Talking with Clearwater Beach cottagers I was regularly struck by how everyone seemed to share certain core values and interests around Georgian Bay life, while at the same time pursuing individual passions which came in all shapes and sizes. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the story of Bill Weldon, a quiet member of the beach community, whose unassuming manner obscures an ardent pursuit unlike anyone else’s.
The Weldon cottage is at 1425 Champlain Road, just north of the turn at Marygrove Camp. The cottage is a rough and ready beast, hidden by trees down a narrow driveway and marked by a decrepit old gate. Bill would be the first to tell you that his place is not in the greatest shape. But he doesn’t seem worried about that – to his mind the cottage serves its purpose well.
For Bill Weldon is a walker. No, not just an occasional trudge-down the-road-when-the-weather-is-good-and-you’re-bored-silly type of walker. Bill walks every day, often twice a day. He has mapped out fifty-four routes around Tiny and he usually hits most of these every year. He can proclaim this with authority because he also keeps meticulous records of every walk he goes on, noting the route, the date and the distance. He is truly a man in love with walking.
Bill explains it this way: “I like coming here because I am a bit of a loner. I like walking. I am not a fisherman. If I had my choice I wouldn’t have picked a cottage on the Great Lakes. I don’t have a boat; I have a canoe but I seldom use it.
It’s an exploring thing. I’ll see a trail off into the woods and I want to see where it goes. My wife, Connie, and I walk every morning at home in Toronto. She prefers going the same route every time. I would be happy to not plan a route but simply come to a turn and take it. My wife will walk up and down the beach road every morning and evening. I like to do something different. That’s just me.
I am curious. I have all these routes mapped out in northern Tiny Township and I do most of them every year. Connie wants me to stop. She worries that I might fall in the woods and no one would know where I am. I don’t like to do things that bother her but I feel that walking is healthy and has made a difference in my life. So we continue to debate this.
I don’t have a set amount to do. Sometimes I come up to the cottage alone to get in more walks. I normally go twice a day, first thing in the morning and then in late afternoon or after supper. I will do one more walk this afternoon – that will be it for the season.”
The story of how Bill Weldon came to this craving for walking is as remarkable as the feat itself. Again, in his own words:
“When I was a young lad my father used to talk about his boss, when he first came to Toronto, who walked down from north Toronto to Yonge and Adelaide every morning to get to work. This was in the 1920s. Years later, in the late 1970s, soon after I got married I remembered that notion and asked for a pedometer for Christmas. A pedometer was not a common item in those days.
I decided I would walk the equivalent distance of Toronto to Montreal in a year. I was teaching so I could go out at noon hour and put in a mile or so. I recorded it on a daily basis and at the end of each month marked it on a map. By the end of the year I had travelled far enough to be down in the Eastern Townships. The next year I continued on and went a distance equal to continuing on from there to Washington by way of Boston. After four or five years I was making circles around North America on my map.
“Then I got a new map, re-plotted my past mileage, and found I was close to the west coast. So I set out for the tip of South America and back. There were problems of course getting maps that showed road distances. Also there is a section in Panama where there is no road connection but I just estimated that distance.
“I don’t think I am obsessive. It’s more like I am statistically inclined. I don’t mind being alone. Most mornings at home I give in to Connie and go with her on her walk. That’s enjoyable as we get to talk. But that is not really my philosophy. I would rather just take off and explore.
Most of my cottage walks now are two to two and a half miles long though sometime I will go up to five miles. There is one from here up the Bush Road to Sawlog Bay and back on Champlain Road which is five miles but I haven’t done it recently. I am in my upper seventies now and I’ve slowed down a little.”
Not surprisingly, Bill is also a birdwatcher. As he explains it, the two go hand in hand: “My interest in birds first developed to give me something to be thinking about when I was walking. It’s not that I keep my head in the clouds all the time, but often bird-watching has given me a focus for my walks. I have also been on birdwatching trips by myself to a number of countries, especially in Central and South America.”
But all this emphasis on walking does not imply that Bill ignores the water pleasures that attract most of the rest of us. He too has a history around the cottage itself.
As a child Bill and his parents, Bert and Margaret, got the cottage bug spending time at his Aunt Sarah’s cottage on Nottawaga Beach, a sandy area close to Balm Beach that can boast that it is one of the few cottage areas that only allowed development on the water side. Bill’s parents were offered this cottage when Aunt Sarah died but turned it down because the family was too busy with other things. But they soon found that they missed cottaging and had a real estate agent bring them to see the present property on Clearwater Beach. They bought it around 1977-78.
Bill remembers how in those first few years at the cottage the water was over three feet higher than now and they used to dive off the next door neighbour’s dock. Now of course there’s a bit of a walk to reach swimming water.
“I liked the fence around the place as it was helpful when kids were around. But I disliked the gate as it seemed to me that when it was closed it told people that you were not there. On the other hand, that gate keeps the kids from wandering off the property.
“Connie and I got married in 1976 so we naturally shared the place with my parents. In the mid 1980s my father arranged to legally transfer ownership of the cottage to me with the provision that he would pay the expenses to keep it going until he died. My father was a very active man and I remember my mother getting furious with him when he creosoted the deck when he was over eighty years old. We used to have a display over the couch of all the government plaques and certificates they received at their fiftieth wedding anniversary and on my father’s ninetieth birthday. My mother died in 1993 and my father two years later.”
Bill and Connie have three children, Lisa, Christina and Michael, and the cottage proved perfect for them. Bill’s sister, Rosemary, and her husband and four children used it as well, coming from Ottawa every so often.
“Now my kids have grown up and have kids of their own and they use the cottage too. So far the new generation is comprised of Maya, Madeleine, Keira, Olivia, Jackson and Liam. There are toys everywhere now and they are slowly taking over. My son in law, Chris Giuliani, has recently fixed up the back bedroom for the girls. Everything is pink. I call it the pink room. The beds, the walls, the bureaus, the fairy decorations, the curtains, they’re all pink. I am very happy to see the kids enjoying the place.”
Bill remembers that when they first moved to Clearwater Beach the cottage on the hill which is now owned by St Amants belonged to Dr. Jury, the well-known archaeologist whose research led to re-creating Sainte Marie Among the Hurons. In fact when they first arrived they were on a phone party line with Dr. Jury.
“St Amants have been our Penetang contact for a long time. They had put in our shower, changed the toilet and always closed the cottage in autumn. Whenever we needed a contractor we went to St Amants. I knew them as the cottagers on the corner as well as the business. They are good people.
Milan Bayt had the cottage to the north of us. He used to farm in the Lafontaine area. He is in his nineties and lives in Penetang now. I believe he turned his cottage over to the son of a friend but there isn’t much activity there anymore. We went in for a visit with Milan and his wife several years ago.
The Trotts are on our southern side. They bought from the Bakers. It was a familiar story – the couple died and the adult son wasn’t interested. So he sold to the Trotts and it is nice to have them there.”
So if Bill Weldon is spending all this time trekking the roads and forest paths of Tiny, how is that we don’t see him more often? Again, there’s a story that makes it all abundantly clear.
“I am not here on weekends as I am the organist and choir director at our church in Toronto.”
Bill taught elementary school in Toronto for thirty-three years. Though he had a degree in science he didn’t want to teach high school and spent a few years teaching seven and eighth grade science and then younger grades. But he had studied the piano as a child and had his ARCT diploma so he eventually switched into music. He taught full time music to kindergarten through grade six classes from 1987 until he retired in 1996.
Bill had been pursuing an interest as a choir accompanist for many years and when he retired he maintained his school contacts.
“I still travel around to different schools to play the piano for choirs. I’d like to do more of this but our schedule of cruises and trips prevents it. Still, visiting these schools has introduced me to areas of Toronto I later explored in more depth on foot.”
Bill met his wife Connie in Cameroon, Africa where she was working as a missionary nurse, and where he went for a year to teach missionary children. She is American and hasn’t worked as nurse in Canada, but when their youngest child started kindergarten she volunteered at the school and eventually was hired as an educational assistant. She took early retirement over ten years ago but stayed close at hand, volunteering one morning a week in the chronic continuing care unit at Toronto East General Hospital.
Like most of us, Bill recognizes many changes from the old days. More people are living along Clearwater Beach year around. There’s the water level issue. The fishing derby doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as it used to be. There are more big boats, and more personal watercraft.
“There seem to be fewer snakes than before. My son-in- law and I saw a snake last year and he said it had moved into our shed. That threw me because I have to worry about it. He promised to find it and get rid of it. When we were in Cameroon we got to know real snakes and now I am not allowed use that word around the house.
As we saw above, Bill is limited on weekends by his commitments to the church choir. But he doesn’t let that get in the way of enjoying the annual Labour Day weekend picnic at Marygrove.
“Connie and I really enjoy that day. We usually drive up on Saturday especially to go to the picnic and then go home the same evening. The amount of food they put on is fantastic. And the number of raffle prizes seems to grow every year. We are so lucky to be able to use Marygrove. I don’t know if people realize how special our picnic is. We wouldn’t miss it.”
It seems essential to ask this dedicated walker what hikes he would most recommend to other Clearwater Beach cottagers. He identified two:
“The best is Awenda Park. There is a trail that winds around the lake. I do that one first every spring. It’s a good length, not too demanding, has lovely scenery including a gorgeous stand of red pines and there is no road walking.
“If you have a boat or a canoe then I’d suggest going over to Beausoleil Island. You can follow a trail along the water’s edge to the southern tip of the island, then head back north on the eastern side on a kind of road. When you hit the park headquarters area you can join a trail that brings you back across the island to where you landed. It’s interesting to see firsthand how the two sides of the island differ.”
Bill Weldon is the expert on walking in Tiny Township, but his fame extends farther than that. A long-time member of the Bruce Trail Hiking Association, he shares with only a few thousand people the distinction of having walked, over a period of eighteen years, the entire Bruce Trail from one end to the other. But more important, he is one of a very few individuals who did that hike in order, from Niagara on the Lake to Tobermory.
“It was challenging,” he says. “Every time I went out I had to have a way to get back to where I started. Initially I simply walked to the end point and hitchhiked back to my car. But farther up the Niagara Escarpment that became more difficult. I had to park at the end of my proposed walk, after a drive of several hours from Toronto, then ride a bicycle to the starting point, walk to the end, then take the car back to pick up the bicycle. It took a lot of planning. You might understand why it took me eighteen years. And I did it all by myself, except for the last few kilometers when Connie came along. That was encouraging and she could make sure that I was safe!”