The Opinicon resort is once again a cherished community hub, thanks to the owners of the Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late August 2015, and after spending the morning unpacking boxes and hanging paintings in her new cottage, Fiona McKean is playing peekaboo with eight-month-old Fraser on the couch while three-year-old Sam parades around the living room with a massive bowl of popcorn. The boys’ big brother, five-year-old Tristan, is downstairs in the rec room with Dad, who is attempting to connect a Nintendo to a 1980s “flat screen” television the size of a small car, left behind by the previous occupant. Fiona, in her mid-30s, is both excited and exhausted, like any busy parent getting settled into an unfamiliar space.
The cottage is on Opinicon Lake, across the road from an 1831 lockstation on the Rideau Canal, a 90-minute drive southwest of the family’s home in Ottawa. Fiona and her husband, Tobi, purchased the place eight months ago, but they only just moved in. The bungalow’s wood-panelled walls had been stained by decades of cigarette smoke; avocado-and-orange shag carpet assaulted the nose and eyes. But those were easy fixes. The rest of the property—a commercial lodge, 16 guest cabins, and a handful of outbuildings scattered across 16 gently sloping, hardwood-shaded acres—is also the couple’s responsibility.
Shuttered for the past two years, the business was beyond renovation. It needed a resurrection.
If you cottage or holiday anywhere near the Rideau, you have probably dined, slept, shopped, or fuelled up your boat at the Opinicon Resort. Built as a private residence in the late 1800s, the clapboard green-and-tan mansion became a gentlemen’s fishing club in the early 1900s. In 1920, the house was transformed into a lodge, and its simple rooms and constellation of rustic cabins attracted generations of guests, many of them Americans who made an annual pilgrimage by boat or car to lounge under towering oaks and elms and cast for bass in the clear water. To keep it family friendly, no alcohol was sold, but regulars knew to bring a few bottles. With an enormous covered verandah and a screened balcony up top, the Opinicon lodge became the Rideau’s grande dame, a seasonal hub with a marina, an ice cream parlour, and a classy dining room with large windows overlooking the lake, where local girls served prime rib and fried perch and were courted by tourists.
Picture Dirty Dancing, only with no dancing.
The place remained pretty much the same for decades—it had a dinner bell, no TVs, and a legendary team of fishing guides—until the aging facilities and a slumping economy dragged down the bottom line. The resort’s slow, sad decline in the 1990s reflected difficult times throughout Eastern Ontario. In 2012, after the death of Janice Cross, the matriarch of the family that owned the lodge, its doors were closed, and her daughters decided to sell.
“It was on the market for two dismal years, and everybody around here was wringing their hands,” says Walt Ebaugh, a Pennsylvanian who has come to the area every summer for six decades, first on fishing trips with his father and now to his own cottage on nearby Indian Lake. “The Opinicon is really the heart of this community. It holds so many memories. We were hoping for a fairy godmother, somebody who could put a shine on the resort. Fiona’s arrival has really been quite magical. The whole area has come alive.”
Everything looked dead the morning Fiona got the keys. Early January 2015, -30°C, snowbound, dilapidated buildings, barren trees, and a windswept expanse of ice. The scene evoked the frozen planet Hoth from Star Wars. Fiona was there with her mother and Fraser, just a couple of weeks old. What the hell, she wondered, was I thinking?
On maternity leave from her job combatting terrorism and organized crime as a deputy director at Global Affairs Canada, Fiona, with her husband, Tobi Lütke, the founder and CEO of the booming e-commerce company Shopify, had purchased the Opinicon in late December, three days after she had whimsically suggested it. Fiona had spent weekends as a child at a neighbour’s cottage on Newboro Lake, just up the Rideau from the resort, and had motored over often for penny candy. At 13, her first solo jet-ski excursion was to the Opinicon, and she felt the stirrings of a new freedom.
After marrying, the couple bought a cabin on Newboro, and Tobi, who emigrated from Germany in 2004, developed a taste for the tranquility of Eastern Ontario. So, when the Opinicon’s asking price tumbled well below the initial $1.9 million but still attracted little interest, the owners decided to sell by auction. Rumours spread that one of the potential buyers wanted to raze the resort to open a trailer park. Curious, Fiona and Tobi peeked inside the main lodge and a few of the cabins, then looked at the books briefly. Their verdict: “Why not?”
“My family was a little concerned,” says Tobi, who speaks with the understated precision of a German software engineer. “They wished us luck, but they were also thinking, You guys are kind of crazy. There are a few other things happening in your lives.”
Now it is mid-March, and Fiona is on one of her first trips back to the Opinicon after that bleak, daunting possession day. Everything is still covered in snow, the temperature is still -30°C, Fraser is still on her hip, and she is discovering that just as an iceberg only reveals a fraction of its bulk, almost all of the heavy lifting remains ahead.
Inside the main lodge, a few dozen workers are plastering and painting the dining room, scrubbing off years of grease in the kitchen, and ripping out old carpets in the hallways and guest rooms upstairs. Fiona and her close friend Peter McFarland, the general manager of the resurrection, have discovered that the roof is in rougher shape than expected, and they’re studying geology to determine whether a well is feasible to replace pumped-up lake water.
Chimneys and fire escapes have to be inspected, the docks are falling apart, and because the shoreline is on the Rideau Canal, a weed-removal permit from Parks Canada will be necessary to reclaim the overgrown grounds. They still have to order the kitchenware and the bedding, and the commercial fan hood for the new stove is stuck at the border. Every step forward introduces 30 substeps, says Fiona, who has yet to set foot inside two-thirds of the buildings, but is nonetheless aiming to open the restaurant and the ice cream shop by Victoria Day weekend.
“The information barrage into my skull is incredible,” she says. “When you’re in the middle of this chaos, you can’t see the end. But one day there will be actual guests here enjoying themselves. Which is hard to see when you’re trying to find 17 matching wall sconces at an antique store.”
“The learning curve will be very steep,” says Tobi, who is mostly a silent partner offering support when asked. “And then it will flatten out. Presumably. I hope.”
Ballpark cost for the restoration? “I could give you a number,” says Fiona, “but, really, I have no idea. It’d be better if I told you in a year.”
Shopify, the star of Ottawa’s tech scene, was valued at more than $1 billion when it went public on the New York Stock Exchange in May 2015. Almost 250,000 merchants in 150 countries use the company’s e-commerce software. Tobi was selling snowboards over the Internet from a cramped office above a café just eight years ago; in 2014, he was Report on Business Magazine’s Canadian CEO of the Year. Money is not a problem. Nor, at the Opinicon, is it a motivation. Fiona believes “operational profit” may be possible within a couple of years, but she doesn’t expect to recoup the initial investment during her lifetime. “That’s okay,” she says, pointing out the beat-up piano in the lobby, at which generations of kids have sat and banged on the keys—herself included. “I just want to pick up this place, dust it off, and help it get back on its feet.”
What has really compelled Fiona to dive in, to add another demanding dimension to an already full life, to sell the cabin on Newboro, and to cottage in the manager’s bungalow in the middle of the property—“We can keep our eyes on everything, and everybody can keep their eyes on us!”—is a yearning to preserve for her children the charm of a carefree summer day on the Rideau. Fiona ran around at the resort as a girl; her boys will do the same. “If we don’t feel comfortable bringing our kids here,” she asks as the work crew gathers for pizza, “why would we expect anybody else to?”
After lunch, Fiona leads a small entourage into a century-old house at the foot of the driveway, a first inspection of the former B&B that’s part of the estate. “That’s a good sign,” says McFarland, stepping through the door. “The porch didn’t collapse.”
“It’s a lot more ‘cracky’ than I thought,” says Fiona, scanning the walls and ceiling. “Not ‘crack den,’ but more of the shifting sands of time.”
“I don’t see cracks,” says McFarland. “That’s character.”
Fiona and Tobi’s purchase made the news, and she received hundreds of supportive emails from former staff and regular guests who shared her conviction that the Opinicon and its traditions were worth saving. Some people were suspicious of her intentions, however. “They thought, Oh, here comes big city,” says Fiona. “It’s tough for people to hand over their trust; it’s like handing your family home to new people.” But most were thankful and nostalgic, sharing stories of annual visits, reunions, and weddings. “We’re dealing with a lot of people’s rituals,” says Fiona, “so we can’t screw up.”
Right away, she rehired a pair of long-time employees with deep knowledge. Scott Patterson, the head of maintenance, started at the resort as a 12-year-old in 1981. (He was watching cartoons in his pyjamas in nearby Elgin when a call came in for his older brother, who worked at the lodge but wasn’t home. “Well, how old are you?” the man asked. Then: “What time can you get here?”) Patterson knows every pipe and wire on the property—and every capable contractor within 100 km, a vital Rolodex for a rural reno this big.
Sherry Weeks, another key hire, waitressed and did housekeeping for 34 seasons and knows all the local teens who’ll be looking for summer jobs. “I fell in love with being here,” she says. “When it closed, I was orphaned.”
“Fiona inherited us,” says Patterson.
“She had no choice,” adds Weeks, who was prepared to chain herself to a tree if the bulldozers showed up. “We came with the building.”
Facing a breakneck rush to reopen, and ready to entertain the neighbours, Fiona put out a call for volunteers in April. Bring a rake, she requested, and stay for a barbecue and a chance to look around. Almost 200 people showed up—including Walt Ebaugh, who made the seven-hour drive from Pennsylvania—to collect the leaves and broken branches littering the grounds. Locals told her about the good old days; several had tears in their eyes.
In mid-May, another volunteer squadron descends, this time bearing shovels and hoes. Today’s mission is to restore the sprawling vegetable and floral gardens. By 11 a.m., 40 people are planting perennials, weeding the rhubarb patch, and erecting a fence to keep deer away from the tomato plants.
Marta Henderson drove up from near Syracuse, N.Y. She had come to the resort every summer for more than 40 years. “When it closed,” says Henderson, pushing a wheelbarrow full of mulch, “it was like losing a piece of my childhood. I don’t see it as a business. It’s more like family.”
Fiona, making the rounds with a box of doughnuts, isn’t planning any huge changes. She has applied for a liquor licence and wants to open a pub, but the restaurant’s menu will be refreshed rather than reinvented. The original hardwood floors will be sanded and polished, the old furniture painted. And while Wi-Fi and new mattresses are a must—even two charging stations for electric cars—don’t expect a TV in your room. “It has to stay true to itself,” says Fiona. “We want to turn this place into something resembling what it used to be.”
This throwback vibe isn’t only for old-timers. Carolyn Johanson, a thirtysomething sustainable-building consultant from Ottawa, is building a cabin a short bike ride away, along the Cataraqui Trail. “This is a great way to get to know people in the area and feel some sense of connection instead of just passing by,” says Johanson, sitting on the grass for a water break after lugging wood chips for a few hours. “It’s easy to feel some isolation out here, which is what I’m looking for—but not all the time. It’ll be nice to have a place to come for a pint on the patio.
“When I arrived today,” she adds, “I looked at how many buildings they’re working on and thought, Thank God I only have one.”
Tobi, watching the kids as Fiona circulates, just days before he will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, is familiar with large-scale projects. “There are some parallels with Shopify,” he says, cradling Fraser into his shoulder and following the two older boys toward the front porch, where a rockabilly duo is getting ready to perform during a picnic lunch. “New ventures always end up being much more of a puzzle than you expected. But at least this is partially physical. It’s a nice change of pace compared with moving pixels on a screen.”
Although this stretch of the Rideau has struggled in the wake of the 2009 recession, organic farmers and artisans are moving into the area, the exchange rate is bringing back American visitors, and Tobi believes that the resort can become self-sustaining. “People in the community are so invested in this project succeeding,” he says. “From a business point of view, that’s an amazing way to start.”
The Opinicon isn’t ready for paying customers on Victoria Day, but Fiona gets the occupancy permit on June 5, just three hours before 100 high-school students arrive for their prom. The restaurant (with liquor licence in place) and the ice cream parlour open that week, and the first overnight guests stay in late June. Fiona and her children bunk at the resort for most of the summer, moving from cabin to cabin like nomads until their bungalow is ready. The boys wade in the water, play in the sandbox, and besiege workers with questions. There are some hiccups: the first full house in the dining room, on a hot and humid evening in July, goes smoothly—until 32 people stand up with white marks on their backsides. “I paid for 32 pairs of pants that night,” says Fiona, “and then I had to have 32 chairs repainted.”
When the family moves into their bungalow in August and unpacks the boxes they’ve been living out of, Fiona’s marathon roller-coaster ride finally starts to slow down. “Now I can try to carve out a little space for us in this insanity,” she says, sitting with Fraser on the living room couch. “It’s not exactly peaceful, although it never is when you have three kids.
“It’s like a tide, being here,” she continues. “People flow in, you hang out with them, and then they flow out, and the next wave comes. It’s still my life; it just has a different feeling. This will clearly be the most memorable summer of my life.”
At the margins of the day—at dawn, or when the kids are sleeping—the place is starting to feel like a cottage. After watching hours of instructional videos on YouTube, Tobi is even getting into fishing. “I didn’t expect to like it; I never saw the point,” he says. “This is going to sound so nerdy, but I realized how technical fishing is, and I like technical challenges that don’t involve electricity.”
It’s nap time for Fraser, so Tobi retreats to the basement with Sam and Tristan to play Super Mario Bros. The enormous TV is working—“we are living the 1980s dream,” says Tobi.
The Opinicon is hosting its first wedding in a few hours. Employees are hanging Christmas lights above an archway on the front lawn. Guests are playing shuffleboard and sipping cocktails on the verandah. The lupines and hydrangeas are blooming, and the scent of basil is in the breeze. There will be more heavy lifting when the business shuts down for the season after Thanksgiving: the cabins need new roofs and major upgrades, the pub will be carved out of the main lodge, carloads of antique furnishings will be purchased. But there will be time for that over the winter.
“I’m more relaxed than I have been in months,” says Fiona, leaving the cottage without an endless to-do list. “It’s ice cream o’clock.”
The Opinicon is scheduled to reopen on September 11th as a dining establishment only.
Freelance writer and editor Dan Rubinstein lives in Ottawa. His first book, Born to Walk, came out in 2015. This story originally appeared in the Early Summer 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine as “Return to Splendour.”