Looking back over 40 years ago, when Kevin Phillips was a young man growing up on Kashwakamak Lake, in North Frontenac, Ont., an hour and a half drive north of Kingston, there were 20 to 22 resorts in the area. Today, there’s only one: Fernleigh Lodge. And it seems even its time has come.
Phillips is the current owner and can trace the lodge’s history back to 1905 when John Ahr from Buffalo, N.Y., bought the land for a fly-in fishing camp. To build the main lodge and cabins, trees were cut by hand and floated down to the 10-acre plot on Kashwakamak’s northern shore. Many of these buildings still stand today—with some upgrades. Ahr opened the lodge to guests in the early 1920s.
“Fernleigh Lodge was the first of its kind in the area and a popular one at that,” Phillips writes on the lodge’s website.
Guests could fly in by floatplane or traverse a gruelling drive from Cloyne, Ont., along a one-lane dirt road. At the time, the lodge didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, and there was only one motorboat—with a two-horsepower motor. When heading out fishing, the lodge’s guides would tie the boats together in a long chain, letting the motorized boat pull them all down the lake.
Initially, the lodge was open to men only, but by the 1940s, women were allowed to accompany their husbands. Even with this early prohibition, from the day John Ahr first bought the land, Fernleigh always had a strong female presence, coming from Ahr’s wife, Girt, who managed the kitchen and cleaning staff.
“She was a tough but fair boss, and everything ran like clockwork,” Phillips writes.
In 1961, Ahr died. Girt struggled to manage the lodge and passed it on to her nephew, John Green. It was during this time that Phillips and his parents, Lois and Arthur, started travelling north from their home in Ohio to vacation at Fernleigh Lodge each summer.
Around 1981, Green died in a plane crash, and Phillips, who was 25 at the time, and his parents, bought the lodge and moved to Ontario permanently. Over Phillips’ 40 years running Fernleigh, he says he’s accumulated a lot of good memories, but one stands out:
“My mom found out that my wife and I kind of eloped and wanted to be by ourselves and get married,” he says. “But she was sick when she found out about it, and she knew she was gonna pass, so she said, ‘You’re having a wedding at the lodge.’ And I walked her down the aisle here, so that was a pretty precious moment.”
Phillips’ father died in 1995 and his mother in 2004. He and his wife, Melissa, have been running the lodge themselves for nearly 20 years. But the pandemic hit them hard. Before the border closed, American guests were their main source of revenue. In 2020 and 2021, they had to overhaul their business strategy.
“We did fill up with Canadians, and I’m very proud of it,” Phillips says. But the lodge wasn’t generating nearly as much revenue as it had before the pandemic. And new costs associated with disinfecting the cabins and lodge, plus keeping all 24 staff members employed took its toll. Phillips struggled to pay the lodge’s $15,000 per month mortgage.
“We went into debt,” he says.
The government covered 50 per cent of employees’ wages and provided the lodge with approximately $38,000 in grants, but Phillips says it hasn’t been enough to keep the business operating.
A number of other businesses in the area that were around since Phillips first started coming to Fernleigh Lodge in the 60s have already fallen victim to the pandemic, shuttering for good.
“I do not want to sell this place. It’s my life,” Phillips says. “But I’ve done everything I can.”
The lodge, which is currently listed with Royal LePage for $7.9 million, has already received some interest. One party even claims to be buying up old lodges around Canada to save them from being demolished.
If they do end up selling, Phillips says he hopes to stay on for a few years to make sure Fernleigh continues as a lodge and is run properly.