BY GARY MAY
Imagine owning your own island, your private escape from the madness of everyday life. You could be living like Robinson Crusoe — with electricity and running water, of course. And transportation back to the mainland.
If the Great Canadian Dream is waterfront living, perhaps the ultimate dream is to own your very own island. Think about it: Sunsets that are yours and yours alone. A custom-built home perched atop a hill that affords 360-degree views over a never-ending expanse of cool blue water.
Michael Gerhardt sells islands. The Parry Sound-based real estate agent conducts business from the epicentre of the Thirty Thousand Islands in Georgian Bay — the largest collection of fresh-water islands any place in the world.
“It is the allure of having something really special,” Gerhardt tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com of the island’s cachet. “The knowledge that it’s all your property, and you have absolutely no neighbours. The remoteness.”
Georgian Bay isn’t the only place you can go in Ontario to buy your very own island. There are more than 300,000 lakes in this province, and thousands of islands. Some, like Manitoulin, Wolfe and Pelee, are large enough to accommodate hundreds or thousands of residents. Some are just big enough for a cottage. Others are 10, 12 or 200 acres and — if you’ve got the funds to buy them — the perfect location for that expansive dream home or family compound.
'Location, location, location'
From Lake of the Woods in the far northwest corner of Ontario, to Lake Superior, the Muskokas, the Ottawa River and down to Lake Erie, this province offers islands of every description. Some are low, flat and marshy. Some are ruggedly beautiful and forested. Some are surrounded by fabulous fishing waters. Some sit amidst cold, deep, clear lakes that beckon you to take that secluded sail. Some boast untouched sandy beaches, while others offer rocky shores.
And you don’t have to be rich to afford one. While the real estate mantra, “location, location, location,” holds true for islands, too, you can still find one for under $250,000.
For example, Deer Bay Island is two acres in the main channel of the “wild and beautiful French River.” It’s protected from the north winds by a larger island rock face, and is itself forested with mature red and white pines, cedars, ash, junipers and blueberry bushes. And it could be yours for $200,000 US.
In Eastern Ontario, near Perth, Long Island in Christie Lake is 2.4 acres of towering pines and soaring eagles. Reportedly, Christie Lake was once a favourite haunt of the Marx Brothers and Mary Pickford. Recently, the island was on offer for $210,000.
Gerhardt was offering Dokis Marina Island, together with a cottage and cabin, in the French River-Lake Nipissing area, for $225,000. The island is treed and has a granite shoreline. The cottage sports a large living room, screened porch and large master bedroom with balcony on the second floor. A sundeck on the east side of the island provides a view over a bay that is studded with other islands. The seller was even throwing in a 19-foot motorboat for those short trips to Dokis Marina.
Paradise comes with its unique challenges
Gerhardt says many of his island-loving clients are doctors and businesspeople from Toronto. Many of those selling islands are Americans who have been harder-hit by the economic slump, he says. But island sales have remained buoyant during the recession, he adds. “Some people would far rather part with their city home than sell their island paradise,” says Gerhardt.
An international island real estate expert agrees. Chris Krolow is CEO of Private Islands Inc., the world’s leading marketer of private island properties. Krolow recently said on his website that private islands are actually seeing a surge in interest. And, he says, since the private island market has such a strong history of appreciating faster than other types of real estate, “those who make savvy purchases now may be in an excellent position to sell when the markets rebound.”
Island living isn’t for everyone. It comes with a unique set of challenges: You’ll need your own transportation, and then there’s the matter of ensuring a reliable supply of drinking water and hydro, plus proper sanitary facilities. Stormy weather can occasionally strand you on your island paradise. And chances are with Ontario’s cold winters, that island in the sun is going to be a seasonal one.
Some people live year-round on their island, however, says Gerhardt. If they have plenty of money, they might even build their own landing strip or helicopter pad, but Gerhardt says at $30,000 or so, a hovercraft is a much more economical way of gliding over the winter ice.
Living a private island existence is quite different from putting down roots in a new city. You’re going to have to be a lot more self-sufficient. Before you decide to move in, it’s wise to learn what’s going to happen to your island at all times of year and in all weather conditions. Will those winter northwesterlies pound your island with immense waves and wash away your boathouse and — heaven forbid — your home? Will wind-driven ice sheer off everything in its path? It’s best to find a local expert who can answer those questions.
Gerhardt says most buyers are looking for an island that already has some type of structure on it. Even an old cottage could serve as living quarters while the new owners are building their dream home.
Docks and sewers and hydro ...
If you’re thinking of creating your own island retreat, check with municipal authorities to find out what is and is not permitted. For example, Gerhardt says an island needs to be at least an acre before municipal authorities will allow a cottage or house, and the required septic system.
So, you’ll want to know if you’re free to build the private residence, family compound, corporate retreat — or resort — that you have in mind. And if so, what permits are required? As well, is it possible to hire local craftspeople? Or is your island so isolated that bringing them to the site becomes prohibitively expensive?
There’s also the terrain to think about. Some islands will require considerable breakwall construction to protect your investment. Some may need infilling, or expensive ground-levelling to create a proper building site.
Then there’s the question of electricity and other energy needs. Many islands are served by underwater hydro cables, but if yours isn’t, you could be stuck with the bill for service extension. Are you going to operate on propane? Are you planning to install a wind generator or solar panels?
Is there already dockage in place or will it have to be constructed? Keep in mind that a 20-foot boat requires five feet of water depth. For small speedboats, three feet should be adequate. You might also want to build a longer dock to accommodate larger vessels if there’s significantly greater depth not far from shore.
And remember, docks should be built away from the prevailing winds. The Ontario government discovered that fact in the 1990s, when it constructed an expensive new dock on the west side of Pelee Island in Lake Erie to accommodate a brand new ferry from the mainland. The locals warned the provincial “experts,” but they built there anyway. The result is that in particularly rough water, the ferry can’t use the dock.
Be aware, too, that if you’re going to alter the ecology of the island by building docks, draining marshes and cutting down groves of trees, you’re going to have an impact on erosion, other vegetation and wildlife, including mammals, fish and birds. You might even be prohibited from doing so by local, provincial or federal regulations.
Despite the challenges, many of Ontario’s waterfront living enthusiasts are on the lookout for that ideal island buy. Cast your gaze across this wide province and you’ll discover an array of offerings that will fit a wide range of budgets and demands.
From the 10-acre Middle Sister Island in western Lake Erie, to the 1¼-acre Helena Island in Lake Muskoka to the 1½-acre Willison Island in the Ottawa River and the 20-acre Heavy Tree Island in western Lake Superior, Ontario’s islands are yours to discover.
You can hop onto the island property ladder with a fully equipped home and all utilities and docks — in other words, a turnkey operation. Or you can opt for something that’s still in its pristine state — a spot that offers the opportunity to create your own Shangri-La.
Islands currently on offer across Ontario range from places of untouched wilderness, to those that include simple old-fashioned cottages, right up to magnificent estates. One even includes an old hunting and fishing lodge. Here is a sampling of some islands that have recently been on offer:
HELENA ISLAND, Lake Muskoka
, 1.25 acres, $850,000. Includes cabin with large deck. Close to Gravenhurst. Five-minute boat ride to Taboo Resort and Spa.
UNNAMED ISLAND, Georgian Bay
, 1.2 acres, $595,000. Situated in a private and sheltered setting north of Batteau Island. Surrounded by scenic island-studded views, plus an open view of Georgian Bay to the west.
FAIRVIEW ISLAND, Lake Rosseau
, 5 acres, $2,895,000. Covered in mature hardwood forest and pines. Gently sloping topography with 2,200 feet of shoreline. The island has granite rock outcroppings and rock ledge shorelines that fall off into the lake.
SOUTH CHANNEL ISLAND, northern Lake Huron
, 1.3 acres, $675,000. Includes cottage, minutes from Glen Burney Marina.
KEY RIVER ISLAND, Georgian Bay
, 2.24 acres, $599,999. Slopes gently and consists of smooth granite. It offers sheltered docking.
HEAVY TREE ISLAND, Lake Superior
, 20 acres, $875,000 US. Sits in Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area with views of Sleeping Giant. Undeveloped island ready for construction.
MIDDLE SISTER ISLAND, Lake Erie
, 9.5 acres, $675,000 US. Situated in the lake’s northwest corner near Pelee Island, and in the centre of excellent walleye fishing. Dolomite rock shows glacial striations. The pristine island is zoned for planned development.
WILLISON ISLAND, Ottawa River
, 3.5 acres, $479,000 US. Secluded wilderness 90 minutes from Ottawa. It contains a winterized cottage located on a rock cliff, full septic system and heated waterlines.
BOYCE ISLAND, Lake of the Woods
, 1.5 acres, $299,000. This untouched island is five miles from the town of Morson.
LORAINE CLUB ISLAND, Georgian Bay
, 11 acres, $1,589,000. This was the location of the Loraine Hunting & Fishing Club, with a two-storey lodge dating from the 1920s still standing and well-maintained. The property on offer covers 11 acres of a 40-acre Crown island, about 75 kilometres north of Parry Sound. The closest village is Britt, about six kilometres away. The lodge and a two-bedroom sleeping cabin can accommodate about 20. A dining room seats 25. The island is covered in pine, wild berries and flowers. The property can be subdivided.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — December 2010