26 Ontario cottage regions
From sandy beaches to rocky cliffs to meandering rivers, Ontario’s cottage country has it all. So how do you pick out your piece of paradise? We’ve looked at 26 different regions to give you a head start.
1. Sunset Country
Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake
Two big lakes dominate cottage country in northwestern Ontario: Lake of the Woods (LOTW) and Rainy Lake. Both areas include abundant Crown land — which also means cottages aren’t easy to come by. The 3,150-sq.-km LOTW is speckled with more than 14,000 islands, innumerable sandy beaches along its south shore, and countless coves throughout, all making it a favourite playground for boaters. Most LOTW cottagers hail from Winnipeg (a two-hour drive) or the U.S., which isn’t surprising considering parts of the lake are in Manitoba and Minnesota. The 4,000-member-strong Lake of the Woods District Property Owners Association has an active presence, most recently taking steps to tackle almost annual blue-green algae blooms that cloud areas of otherwise clear water.
The 128-km-long Rainy River links the southern tip of LOTW with the western end of Rainy Lake, which also shares the Minnesota border. Americans make up a large portion of cottagers in this area, as do residents of northwestern Ontario. At 741 sq. km, Rainy Lake is considerably smaller than its neighbour to the northwest, but it still boasts more than 1,300 km of shoreline on the Ontario side. Fishing is great – you’ll find walleye, pike, trout, and crappie – and every July the lake is home to the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championships. As at LOTW, the plentiful wildlife includes moose, deer, eagles and, for lucky spotters, lynx and marten. About 175 cottagers and year-round residents are members of the Rainy Lake Conservancy, which works with consultants, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to monitor water quality (good news so far), and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect the diverse flora and fauna.
Want a virgin island of your own? No can do. All vacant islands owned by the Crown were designated as conservation reserves in 2002, which means that no new development can take place. — Bonnie Schiedel
2. North of Superior
There are two main cottaging choices in the Thunder Bay area: You can opt for the shores of Lake Superior, with its spectacular cliffs, crashing waves, and pebbled or sandy beaches. Or you can head to one of the numerous inland lakes of varying sizes that lie within an hour’s drive of the city, such as Dog, Shebandowan, One Island, Hawkeye, Loon, and Trout. Kayakers and sailors love to explore Superior’s rugged coastline. The water is famously cold, but sheltered, shallower bays enable you to take a dip without turning blue. If you throw out your back waterskiing or blueberry picking on any of these lakes, the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, which opened in 2004, isn’t far away. There’s plenty of Crown land, which means development is limited, and only a handful of properties come up for sale every year. Many cottagers are from Thunder Bay, although Americans are starting to discover the area, increasing demand and pushing up traditionally low prices.
Further afield, the terrain is even more pristine, but its remoteness means facilities such as health-care centres and marinas are scarce. To the north lies Lake Nipigon, with few access points and a small number of cottages that rarely come on the market. Popular spots include Lac des Mille Lacs to the west, Whitefish Lake to the southwest, and the town of Rossport on the eastern shore of Lake Superior. Dozens of sparsely populated cottage lakes radiate out from small towns such as Ignace, Atikokan, and Dryden. No matter where you cottage in the area, you’re guaranteed to have lynx, bears, moose, and eagles as neighbours, not to mention killer mosquitoes and blackflies, given the rugged terrain, isolated location, and number of suitable breeding areas surrounding many of the cottages in the region. — B.S.
3. Timiskaming & Temagami
Temagami is a land of old-growth pines, deep lakes, and lofty summits. Ancient portages still stitch together the waterways, and 30-metre fire lookouts still tower (and in some cases, teeter) atop the hills. A region that inspires strong emotions, Temagami has been a focus for land-use debate. During the 1980s and ’90s, a battle was waged between environmentalists and logging companies, as well as between the Temagami aboriginal community and the government. Disputes still flare up from time to time over new logging licences and lingering land claims.
For cottagers, the grail of the region is sprawling, multi-armed Lake Temagami (the name means “deep water by the shore”). The lake’s mainland is, for the most part, off limits, owing to a long-standing “skyline reserve” (a buffer of trees), meaning nearly every cottage is on an island. That said, there are plenty of islands – more than a thousand – but demand is high for the few that go on the market.
Lady Evelyn Lake, to the north, is nearly as big, but less populated, as well as less convenient to access. Properties here are cheaper, but even harder to come by. There are numerous other cottaging options, however. Properties can be found on smaller neighbouring lakes such as Cassels, Net, and Rabbit, while farther east and north, the Montreal River, Lake Timiskaming, and Elk Lake are worth considering. Crown and park land are abundant; Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park spans 72,400 hectares, and parts of Lake Temagami may receive waterway park status in coming years, pending First Nation approval. The large numbers of rental houseboats on Lake Temagami can be an occasional nuisance. —Jim Moodie
4. Algoma & Sudbury
Granite-rimmed lakes. Windswept islands. Boulder-strewn and beach-scalloped bays. All can be found in this broad swath of north country between Sudbury and “The Soo.” Lakes like Panache, near Sudbury, and Matinenda, near Blind River, are both sprawling, attractive, and largely boat-access, where a $100,000 cottage is not uncommon. A train-access property in the Algoma hills, north of Sault Ste. Marie, is cheaper to buy or lease, though complicated to reach, as is a spot smack-dab on the shore of Lake Superior (awe-inspiring views, dread-inspiring dock maintenance).
The population, apart from the two big cities at either end, is thinly spread. That said, communities like Espanola, Blind River, and Elliot Lake offer many services.
Probably the most salient feature common throughout the region, regardless of price, is privacy. Cottages here don’t climb over top of one another; even on the recently freed-up lakes near Elliot Lake only 20 per cent of the shoreline will be developed. They also tend to be modest. Crown land is plentiful, as are pike, bass, trout, and walleye. And, regrettably, blackflies. Bug jackets recommended in early summer. —J.M.
5. French River & Lake Nipissing
After a tough upstream battle on the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, the voyageurs welcomed the bug-dispersing breezes of Lake Nipissing and a swift downstream journey on the scenic French. Today, after battling up highways 400 and 11, cottagers also breathe a sigh of relief when they reach this relatively untrammelled region. Yes, there are resorts and houses now, not to mention the city of North Bay, but the rugged terrain is virtually unchanged from the days of the fur trade, and much of it is still unpopulated.
French River Provincial Park, created in 1989 and slated to expand by over 20,000 hectares, allows the private properties already in existence to remain, while ensuring that the river’s long stretches of wild shoreline will remain undeveloped. Lake Nipissing is not part of this waterway park, although much of the south shore west of South Bay is proposed either for a French River Provincial Park addition or is part of South Bay Provincial Park, and much of the north shore is reserve land belonging to the Nipissing First Nation.
Lake Nipissing is a vast body of water, some 70 km long and containing numerous bays and islands, but it’s also remarkably shallow and, consequently, often choppy. Expect a teeth-rattling boat ride on windy days. Water quality is good for recreational purposes, as little industry exists here (particularly since the container-board mill in Sturgeon Falls shut down in 2002), and the moderately enriched conditions support a healthy fishery. Nipissing is famous for its walleye.
The French River is 110 km long, but contains many braids and channels, especially in the labyrinthian delta where it empties into Georgian Bay. The shoreline is composed of lichen-flecked gneissic rock, topped with pine, maple, and pockets of hemlock. Rapids exist, but mostly in one eight-kilometre section; elsewhere, the current is negligible. Some cottages have road access, particularly between the Chaudière Dam and Hwy. 69, but many are reached via marinas at Dokis, Wolsey Bay, the French River supply post, or Hartley Bay. (Some are also on land leased from the Nipissing and Dokis First Nations.) West of Hwy. 69, in the delta region of the river, cottages are primarily boat-access, tend to lack hydro, and have a more rustic character. —J.M.