Stewards of the land: generations of history in limbo at Hartley Bay Marina

Published: August 10, 2018

Photo courtesy of Mathew Palmer

Updated August 10, 2018

As the infamous Parry Sound 33 fire started to rage in northeastern Ontario, many homes, cottages and businesses came under risk. For the Palmer family, its also their heritage and family tradition in jeopardy as well.

The Palmer family has been in French River Delta for multiple generations. Bill and Cel Palmer established the Hartley Bay House and Marina in 1952, roughly around the same time the vital Highway 69 was being connected, and it’s been family run ever since. Over the years, the establishment has played a crucial role in the development of the area, including the addition of hydro lines, and grew to mean much more than just a marina as it was handed down over generations. Family and community were integral concepts keeping the business alive.

“Thinking it could be the last time we see things as we know it.” Photo Courtesy of Mathew Palmer

“Me and my family grew up in Hartley Bay,” Mathew Palmer, grandson of Bill and Cel, said. “We would spend many weekends and every Thanksgiving there. We were all so close with the neighbours and residents that they became like extended family. When I was younger I thought some of our neighbours were actually our cousins.”

Mathew, along with his brother and cousins, spent a good deal of their summers as teenagers working at the marina. It was as much a tradition and part of their lives as was a source of income.

James Palmer, Mathew’s cousin, has been working at Hartley Bay Marina his entire life.

“I’ve never handed out a resume,” James says. “I wrote one up once, just to see what it would look like.”

The Palmers had known of a fire in the distance, but became officially aware of Parry Sound 33 on July 18. It wasn’t before long that danger from smoke and the impending fire, forced the MNRF to post an evacuation notice on July 21.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Palmer

Mathew, who has owned a cottage near the marina for the past two years, came with his family and started packing up irreplaceable memorabilia.

“Once the cottage was packed and photos were taken, we suited up and went to work helping evacuate the marina and people in the park. Muscle memory kicked in and me, my brother and cousins went back to work and it felt like being a teenager again,” Mathew says.

“The spookiest part was the silence,” Mathew says. “In all these decades there was always a rumble going on in the background — boats in the water, the beeping of trucks backing up, cars, canoe paddling, people chatting. But the silence was profound and there was a sense of ominousness.”

The family and staff seldom spoke as the evacuations continued.

“No one really spoke,” Mathew says. “When they did, it was to ask how bad it was and usually the reply was ‘as bad as we can imagine.’”

There was no time to grieve at the time as the community went to work assisting everyone out of the French River park and the marina. Working methodically and precisely, with a detailed list of who was in the area at the time, everyone was efficiently evacuated with no panic or damages.

“Even seasonal visitors were helping. Everyone kept each other informed of who was were and we all looked out for each other. Moments like those restore my faith in humanity,” Mathew says.

“It reminded me of our Canadian spirit,” James says. “In north Ontario there is a very tight-knit community. We were all looking after each other.”

Just over a week later, Mathew tried to get back on to the property but was blocked by OPP as the MRNF were installing sprinklers on the property. Now, like so many other local residents, the Palmers are just trying to stay hopeful and informed.

“It’s frustrating when you don’t know exactly what’s going on. In the days of social media everyone wants facts instantly. In a scenario like this, information can be difficult to communicate,” James says. “Mother nature can be very humbling.”

“This is the first time Hartley Bay has ever been closed on a long weekend,” James says. “But it has made me an accidental tourist.”

For the first time in a long time, James has been able to explore and see other parts of Ontario and enjoy the time off with his family.

“I could sit around, wringing my hands in worry, but I have small children to look after and raise, so I’ve taken this as an opportunity,” James says. “You have to look at the bright side.”

Mathew and James are both grateful to Parks Ontario, the OPP and the MNRF for their work to battle the blazes and keep everyone informed. With Parry Sound 33 dissipating, the Palmers are hoping the evacuation notice will be lifted within a day or two so at least residents can begin returning.

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