Cottage life close to home
By Janet Baine
At two GRCA parks, 735 families get the water, the sunsets and the cottage without the long drive north. Cottagers at Belwood Lake near Fergus and Conestogo Lake northwest of Elmira don’t have to face the traffic on Highway 400 to cottage country each Friday and Sunday. For John and Peri Hamilton, the cottage is a mere seven minutes from home.
During the summer, they live at their Belwood Lake cottage because they can be on their dock by 5:30 p.m. on a work day and they have an easy drive to work the next day. John Hamilton says this has been the family retreat since 1955 when his father, Jack Hamilton, first built the cottage. John has grown up with the Belwood cottage and has many long-time friends there, so it is a social place that feels 200 miles away. He is a vice-president of the Belwood Lake Cottagers Association.
Wayne Gowing’s parents and aunt and uncle leased their cottage lot at Conestogo Lake in 1959. The first year they cleared the lot and camped and their first cottage was built the next year. That cottage is long gone and they’ve built a newer one. The Gowings don’t live at the cottage during the summer, but go most weekends, including sometimes in winter.
These long-time cottagers know better than anybody that a reservoir is not a lake. The water level can go up four or five feet within a day in extreme cases. During late summer the water can recede so much that the dock doesn’t reach the water. The reservoirs are used for water management and so water levels fluctuate quite a bit.
“What I like about it is the change of scenery,” Hamilton says. “At the beginning of the year, the water is up to your lawn. Later there is a little bit of beach. By the end of the season, because there is lots of beach exposed for shoreline walks. I’m always the optimist and am used to the changing water level.”
Changing reservoir levels
If a new cottager doesn’t know about changing reservoir levels when they move in, the adjustment can be difficult. Hamilton says the trick is to find a docking system that can handle the fluctuations and is easy to move by yourself. Some people use docks that float or are on wheels. The GRCA also tries to warn cottagers about the changes and they can subscribe to receive flood messages by email.
The Shand Dam was constructed in 1942, creating Belwood Lake. Cottage lots first became available in 1945, while Conestogo Dam was completed in 1958 and the cottage lots were leased soon after that.
Many early cottages were simple structures without services, but over the years they have been replaced by more substantial buildings with wells and septic systems.
At these reservoirs, the GRCA owns the land and leases lots to tenants for seasonal occupancy April 15 to Nov. 15 each year. Tenants build and maintain their own cottages, outbuildings, docks, wells and septic services, while adhering to GRCA and government policies. The GRCA provides services such as waste removal and roads.
There are nearly 400 cottages at Conestogo Lake and 335 at Belwood Lake. These are the two reservoirs where motor boats are permitted, and almost all cottagers have boats for fishing and water activities. While they can visit in winter, cottagers are not permitted to live there year-round.
Most cottagers see GRCA property superintendent Brian Wolfe as the public face of the GRCA. He is often at the lakes ensuring everything is in order. But Wolfe says he is backed up by a team of people who stand behind him. This includes park staff who look after boat launches and other services, forestry staff who remove hazard trees and central services staff who fill potholes on cottage roads. Dam operations staff do their best to keep cottagers informed of changing water levels and administration staff look after billing.
Cottagers take an active role in environmental initiatives. For example, the Conostogo Lake Cottagers’ Association received a $5,000 grant from Cottage Life Magazine in 2011 to replant an area of forest that was destroyed by a 2005 tornado. The group worked in partnership with the GRCA on this project. The GRCA provided trees and a planting plan, while the cottagers did the planting.
Many, but not all cottagers belong to either the Belwood Lake Cottage Association or the Conestogo Lake Cottage Association, which each hold an annual meeting and do their best to represent the cottagers. The Belwood cottagers have a website at www.belwoodlake.com.