BY LINDA MONDOUX
You never need a reason to head out for a drive in Muskoka cottage country, especially in the fall, when the district’s many lakes take on an added beauty as the burnt oranges and yellows and reds of the surrounding trees reflect off the still waters. But if you’re looking to add a new twist to this season’s leaf-peeping tour — and learn something along the way — you’ll want to plan a stop in Bala.
Located at the confluence of Lake Muskoka and the Moon River, Bala is best known for its waterfalls, its eclectic shops and, for Lucy Maud Montgomery fans, as the place to go to pick up Anne of Green Gables memorabilia — the local museum’s gift shop boasts one of the world’s best collections of the author’s books and other artifacts. What keeps visitors coming back every fall, however, is the Bala Cranberry Festival
, a not-to-be-missed party that draws more than 20,000 people over three days. That’s quite an accomplishment for a community whose full-time population numbers only about 500 residents.
The event, which has been held the weekend after Thanksgiving for just over a quarter of a century, has become so popular that the all-volunteer Cranberry Festival committee earlier this year hired a part-time office manager to ensure things keep humming smoothly. Norma Prior, who lives in Huntsville, has been driving to her new job in Bala since June, fielding calls from visitors, liaising with the festival’s sponsors and vendors and preparing “cranberry merchandise” for sale.
“The harvest starts this weekend, and that’s what brings them,” Prior tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “This is a big event, and all the money goes back into the community.”
Since 1984, the festival has drawn 371,200 visitors and disbursed $533,700 in scholarships and to various community groups. The festival, held Oct. 14 to 16 this year, has also helped boost the local cranberry industry by working with producers to feature their products in the streets of Bala and by ferrying visitors right to the cranberry bogs, home of one of the few fruits native to North America.
There are only three commercial cranberry farms in Ontario. Two of them — Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh and Iroquois Cranberry Growers — are on the outskirts of Bala, while the third is in rural Ottawa. For cranberries to grow, unique conditions are required. Bala, it seems, has just the right peat-based soils and large supply of fresh water for irrigation, frost protection and harvest needed to produce the fruit once served only with the Thanksgiving turkey.
Not just for turkey any more
The lowly cranberry got a boost in the early 1990s when scientists at Harvard University found that drinking cranberry juice was a natural way of preventing and relieving urinary tract infections. Then came research that said cranberries helped to keep our arteries healthy, are a good source of vitamin C and may even help to prevent cancer. “Since then, the health benefits continue to drive the market,” Murray Johnston told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “I drink cranberry every morning. When you drink it pure, you just need three ounces a day for health. Just add it to a glass of water — it’s a great way to start the day.”
Johnston and his wife, Wendy Hogarth, operate Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, the oldest commercial cranberry operation in Ontario and one of the Cranberry Festival’s presenting sponsors. Located about five kilometres from downtown Bala, the cranberry farm was founded in 1950 by Johnston’s father, Orville, and his wife June.
Under the second generation, the cranberry farm has grown to include a gift store, tours and wine-tastings. Cranberry wine? Indeed!
Johnston’s wife Wendy, who trained as a sommelier, is the brains behind Muskoka Lakes Winery, whose products can be found on the shelves of your favourite LCBO. Since grapes don’t grow here, the couple can boast that theirs is the only winery in Muskoka. As Johnston explains: “We started the winery about 10 years ago. Before that, we were selling cranberries to wineries in Niagara and we thought, ‘Why not make it here as an added-value product?’ Now, half our sales are wine.”
With fruit wine on the menu, visitors find something interesting to do at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh year-round, though most of the 30,000 people who drop by each year come in the fall for the harvest. “It’s a premier destination for fall colours,” says Johnston of the harvest-related Cranberry Festival. “It’s the whole experience ... the food and drink and to see a real farm.”
This year, visitors can also sit outdoors to enjoy cranberry sausage, baked cranberry goods and a glass of wine, as Johnston adds a concession stand to this year’s festival. There will be free wagon rides onsite, helicopter rides to get a birds-eye view of the changing colours, a farmer’s market and tours of the marsh to watch the harvest in action.
Of course, the farm’s store will be open, so there will be plenty of opportunity to take home all things cranberry, plus Mrs. J’s handmade preserves. Johnston’s mother June, a retired home economics teacher, is still cooking up 1,000 cases of preserves in her home at age 80. You can also buy her cookbook, which also includes photos and stories from the farm she and Orville started 60 years ago.
If you can’t make it out to the farm, Johnston’s products will be available for sale in downtown Bala during the festival. “We’ll have three booths there,” he says.
Sit back, relax. Buses will take you on bog tours
Shuttle buses will ferry visitors from downtown Bala to the Johnston farm about five kilometres away, and to the Iroquois Cranberry Growers operation about 25 kilometres away. While Johnston’s is the oldest cranberry farm in Ontario, Iroquois is the largest at 68 acres.
Iroquois Cranberry Growers, owned and operated by the Wahta Mohawks, was started in the 1960s as an economic development venture with just half an acre. The Wahta Mohawks, who moved to Muskoka from Quebec in the late 1880s, had traditionally picked and sold cranberries from a bog just north of the Musquash River, which flows through the native property. “That same spot had all the requirements for a commercial cranberry operation,” explains the Iroquois Cranberry Growers on its website. “A good supply of water, impermeable peat soils and an abundant supply of sand comes together at the site.”
Many people mistakenly believe that cranberries grow in water. After all, they see them floating on top of the water during harvest in the fall. In fact, cranberries grow on dense ground cover on vines and the bogs are flooded at harvest time only to facilitate picking the berries. “We pick using two methods,” the company says. “Most of the bog is picked by flooding the beds with about 24 inches of water and knocking the berries off the vine with a water reel picker. We also pick with Getsinger picker that rakes the berries off the vine.”
The bog is also flooded in winter to form a protective layer of ice over the vines. Sand is then placed on the ice, where it falls to the bog floor in spring, allowing the vines’ long runners to set roots. The bog is then flooded again, but only until the tender buds no longer need protection from the spring cold. Once the water is removed, 10 miles of irrigation pipe is installed to protect the bud until harvest.
When the bog is flooded again at harvest, the red berries floating on top of the water are pumped off the field into trucks and taken to the packing plant where they are “washed, air cleaned, have water blown off their surface and are graded by an optical sorter to ensure top quality.” Iroquois Cranberry Growers sells fresh berries during harvest — its onsite store is open daily — along with a variety of cranberry products, including its 100-per-cent pure juice, cranberry sauce, chutney, jam, cranberry-maple syrup, fudge, teas and chocolate-covered cranberries. The rest of the crop is packaged in 40-pound and 1,000-pound boxes for distribution in Canada and for export to the United States and Europe.
The cranberries farmed by the Wahta Mohawks are used by a sister company, Mohawk Food Processors, are also used to produce the Cransnax brand of sweetened and unsweetened dried cranberries.
During the fall harvest, visitors can tour the Iroquois Cranberry Growers farm on horse-drawn wagons. Don’t be surprised if you spot deer or other wildlife while at the farm, adding another bonus to your leaf-peeping excursion.
Three-day party in the streets
Once you’ve toured Bala’s two successful cranberry operations, you’ll want to get back to the village for the full festival extravaganza. Warning: it might be a little crowded! There will be 350 vendors selling crafts, unique gifts and lots of delicious food, including cranberry-related goodies. There will also be live entertainment to get you dancing in the streets, a midway, petting zoo, rubber duck race, fireworks and the ever-popular Cran-Anne lookalike contest.
The contest pays homage to Anne of Green Gables
author Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose holiday in Bala in 1922 inspired the novel The Blue Castle. In the story, published in 1926, the fictional Deerwood stands in for Bala. For Anne fans, Bala’s Museum with Memories of Lucy Maud Montgomery, located on Maple Street in the former tourist home where Lucy Maud stayed while in the village, is a must-see. The museum offers guided tours, a 1920s kitchen, book and gift shop, costumes for kids and Bala memories.
You’ll want to take a camera along — for both the leaves and the colourful cranberries — to make your own Bala memories.
For Johnston, the fall cranberry harvest is his favourite time of year, because he gets to pick the fruit himself. “To see that fruit come up over the picker belt ... it’s something I really enjoy,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Fall is a great time of year. It’s harvest time, there’s people all around. It’s just a great feeling.”
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — October 2011