The Muskoka Lakes Heritage Committee hopes to see everything from the Moon Chutes in Bala, to the Huckleberry Trail at the rock cut in Milford Bay (shown here in this panoramic vista), to the canoe cut stretching from the Indian River in Port Carling to Lake Rosseau protected through the power of heritage designation. 'People travel the world to see the culture and heritage of a community. We want to establish that in Muskoka,' says Councillor Ruth Nishikawa, who heads council's heritage committee. 'We want to tell the story of Muskoka.'

A story to tell: Why Muskoka Lakes is protecting docks,
rocks and waterfalls under the Ontario Heritage Act

We’ve all heard of heritage designations to preserve and protect historically or culturally significant residences, churches and town halls. In fact, many Ontario municipalities have gone a step further and singled out entire blocks of homes and businesses for special “district” status. But did you know that designations under Ontario’s Heritage Act are not restricted to buildings?  

Waterfalls. Cemeteries. Walls of rock.  

These can all be designated under the Heritage Act if anyone cares to do all the research required to help get them recognized and protected as valuable assets. And that’s exactly what a committee of the Township of Muskoka Lakes council has set out to do.  

“People travel the world to see the culture and heritage of a community,” says Councillor Ruth Nishikawa, who heads the Muskoka Lakes Heritage Committee. “We want to establish that in Muskoka. We want to tell the story of Muskoka.”  

For example, designating the portage landing on the Moon River in Bala would remind residents and tourists alike that this site “is the traditional portage used by our First Nations and later by tourists, YMCA campers and cottagers,” the heritage committee’s research informs. “It defines and supports the character of Bala as a summer resort, and the vista looking westward from the property is breathtaking.”  

With council on its side — Nishikawa is also the deputy mayor — the heritage committee hopes to see everything from the Moon Chutes in Bala, to the Huckleberry Trail at the rock cut in Milford Bay, to the canoe cut stretching from the Indian River in Port Carling to Lake Rosseau protected through the power of heritage designation.  

Muskoka Lakes, a sprawling township located at the southern tip of the Canadian Shield, is cottage country at its best, a land where craggy cliffs rise above the lakes in breathtaking beauty. Bala, Port Carling and Windermere are the largest urban centres in Muskoka Lakes, which boasts historically and culturally significant sites galore across its 782 square kilometres of land.  

A heritage circle in Bala

Bala is the focus of Round 1 of the committee’s efforts to shine the spotlight on Muskoka Lakes’ natural landscapes, with the Moon River dock, a second township dock on Lake Muskoka, the portage landing on the Moon River, portage landing on Lake Muskoka, Diver’s Point (also known as Legris Memorial Park) on Lake Muskoka, Margaret Burgess park, the cenotaph on Bala Falls Road and the Shield parking lot among the first “intention to designate” batch to be approved by council in 2011.  

Did we say parking lot?  

According to the statement of cultural heritage value attached to the intent to designate, the Shield parking lot, located next to the north falls in Bala, is “an excellent example of a rock outcrop of the Precambrian Shield. The rock is among the oldest of the earth’s crust and occupies two-thirds of the surface area of Ontario. It is where significant wealth in the province is derived: forests on the surface and minerals beneath it.”  

As Nishikawa sees it, designation of the Shield parking lot is about telling a story. “We’re not protecting a parking lot,” the councillor tells “It’s really more about the site itself. That granite wall is the first you encounter that is plaqued (for its significance by the Archeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario). We wouldn’t want someone blasting that away without council approval.”  

Next on the designation agenda are several heritage buildings in Windermere and more than a dozen natural sites in Bala, Port Carling and the surrounding countryside. Among these sites are Huckleberry Rock, between Milford Bay and Port Carling, atop which you can see for miles across Muskoka from a municipal park. “That’s the type of thing we will be doing,” says Nishikawa.  

When it comes to heritage preservation, Muskoka Lakes has been somewhat slow to embrace history and culture, with only four officially designated buildings and no natural landscapes on the protection list so far. All that is quickly changing, however, thanks to the reinstatement of a heritage committee, one of Nishikawa’s goals during the municipal election campaign in fall 2010. The previous LACAC advisory committee had folded due to lack of council support.  

“There was a lack of understanding about heritage designation,” the councillor told “It’s not the building that you’re protecting, it’s the site where you can tell a story about the history there. Even if there are no buildings on a site, people can envision something there, they can imagine what it was like in the past.” 

Heritage designations nothing to fear

With Nishikawa’s interest in all things heritage — after serving on council from 2000 to 2006, she became a member, and eventual president, of the Muskoka branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario — it was only fitting that she take on the chairmanship of the heritage committee once back on council. With heritage training under their belts, the new council is more eager than its predecessors to preserve and protect Muskoka’s history and culture. Getting everyone in the community on board, however, will take a little more time.  

While council has received more than 130 letters in support of the proposed heritage designations in Bala, a dozen or so objections will force a hearing in front of the Conservation Review Board before the province will approve the designations. The majority of the objections relate to a proposed hydroelectric project on the north Bala falls. The project proponent, Swift River Energy Limited, is objecting to the entire list of proposed designations. “They are concerned that the designations will disrupt their ability to do something in the future,” Nishikawa said.  

Swift River has said it needs to lease municipal land at the falls in order to build a generating station that is the least obtrusive. Without the land, it would have to build a more visible station solely on Crown land. The concern that Bala’s falls will be saddled with an eyesore unless the township cooperates has led to the charge that the main objective of the new heritage committee is to halt the hydroelectric project by designating lands surrounding the falls.  

And in a letter to council voicing opposition to the town dock designation, a Bala resident wrote: “My main concern, living as I do on Gordon Street, is that the town dock is the only exit in an emergency for the folks living here.” She also objected to the parking lot designation: “The Cambrian Shield parking lot certainly is one of the natural wonders of Canada and does not need a special designation,” she wrote. “It is not going to move.”  

Nishikawa says the objections give the heritage committee and council an opportunity to educate people on the benefits of the Ontario Heritage Act and why Muskoka Lakes is taking action to protect its natural sites. “Some people thought that a designation meant they couldn’t lay wreaths at the cenotaph, or they couldn’t go into the parking lot. Our job is to educate, to let them know why we want to protect natural sites.”  

Muskoka's natural treasures under 'threat'

And it’s not only locals who need an education in protecting heritage cultural landscapes. Nishikawa says some newcomers to Muskoka Lakes — landowning seasonal cottagers — are not aware of the history and the cultural significance of sites that are considered special by residents who live in the township’s small communities. And that, she says, poses “a threat.”  

With the province pushing municipalities to preserve their heritage and culture — something that is written into the township’s Official Plan — Nishikawa says council must give tools to the planning department to uphold that mandate. “Property can’t be protected if it is not listed,” she says. “We need it listed and red-flagged so that, for example, if a developer comes along and decides to block a watercourse upstream, it doesn’t affect a waterfall downstream. We want the opportunity to review those plans so we can educate and work together.”  

Overall, Nishikawa says the citizens of Muskoka Lakes are pleased with the way council is working to achieve its goals. “A recent survey found that 93 per cent are ‘happy’ with council,” she says.  

With public opinion on its side, it won’t be long before all of Muskoka Lakes’ prized landscapes — such as the treed knoll on Mirror Lake in Port Carling — are “plaqued” and ready to tell their stories for generations to come. — November 2011