Rising from the ashes: cottagers rebuild grandfather’s legacy

cottage on fire Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

May 22 began as a typical day for Kristin Morrison. It was a Friday and she had taken the day off from work to relax and do some errands. As she headed out the door, her landline rang. She decided to ignore it, making a mental note to listen to her messages when she returned home, but then her cellphone pinged. It was an email with news of every cottager’s worst nightmare: her family’s historic island cottage had gone up in flames.

“I was in complete shock,” she recalled.

Morrison’s cottage, situated on an island in Ontario’s Kapikog Lake, had been in her family for more than seven decades. Her maternal grandfather, Robert William Miller Isbister—who was known as simply “Doc” around cottage country—reportedly discovered the island in the late 1940s and slowly began building their family’s cottage, portaging to the island with supplies from a nearby lake.

Doc and his wife at the cottage. Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

Over the next 70 years, the family updated the building, filling it with family heirlooms. Among them was Doc’s most prized possession: his Spitfire pilot uniform from World War II, which was memorialized in a glass box and hung inside the cabin.

By 2020, the cottage had been passed down three generations and was inherited by Kristin Morrison and her two brothers, Jordan and Adam. After receiving word of the fire, she immediately drove the two hours from her home in Caledon, Ont., to the marina; hoping the cottage or some of its contents would be salvageable. When she arrived, she found the cottage had turned to rubble, luckily the island, and most of its vegetation had been saved, meaning it would remain habitable should they choose to rebuild.

“When we arrived on the island, the firefighters we met told us that our neighbours had really been the ones who had saved it and we will always be grateful to them,” she said. “They will always be heroes to us.”

An aerial view of Isbister Island. Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

The heroes that saved Isbister’s island

The day of the fire, at around 10 a.m. that morning, cottagers Kim and Don Brenner spotted smoke billowing from Isbister Island and quickly alerted their neighbours nearby. Gerry Haarmeyer, president of the Kapikog Lake Cottagers’ Association, said those who were able and available to help sprung to action, loaded water pumps and hoses into their boats, and headed up the lake toward the incident. As they approached, the fire spread to the island’s propane tanks causing loud explosions.

“The scene that confronted me as I headed west up the lake was staggering,” wrote Haarmeyer in a newsletter later that month. “[There was] a huge column of thick black smoke rising into a crystal clear blue sky with a dancing orange and red inferno at its base.”

black smoke rises into the air
Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

Haarmeyer said the fire seemingly started near the west side of the cottage before spreading to nearby trees and along the ground. By the time the group of locals—none of whom had any experience fighting fires—arrived on the island, the cottage was up in flames and beyond saving.

Hooking up a water pump on the north side of the island, the group—which included Gerry Haarmeyer, Kim and Don Brenner, Terry Forth and Carolyn Hill, Bob Atkinson and Randall Graham—focused on containing the fire to stop it from burning the rest of the vegetation on the island. Once the structure finally collapsed, Haarmeyer said they also began watering down the remains.

Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

About four hours into the fight, a fire crew from the mainland arrived by helicopter and quickly aided in the suppression efforts, setting up a sprinkling system to water down the burned areas of the island. The fire was finally extinguished and, though the cottage was destroyed, the island was saved.

“We owe so much to these cottagers,” said Morrison as she recounted the day’s events. “We didn’t really know them very well and these people didn’t think twice and saved our island.”

Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

Doc’s vision

Though grateful the land wasn’t destroyed along with the structure, the family couldn’t help but mourn the loss of the cottage, the memorabilia, and the memories that it held. Looking at the rubble, Morrison said she thought of her grandfather.

Though he had been a decorated fighter pilot in World War II and a successful chiropractor, she said Doc’s true passion had been the cottage. After gaining ownership of the island in the 1940s, he built everything, portaging all the needed materials from a nearby lake with the help of his wife and children.

“He would spend all his free moments building and adding to it,” Morrison explained. “It was his life’s work to make the cottage the best it could be.”

Doc’s wife going for a dip in Kapikog Lake. Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

She said she’s heard many stories about her late grandfather; that he would always wear a captain’s hat when he’d drive the boat, which was adorned with a skull and crossbones flag and that, even after he was ill, he could be seen dragging his oxygen tank around the island.

“His life was that cottage,” she said. “A lot of people knew him and knew the incredible effort he put into building it. There’s a lot of history there.”

Morrison said the family worked to maintain his vision for the place, even after his death at the age of 74 on Dec. 9, 1994.

The cottage before it burned to the ground. Photo courtesy of Kristin Morrison

Future of Isbister cottage

Though the pandemic has slowed the rebuilding process, Morrison said the family has spent the six months since the fire drawing building plans and meeting with contractors.

She said the family remains grateful to the Kapikog Lake cottagers who saved Isbister Island. It’s because of them—the “heroes” as she calls them—that they can rebuild and start creating new family memories. But, this time, they aren’t starting from scratch.

She said they plan to pay homage to their late grandfather by reconstructing the lake house in a way that pays homage to their grandfather and his legacy, complete with a sign that will read, “Welcome to Doc Isbister Island”.

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