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

Newsletter July 2009

Rideau Canal Lockstation, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo courtesy of UNESCO.
Rideau Canal Lockstation, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo courtesy of UNESCO
Welcome to a new website for Fancy Free! We have been working with a very talented young website designer, Anshudeep Mathur, to revamp the previous website. Anshu has done a fabulous job and we hope you enjoy the result. Feedback is most welcome: please email comments to Pamela at

Through our newly expanded website, we are now able to offer information on the fascinating history of Fancy Free Island, which as the oldest cottage on Big Rideau Lake is a renowned local landmark. Generations of people have told us how much they appreciate the fact that Fancy Free has been kept with so many of its original architectural features intact, just the way they remembered it from years ago. The people who live on Big Rideau Lake and other communities along the Rideau Canal waterway system in eastern Ontario have long memories!

Significantly, though, it’s not just the local people who appreciate the beauty and history of Big Rideau Lake and the Rideau Canal system- the entire world shares in this appreciation. The Rideau Canal, including Big Rideau Lake, is a world-class cultural destination, recently recognized with designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This puts the Rideau Canal system in the company of some of the most wonderful sights in the world, such as the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza , the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and the Taj Mahal in India. In Canada, other places on the World Heritage List include the historic district of Old Quebec, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland, and Old Town Lunenburg in Nova Scotia. All in all, there are 890 properties on the list, selected by an international committee as having outstanding universal value. We invite you to view the World Heritage List to see all the sites that have been given recognition by designation as World Heritage Sites. Click here to see a stunning slideshow of the Rideau Canal from the UNESCO site, photographed by Geoff Stevens of New Zealand.
We invite you to come and see the many fascinating historical places along the canal that are close to Fancy Free. Many of these are accessible by way of a short boat trip from the island; those that are a bit farther away are easily reached by car. One of our favourites is the nearby village of Merrickville, since not only is there a set of working locks but there is also a well preserved wooden blockhouse-style fort built by the military to oversee defence of the Canal, which now houses a museum run by the local Historical Society. Running around a real fort is great fun for the whole family. Enjoy!

Pamela Gough
July 10, 2009

Newsletter May 2009

October morning view of Long Island from Fancy Free Island. Photo by Pamela Gough.
October morning view of Long Island from Fancy Free Island. Photo by Pamela Gough

As the largest lake in the 175-year-old Rideau Canal system, Big Rideau Lake has been recently recognized as a world-class destination of historical significance. On June 28, 2007, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the Rideau Canal a World Heritage Site, confirming it as an international cultural treasure:

“It is the only canal dating from the great North Amercan canal-building era of the early 19th century to remain operational along its original line with most of its structures intact.”

As one of the original cottages on the Rideau system, Fancy Free is a significant historical structure. Entering Fancy Free is like stepping back in time. If you look at the old photos on the cottage walls of the Victorians who once enjoyed their summers on the island, you can easily imagine that you are in another era- a time when life unfolded at a slower pace.

Newsletter May 2009

Posted Friday, 1 May, 2009 18:11 by Pamela Gough

Recently, when reading a traveler’s guide, I hit upon the phrase that describes perfectly what I look for when I travel: the ’search for lovable authenticity’.

I think that the people who come to stay on Fancy Free Island are, like our family when we travel, looking for a very special sort of place with lovable authenticity: a place off the beaten track, in the midst of stunning natural scenery, with beautiful buildings- a place that is full of character, comfortable and slightly eccentric. A retreat that is a true escape from the hurly-burly of day to day life. A place where dreams can be dreamt in peace.

Fancy Free is just such a place-it is magical. The island is as perfect as an island can get- full of trees, with a low rock wall and a little beach, close to the mainland but far enough away for true privacy. The cottage is an authentic Victorian summer home, with a wraparound porch that is twelve feet deep, overseeing the lake. It is a dignified and charming structure that has been lovingly restored and enjoyed by the same family for over 100 years.

Big Rideau Lake is incredibly beautiful. The lake is clean and deep, full of lake trout and bass, unspoiled, with air so fresh and pure that just breathing is a pleasure.

As a private island getaway, Fancy Free Island combines adventure, stewardship, natural beauty and history. It is totally unique. Every year, we welcome a number of families, some with a tradition of returning year after year, others who have come from as far away as Australia for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We invite you, too, to come and enjoy a week or two of island life.