Marina rescue: how cottagers saved their access

Published: July 3, 2020

Nares Inlet, Ont., from the air Nares Inlet, Ont., from the air. Photo by Joel Clifton

How a marina rescue saved access for a community of Georgian Bay, Ont., cottagers

Every family has its own travel-to-the-cottage routine, a set of rituals that help us transition out of our frenetic city lives. We plan the meals, pack the car, and watch the clock tick down toward departure time; we feel the week’s worries dissipate on the drive up; our memory unlocks the smell of cottage air long before we arrive, tantalizing us with anticipation. The routine is all about easing us through a portal in space-time, from a life where we are always racing forward to one where we are in the moment. And we bristle when nuisances—late Friday business meetings, traffic jams, an empty gas tank—roughen up the transition.

But what if you couldn’t reach your cottage at all? What if the space-time portal were suddenly boarded up, and your get-to-the-cottage routine was ground to a halt? That was the dilemma that Peter and Mary Perdue confronted six years ago, the kind of daunting existential threat that left them wondering if they’d ever be able to enjoy their cottage again.

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Their cottage is on Nares Inlet, some 50 km north of Parry Sound, Ont., one of the many narrows along the Georgian Bay coastline. As with all of the inlet’s 45 cottages, the only way to reach Peter and Mary’s place is by boat. For more than half a century, the cottagers have relied upon the marina at Springhaven Lodge, an old-school fishing lodge located at the head of the inlet. It had been owned and operated by the Scale family since it first opened in 1959. So when the Scales announced, in 2014, that they were putting their property up for sale, it sent shudders through the entire Nares Inlet community.

“We all tend to assume that these things will just keep going forever,” Peter says, “so it was a shock to the community. I mean, if people thought about it logically, they would have realized that there was going to be a change at some point.” The two Scale brothers who ran the operation, Dennis and Gary, were both in their sixties, and their kids had not been around the business for decades, so change was imminent. “But when you’ve had a family like the Scales looking after everything for 65 years—like, two generations—you can’t really envision anything else.”

Peter Perdue, however, was able to envision something else: a community of cottagers who owned their own marina. He knew it was the community’s only way forward. All he had to do was convince the other 44 families—many of them related, some of them quarrelsome, few of them wealthy, and nearly all of them filled with dread—to buy in.

Georgian Bay is an iconic place, its ruggedness immortalized many times on canvas by the Group of Seven. James MacCallum, an ophthalmologist and one of the artists’ most devoted patrons, owned a cottage in the region, near Go Home Bay, and at his invitation, many of them travelled there in the 1910s and 1920s to ponder and to paint. The region’s leaning, windswept pines served as the Canadian-wilderness equivalent of posing nudes, and the artists competed over who could best capture their beauty.

About a decade before the Group of Seven discovered MacCallum’s retreat, a woman named Jean Joy (née Grahame) discovered Nares Inlet. Acting on the 1905 equivalent of a hot real estate tip, from a surveyor she knew, she travelled by horse-drawn coach from Toronto to Midland, then by steamer to Parry Sound and by tugboat to Pointe au Baril. There she hopped in a canoe and headed west along the shoreline, then north for more than two kilometres across treacherous open water, then back east into Nares Inlet. The tip proved worth the trek. Nares was perfect: a long, narrow passage that calmed the bay’s temperamental waters and dampened its fierce winds.

Joy purchased three islands at Nares, and the following summer she was accompanied by her sister, Susannah Ormsby, who in turn purchased two islands of her own. In no time the inlet’s summers were populated by Joys and Ormsbys and their descendants and in-laws, including Ketchums, Martins, and Sangers, last names that still dominate the directory of the local islanders’ association.

And they earned themselves a nickname: “the community of inverted snobs.” The Inleteers were proudly as rugged as their surroundings, “for we were all devotees of the simple life, and looked down our noses at motor boats and all the paraphernalia of the stereotyped summer resort.” So wrote the prideful early Nares pioneer A. H. Lightbourn in his 1962 chapbook opus, The Inlet Story. According to Lightbourn, the community was none too pleased when fishing tourists first began to make their way into Nares and were even contemptuous of Springhaven Lodge when it first opened. But the construction of Springhaven’s marina made their lives easier, as did the Scales’ propane delivery service. To judge from Lightbourn’s telling, even as they adopted these few sparse luxuries, they complained about them.

Though the community has mellowed over the years, the inverted-snobs moniker still fits. As construction overtook the neighbouring inlets at Bayfield and Pointe au Baril, erecting cottages on every outcrop, the Nares-folk kept their lots large, and the community, without power, stayed small, topping out at 45 cottages, many of which don’t have a neighbour in their view. They all own motorboats now, but waterskiers and PWCs are frowned upon. In the post-war era, as electrical utilities colonized cottage country, the community of inverted snobs continued to refuse the service, preferring instead to go on bathing in the bay and reading by candlelight. To this day, all but one of the inlet’s cottages remain off the grid.

The Perdues at their cottage
The Perdues at their cottage. Photo by Joel Clifton

All this helps explain why, when Peter and Mary Perdue were looking for a cottage to buy in the late 1990s, their real estate agent, a mustachioed gentleman by the name of Bill Draper, said, “There’s this one place in Nares Inlet, but you won’t like it—it’s a bit unique.” From Draper’s perspective, Peter and Mary may have seemed to be a poor match for the area. They were both city folk born and bred. He was a banker, and she a medical research scientist, and when they first married, cottaging wasn’t among their ambitions.

Then, in the early 1980s, a job transfer for Peter—who has spent almost his entire career with TD Bank (now TD Canada Trust)—brought them to Calgary. They spent all their spare time in the Canadian Rockies, and gained a taste for true backcountry—the kinds of places where there’s nobody else around. “We loved pristine wilderness, having had that experience in Alberta,” says Mary. “And even after two years of looking in Ontario cottage country, we just couldn’t find it.”

Mary insisted that Draper take them to Nares. The cottage, known as Nayasha, was among the first built at Nares, a 10-minute boat ride from the marina. Roughly 100 years old, Nayasha stood on the high point of its lot, and it had fallen into noticeable disrepair. Its owner lived in New York State and only visited for a week or so every year. There were no screens on the windows, and in some places no windows either. The building had a significant tilt, as its supports had begun to fail on one side.

The Perdue cottage from above
The Perdue cottage from above. Photo by Joel Clifton

Mary didn’t notice any of that. “I looked around, and I saw no other cottages, just wilderness. It was perfect. And I said to Peter, ‘This is it.’ ” Peter didn’t disagree. Nares was the location they had been looking for; they’d do whatever was necessary to fix up the building. Peter recalls the moment when the deal closed on the property. “Our lawyer asked his assistant to give us the keys, and she said, ‘There are no keys.’ ”

The Perdues embarked on a multi-year journey to restore Nayasha, with a new project every year: punch out a couple of skylights; renovate the kitchen; add a septic system. And as they went along, they realized the cobwebs and the grime were hiding what was actually a beautiful structure. The cottage’s front door opens immediately onto a living area of exposed beams and planks, with a vaulted ceiling and its centrepiece a stone hearth and towering exposed chimney—originally of white brick, but now re-masoned in stone. Much of the work they did consisted of stripping things down and leaving them that way, such as ripping up the linoleum and simply leaving the floorboards exposed. Some of their added touches could best be described as “pioneer retro,” such as the antique wood-burning stove they installed in the kitchen, despite the presence of a propane stove. All told, it was the kind of renovation you’d expect from inverted snobs. “They really were the perfect owners for this place,” says Dennis Scale, who did all the heavy lifting as their contractor. (In addition to running Springhaven and the marina with his brother, Dennis also had, and still has, a contracting business.)

Inside the Perdue cottage
Inside the Perdue cottage. Photo by Joel Clifton

Nayasha now has electricity as well, thanks to its array of solar panels, which power a few lamps and appliances, as well as the porch screens, which roll up or down at the flick of a switch. This kind of luxury does not qualify as inverted snobbery, but then, says Scale, the community’s pioneer spirit has mellowed with age. “There was a time when people here would rather spend their money on a new boat than on a hot shower,” he says. “Not so much anymore.”

As a lifelong banker, Peter has developed a keen mind for value and risk: what a business or a property is currently worth, what it could be worth, and what the impacts of its future course might be. An asset for sale can take many paths, whether business-as-usual, or expansion, or complete reinvention. Peter can imagine all these paths simultaneously and compute the relative value of each in his head. It instills in him a deep sense of calm in the face of uncertainty.

So when the Scale brothers announced that they were planning to sell Springhaven, Peter’s assessment was quick. “The property is large, it has a road, and it was the only one on the inlet with electricity,” he says. “It could become a condo development, a resort, a summer camp.” And in none of those scenarios, he realized, would a future owner want to bother operating a marina for a mere 45 cottages. “For any other buyer, the property’s true value would lie elsewhere. But not for us.” There was only one solution: the Nares community needed to buy out the Scales.

Peter Perdue in his boat
Peter Perdue in his boat. Photo by Joel Clifton

But Peter, understandably, was alone in his clairvoyance. The other Inleteers were slower to come around. There was an initial belief that any future owner would be happy to collect their annual marina fees. Peter chipped away at that assumption with his banker’s logic, and as it fell by the wayside, the community proposed other options. Some suggested that the government should buy and operate it; Peter countered that other ratepayers in the municipality would not appreciate a government bailout for their lone neighbourhood. One community member argued for a quick resolution. “He said, ‘There’s 10 of us that want to buy it, and we have the money, so why don’t we just go ahead and do it?’ ” Peter recalls. “I absolutely did not want to go down that path.” Though he is circumspect in his choice of words, it’s clear that Peter did not want to create separate classes of owners and users for the marina. “I felt very strongly that everyone needed to be part of the purchase.”

As the idea of community ownership started to take root in people’s minds, a committee was struck, and a proposal took shape: each cottage would purchase a share in the marina; if they ever sold their cottage, they’d be selling their marina share along with it. The cost per cottage was substantial but not insurmountable, roughly the cost of a new car. That led to some sticker shock, and to a whole new bunch of questions. There were concerns about the state of the property, its propane tanks and septic system; the committee hired a top environmental firm, paid by the community, to assess things top-to-bottom. People worried about how marina ownership would impact their property values, to which Peter would always respond, calmly, “What do you think your cottage will be worth if you can’t get to it?”

Dennis Scale at the marina
Dennis Scale at the marina. Photo by Joel Clifton

After more than a year of deliberations, the community was still unsure. That’s when Peter called upon the help of an old colleague: he asked Michael Sherman, a behavioural economist who’d worked with him at TD and is now with RBC Royal Bank, to moderate a meeting of the Nares community. “Peter wanted to get someone who is not in any way connected to the community to serve as an objective arbiter,” says Sherman. As a behavioural scientist, Sherman understands the emotional factors behind big-purchase decisions like this one. “My job wasn’t to sell Peter’s idea or to come to a purchase agreement on the spot. It was simply to get people talking to one another, and to see if they could agree on the next steps they wanted to take.”

The meeting, which took place in Toronto in the fall of 2015, couldn’t really be called a mediation, because there weren’t opposing sides. “There was a ‘yes’ camp and a ‘show-me’ camp, but there wasn’t a ‘no’ camp,” says Sherman. He recalls a fair bit of skepticism in the room, and people asking pointed questions about topics such as maintenance costs and debt and liability. But the answers hardly mattered; what they were really expressing was their worry, and the answer they were looking for was simply the assurance that they could count on one another. “This was a momentous decision for the community. They needed to alleviate their anxiety, and trust that their best interests would be looked after.” That meeting is widely regarded among Inleteers as the turning point: they emerged with a sense of optimism—and a willingness to move forward. “The meeting was kind of like a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment,” says Richard Joy, Jean’s great-grandson, who still cottages at Nares. “Everybody knew that some kind of new future was upon us. You were either going to be part of it or you weren’t.” Most people, he says, came out of that meeting as believers.

The dominoes fell quickly from there. The community entered into talks with the Scale family; they agreed on a purchase price and completed the sale in the winter of 2015; and the marina opened for business the following spring under its new name, Nares Landing.

The dock at Nares Landing
The dock at Nares Landing. Photo by Joel Clifton

Operating a marina isn’t the same as owning one, and Nares Landing has suffered its share of hiccups under its new ownership. The community hired Gary Scale back that first year to run the business, but illness forced him to retire before the summer was out. One Nares cottager, Ned Martin, took a keen interest in the business and single-handedly ran it on a volunteer basis for the next couple of years. But his term on the marina’s board is now over, and the community can’t run a marina on free labour forever. There’s a deteriorating breakwall in need of repair. The lodge and the fishing cabins on the property will eventually need some attention. Now that they own the property, the community is still debating how best to run it. Should they continue to hire staff? Should they lease it to an operator and let them figure out the best use of the outbuildings? If they choose to lease the property, what sorts of business uses will they permit, and what restrictions will they impose?

Richard Joy, now a member of Nares Landing’s board, is currently sorting through all these questions along with the community. Not everyone sees eye to eye on how best to run the operation. The Nares community has a lot of brainpower at its disposal—lawyers, accountants, bankers—but that doesn’t make the decisions easy. “We are a bunch of highly trained professionals trying to run something as presumably basic and simple as a marina, and we’re finding it hard,” says Joy. “It’s humbling, to be honest.”

Nares Landing from the air
Nares Landing from the air. Photo by Joel Clifton

The solutions to their problems aren’t yet clear, but they are nice problems to have. Every morning at the cottage, when Peter wakes up, he goes out to the water for a swim. It’s not a leisurely dip: he swims lengths between his two docks for 20 to 30 minutes, no matter the weather, from spring to fall. The swimming keeps him fit, now that he’s in his seventies, and it also keeps him calm and serene and in the moment. That’s part of his life-at-the-cottage routine, a routine that depended heavily yet invisibly upon many outside factors, a routine he suddenly feared he might lose. That routine is now safe for him, just as it is for every cottage family at Nares Inlet. They needn’t worry anymore. They own it now.

Philip Preville wrote “One Hundred Years in the Making,” in our Aug/Sept ’19 issue. He and his family are now enjoying the wilderness views from their newly purchased cottage in Huntsville, Ont. This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Cottage Life as “The Rescue Mission.”

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