Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay
I'm here for the lakes. Sure, North Hastings is teeming with wildlife. It's paradise for bird watchers and nature photographers. You want foxes? We've got them. Elk? Set your shutter speed, and click away. Yes, the outdoor-adventure enthusiasts flock here too, for mountain biking and rock-climbing. Certainly this is the place to be for recreational geologists eager to dig in at next rock-cut glittering just around the corner. But me, I'm here for the wind rushing over the bay, the forlorn loon calls, the sandy shorelines, and the bloody sunsets.
For as long as I can remember this piece of the Canadian Shield has been branded 'Cottage Country.' Families have returned to seasonal domiciles year after year, decade after decade, for summers spent canoeing, roasting marshmallows, jumping off docks, and bragging about the catch of the day. In recent years many cottagers have ceased the late-August return to the city, in favour of residing here year-round. It makes sense. The improvements to high-speed internet in the area have allowed many urban professionals to simply pick up their careers and bring them along, tucked in the back of their SUVs with their paddle boards and sunscreen. That's what we did, nine years ago.
“So you're buying waterfront, then?” our Vancouver friends asked, when we broke the news that we were leaving our beloved port city to buy a home in rural Ontario.
We're not on waterfront actually. We sometimes wish we were, but with two little kids running around, a shoreline in the back yard is just one more thing to be paranoid about. Maybe in 5 years we'll buy waterfront, but for now we're enjoying our quaint little country home, with it's quaint little country mortgage, surrounded by mostly dry ground. But on the weekends we load up the car with air mattresses and sandwiches, and head out to the beaches of North Hastings.
Yes, we are here for the lakes. Even though we're surrounded by them (there are 3 within a ten minute walk from our house), we were surprised to learn that even locals aren't always aware of where the public beaches are. A history of private cottages has created a legacy of private swimming holes. Don't worry though, there are plenty of public beaches for those who aren't on waterfront, or are just passing through, or simply want a change from their own familiar splashing grounds.
For the lovers there's my favourite: the beach at Foster Lake. Never-mind that the drive to get there is one of the most beautiful excursions you'll ever experience, with views of emerald-forested hills, rising and falling like the jagged breath of winded angels for as far as you can see. Never-mind the adventure of actually finding the beach: if you rely on GPS -- well it might work but the cell phone towers are few and far between – you're better to go old-school and pick up a real honest-to-goodness paper map from one of the little country stores along the way. Roll the windows down, tune the radio to romance, and get ready, because the beach at Foster Lake is well worth the drive.
It's not just that the Foster Lake beach is long and sandy, begging for a romantic stroll. It's not just that it's surrounded by old growth forest, with hardly any evidence of human civilization: no crowded bay, no noisy motor boats or jet-skies. It's not just that there's a covered picnic area, built-in stone barbecues, grassy areas perfect for a catnap. No, it's not just that. It's all that, plus the view, plus the seclusion; it's public, but it feels private.
The first several times my own sweetie and I went to Foster Lake beach we thought we'd just lucked out, but we've been there year after year, and more often than not we've been the only ones there. Sure, if you go on a Saturday afternoon you'll likely run into a few locals in the know, who will give you directions to the nearest gas station (“drive that way for 15 minutes and turn right at the big boulder...”), but stop by on a Thursday afternoon and linger till twilight and you'll likely be all on your own. Just you, your main squeeze, and the water lapping at your toes, reflecting the cotton candy smudges of the setting sun.
If seclusion and quiet isn't your bag, check out North Bay Beach on Paudash Lake. Now I'm not saying it's crowded --certainly not by city standards-- but it is a very popular spot, and rightly so. Plenty of parking, public outhouses, a boat launch, picnic tables, and of course the beautiful lake itself make Paudash Beach an easy sell for just about anyone. The water is deep, so even in the heat of August, Paudash remains refreshingly cool. The lake is pretty huge (it has a surface area of 1900 acres) and it meanders over two counties, with several bays, islands and inlets. Homes and cottages are dotted all around its expansive circumference. No wonder North Bay Beach is a treasured spot for family reunions; everyone just hops in their boats and meets at the beach. Each summer, the Paudash Lake Conservation Association hosts a children's rock bass derby, as well as a regatta and family fun day with a barbecue, scavenger hunt, sand castle competition, races, boat decorating competitions, tug of war, and more. Show up early if you want prime beach-blanket real estate.
(Note: Paudash beach is technically just outside of North Hastings. The lake stretches over both Hastings and Haliburton counties, with the beach slightly past the boarder on the Haliburton side.)
For the four-legged crew Diamond Lake beach is the place to be, especially in September during NewfStock, a huge 3-day celebration of those big beautiful water-loving canines we know and love as Newfoundlands. NewfStock takes place annually in Bancroft, with the main events unfolding at Millennium Park. This year, NewfStock runs from September 12-14, with the popular swim date at Diamond Lake Beach on the afternoon of Friday September 12. Though smaller than the beaches at Foster and Paudash, Diamond Lake, just off the South Baptiste Lake Road, also has a nice sandy bottom, and the beach faces west, so the sunsets are formidable.
If you only have time for a quick dip, make like the locals and “Swim the York.” The little sandy beach on the York River, in Riverside Park, is right in the heart of Bancroft. You can come into town for a few errands and stop by the park for a short splash; but it's also easy to spend a whole day wandering about Riverside Park. It's an idyllic spot, with walking trails and plenty of shade, steps away from the playground, Freedom Skatepark, the North Hastings Heritage Museum, The Waddle and Daub Cafe, and the Historic Train Station which is home to the Town of Bancroft's Visitor Information Centre, and state-of-the-art Mineral Museum. The York is also a favourite destination for canoes and kayaks.
Another swimming hole that's popular with locals is the public beach on Wollaston Lake in Coe Hill, which hosts an annual party around Canada Day complete with fireworks. After a day of Canadian festivities in Bancroft, many locals head over to Wollaston to cool off in the lake and enjoy the party, which includes a barbecue, cupcakes, music, and of course the fireworks, which are launched from a raft out on the water, so the dazzling colours reflect off the surface of the lake.
“The fireworks are always fantastic; always really impressive,” says Wollaston Township clerk Jennifer Cohen, who credits the Red Eagle Family Campground for providing the yearly display.
Karen Challinor, co-owner of the Red Eagle says they've been doing the fireworks for as long as she can remember, and that it just gets bigger and better every year.
“It's one of our favourite summer events on Wollaston Lake,” says Challinor. “The event appeals to all ages from young children to the young at heart. The anticipation of the exploding colour lighting up the night sky and reflecting on the lake is one that brings our community together every year. It's an event Red Eagle Family Campground is excited to share with cottagers, community members and campers.”
Foster, Paudash, Diamond, the York, and Wollaston beaches are all exceptional, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Papineau. Of all the beaches in North Hastings, it's the most celebrated shoreline for families with young children. The first time we went to Papineau beach, I floated out into the lake on an inflatable beach mattress, letting the joyous squeals of toddlers fade away, replaced by the sounds of the wind and a distant airplane. I savoured the warmth of the sun on my closed eyelids, the smell of clean water, that special type of relaxation that only comes from bobbing atop a peaceful lake under a hot sun. When I finally opened my eyes I saw that I had drifted far away from shore, yet when I rolled off my mattress the water was only up to my waist. Big, clean and sandy, the beach at Papineau runs along the southeast side of the lake. It's a perfect spot to build a sandcastle, or throw a frisbee. The water is shallow and warm and the sand is soft, making it ideal for little kids.
So be you romantics, parents, dog-lovers, swimmers, boaters or baskers, grab your towel, and come jump into summer in North Hastings. Come for the sand between your toes, the little silver minnows that rush away from your feet; come for the sights and sounds of a real Canadian summer; come for the giggles and the sighs, the splashes and the dives. If they ask, you can tell your friends what I tell mine: “I'm here for the lakes.”
Directions to beaches
Foster Lake Beach: From Bancroft follow Highway 28 East for approx. 20km to McArthurs Mills, turn left onto Boulter Road then turn onto Park Road.
North Bay Beach (on Paudash Lake): From Bancroft, follow Highway 28 South for 10 km, turn onto Highway 118 and turn left onto North Bay Beach Road.
Diamond Lake Beach: From Bancroft follow Highway 62 North approx. 8 km to Bird’s Creek, turn left onto South Baptiste Lake Road, follow for approx. 20 km then turn right onto Old Diamond Lake Road.
Swim the York, at Riverside Park, Bancroft: Access Riverside park from Station Street, Downtown Bancroft.
Wollaston Lake Beach: From Bancroft follow Highway 62 South, turn right onto Highway 620 and follow to Coe Hill. Turn left onto Wollaston Lake Road continue south for 1.6km and then turn right onto Beach Lane.
Papineau Beach: From Bancroft, follow Hwy 62 North. Approx 6km past Maple Leaf, turn left onto Papineau lake south road and continue for 2 km, turn right at fork in road, continue .5 km, turn left to reach beach parking lot.