Memories of Clearwater Beach

6 Nov

Les and Elinor Metcalfe – 1521 Champlain Road

Les and Elinor Metcalfe were amongst the earliest cottagers on Clearwater Beach. Their memories of that time provide us with some of our best insights we have into what life was like in those days.

Elinor and Les’s favourite recollection of the cottage was the arrival of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the Royal Yacht Britannia on a gorgeous July 5th in 1959. Elinor says that when Les first heard about the visit he declared there was no way he was going to get involved in that. But when the day came he was one of the first to head out into the bay in his boat. By the time the famous yacht came throbbing past Clearwater Beach the bay was covered in boats of all sizes, bouncing around in the high waves thrown off by the Queen’s vessel, everyone waving their arms off to say hello to her Majesty as they struggled to maintain balance.

Les recalls that Britannia turned at the red marker and went into Penetang Bay near the asylum where it anchored for a short time in a deep cove. The Queen got off and was transported by a smaller motor craft to the Town Dock. At the back of this boat, two uniformed men stood motionless, their arms crossed, not moving even as the boat rolled through the waves. Apparently these guards were specially trained for the task and had their feet locked into shoes fastened to the deck which helped them retain their balance without any visible effort as the boat tossed and turned.

“Everyone was so excited.” Les recalls with a laugh, “I remember George Simms climbing up on a rail near the Town Dock clad only in his bathing suit and the Queen came out and walked right by him. What a sight for the poor Queen.”

And later on that evening the Royal yacht swept back out the bay, again past Clearwater Beach, on its way to pick up the Queen at her next destination, this time watched by Les and Elinor from the comfort of their cottage.

On another occasion Les and Elinor were sitting at the front of their cottage one summer’s day when a canoe came paddling by just off shore with three Indians outfitted in their most resplendent traditional costumes. To this day Les and Elinor are unaware of what brought the Indians past but it has stayed in their memory as a lasting symbol of the wilderness spirit that still prevailed in those earliest days of cottaging.

These momentous events came hard on the heels of Les and Elinor’s first encounters with Clearwater Beach. In the late 40s Les’s brother Burt had rented a cottage sight unseen from Gene Mailloux, who owned the store at Toanche. Burt was sorely vexed when he arrived to find that the cottage was not on the water but in fact was behind the store. Mailloux, on discovering Burt’s disappointment, offered to sell him some property out on Clearwater Beach. Burt bought a fifty foot lot at what is now known as 1475 Champlain Road.

Soon after, Les’s father Alfred Metcalfe (known in the family as Pappy), an avid fisherman, was visiting a friend on Peak-A-Boo Trail and on being introduced to Gene Mailloux, decided that he too would purchase a 50′ lot, just north of his son Burt’s. This was at the present 1477 Champlain Road.

Pappy Metcalfe’s neighbours were George Townsend on the north, Burt, his son to the immediate south and Norm Wright, south of Burt’s (currently 1473 Champlain Road).


Pappy Metcalfe and Joanne Wright 1957

Alfred built a cottage in the late 40s and early 50s, but Burt never did build at that location. Instead he sold his lot split equally to his Dad and Norm Wright, so they both then had seventy-five foot lots. This is why there is no 1475 Champlain Road today.

Les and Elinor got very attached to the area after helping his father design and layout his cottage and they in turn purchased a lot from Jerry Quinelle in 1953 further down the beach, the present 1521 Champlain Rd. Les and Elinor have made that their summer home ever since. At a later date Burt Metcalfe bought the lot south of Les and put up a pre-fab cottage.

Les had a long history of enjoying the out of doors but Elinor had really never strayed far from Toronto.

“In olden times Les would have been a pioneer.” says Elinor, referring to Les’s love of adventure and the outdoors. But in time Elinor proved to have a plucky spirit as well.

Les and Elinor’s cottage is beautifully positioned on a breezy high point at the foot of the U shaped bay looking out to Beausoleil Island, the red light at the Four Posts, the MacTeir TV Tower, and Gin Rocks. Again revealing the customs and niceties of a past era, Elinor likes to describe the unusual process by which they became the owners of this idyllic property:

“Mr. Quenelle told us there were lots for sale for $600 and we chose one just three lots south of here. George Simms actually had chosen the one we own now. But he had second thoughts and asked us if we were interested in trading. We quickly agreed.

The real estate agent said we had to pay cash. But we only had $300 that we had saved by cutting short a motor trip we had been making to Florida. Luckily, Les got a bonus of $300 from his work that Christmas and that just made it. Later on George Simms asked us to reverse the trade but by then we knew we had something special. We turned down that idea pretty fast.”

Elinor reminds us that while the lot was beautifully positioned, Clearwater Beach wasn’t as heavily treed as today. All the land around Clearwater had been logged several times in the last hundred years and it was really bush rather than mature forest.

During the winter of 1953 Les purchased lumber in Toronto, cut to length the roof rafters and studs and hauled it all up to his lot. The beach roadway, then the 17th concession, and now known as Champlain Road, was little more than a trail in those days.

“Getting into the area was quite a challenge. Generally we used the beach road, but at certain times of the year it was very boggy between Coutenac Beach and Mary Grove Camp and then we came in on the old Bush Road leading across to Sawlog Bay, and cut down on one of the rough logging roads to reach our place. These roads are still out there today. Eventually the Ontario Government and the Township got together and repaired the beach road and finally had it paved.

Because the lots were deep and the new cottages were closer to the water than to the road, many other cottagers, like Bob Wilson, would offload their wood and supplies at ‘The Flats’, an open area where the tennis courts are today, and build rafts to ferry everything down to their cottages. But Les had easier access than most down the logging road near his cottage and simply brought everything by car and trailer.

Les and Elinor had no electricity. Log siding was custom made at the Tessier Planing Mill in Penetang. That mill is long gone now but was located behind where the Post Office is today.

Les was a machine operator at the Illinois Tool Works in Toronto. That company threw away a lot of nail kegs as part of their daily operation and Les took to carting them north, filling them with concrete and using them to support the cottage. Those kegs are still holding up the cottage today although they have been supplemented by more modern concrete foundations.

Les says: “You did what you had to do with what you had, No one had a lot of money. It wasn’t like today’s big wages.”

“There were very few cottages at that time.” Les says, “I remember Pinery Camp, which was very popular with American fishermen. It was located where the squirrel gate posts are standing now. In Pappy’s area there were the Townsends, the Metcalfes, Wrights and Barbers. In our area were the Wearns, Finks, Simms, Larkins, Brunks and Paynes. Burt Metcalfe and his son Greg built later on.”

Those of us who came up in the winter for the Penetang Carnival had to walk in from what is now Coutenac Beach, carrying our refreshments and necessities. We never stayed overnight. The road was only plowed to the last farm house, which was up where the paved road today meets the Bush Road.”

Les likes to tell the famous story of putting the roof on his cottage: “We had the floor and walls up and Pappy told me to put up the roof to protect the floor. So we rushed ahead with that and had it almost finished. I was perched right up on the peak when suddenly I noticed the trees seemed to be getting taller. Everything was collapsing. Down she went. We had forgotten to put in the struts that held the walls together.

“By coincidence an insurance agent was coming up the driveway just as this happened. He said ‘Bad time to talk about insurance.’ And took off.”

It was a discouraging moment but Les says it offered an example of how closely knit the community was back then: “Within half an hour twelve guys were down there helping me put it all back together. Ron Barber and his brother Bob, Charlie Sanderson, Norm Wright, Pappy and George Townsend were there. They saved the day. They lifted it up again, reinforced everything and left me to carry on where I had been cut off.”

Elinor and the children, Cathie and Paul, used to stay at the cottage all summer. They came up when school closed and stayed until one week before school started. Elinor says: “Our kids never wore shoes all summer. We were like hillbillies, we had to go home a week before school to get them into proper clothes again.”

Elinor spent a lot of her spare time quilting with some of the other mothers down on the beach, including Phyllis Simms, Eleanour Payne, and Grandma Simms (who owned the frames they used). One of those quilts is still on her daughter Cathie’s bed even today.

Les remembers: “In the beginning we didn’t have electricity. We picked up a 50 pound block of ice from a chap on Water St in Penetang who cut ice from the lake and stored it in sawdust all winter in his garage. We would put the ice in a big bucket and get it out here quickly before it turned to 25 pounds. Later we had delivery of bread and ice and milk several times a week from trucks that came along the road. Dr. Binkley from Penetang owned a cottage on the beach to the north of Charlie Sanderson’s, and that was useful when anyone got sick. I would leave Sunday evening to go to work in Toronto and get back up on Friday morning.”

Clearwater Beach was a lot quieter back in those days. There wasn’t the summer time boating and road traffic we experience now. There were certainly no permanent residents. Les and his neighbours used to play baseball out in the dirt road and when an occasional car would come along they could hear it all the way from Coutenac Beach and get out of the way.

Les remembers the people of Clearwater Beach as being much more playful and relaxed back then. Not as serious as today’s cottagers.

“We used to have huge fires in the bush back of Barbers Saturday nights. The whole beach would be there, 20-25 people. We mainly drank and laughed and carried on. The fire was massive, much larger than you could get away with today. One time the Barbers got a little carried away and burnt Ron Barber’s boat , The Madge.”

“Another time George Townsend went into his outhouse and everyone jumped up and lifted it up and started carrying it around in a circle. Boy, was he mad (and dizzy) when they finally let him out. But he settled down in five minutes. It was all good fun.”

There was a horse shoe pit in front of George Townsends, and one time Ron Barber threw a shoe and it landed around George’s ankle. He wasn’t hurt but he was pretty upset for a few minutes.

Les also remembers the Saturday of a Thanksgiving Day weekend when a raucous party got going. Bill Parker had brought up his brand new car and was showing it off to everyone. Says Les: “When it got good and dark George Simms and I went out and jacked up his back wheels so they were just off the ground. Around two in the morning Bill came out to go home in his shiny new car and when he put it into reverse it wouldn’t move. You should have seen the look on his face.”

At another party that weekend according to Les, Kurt Payne’s dog got skunked and dashed into the kitchen where everyone was sitting around talking and drinking. The refrigerator holding all the delicacies for Thanksgiving dinner just happened to be opened at the moment the dog came in. The smell of the skunk on the dog was so excruciating that everyone ran out of the house and all the turkey and pies in the fridge were ruined.

On a sunny summer day Pam Metcalfe, who was Les’ step-sister, and Dorothy Townsend, both of them young teenagers, would make their way over to Beausoleil Island, one swimming and the other rowing a boat. This was no mean feat but Les points out that the girls had practically grown up in the water and there was none of the constant boat traffic that would make such a journey perilous today.

On one scary Thursday night in 1959, Elinor was all alone at the cottage with her daughter Cathie while Les was working in Toronto. She woke up during a violent electrical storm and looked out her window to see if anything nearby had been hit by lightning. At that stage the lots south of her cottage down to the Brunks (now the Sapiano cottage) were still all bush and she couldn’t see anything at all. But the next day Les arrived from Toronto with his son Paul and as they came up the shore in their boat Paul cried out that the Brunk cottage was missing. Les couldn’t believe him at first but when they pulled in and went ashore they discovered that the Brunk cottage had indeed been burnt to the ground. All that was left was a few steel parts of a motor from their boat that had been pulled up by the cottage.

Les says: “I went up to Finks and had him call Mr Brunk and tell him the bad news. Brunk said ‘Is the cottage burned down” and Fink replied ‘Yes’. Apparently Brunk’s answer to that was simply: ‘Well, what’s the rush?’”

Les also recalls that Fink and him went back to survey the smoldering scene and Fink’s dog stepped on a live electrical wire that was sizzling on the ground. The dog went straight up in the air and was never the same from then on. It died less than a year later.

“It just shows how vulnerable we were to a calamity back then,” says Les, “There was no fire department or police or anything like that to call for help in an emergency. We were isolated.”

Fire erupted in their lives on another occasion as well. When Les and Elinor and the children arrived at the cottage they would always stop down at Pappy’s place to make sure he was all right. One autumn day he had a small fire going burning leaves and Les’s son Paul got the idea that he too wanted to have a fire. Les said no but Paul, being a typical boy, went up several lots north in the bush and got his own secret fire going. The secret didn’t last long because the fire got out of control and Paul tried to smother it with his windbreaker then started stamping around in the flames trying to put it out. He couldn’t. Luckily the Brunk daughter, who was a nurse, happened along and helped him stop it.

Elinor says: “When we got home he was sitting outside the cottage with his feet in a pail of water. His feet were all blistered from the steam of the fire.”

But in the end Paul was declared a young hero. While he had disobeyed his parents by setting the fire, he had shown great courage by sticking with it and trying to put it out rather than simply running away.

And of course, there was the fishing. Pappy and then Les had both been drawn to Clearwater by its wonderful fishing. Les recalls:

“We would often jump in the boat and go over to Gin Rocks and catch a rock bass and take it home for supper. That was nothing. Other times we would go over to The Hole In The Wall, a narrow channel on the mainland at Turtle Bay that you can see just past the lighthouse. We called it Pikey Corner because we always got good pike there. I think the biggest I ever got was twenty-two pounds, but the more usual catch was eight to ten pounders. Those are better to eat anyway. A smaller fish is usually tastier.”

But those days are long gone now. “You have to really work at it now,” says Les, “And even then you might not get anything.”

Even so he still proclaims: “On my job list, fishing is always number one.”

Fishing had unusual benefits. One time Cathie brought up her then boyfriend, now husband, Bruce. Les was trying to size up this young fellow who seemed mighty enamoured of his daughter. The four of them went fishing and were doing quite well until the fish chain got loose and went right to the bottom, all their catch attached. Says Les: “I just held my head. There goes all our fish. But suddenly Bruce jumped up, ripped off his shirt and dove into the water. All I could see was the bottom of his feet. Then he burst up with the chain and the fish in his hand. That was the end of my concerns about him. I just said ‘You’re in boy, you’re in.’”.

Les remembers a disaster when a huge wave from a passing freight flipped over his motor boat and sank it. It busted the windshield and everything else. Les was in Barrie doing a job when his boss called him to say his boat was sunk. He waited until the next weekend and righted it with the help of his friends. And he’s still using the same boat today, although with a much more powerful motor.

Commenting on today’s concerns about water levels Les remembers 1964, when the water apparently got so low that you could walk on the sand right out to the drop off. One guy was driving his car up and down the sandbar. But a few years later that situation reversed and there was a time when the water climbed so high that it tore up Les’s retaining wall and threw his concrete well cover across the beach.

“George Simms had an aluminum boat and winch. The water smashed the boat to smithereens; it took out everything.”

“Back then the water seemed to move up and down in seven year cycles,” Les says, “But for the last fifteen it only seems to have gone one way – down.”

It’s not often discussed but poison ivy has been a recurring theme at Clearwater Beach. In modern times it’s not so prevalent but you can still find it in sunny sandy locations alongside the road and in the woods. In the Metcalfe’s earliest days it was much more common and irksome.

Les tells how as a young Air Force recruit he was training at a base near Arnprior and had some time off. He went to the beach and ended up virtually covered in poison ivy, so bad that he had to go to hospital. There the staff questioned him closely because one of their nurses had also turned up that day with virtually the same symptoms. They were keen on discovering just who had accompanied him on his beach excursion and what he had really been up to. Les pleaded innocent.

But for twenty-five years afterwards he was plagued with yearly outbreaks of poison ivy. Much as he tried to avoid it, he still got it. At one point he claims he was stricken so badly that his arms were dripping with blisters and he had to put tooth picks between his fingers to keep them apart. At his work other men would refuse to come near him or touch his tools.

Finally Elinor’s aunt and uncle visited from the USA. They were of the Christian Science religion and when they heard about his troubles the man asked Les if he could give him a mental treatment that might solve the problem. The treatment consisted of the man staring at Les in the face for five minutes. Shortly afterwards Les went to Dr. Binkley who gave him a prescription to mix with Epsom Salts and create a salve to rub on his sores. After several days the salve dried out and fell off, and Les’s poison ivy was gone and never returned. To this day Les asks: Was it the mental treatment or the salve that did the job? We’ll probably never know for sure.

But Les now recommends the following for killing poison ivy and other weeds: in a large spray container mix a lot of vinegar, with ¼ cup of salt and 2-3 drops of liquid dishwashing soap. Spray it on the plants you want to eradicate. The soap will help the salt and vinegar cling to the leaves, and soon kill it.

Les and Elinor loved to go boating. Les describes some of their adventures this way:

“It was common for us to leave our dock at 8:00am and head for Orillia via the Severn water route. We would arrive at Orillia around noon and be back home for supper. Today, due to the growth of boating you could not get past the Marine Railway in that time. And it was free back then. No charge, and the man working the locks by hand would tell you he’d stay late and watch for you on the way back.

Other days we might boat north via the inside Channel to Parry Sound. Again, we’d be back by supper.

Our longest trip was to boat from Clearwater Beach to the French River. We’d rarely see any other boat traffic. We would stop where we wished and sleep in our small 18 foot boats. Remember that we were using very small outboard motors. It’s not like today when they go out with high power motors and do this trip in a day. A trip like that would take us a full week. One time, bad weather forced us to hunker down in the isolated Bustard Islands for two days. Usually these trips would include George Simms, Burt Metcalfe and myself, all in our separate boats. Today you would encounter gas problems on such a trip. Many of the old marine gas suppliers have closed.

A problem on a long trip like that was buying groceries along the way. One time we arrived at the French River store and they refused to sell us food. They had most of their food set aside as special orders for local people and very little for transients like us. If they sold bread to us there would be none left for their steady customers. We did get some bread and pancake mix from a college professor from Chicago who was anchored in the islands with us. It was a great trip and I would love to do it again.”

Les also recalls a trip to Parry Sound with the Townsends. Coming back they saw a water taxi, and figuring that he would know a short cut, followed him. Much later in the day they arrived at a remote location completely off the beaten track. The taxi man was not taking a shortcut – he was going to a private Bethlehem Steel fishing camp at Iron City near the mouth of the Moon River.

“The company officials wouldn’t even let us come ashore.” says Les, “But they showed us a map that clarified where we were and told us to follow the rocks that had been painted white by the Hydro and these would lead us back on course. So that’s what we did. Everything worked fine until we got to Twelve Mile Bay where the weather turned really bad. We charged ahead anyway and then George Townsend ran out of gas near Whelans Store just around the corner on the other side of Minnicognashene Island. We towed him in, gassed up and set off again. The water was awfully rough. When we finally got back George’s leg was black and blue from where his wife, Muriel (known as ‘Mrs. T’), a nervous boater to begin with, had repeatedly clawed at him as they bounced over the waves.

And, as if we hadn’t had enough, when George drove up to his dock his gear shift stuck and the boat hurtled right up onto the shore.”

Les has fond memories of the arrival of the ski-doo revolution in the late 1960s and early 70s. He says: “We had quite a group at that time. The Simms, Burt & Connie Metcalfe, Greg Metcalfe, the Finks, and Elinor and I were involved. Rube and Honor Fink had a cottage next door to the north and Norm Wearn who lived in the next cottage beyond the Finks to the north, the property now owned by the Breckinridge’s.

We spent many hours traveling to Giants Tomb Island, circling Beausoleil Island, Honey Harbour and into Penetang after the hockey game for a hot chocolate on Saturday night. Another adventure back in the good old days, was crossing the bay on the ice in our cars. Christmas trees marked the trail across the bay from the basin (currently the Jug City at Toanche) to the Penetang Park close to Magazine Island.”

On bitterly cold winter nights they often heard an earthshaking sound, like dynamite, when the pressure of the ice in the bay caused it to crack and rear up one piece over another. Sometimes great chunks of ice six feet high would be forced up over another leaving a pool of icy water on the other side. An errant snowmobiler could rocket over one of these outliers and suddenly find himself in mighty cold water.

“We don’t hear that sound anymore,” says Les, “It doesn’t get as cold as back then, and there’s a lot more noise on the roads to drown out anything like that.”

There were other sounds out there as well. Elinor confesses that several times back in those days a few drinks would find her and brother in law Burt racing around on their snowmobiles wearing only their bathing suits. This was out of character for Burt, Elinor claims, but she has only smiles about her role in it all.

Les says that the biggest change he has seen over the years is in the amount of boats on the bay. In the early days there were very few pleasure boats. The main water traffic would be working tugs the size of the Georgian Queen going up to deliver food and mail and other supplies to people up in the islands and pick up orders for later trips.

“It was quiet and peaceful. Now it’s like the Highway 401 here on weekends. I refuse to go out on weekends now. It’s too rough. The big boats kick up the water too much. And everywhere you go there’s yet another boat.”

Les remembers too when there were a lot more Great Lakes freighters plying their way down the bay. That too is gone. Now you’re lucky to see one or two during the whole summer.

Cottaging has proved to have therapeutic value to Les. “One day recently,” he says, “I told my doctor I was thinking of selling the cottage. At ninety-one years I’m having a little more trouble taking care of it. But the doc shook his head, ‘Don’t be crazy, Les. That cottage is what’s kept you alive so long.’ So I guess I’m here for a while yet.”

Les and Elinor both turned ninety-one years old in 2013 and the next year they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. Truly fine pioneers of Clearwater Beach.


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