Welcome to Cocktail Corner
Imagine for a minute, that you have just driven through Friday afternoon traffic, away from wherever you live to just north of Parry Sound. You are tired from the drive and the work week that is slowly fading behind you as you move north. You take a winding and bumpy road for about 20 minutes until it ends at a Marina. You step out of the car and breathe in the smell of pine trees. You feel the cooling breeze off the lake. You are met by a boat that whisks you a short distance to an old cottage that sits high on a rock looking north-west up the boat channel toward the open waters of Georgian Bay. Very quickly, any belongings you may have brought with you are ferried up to the guest cabin by any one of the small children that roam the island. Immediately, cocktails are poured and you find yourself sitting in my favourite spot on earth – the screened in porch at my humble cottage on Georgian Bay.
Odds are, we are joined by friends from the area. Cocktails transition to dinner and then perhaps a bon fire by the lake. Stories are shared. There is laughter and nostalgia and a sense of timelessness. You notice that the fire pit is really just a natural depression in the rock. It’s easy to imagine that Anishinaabe people might have had fires here thousands of years ago. Stories would have been shared then, too.
Stories are a human constant. They are what connect us and define our shared experience. And so, I invite you to have a cocktail while I share a few stories. Through them, my goal is to share a sense of what makes Georgian Bay such a special place to me, and at the same time, to share some of the values and experiences that shape my role as Co-founder and Chief Juniper Picker at Georgian Bay Spirit Co.
Chapter 1 – The Iron Matron
I owe a lot to my grandmother. If it weren’t for her love for Georgian Bay and her perseverance in the face of personal tragedy, I may never have gotten to know Georgian Bay.
When I think of her, I think of the Iron Matron.
In the early days, all the cooking at our family cottage was done on a woodstove. The woodstove wasn’t used as much when I was a kid but my grandmother would bake the occasional wild blueberry pie in the woodstove and it was mind blowing. She would also bake bread that was crisp on the outside with a slightly smoky flavour. I was probably 8 or 9 years old the last time bread was made in the woodstove and I’ve been looking for its equivalent ever since.
The woodstove was an Iron Matron. It became synonymous with my Grandmother. A rather prim and proper but strong-minded woman. As she aged, she got rounder and squatter, but she always maintained a regal air about her. She wasn’t cold, but she was stern. She shared her birthday with Queen Victoria and that always seemed fitting. As kids, we were expected to be on our best behavior around her.
She and my grandfather purchased the cottage in 1958. At that time, the trip up from Toronto was a commitment. This was long before the 400 extension and powerful 200 horsepower, 4-stroke engines. The 4-acre island they purchased, for a mere $4,000, is close to shore, but back then, even the boat ride seemed daunting. In fact, they had considered another property about a mile further from shore but decided that the boat ride would be too much after the long drive up from the city.
The cottage was quite basic back then. No hot water. No shower. No bathroom other than an outhouse. There was an old cedar ice house on the path up from the dock. Before my grandparents purchased the property it was used to keep supplies cold into the summer. A huge block of ice would be cut from the lake in the early spring and dragged into the ice house where it would slowly melt throughout the summer months, acting as a sort of refrigerator. The ice house eventually became the place where tools and old engine parts were stored – and later a guest cabin.
Most of the main cottage has been updated, but the living room is still the original structure, with an old stone fireplace and cedar walls and ceiling. The north wall of the living room is covered in photographs spanning my grandparents’ first arrival to the present. If that wall of photos had a door, it would be a time machine.
There is a photo of my grandparents arriving for the first time. In the photo, they are unloading from a large wooden boat that is being driven by Arnold D. My sister is married to Arnold’s grandson. They met up here when they were 16 and have been together ever since.
There is a photo of my grandmother in her 70s, fishing from an inner tube. It’s my favourite picture of her as it shows a goofy side to her personality that wasn’t always on display.
There are only a few photos of my grandfather. In one he is wearing a flannel shirt and is chopping wood, looking very much the part of mid-century cottager. In another he is at the dining room table, eating what looks like Thanksgiving dinner. My uncle and mother, who looks like a teenager, are in the frame. And the only other photo of him is down by his favourite swimming hole with his black lab beside him. I tend to linger on these photos, trying to get a sense of him. We never got meet.
The summer he died we were living in Thailand. I was only a few months old. My grandmother and he were up the cottage together. Just the two of them. He had gone down to the dock and, after a while, my grandmother went to see what was taking him. She found his body in the shallow water off the dock. While no one knows exactly how it happened, he likely tripped, fell off the dock and hit his head on one of the large boulders in the water. My grandmother, who didn’t have much experience driving the boat, pulled his body to shore and then headed off to get help from a doctor who had a cottage nearby.
She could have sold the cottage after that experience. Everyone would have understood. Remarkably, she continued going up there well into her 80’s.
In high school, my sister and I would cut class a couple weeks early so that we could go up to the cottage and look after my grandmother and her bridge playing friends. It was pretty easy work. Most days we were free to do as we pleased. In the evenings, we’d help out by doing the dishes while the ladies sat out on the porch and drank. Today, my wife has a girls’ weekend at the cottage every spring and I have a guy’s’ weekend. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but those weeks with her friends were my grandmother’s ‘girls’’ weeks. Even though she needed help getting in and out of the boat and struggled up the uneven path to the cottage, nothing was going to stop her from doing what she loved – spending time with her friends, in a place where they could all just be themselves. All of these women had lived privileged and interesting lives. They weren’t the type of people you would expect to use an outhouse in the middle of the night or swim in a cold lake as their only means of staying clean. But they came up for their ‘bridge’ week every year for as long as they were all physically able because they loved it.
My grandmother showed me a possible future – one where, no matter what challenges I face, I always return to the place where friends and family come together, where I can put away the distraction of our complicated world and connect with the things that really matter. She is also the one who, every summer would state that someone should make gin with all the juniper on the island. I wish she we were alive today to share a Georgian Bay Gin and tonic with me and reflect on the perseverance it takes to be successful in business and in life.
There’s a poem by A.J.M Smith that sums up my feelings about Georgian Bay and my grandmother. In the poem, he reflects on a pine tree bent by the west wind. The poem ends with these lines: “This is the beauty of strength/ Broken by strength/ And still strong.”
Here’s what I would pour for my grandmother!