Meet a Christian Island community that’s been cottaging together for decades


The hammock is the ultimate symbol of slack time. When you’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to do, it is always there for you. Bring a book, bring a beer, bring nothing at all. The hammock, the chesterfield of chill, welcomes you as you are. It’s where the art of doing nothing reaches its pinnacle. 

Cameron and Celissa Vipond’s cottage doesn’t have a hammock—it has two. The cottage is a modest, 800 sq. ft. cedar build, and its hammocks lie in the shade just off the deck, strung to trees atop a cliff overlooking the serene bay on the east side of Christian Island. It’s one of about a dozen cottages along the cliff, their decks providing vistas of southern Georgian Bay. The cottages here are collectively known as the Compound—so named for the similarity of their inhabitants, all young parents of like mind and temperament, and all with elementary school-aged kids. It’s also known as the Bikini Mile, a carnal term of endearment coined by a couple of the dads and playfully appropriated by the moms. 

Anyway, there I was on a hot Friday afternoon in August, in the heart of the Compound, dozing away in Cameron and Celissa’s hammock. I hadn’t been on the island for more than a couple of hours, having forcibly extracted myself from my busy home life that morning and driven up in a hurry. I could not resist the hammock’s call. But Christian Island is so relaxed, it’s the kind of place where doing nothing can only get interrupted by more nothing, which is exactly what happened next. 

Cameron and Celissa roused me to suggest that the three of us walk down the lane so they could show me around the island. This seemed like a great way to ease our way into the day’s only parental responsibility: go pick up their children from a neighbour’s place, bring them home, and fix them a meal. 

We didn’t get far. Some other neighbours, lounging on their dock, saw us and waved us down to join them. After ninety minutes and three beers’ worth of conversation and laughter, we buzzily headed back up to fetch the kids, only to discover that they were already home—and fed. The parenting on Christian Island isn’t just carefree, it’s evanescent. “That’s just how things happen around here,” says Cameron. “We all look after each other. I don’t always know exactly where the boys are, but I’m never worried about them.” 

With all parental responsibilities discharged, there was nothing left on the horizon but a perfect sunset, and nothing to do but enjoy it. As darkness fell the Viponds lit a fire, drawing neighbours like flies. Many of them Cameron knew as kids on the island, people like Dan Laurin (with his guitar) and Kim Burrows. Us grown-ups stayed up late with laughter and song, the kids snugly asleep. It was the most glorious night of doing nothing I’ve had in years. 

This is precisely the kind of life Cameron’s family enjoyed on Christian Island back in the ’80s: he’d head off on small adventures, get fed by someone’s mom along the way, then find his way home at dusk and fall asleep to the sound of grown-up chatter. Cameron has grown into a big lug: tall and sturdy, imposing yet not intimidating, with a deep voice and a ready smile. And now he is giving his boys—Callum is 9, and Christian is 7—that same carefree experience. “Christian is named for the island,” Cameron admits. “When we gave him that name, I never imagined we’d end up back here.” 

Cameron can hardly believe he has managed to pull this off. His parents did not pass the cottage down to him; they’d sold it more than a decade ago, and with cottage prices being what they are, he’d pretty much given up on the idea of cottage ownership. The story of how he managed to buy back the old family cottage is one he’ll tell for laughs on the dock for years to come. And he’ll be telling it to all his old cottage pals, because when Cameron came back to Christian Island the whole gang followed behind him, in one of the most remarkable mass homecomings in the history of cottaging.

The cottager transformed the struggling store of her childhood into the buzz of Georgian Bay

When most cottagers think of Georgian Bay, they think Canadian Shield: majestic cottages set amid windworn pines, with giant, gently sloping rock slabs in place of sandy shorelines. It is a prized landscape, the most Ontario of all Ontario vistas. 

Southern Georgian Bay looks nothing at all like that. Its geology is fertile farmland. Its shorelines feature Ontario’s best beaches—and Christian Island itself is among the best of the best. Big Sand Bay, Christian Island’s vast north-facing beach, is protected by grassy sand dunes, evoking the shores of Prince Edward Island. The island’s rugged westward beaches, tree-lined and strewn with driftwood, feel like Vancouver Island’s west coast. 

And then there’s the island’s leeward bay. If you’re there to watch a summer sunrise and wade through the warm, clear waters, you could swear you were in the Caribbean. All that’s missing is the salty ocean smell. I am not the first person to marvel at this spot: in the early ’70s Gordon Lightfoot sailed into the lee of Christian Island and was so taken by it, he wrote a song about how he couldn’t bear to leave. 

In 1985, Tony and Sheila Vipond bought a cottage looking out over Lightfoot’s lee. They and their kids—Laura, 5, Cameron, 3, and Kyle, 1—all made friends fast. Tony, a gregarious man (“a storyteller and a big bullshitter” according to Cameron), enjoyed great relations with his neighbours, the Knapps to the south and the Gibsons to the north, as well as the Laurins and others further up the lane.

Fast forward through 22 years—22 summers of sunrises, sunsets, and fires; of boat rides, bush forts, and bush parties; of portable stereos blasting ’90s grunge—to 2007. That’s the year Cameron graduated from teacher’s college and headed overseas for a Gen-X rite of passage: paying off his student loans with a high-paying job teaching English in another country (Australia, in this case). The cottage kids were all grown up, but while some of their parents chose to enjoy their empty-nest summers, Tony and Sheila decided to sell. On his last weekend of doing nothing on Christian Island, Tony asked all the neighbours to help him clean out the liquor cabinet. Everyone pitched in. 

And that, Cameron thought, was the end of that. From now on, Christian Island was to be a memory. 

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Cameron and his cohort of cottage acquaintances dispersed in adulthood, but they all eventually settled close to home in and around Midland and Penetanguishene, running into one another at the grocery store or the cinema or the marina—boating culture is a big part of life in these parts, whether you own a cottage or not. And in the summer of 2017, word started to get around that Cameron’s old family cottage on Christian Island was up for sale. 

Cameron knew, right away, that the biggest obstacle standing between him and his old cottage was his wife, who managed the family budget down to the last cent. “I grew up in a poor home, and we never had a cottage,” Celissa says. “Owning a cottage was never an ambition of mine.” 

Celissa didn’t give her husband a gentle, dulcet-toned it’s just not for me—she gave him a hot-poker, jagged-edged not on your life. “She knew that, if she left any hint at all that she might be willing to consider it, I’d never let it go,” Cameron recalls. So that, once again, was that. 

Except the place didn’t sell. By the spring of 2018 it was still on the market, like a giant carrot dangling perpetually in front of Cameron’s nose. That’s when he ran into his old cottage pal Dan Laurin at the supermarket. “I was like, ‘you should totally buy it’,” says Dan, which, according to Cameron, is exactly what he knew Dan would say. “Dan is the best kind of enabler. If you tell him about some idea you’ve got, no matter how crazy, he’ll tell you to go for it.” 

Right there on the spot, egged on by Dan’s prodding, Cameron cooked up a plan to trick Celissa into the purchase. “I called the shot in front of Dan that day, so I was committed. I had to make a play.” Shortly thereafter, Dan the Enabler helped things along when he ran into Celissa at the gym, feeding her a low-key hey, wouldn’t it be cool. She gave him a polite but poker-faced mmm, no. Early that summer Cameron and Celissa were out on their boat with the kids, enjoying a picnic across from the lee on Beckwith Island. The plan was to then visit the cottage—just to check it out, maybe get a picture. Or so Celissa thought. “I’d arranged a showing,” says Cameron. “The forecast was perfect, but this was still a long shot. It was going to have to knock her socks off.” 

Cameron: Let’s just go and have a look. For me. 

Celissa: Sure, whatever. We’re not buying it. 

Cameron made a slow approach to the dock so Celissa could take in the warmth and shelter of the lee. He pulled up to the dock, and they walked up the steps to the cottage’s stunning clifftop view. 

Celissa: How much did you say they are asking? 

And that, Cameron knew, was it. 

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What they were asking for this beautiful spot on this unbelievable island, believe it or not, was a mere $125,000. That was pretty much the going price for all the cottages in and around the Compound; by comparison, currently, the average price of a place in Southern Georgian Bay has reached $1.1 million. Christian Island is part of the Beausoleil First Nations reserve; the band council has been offering 30-year land leases to cottagers since the 1950s. The band also runs the island’s ferry service and asks cottagers to prioritize local, Indigenous-owned companies for things like building supplies or electrical, plumbing, and landscaping services. 

This situation scares away some cottage shoppers. Hard-nosed investors won’t trust the lease arrangement, while status-seekers won’t want to pay so little. And some are simply unable to bridge the cultural divide. Cottagers here tell me that, among their friends on the nearby mainland, everyone knows about Christian Island but surprisingly few ever set foot on it, ignoring a treasure in their own backyard. It’s entirely their loss. But the circumstances create a unique form of neighbourhood self-selection: Christian Island attracts down-to-earth people who know the value of a dollar, don’t scare easily, don’t hold grudges, and don’t put on airs. 

On their very first weekend after taking possession, Cameron and Celissa realized they were taking it over from folks who had tried, and failed, to master the art of doing nothing—by doing too much nothing. They didn’t even bother to update the furniture. In 2007 Tony and Sheila sold the place furnished, and Cameron and Celissa bought it back furnished—with some of the same furniture that had been there since the 80s. The only noteworthy change in the decor was the ceramic lamps in the guest bedroom. They were shaped like giant conch shells but they looked like junk. Not trash junk; feminine junk. “We call them the vagina lamps,” says Celissa. “They were too weird to replace. They’re conversation pieces now.”

Most of the rest, however, was in terrible shape. There was mould on the furniture, mildew on the walls, and a smell about the place. They tossed all the old furniture, salvaging only Tony’s favourite chair. Then they whitewashed the walls and ripped down the drop ceiling to expose the roof beams. And just like that, the place was made light and airy and all their own. Their kids were running about, getting to know the lay of the land and the water. That’s when the tide turned. 

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Just a short four years ago, the Compound was more like the Seniors’ Resort. Much like the furniture, the neighbours hadn’t changed either: the Gibsons were still on one side, the Knapps still on the other. Dave Laurin, Dan’s uncle, was still in his place down the lane. All three families had owned their cottages for decades, passing them down through successive generations. But there were few kids or grandkids frequenting them regularly, and in some cases, spouses had passed.  

The Viponds’ return sparked a generational change of heart. The last of a long line of Gibson owners, Leanne, sold her place to Kim and Keith Burrows. “Seeing Cameron and Celissa with their kids brought me back to an earlier time,” says Leanne, “but it also helped me see who this place was really meant for. It was time for me to move on.” Kim Burrows (née Kurceba) was a Christian Island cottage kid herself; her parents were close with the Viponds, and she hung out with Cameron’s older sister. “My parents sold our family cottage around 2015 or 2016, and I was in absolute tears over it,” Kim says. “I’ve been trying to find my way back ever since.” The Burrows agreed to terms with Leanne Gibson in early 2020. There were tears yet again when they closed the deal. 

In 2021 Dan Laurin and his wife Shannon approached uncle Dave about buying his place. “He’d been on the fence about selling for about five years,” Dan says. Dan the Enabler seemed to understand what uncle Dave needed to finally make the leap: to know he’d done right by the island. “Uncle Dave is my godfather. His heart’s on Christian Island.” They had a sit-down, as Dan calls it, where he talked about memories and about his own two young kids, and his words allowed uncle Dave to finally make his peace. “He told me, ‘I’m doing this for your kids. I still have your old kneeboard, and now I’m going to teach your kids how to do it.’” 

Also last year the Knapp family, after decades of ownership, sold their cottage to Shannon and Kurt Gunnis. Shannon knew Cameron from elementary school and used to visit the Island on summer weekends as a teenager. “The Knapps had other offers, but they loved our story,” Shannon says. “They really wanted a young family to have it.” 

Cameron doesn’t take credit for the transformation, but it’s his family’s arrival that sparked it. “In just a couple of years, this place went from being pretty quiet to having 12 kids running around,” he says. “It’s like the ’80s all over again.” 

On my last day at Christian Island, the Compound crew left the bay in a flotilla of motorboats, heading around Lighthouse Point and weighing anchor near the wreck of the early 20th century steel freighter Mapledawn. On November 30, 1924, in the midst of a snowstorm, the Mapledawn drew too close to shore, hit a submerged rock, and sank. Amid the chaos two crewmen swam to shore, called upon the Beausoleil band members for help, and all hands were saved. 

The Mapledawn now lies perfectly preserved just below the water’s surface. It was my first time seeing a shipwreck, and it was thrilling. Sunken vessels don’t rust so fast in fresh water, so the Mapledawn seemed to be perfectly preserved, like a model ship in a bottle. The weather was sunny, the breeze light, and the water warm. In a face mask and snorkel I explored her end to end, and even managed to dive down and touch her. I was in the water for what seemed like an eternity, marveling at my surroundings. It was an unforgettable day, one whose memory will stay with me for a long time. 

The Knapps and Laurins and Gibsons held on to their cottages for the same reasons we all do: because the cottage is the source of our happiest and most vivid memories. But if you reach the point where you’re heading to the cottage just to keep memories from fading, you’ve likely lost your cottage zen. Cottages are made for living in the moment, not the past.  

When I finally left the wreck and swam back to the flotilla the kids were taking turns diving off the back of another boat. I climbed back into Cameron and Celissa’s boat and there they were in the bow, laying out in the sun together, Cameron’s arm around Celissa’s shoulder, working on their tans, doing nothing at all. Smiling.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Cottage Life.

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