Adventures: In search of Canadian authors – and Upper Canada

Travel columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis takes a detour to her childhood roots in Clarskon and Oakville, ON.

A Lakefield church converted to a museum is establishing a small literary collection.

Canada is not my native land, but it is my home, one I’ve had the distinct pleasure and privilege of exploring from sea to shining sea.

In June, the Travel Media Association of Canada Annual General Meeting was held in Peterborough, the entrance to the Kawarthas.

This was my opportunity to not only explore, understand, and snag a quick (envious) peek at central Ontario’s famous ‘cottage country’, but take a pre-conference detour to my childhood roots in Clarkson and Oakville.

“Come and stay with us before the conference,” urged writing friends, Judy and Alex Eberspaecher. “Let’s see what’s left here of your childhood memories.”

In addition to outstanding hospitality, what did I find? My old red-brick primary school, Clarkson Public, which was built in 1916, still stands firm. Remnants of old Town Line (now Winston Churchill Blvd) family farms where I picked strawberries all summer to earn my first $25 second-hand bicycle cling determinedly to the landscape.

The Lower Middle Road house and gardens where my parents pioneered have been replaced by businesses and industry. Mother would be distressed at the vanished farmland, but consoled (and amused as a Royalist) to know our road became Royal Windsor Drive.

Across the road from where our house stood was ‘the bush’. It was full of tall trees, marsh land, and wildflowers. I particularly remember all the Trilliums.

Sadly, it’s all been replaced with charmless concrete and industry. So much for preserving Ontario ecology. my must-see list was Benares House. I knew it was near the home of Whitney Millard, a school friend whose mom had published the Party Line, a little paper for which my mother was a columnist. Author Mazo de la Roche had lived on the estate in 1927 while writing some of her 16 volume Whiteoaks of Jalna family saga series. I was keen to see if it had been preserved.

We were delighted to find it intact and clearly well-maintained by the Museums of Mississauga. It’s an elegant gingerbread-trimmed stone house surrounded tall trees which, according to the very noticeable birdsong, is a favourite nesting place for the birds playing tag across the lush lawns. A few picnic tables encourage visitors to relax and enjoy these peaceful surroundings.

According to information, 95 per cent of the artifacts in the house belonged to four generations of the Harris family who originally owned the house. In 1836 it was billed for sale as “an elegant stone house…well adapted for any gentleman’s family”.

We were disappointed that tours were not available on the day we were there.

Instead we headed back along the Lakeshore Highway for an excellent lunch at Piazza Bistro, 94 George St., Oakville.

With my walk down memory lane satisfactorily accomplished, Alex, Judy, and I set off on the 2-hour drive for Peterborough, an easy-to-navigate industrial-style city 125 kms northeast of Toronto.

Like most conferences, eating featured prominently, but courtesy (often lacking in cities) has to be noted. Imagine my surprise when returning to my Holiday Inn room before lunch one day to find a handwritten note (on cheerful owl-embossed notepaper) on the bathroom counter.

It said: “Welcome home! I noticed you are low on toothpaste. Please accept a new tube complimentary to our hotel. Have a great day! Maya (Housekeeping)”. Little things mean a lot – particularly when travelling.

Young Peterborough entrepreneurs are repurposing many historic stone buildings for coffee shops and intimate restaurants.

Peterborough is also home to a plethora of brew pubs. Despite not being a beer drinker, I tagged along on the afternoon tour. I gained beer knowledge, but abandoned much beer in the (large) tasting glasses – to the delight of my Twitter @YouTravel followers!

For pre and post tours I continued my focus on literary history, plus photography, and birding. That made two out three I knew something about. Birding is one of the top global travel passions. It was time for me to find out why. Thanks to Orillia birder, photographer, and conservationist, Arni Stinnissen, I’m now better informed – plus I (unsurprised) need a longer Nikon lens. Check Arni’s work at Birder or not, you’ll be enchanted.

To explore Lakefield on the shores of Lake Katchewanooka in the Kawarthas, you’ll need a car – and bug spray. Yes, the plentiful water breeds mosquitoes, and ticks are around, but don’t be deterred.

Nineteenth century Upper Canada pioneering authors and naturalists like Catharine Parr Traill, and her sisters, Agnes Strickland, Jane Margaret Strickland, and Susanna Moodie were shocked at the contrast to their comfy English village life.

However, they survived, thrived, and recorded the natural history of the area in words and art for posterity. You can do it, too!

Thanks to a local guide we located the land (now reclaimed by nature) that Parr, her husband and sisters, had homesteaded on. We read their detailed, often humorous, accounts in the archives of Trent University, and admired the elegant, detailed drawings of plants, and wildflowers the sisters encountered.

Since clearing ground and building cabins in the woods is no longer encouraged we were comfortable at The Village Inn in Lakefield, and were pleased with our dining choices on the main street.

Things to include in your Peterborough and The Kawarthas itinerary:

Books stores: particularly the Lakefield Station Book Store.

Museums: check the weaving at Lang Pioneering Village Museum.

The Peterborough Lift Lock on the Trent Canada. The world’s highest dual hydraulic boat lifts. Take the boat, of course!

Full information about Peterborough and the Kawarthas:

Benares Historic House, Oakville:

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is founding editor /publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter