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

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.