, hot, lazy days from mid-June to early September, interrupted only by the occasional thunderstorm and downpour that served to provide great rumbling lightshows in the night sky, cool things down temporarily, and reinvigorate the cottage garden at Fancy Free.

The garden grew to lush perfection and attracted ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees galore (the bees at Fancy Free seem to be of a laid-back, non-stinging sort that concentrate on pollen transfer and pick-up exclusively and leave humans alone).

It was the sort of summer that flew by quickly since the weather was perfect for all the water activities that Fancy Free is famous for. Once you are on the water at Big Rideau Lake… well, nothing else is quite so much fun. Time loses its hold and hours flit by.

We love this passage from Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows, one of Fancy Free’s favourite library books. The subterranean character of Mole meets the Water Rat, who lives on the banks of the River. Ratty loves to row about in his punt boat, and when he finds that Mole has never been in a boat before, says:
 
“Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: `messing–about–in–boats; messing—-‘

`Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

`–about in boats–or WITH boats,’ the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. `In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”
 
We completely subscribe to this philosophy at Fancy Free! We even have a beautiful willow tree on the island that leans over the lake and sends its long slender branches down to blow in the wind.

We are pleased to announce some stunning new additions to amenities this year. The newly renovated bathroom now has a beautiful alcove soaking tub/shower, with glass tiles. We also installed a new heritage-style vanity with a marble counter and set-in porcelain sink. The vanity is flanked by light sconces on either side of the Victorian mirror for a bright and clean look. The floor is tiled in luxurious porcelain. It is now more vintage New York City than Big Rideau Lake!

We have also bought a spacious and buoyant 8×8′ swim raft, moored with an anchor, and fitted out with a ladder for easy ascent from the water. It adds to the fun of swimming in the protected channel that separates the island from the mainland. You can swim from the front dock to the raft, climb on the raft, dive off it, and swim back to the dock in just a matter of minutes.