Author: Pamela Gough

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: 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.

Newsletter January 2011

The Rideau Canal has been chosen by experts as one of the best go-to places for Canadian history. In its February-March 2011 issue, Canada’s History magazine has named the Rideau Canal as one of the top ten National Historic Sites in Canada. In the article, author Nelle Oosterom asks readers to imagine planning a summer-long road trip that would take in ten National Historic Sites. Which ones would they choose of the 150 amazing sites administered by Parks Canada?
The historical experts at the magazine asked themselves the same question. In deciding on their top ten sites, they based the decision on historical significance and the quality of visitors’ experiences. They also chose sites that represented a broad time period and covered as much of the country as possible. The Rideau Canal was their choice for Ontario’s best National Historic Site. If you were to go on the road trip of these sites, they say, “the stories of Canada would come alive in ways you never thought of.”
The Rideau Canal is joined in this prestigious list by L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, the Fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, the Fortifications of Quebec, Quebec, Lower Fort Garry, Manitoba, Batoche, Saskatchewan, the Bar U Ranch, Alberta, Nan Sdins in the Haida Gwaii Islands of British Columbia, and Dawson City in Yukon.
The Rideau Canal represents the time period 1827 to the present. In the article, the authors say that the “beauty and recreational value of this 202 kilometre long waterway belies its origins as an early nineteenth century defence strategy.” Under the caption “Things to Do,” they say, “visitors can travel the country by boat to view the scenic countryside, historic towns, and quaint villages of Eastern Ontario. Take in the summer heritage theatre series by Parks Canada Players that brings history to life, with performances in towns or cities along the canal.”
We are thrilled that the Rideau Canal has been given this well deserved recognition.

The year 2011 has brought another treasure from the past into Fancy Free’s collection. This postcard has been found in the collection of Bill Price, an artist based in Florida who loved to visit Fancy Free in the 1930’s and 1940’s with his wife, who had grown up in Smiths Falls and was a dear friend of Margaret Washburn. It was sent by his granddaughter, Robina Laney, who visited in 2010 to see the cottage that her grandparents loved so much. Although undated, this photo shows Fancy Free as it was during the days when Miss Washburn tended gardens that ringed the island, creating a spectacular view of the cottage and its setting. We thought you would enjoy this memento of the twentieth century.

Newsletter June 2010

The phenomenal spring of 2010 will go down in Fancy Free annals as being the warmest in living memory. We opened the cottage on the Victoria Day holiday weekend of the 24th of May. Normally opening weekend is a bit on the chilly side, especially if the north wind is blowing: we will often have the wood stove on in the kitchen to keep the cottage cozy as we do the many chores, inside and out, that are necessary. Walking around the island and taking long breaths of the aromatic smell of wood smoke drifting in the clean country air is actually one of my favourite things about opening the cottage. It means comfort, warmth and the promise of a pleasant corner to hover over with hands spread wide after coming in from the brisk winds and sparkling blue water of Big Rideau Lake. The ice in the lake usually melts by mid-April so the water’s often not much above freezing temperatures by the time opening weekend arrives. Gloves are sometimes handy, and not just for gardening.
Well, the wood stove never warmed up as it wasn’t needed this year. The weather was actually better in our part of Ontario than in California. With the sun bright in a cloudless sky, and temperatures at 30 degrees Celsius, we were running on par with Hawaii for balmy weather. We were amazed to see that the swimming and sunbathing season had already started. Some of the children from other cottages on the lake, having not brought their bathing suits, were swimming in their pyjamas!
The third week of May is the height of the spring bird migration in eastern Ontario, and on Victoria Day weekend Fancy Free Island was filled with bird song as the newly arrived spring migrants started to establish their breeding territories. Migration will continue for another few weeks but already many of the earlier birds have started nest building and egg-laying. Robins, some of the earliest arrivals, have often fledged their first brood by early May. We have a red-eyed vireo this year, singing madly by the boathouse trees, and flitting around the island. They are very small birds with very big voices, and their song is like a mad robin that repeats a few short, melodic notes constantly.
Throughout opening weekend, flocks of Canada geese pass overhead from time to time, often with about 60-70 birds flying together in a loosely formed, skirling V-pattern. You can hear them coming long before you can see them at times, since they honk to each other constantly as they fly.
The first sign of them is usually a faintly musical commotion in the air, high up and far away, sometimes above the clouds on cloudy days. Then the sound becomes louder, turns into multi-tonal honking, and becomes more insistent as the flock comes closer. Finally the honks reach a crescendo and you see the flock overhead, with one bird flying as the leader for a while and all the others strung out behind and beside as they minimize the expenditure of energy by flying just behind and beside one another. It’s like watching the peloton of a magnificent cycle race, with all the riders bunched together for aerodynamic efficiency, with spectators blaring trumpets and horns. Then the sounds gradually fade away and they disappear into the distance, bound for some unknown destination- maybe the shores of James Bay or the Arctic, who knows? In the middle of the May night, when I wake up and listen to the peaceful stillness on the island, sometimes I  hear them faintly as they fly high overhead in the dark, navigating by the stars and bound for a distant shore in the northern wilderness. It never ceases to move me- the urgency of spring in Canada.
The loons have also arrived back on Big Rideau Lake, and we often hear them calling to one another with their long, eerie wails. Heather, one of our daughters, paddled close to a pair of loons last weekend in our kayak. Loons don’t seem to pay much attention to people in kayaks for some reason, and as Heather drifted over they calmly swam along beside her. Then another loon called far out on the lake, and the male of Heather’s nearby loon pair let loose with his answering call, literally under the nose of our mesmerized kayaker. It was a truly iconic Canadian moment, straight out of Hinterland Who’s Who.
One of our favourite new books this spring is Bird Detective: Investigating the Secret Lives of Birds, by Canadian biology professor Dr. Bridget Stutchbury. The author’s earlier book, Silence of the Songbirds, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award two years ago. Bird Detective is about the social lives of birds, and is especially fun on bird reproduction biology. Do you know that with some songbirds, almost every egg in the nest has a different father? That the males of some species are routinely cuckolded by their seemingly faithful mates flying off the nest for fast, surreptitious copulations with males from other territories that can sing well or display colourful feathers? The inside cover says it all: Sex, adultery, betrayal, divorce- right in your own backyard! It’s great summer cottage reading, especially lying in the Fancy Free hammock with the birds singing all around. You can order it from