12 May 2017
Yet again I was awake not long after five this morning. As it was our last sunrise on Gull Lake I sat on the balcony to enjoy it. When Commando woke up we had a leisurely breakfast and returned to the balcony for a coffee and a last whistful gaze at the wonderful view. Not knowing when, or even if, we’d be coming back it was bitter sweet. This wonderful country has really stolen our hearts and we were sad to be leaving.
As we did all our packing last night and didn’t have to leave the cabin until eleven there was no rush. We spent a long time looking out over the lake, planning the day ahead and our drive to the airport in Toronto. Commando was feeling a lot better but we decided to take it slowly, stopping at different places along the way and exploring a little.
Last night, after our last supper with Maggie and Alan, Maggie found a funny song on You Tube to amuse us. The song was by Canadian folk singer Wade Hemsworth about the little black flies that plague North Ontario in spring and summer. It was set to a funny cartoon and it was still going round in my head when we set off this morning. Listen if you dare but be warned you may never get rid of it. So far we hadn’t seen any black flies in Ontario at all but Maggie warned the season was about to start, although they probably wouldn’t be biting just yet.
Finally we packed up the giant car and set off for Orillia, the first big town between Gravenhurst and Toronto. We hadn’t been paying proper attention when we visited with Maggie and Alan so there was some aimless driving before I spotted a car park. It was right in front of the Orillia Central School which seemed like a handy landmark. I took a quick photo for future reference. The beautiful Romanesque Revival building in decorative red and buff brick with arched windows and parapet gables was built in 1882 by Thomas Kennedy, one of the best architects in the county.
Our next task was to find the waterfront. Working on instinct we turned the corner onto West Street where another interesting building provided a landmark for our return. According to the lettering above the door this was Orillia City Hall. In fact the rather romantic looking red brick building with two round towers and conical slate roofs is the Opera House. It was built in 1895 by Toronto architects Gordon and Halliwell to house the City Hall, Council Chambers, auditorium, offices, market and prison, a truly multipurpose building. After a fire in 1915 it was rebuilt and the auditorium facilities expanded. It was even used as a cinema for a while. The City Hall and council Chambers moved to a new building in 1997. Maybe someone should think about changing the name on the front to avoid confusion?
On Mississaga Street things began to look familiar. We recognised shops from our previous trip and soon we spotted the Mariposa Market and the water in the distance. It was eleven o’clock so, before we explored further. we popped in for a coffee and a cake.
The banks of Lake Couchiching weren’t far away, even if the lighthouse we saw as we walked down the street did turn out to be a Studabakers restaurant. Orillia straddles two lakes, Simco and Couchiching, joined by a small waterway, The Narrows. Four thousand years ago, the Huron and Iroquois people trapped fish in fishing weirs there and later fur traders gathered to trade with the tribes. We could have walked the three kilometres and had a look at the preserved fish weirs or maybe visited the Leacock Museum, dedicated to humorist Stephen Butler Leacock. Like us he was a native of Hampshire. Born in 1869 in Swanmore, he emigrated to Canada and lived on Lake Simcoe where he wrote thirty five books. One of these, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was set in the fictional town of Mariposa, based on Orillia. The city, often called the Sunshine City after the book’s title, has taken the book to its heart and many local businesses, like Mariposa Market, use the fictional name.
Despite the lack of any actual sunshine breaking through the cloudy sky, it was warm, slightly muggy even, and we didn’t really want to walk too far or spend our time indoors. In the end we decided to stroll along the Boardwalk towards Couchiching Beach Park, where we’d had lunch with Maggie and Alan. This descision was influenced in part by a row of interesting sailboat sculptures with intricate wrought irons hulls and beautifully painted sails. For me at least, they were impossible to resist.
The wonderful little ships brightening up the area at the beginning of the Boardwalk were part of an annual summer art event called Streets Alive. It began in 2009 with the Orillia Festival of Banners where the streets were decorated with large vinyl banners created by local artists. In 2010 there were giant decorated guitars and 2011 was the year of wrought iron sailboats with painted sails. This was called sixty sails and, from what I can make out, it ran along the lines of our own Go Rhinos and Zany Zebras trails with maps to help find them all. These three sailboats are now permanent fixtures.
Now we were near the water we seemed to have strayed into little black fly territory. There had been a few buzzing around the sailboat sculptures and it took me several attempts to get a photo without at least one. The calm water of the lake with its reflected clouds and tiny harbour just begged to be photographed. The flies had other ideas. In the end I had to resort to flapping my arms in front of me to disperse them and even then the odd one crept in as a dark blur over the water. This harbour is called the Port of Orillia although, coming from a large international port city, it seems a slightly misleading name to me. There are just two hundred small boat moorings. Today they were all empty but the tourist season has barely begun and, in summer, they are probably all full.
The further we walked the more flies there seemed to be. Wafting my arms about like a mad woman soon stopped having any effect at all and the photos I took as we made our way along the Boardwalk were all peppered with hundreds of tiny black dots. We walked through clouds of them, trying hard not to inhale any.
“If you ran here you wouldn’t need protein drinks or gels,” Commando laughed, “you’d be able to keep going on all the flies you swallowed.”
If they’d been biting we’d have been eaten alive.
The song from last night started up again in my head. Apparently there are around forty two species of little black flies in Ontario, most of which appear in spring and feed on birds. Only a couple bite humans. There are also No See Ums, less visually annoying but more physically irritating. They all lay their eggs on and around the moving water of lakes and rivers. Only clean, unpolluted water will do and the lakes here fit the bill. They usually appear in May on hot, humid spring days and disappear again in late June. Only the females bite but the bites can be irritating to some people and, with so many flies, there can be a lot of bites.
We tried our best not to let these winged pests spoil our walk and carried on along the Boardwalk. Every now and then we thought we’d seen the last of them as we hit a pocket of flyless air but, a few steps later, another cloud would appear. They seemed particularly attracted to the white stone of the Lions Club monument, whirling around it and even settling on it. Needless to say, we didn’t stay around to read the plaque.
To be honest all the arm flapping was getting a little wearing, as well as making us look like escaped lunatics. When we reached the Shriner’s Monument, dedicated to hospitals for children, we decided to cut our losses and head into the park away from the water and, hopefully, the flies.
Couchiching Beach Park and the port attract a host of tourists to Orillia each year, either as a destination in its own right or as a stopping point on the way to the Muskoka Lakes and the Algonquin Provincial Park. Today the park and all the little pavilions filled with picnic benches were almost empty apart from the odd black squirrel. This could have been because it was still early in the season or because of the blasted little black flies.
Across the grass, beyond a children’s playground with some interesting looking hooped climbing frames we could see a large statue of some kind. We decided to head towards it. On the way we passed a bandstand and some old cannons but, in our haste to get away from the flies, we didn’t stop too long to look at them or find out what they were for.
As it was the flies followed us to the statue, or maybe they were there all along. At least there seemed to be fewer of them, so we stopped for a closer look. The statue celebrates French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City in 1608 and made the first accurate map of the coast. Champlain was the first European explorer to visit the Great Lakes. He formed relationships with the First Nations people, established fur trading and wrote accounts of what he learned from them. In the summer of 1615 he visited Orillia, then of course, it was just a fur trading route used by the Hurons, Ojibways, French and British. The town would come later. He spent the winter with the Hurons in their village, Cahiague. He agreed to help them in their wars against the Iroquois tribes but also tried to force Christianity on them. In the former he was successful, in the latter he was not.
The beautifully executed bronze sculptures were created by British sculptor Veron March in 1925 for the three hundredth anniversary of de Champlain’s visit. De Champlain stands on a rough hewn stone plinth, at his feet are a fur trader and a priest with First Nations people at their feet. The native figures are stunning in their detail but many feel their depiction as subservient is an offence to First Nations people and have called for the monument to be removed or destroyed. The work is so beautiful, in an artistic sense, this would be a terrible shame in my opinion.
Without doubt many settlers in North America treated the native people abysmally. They stole their land and, for centuries, discriminated against them. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times now but we cannot rewrite history, even if we don’t like it very much or it shows us in a bad light. De Champlain himself respected the First Nations people, he even fought alongside them. In this respect the statue is not a true representation but the strength and dignity of the Huron people is clear to see and, for that alone, I think it deserves to be saved, although the wording on the plaque could do with some revision.
Sadly, de Champlain and his European friends didn’t only bring trade to the Huron people, along with it came diseases like measles and smallpox to which the natives had no immunity. About two thirds of the Huron population in North America died and many villages were abandoned. The Narrows was then settled by the Ojibwa people, whose chief, William Yellowhead or Musquakie, gave his name to Muskoka. In the late 1830’s they were either forced to relinquish their lands and relocate to a Rama Reserve nearby, or the land was purchased from them by the government, depending on who you listen to. This land became the settlement of Orillia.
The little village was incorporated in 1867 by which time the population had grown from just two hundred to one thousand two hundred. In 1875, with a population of two thousand, it became a town. The main industry was farming and a little light manufacturing. Transportation links between Toronto and Georgian Bay led to further growth and the area soon became a centre of commerce and tourism. In 1969 Orillia became a city. Today, the largest employer is Casino Rama, in the reserve land of the Chippewas, part of the Ojibway people. There is a certain irony in this.
Across the park I spotted another interesting looking sculpture, even further away from the water and, hopefully also the flies. There was a black squirrel sitting on it when we got there. The granite monument is actually a fountain, although it wasn’t working today. It depicts a mother holding a child and is called Sombody’s Mother, created by Ralph Begg in memory of his own mother. As we got close enough to read the inscription the squirrel in question disappeared up a nearby tree. Even without the additional squirrel adornment it was a beautiful piece.
There was still a lot to see in Orillia but, sadly, our time was running out. We had a plane to catch after all and another city to visit. Slowly we ambled along Centennial Drive, stopping now and then to photograph interesting buildings. The first was a marvellously delapidated shed, the other two food stalls, quirky and colourful but sadly closed. A drink or an ice cream would have been a lovely antidote to all those flies.
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.