ALBAN, ONTARIO — Brian O’Rawe blames it on the Glenfiddich. The scotch went down easy and took with it any inhibitions he had about buying the Sand Beach Lodge more than five years ago.
“I went to bed that night and woke up in the morning and told my wife, ‘I think I just bought this place,’” O’Rawe says with a storyteller’s bemused expression while sitting on the same bar stool where the deal was struck. It’s a warm day in early June when we talk and outside a boat grrrrs past, carrying a quartet of fishermen down the 105-kilometre-long French River that historians have nicknamed the Fur Trade Highway. The Voyageurs, those French explorers and trappers sent out first by Samuel de Champlain in 1615 to discover what stirred in this giant country, trekked down the river and back to Quebec, hauling pelts of beaver, wolf, and elk — and stories of aboriginal encounters and unforgiving land. Despite the dangers, the Voyageurs kept coming and coming, for more than 200 years until the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company in 1821 shifted the trade route north.
A Scotsman, O’Rawe has latched onto the spirit of those adventurous men. He visited the lodge many times after moving to Toronto about a decade ago, and realized he was happier spending his days in the pristine wilderness setting of French River Provincial Park than in the bustle of Canada’s largest metropolis. O’Rawe also knew a good thing when he saw it. A former consultant for international hotel companies, including Mandarin Oriental, O’Rawe was convinced the lodge and its setting would be a draw.
Once you’ve gazed on French River, you’ll be convinced it was his business savvy not the scotch that steered him to purchase the property that was built by the Seagram whiskey clan in the 1920s as a family retreat. French River is quintessential Canada: big, empty, beautiful, welcoming, and calm.
“If this was in Europe, cars would be lined up for days to get here,” O’Rawe says. “You just don’t find nature like this over there.”
It’s not just Europeans who should be making their way to discover French River. Canadians will appreciate a visit too, especially those who are seeking the solitude and natural beauty that commercialization has taken from parts of Ontario’s most popular cottage destination. One hour north ofMuskoka, French River gives you the kind of escape many Ontarians now feel they must fly away to enjoy.
When I make the three-hour drive from Toronto, I find the summer rush has yet to come. Except for a few visiting journalists, the only guests at Sand Beach Lodge are a couple from Michigan who happened to show up only because the French River Visitor Centre directed them to O’Rawe’s spot.
“We asked for a nice place with good food and this was where they recommended. We’re very lucky. This is a beautiful lodge,” Barbara Taylor said.
The lodge has had its starring moment, hosting a Disney crew during the filming of the Jonas Brothers’ teen flick “Camp Rock 2″ (the brothers, though, didn’t stay at the lodge because the movie’s security staff believed the river presented too many opportunities for crazed teenage girls to make a mad attempt at invasion, O’Rawe informs with a laugh). Sand Beach’s usual clientele includes families, couples, fishing groups, and corporate types looking for group getaways. Retention rates are exceptionally high, O’Rawe says, noting that guests return time and again, including a German family that has been coming back for four generations.
Although it’s a fishing lodge, many Sand Beach guests arrive aiming to escape the pace of urban life and to indulge in chef Ryan Trotter’s cuisine. Dinners include four courses that are all delightful, making you wonder how food so good can be found so far from a big city.
“We try to be as local as we can be, but it’s hard out here. So we will go out and get the best products in Canada we can find,” says Trotter, whose beef tenderloin is a thick cut from Alberta, served peppery and flavourful.
Restrictions on the sale of fish caught in the provincial park prevent the lodge from selling what Trotter or anyone else brings up from the river, which seems like a lake, gaping up to 28 kilometres in width. But Sand Beach fishing guests will store their catch and bring it back to Toronto, Kitchener or elsewhere with them. The river is known for pickerel (also called walleye by many Americans), northern pike, and bass.
“The fishing in the river has been really good the past few years,” says Trotter, an avid fisherman and devoted conservationist. “We used to get a lot more Americans up here but that’s changed with the recession and the border issues, and the benefit is there’s a lot more fish in the water.”
Sand Beach is the only lodge in the French River that currently hires fishing guides, according to Clarence LeDuc, who was born in the area and has worked as a guide for more than 30 years. With LeDuc’s help, our group of less-than-accomplished anglers catches eight fish in all, including six in a 15-minute flurry during our morning outing.
With that bounty, we stop for a break, getting out of the Sand Beach pontoon boat that brushes up on the shore of an island, one of thousands that interrupt the French River. The names of the islands lack imagination and somehow that seems amusing. There’s 5-Mile Island and 12-Mile Island and Burn Island, “because it burns,” LeDuc says matter-of-factly while looking over at the trees that can catch fire when the temperature spikes toward 40 degrees Celsius. The rock we’re on? For the moment, it’s Lunch Island.
LeDuc guts the fish we’ve caught and tosses the excess to the sea gulls who congregate on the millennia-old rock for a feast. He coats the pickerel and pike in flour and fries them in a huge skillet over an open fire that blisters the wood our group has recovered from the brush behind us. It’s mid-afternoon when we plate the fish, the baked beans, and the potato hash LeDuc has prepared on this shore lunch. The food is delicious, the view decadent, the experience sublime. You could do this over and over and over again and want to do it still.
Back at the lodge, the sun starts to fade and the kayaks invite you to paddle around Dry Pine Bay, the harbour occupied by the 14 cabins of Sand Beach. A divine dinner by Trotter follows, then a campfire that crackles as marshmallows roast and stars wink and crickets whirr under rock. O’Rawe looks over and grins. “Now, I always tell people who come in here, be careful how much you drink, you might end up owning this place.”
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