Newsletter December 2021

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2021, Tom and I would like to thank all the visitors, guests, friends, family and neighbors who made Fancy Free part of their lives over the year. We truly appreciate your coming to Fancy Free and wish you and yours a joyful and meaning-filled holiday season. While we hope to see you again in the future, we understand that some of you will be travelling on to explore other places and might not be able to return. We hope your memories of Fancy Free in the summer of 2021 will remain in your thoughts as a very special place and time.

Isolarii is Italian for “island texts” and is a term for a genre of small books from Renaissance-era Venice that were dedicated to a single idea or perspective. The name references the concept of an island as a unique place in itself, a place that is splendid in its isolation. As we all emerge from a year of isolation and dislocation, the concept of an island as a place of respite is one that resonates for many of us.

Island keepers are something like lighthouse keepers. They tend to be stewards of their special landmarks. In this respect Tom and I could be called radical preservationists. We delight in keeping Fancy Free largely as it has been all along and refraining from imprinting the 21st century on it.

 I remember my first glimpse of the living room, with its movie-set-like quality. It felt like I was stepping back in time. The overstuffed sofa and chairs, the chintz curtains, the photos and memorabilia on the walls, and the antique hutches with vintage china on display, the stuffed fish- it was like being in an Agatha Christie book. I expected Hercule Poirot to come around the corner at any moment. Or to walk into the living room and find the characters from Murder at the Vicarage turn around to look at me.    

Thankfully Fancy Free has not seen anything like a Christie plot in real life. As far as we know, it’s been a peaceful retreat for the whole of its almost 150 years, nestled among the oaks and pines of its island. In fact it seems to be permeated with kindness, with its generous proportions, perfect setting, and restorative views of the water. This is not to say it hasn’t had its share of life’s ups and downs. Like many old houses, it has a few mysteries.

So here’s a gift of a story for you- one of the mysteries of Fancy Free, explained.

If you have sharp eyes, you may have noticed the short message penciled in upper case letters on the red brick of Fancy Free’s living room fireplace. It’s a stark few words:

“Pat Left Aug 26, 1947. Sad Day.”

What does this mean? Who was Pat? Why was Pat’s leaving commemorated in a note to posterity?

Here’s the story.

Tom’s father, Arnold Gough, like many rural men, was a hunter and fisher in his spare time.

Just after World War II was over, Arnold returned home from the army and resumed civilian life in Smiths Falls. The year was 1947. Arnold had recently married his wife Margaret Anderson in Seattle and the couple  had one son, John, born in June. Along with his family, the light of Arnold’s life was his hunting dog, Pat. They would spend hours hunting together. Where Arnold went, Pat went.

Hunting dogs at that time spent their lives outside, not in houses. When Arnold was staying at Fancy Free, helping Aunt Margaret, Pat would often decide to swim over to the mainland in the evening and hunt around, being very much an outdoor dog.

One night in August there was a fierce storm. Pat had swum over to the mainland, as he often did. When the storm hit, he tried to swim back to the island, but he must have exhausted himself in the roiling waves and not been able to swim around to the canoe landing. Very sadly, Arnold found him lifeless, floating just off the island in the morning.

He was so close to getting back home.

Heartbroken, Arnold took the extraordinary step of recording the event on the fireplace bricks. He was not a man given to expressing emotions very much, but he must have truly loved that dog.

That’s the story behind the cryptic words.

You can still see Pat on Fancy Free. He is the dog in the photo that has the frame in the shape of a dog house, hanging just over the large sofa in the living room. He was an Airedale.


The next time you’re in the living room at Fancy Free, take a moment to look at the faint message on the bricks. It’s a cry from the heart, a tangible momento of the love between a human and a dog. It’s also a reminder that dogs have always been a part of the Fancy Free island experience as beloved members of the families that come here, and for this reason we have always maintained a dog-friendly policy. In fact, despite Pat’s untimely demise, Fancy Free Island is generally a very safe place- and a very fun spot- for a dog to be. And of course their humans have a great time too.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the past. From all of us to all of you, have a wonderful Christmas and a safe and happy 2022. 

Pam and Tom

Newsletter November 2020

A UNESCO-Acclaimed Landscape: Daydreaming and Day Tripping at Fancy Free:

When Fancy Free reopens for the season in May 2021, it will be 140 years old. Since the time it was built, it has been passed down within the original families. Amazingly, it has never been sold. Our guests tell us that the exclusivity and authenticity of Fancy Free is the best possible antidote to the stresses of the pandemic and the hectic pace of modern life.

It’s hard to describe, but on Fancy Free Island you get a sense of being in a place that is somehow set apart from the everyday. Boaters wave and smile as they go by. Fancy Free is part of the landscape of the region but because it’s is a little separated from the mainland it has that special mystique that islands convey. It’s rooted in the past but very much part of the present- like living in a little resort that’s been there since Victorian times. You even get the sense that there’s a bit of time travel going on with it. If you close your eyes in the living room, it’s easy to imagine opening them and being in the 1940s or even earlier. A cozy fall night on the sofa watching something from the cottage CD collection of classic Humphrey Bogarts really brings this feeling on!

Sunset at Fancy Free

There are some very good reasons why Fancy Free feels like such a special place. It is located in an area that is recognized by UNESCO as being world class in two ways. Big Rideau Lake is not only part of UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also on the edge of a the Frontenac Arch, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This means that along with its deep and well-preserved historical heritage, the area around Fancy Free also has a level of biodiversity that makes it truly unique in on a North American scale.

The lake that Fancy Free is located on, Big Rideau, is the largest lake in a chain of lakes, rivers and canals called the Rideau Canal system, which connects Ottawa to Kingston. The waterway system was originally built in 1832 for military defence but is  now entirely recreational, set in one of the most unique and beautiful natural areas in Canada.

Find out more about exploring the Rideau Canal here:

Big Rideau Lake is also on the edge of the Frontenac Arch UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, designated in 2002 in recognition of its ecological diversity and richness of species. The Frontenac Arch is an ancient ridge of granite that sweeps across the Saint Lawrence River into eastern Ontario, connecting the Adirondack Mountains with the Canadian Shield. Five different forest regions intersect here, and the rugged topography and spectacular deep pink granite of the Frontenac Axis outcrops give the area a distinctly Algonquin Park-like beauty. The Frontenac Biosphere Reserve shelters a number of endangered species, some found nowhere else in Canada. Find out more here:

There’s lots to do when you stay at Fancy Free, with equipment for canoeing, sailing, kayaking and paddle boarding all available on site. One of our favourite short day trips is a canoe ride to Colonel By Island, a nearby island owned by Parks Canada that is open to the public. Colonel By Island takes about 15 minutes to paddle to and has a hiking trail around its perimeter that takes an hour to walk. You can see wild deer and enjoy the scenic look-outs of the trail while staying physically distanced from the many yachters that dock there, most of them en route by boat from Ottawa to Kingston.

County Road Signpost

We also love to boat over to our private dock on the mainland and just enjoy a simple walk on our county road. With its forested hills, bends and curves, every mile you walk gives you new glimpses of Big Rideau Lake and takes you past historic old cottages- one slightly over the top cottage even has a private golf course. It takes about 30 minutes to walk to McEwan’s farm and sugar bush, as described in the previous newsletter. There’s delicious maple syrup for sale on a little table on the side porch, which you pay for by putting cash in the jar. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet Bud McEwan himself, who continues to maintain the maple sugar operation and farm the land as his family has done for generations.

McEwan’s maple syrup table

If you want a short drive, go to the Mill Pond Conservation Area, about five minutes by car on our county road. Here there are good trails to hike on, with an interesting variety of pond ecosystems and upland forest. We like to look for the rare Walking Fern, which can be found on some of the cool crevices of the rock outcrops in the conservation area.

Walking Fern at Mill Pond

A little farther away but also on the Rideau system is Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, with more trails and some lovely beaches. A highlight here is a tour of the historic Silver Queen mine, which was closed for commercial operations in the 1920s. Park staff run a creative program in the mine twice a week in the summer that takes visitors back into the past to meet costumed interpreters who take on historic roles and explain how the mine worked. Read more here:

The various lock stations along the Rideau Canal, all open to the public and run by Parks Canada, are set in beautiful natural areas and several have historic buildings on site with interpretation available. One of our favourites is Chaffey’s Locks, which is set in a historic hamlet of old fishing lodges and small resorts, like the famous Opinicon Lodge, recently restored by the family that started Shopify. Chaffey’s Locks is close to the Cataraqui Trail, a former rail track that runs for miles and is easy and interesting to hike. 

Boathouse at Chaffey’s Lock

The pinnacle of all the hiking trails in the Rideau Lakes region is Rock Dunder. Owned by the Rideau Waterway Land Trust, Rock Dunder is a beautiful 230 acre wilderness area with trails that climb up to a bare rock pinnacle giving spectacular views of the surrounding forests and lakes. It’s carry-in carry-out hiking and is located off Stanley Lash Lane near the hamlet of Morton, on Highway 15, a drive of about 30 minutes or so. Rock Dunder was a well kept secret until recent years but unfortunately it’s been discovered and the hoards of people that go there on summer days now have to be controlled with timed tickets. More information is here:

Pam and Tom, owners of Fancy Free, on the Cataraqui Trail

Newsletter August 2020

Hello all, it’s Pam writing to you from Fancy Free cottage. It’s been a glorious summer on Big Rideau Lake. We hope you have had a chance to get away and enjoy a classic Canadian  “C” – cabin, campsite or cottage. Here’s a quick update and some Eastern Ontario insider tips.

There are still some good weeks available at Fancy Free before the 2020 season ends. We are taking bookings now for 2021 as well. If you are interested, please fill out the inquiry form here.

People often ask us what our favourite month is at Fancy Free. The answer might surprise you – or maybe not. It’s September. 

Most of September is very summery here in southern Ontario. Summer this year officially goes from June 20 to the September equinox on September 22nd. That means that on Big Rideau Lake, temperatures are still warm and sometimes even hot during the day for a good part of the month- ideal for a lakeside cottage.

But unlike mid-summer, the evenings cool down beautifully in September and all the biting insects completely disappear. You can lie out at night and watch the display of stars and planets roll across the night sky to your heart’s content. It gets dark earlier in the evening, which is a bonus to star gazers since you don’t have to stay up past midnight. Fancy Free is in a dark sky area so if it’s clear you can see a spectacular array of constellations.

Photo credit Terry McBurnie
Photo credit Terry McBurnie

Sleep comes easily under one of Fancy Free’s fluffy duvets. If the morning air has a chill to it, all the better for making a fire in Fancy Free’s Swedish wood stove, whipping up a batch of pancakes, topping them with local maple syrup, then going for a paddle in the canoe off the dock of Fancy Free Island or a hike at the nearby Mill Pond Conservation Area. 

If you’ve run out of maple syrup, you can even walk to get some! Saunter down the Houghton-Briton Bay road from Fancy Free’s mainland dock. When you reach McEwen’s farmhouse, after maybe a mile or so, you can buy some of the best amber Grade A maple syrup in the world. They make it in their own sugar bush and there’s always a supply of syrup in jars available for sale on a table out on the back porch of the farmhouse. A hand lettered sign tells you how much to pay, and you put your cash in the little jar. You have to know about this place since there’s no roadside sign to tell you. Like much of Eastern Ontario, old traditions still remain but you need to know where to look. 

Big Rideau Lake is generally much quieter in September too, since many of the families who summer on the lake have gone back home for school term, which in Ontario starts after Labour Day. The water’s warm, often warmer than the night air, so mists will rise in the channel in front of the porch in the early morning. You have the feeling of having the lake all to yourself in a canoe or kayak. 

The trees begin to turn colour around the end of September. By month’s end the forests are usually well into the fall riot of scarlet and gold and with the blue of the lake the island is at its most beautiful. 

Photo: Heather Gough

There’s also the summer harvest to enjoy. The family farms of Eastern Ontario produce abundant delicious produce. Look for ripe sweet corn, juicy red tomatoes, squash of all sorts, apples and many other fruits and vegetables.  INSIDER TIP: You can buy locally produced cheeses, preserves, baking and meats from Wendy’s Country Market in Lyndhurst or from Coutt’s Country Flavours on Port Elmsley Road near Perth.

So go ahead and have a September feast! Some wine from nearby Prince Edward County or a locally brewed beer will wash it all down. And for dessert, you must try some fair trade, award-winning Hummingbird chocolate from Almonte. Enjoy!

Photo: Heather 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.