Great Lakes
Cottage Guide

Great Lakes

Not all lakes are created equal. Some have beautiful sunsets; others are plunged into darkness every day at 4 p.m. when the sun slips below an escarpment in the Gatineau Hills. Nor is every lake to everyone’s taste. While some cottagers appreciate the high-wake mania of the Big Rideau on a long weekend, others believe the handful of cottages still left on Canoe Lake are a few too many. Whatever your tastes and wherever you may want to hunker down in the region for a day at the cottage, there is a lake for you on this list.

Canoe Lake

Canoe Lake may have the most exclusive address of any cottage lake in Ontario. It is a lake for a select few, its exclusivity determined not by price and location but by family history. Not that there is anything wrong with the location. Canoe Lake, in Algonquin Park, boasts more than 20 kilometres of shoreline and two big arms. Portage routes at the end take canoeists deep into the interior of the park. Its location is so ideal that the southern shore of Canoe Lake sports a Parks Canada office, a restaurant, and an outfitter’s store. It was also on Canoe Lake that Tom Thomson drowned in 1917, one of the most fabled stories ever to come out of Algonquin Park. And while Algonquin Park is known for its rugged beauty and backcountry isolation, it is also home to around 300 or so cottages. Most of the cottagers are on Canoe Lake or nearby lakes such as Smoke and Rock.

CanoeLake-Mike Last
Canoe Lake at sunset. Photography: Mike Last

If you have a cottage in Algonquin Park, you do not own the land. You lease it. The first leases were granted in the early 1900s, and during the 1930s the Ontario government operated an active campaign to lure cottagers to Algonquin. Indeed, some of the Canoe Lake cottages are owned by people who can show you photo albums of family holidays at the lake going back five generations. It wasn’t until 1954 that a new park policy was adopted with the goal of returning the park to a more natural state. Since then, no new leases were granted and, over the next 25 years, the Crown reacquired approximately 100 cottage leases. Suffice it to say it’s a hard ticket to get — a cottage in Algonquin Park — and people rarely give up a lease. Still, time may be running out for Algonquin Park cottagers. The current lease arrangement is due to expire in 2017. While the government has always renewed in the past — and the cottagers are optimistic it will again (the Ministry of Natural Resources has proposed extending the leases for another 21 years) — there is a bit of uncertainty to owning a cottage on Canoe Lake right now.

 Big Rideau Lake

People have been going to cottages on Big Rideau Lake almost since Lt.-Col. John By “remodeled” as part of the project, which was completed in 1832. Big Rideau was flooded to its current size when By built the Rideau Canal. Planning for the canal actually started during the War of 1812, when the British government realized it needed an alternative supply line for Upper Canada, one that would not use the often perilous
St. Lawrence River. The alternative route became the Rideau Canal, a 202-kilometre link of rivers, lakes, and canals that would stretch from Lake Ontario at Kingston to the Ottawa River. Big Rideau was created along that route when, in order to avoid blasting through a rocky peninsula near Newboro, called The Isthmus, By simply flooded out the peninsula.

All very interesting, but you won’t need all that history to enjoy the lake. Big Rideau is 32 kilometres long and more than six kilometres wide. It has hundreds of cottages and homes, five marinas, and a provincial park (Murphys Point). The first sports fishermen came to the area in the first half of the 19th century and have been coming ever since. It is one of the best lakes in eastern Ontario for lake trout.

Lac Bernard

If you look at an aerial photograph of Lac Bernard, you will see that it looks like the world’s wonkiest jigsaw piece. The shoreline never runs straight — it is all bays and arms and jutting isthmuses and peninsulas. A jigsaw piece that will drive you crazy. Lac Bernard is in the Gatineau Hills, only a 40-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, and the ragged shoreline is typical of any lake gouged out of the earth by a retreating glacier. The Gatineau Hills are littered with them. Bernard has just taken it to ridiculous lengths.

The lake is more like three lakes than one. The main body of the lake runs for miles and is known for the large bay on the western shore where boaters often moor to watch the sunset. There are also two arms, each with miles of shoreline. One of those arms is entered by making a tight turn and then bringing your boat to a near stop to negotiate a bed of shoals, a manoeuvre that adds greatly to the feeling of being on more than one lake.

Lac-Bernard-Julie Oliver
Located just 45 minutes north of Ottawa, Lac Bernard is a very popular cottage destination, with hundreds of cottages scattered along its many bays, arms, and peninsulas. Photography: Julie Oliver

The Owners’ and Residents’ Association has nearly 300 members (in other words, there are plenty of cottages to choose from on Lac Bernard). If you are considering buying on this lake, you will pay a premium for its proximity to Ottawa. You will also want to be careful about the exact location of the cottage. All those crazy bays and hills can make a huge difference in the amount of sunlight a cottage receives (which may just give you an excuse to spend more time in your boat).

Blue Sea Lake

If you have a cottage on Blue Sea Lake, you get to have a sea monster as a neighbour. Cool. It’s hard not to like any lake with a sea monster, and the one at Blue Sea Lake is called Misiganebic, or “grand serpent,” in Algonquin. Nearly a century ago, many people claimed to have seen the creature, most of the sightings coming between 1913 and 1930. The last sighting of Misiganebic was in 1980 at the Baskatong Reservoir, which is much farther north although still connected by water to this beautiful lake 90 kilometres north of Gatineau.

The lake gets its name not only from its tremendous size (10 kilometres in length, nearly three or so in breadth) but also because there are few visual obstacles on the horizon. Standing on the shores of Blue Sea Lake, you can easily get the impression you are staring upon a vast sea. When not searching for Misiganebic, the people living around Blue Sea also enjoy some of the best swimming, boating, and fishing in the upper Gatineau. This is classic cottage country, and the town of Blue Sea is the hub for the entire region. One last odd fact about Blue Sea Lake: nearby is another lake that goes by the name Lac de la Mer Bleue, or Blue Sea Lake. To avoid any confusion, the much larger lake is called Blue Sea in both English and French. Has been for years. The Quebec language police have yet to drop by and complain.

Christie Lake

Welcome to summer-camp country, where a bell summons you to meals, pranks are pulled every weekend, and children spend their evenings telling ghost stories around shoreline campfires. Christie Lake — located just 15 kilometres southwest of Perth — has two of the longest-running summer camps in Ontario. Scouts Canada opened Camp Opemikon in 1938, while Christie Lake Camp was started in 1922 by a juvenile court judge who thought all kids deserved some time at a summer camp, whether they could afford it or not. If you’re lucky enough to own a cottage on Christie Lake, those summer camps add an idyllic charm you won’t find on other lakes. You may even be tempted to arrange your own meals around the dinner bell.

The lake itself has 646 hectares of water surface, which makes it a relatively small lake for the region. It is ringed by cliffs at the northern and southern shores and by flat lowland at the eastern drainage (where it empties into the Tay River). An interesting fact about Christie Lake is that it has around 30 islands (10 of them privately owned). In addition to the surprising number of islands for such a small lake, there are also enough steady winds to allow a sailing club to operate and enough sandy beaches to justify not one, but two, tent-and-trailer camps.

Calabogie Lake

If fishing is the reason you want to own a cottage, Calabogie Lake may be the lake for you. Calabogie has more than 30 kilometres of shoreline and it can drop to depths of more than 100 metres in places. The name, some claim, is Gaelic for marsh or bogs -— calladh bogaidh, but there are other possibilities as well including a spiced rum from Newfoundland. The falls near the lake were used for a hydroelectric project nearly a century ago, and Calabogie has been a reservoir lake ever since. It is one of the largest lakes in the region. The expanded lake proved to be a wonderful habitat for northern pike, muskies, and other large game fish, including walleye. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry now restocks the popular fishing lake every year.

If you’re not interested in fishing, Calabogie has no shortage of other activities. A lifetime’s worth of hiking trails run right off the lake. There are also two resorts. And Lanark County Road 511 — one of the most scenic and lonely drives in the region — is one way to reach the north shore.

Charleston Lake

CharlestonLake_canoe_Ontari Parks
With more than 100 miles of shoreline, Charleston Lake is a popular cottage lake and the location of the Charleston Lake Provincial Park. Photography courtesy of Ontario Parks

Charleston is the farthest south of our lakes, draining into the St. Lawrence River north of Gananoque. This places it in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands Forest Region, a hodgepodge of different rock formations, forests, and changing climates. But you don’t need to be a field naturalist (and know trivia facts like that the lake has two distinct bedrock formations, one northern [granite] and one southern [sandstone]) to appreciate Charleston Lake. The lake has picture-perfect hardwood forests, secluded islands, and some of the best fishing in eastern Ontario. There’s a busy provincial park (Charleston Lake Provincial Park) and a nearby UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, but again, don’t be intimidated by the science. All you need to know about Charleston Lake is that it breaks down into some of the most interesting landscape and boating possibilities in the region.

Golden Lake

Golden Lake is a big lake, with beautiful sunsets and enough wooden boats prowling around to make you feel as if you’ve landed somewhere in the Adirondacks. It also has beautiful sandy beaches and a resort (Sands on Golden Lake). There is a lot to like about Golden Lake, including the 90-minute commute from Ottawa. The lake is roughly the halfway point from the city to Algonquin Park — part of your drive will be right by its shore — and is the most accessible of the lakes on this list.   

It’s not surprising that many believe Golden Lake was named for its spectacular nightly sunsets. Photography: Jane Corbett

There is a scenic lookout just outside the village of Deacon where you can pull off and eat lunch by the water. You can sit at a picnic table in the shelter of a red pine stand and look out over the lake. On even the hottest day, it is cool here. Although the land around Golden Lake is mostly flat, on the north shore you can spy the first hills of the Algonquin Highlands. The debate is wide open as to how the lake got its name. It was either because of John Golden (an early pioneer) or the spectacular nightly sunsets.