Newcomers to Muskoka – as well as those who have been here for a while – usually have a few worries and concerns about life in cottage country. From wildlife to boating accidents, there are plenty of things to be aware of.
But are we, perhaps, worrying about the wrong things? To find out, we asked some of the people who work with challenges every day to learn about what can go wrong, and how to prevent it. Whether you’re battening down the hatches for serious threats or taking simple precautions, here’s a look at how to prepare yourself.
From roads to trails
We’re all eager to get up north as quickly as possible, which means there are an awful lot of people all trying to get up Hwy 11 and Hwy 400 at the same time. Deadly collisions are all too common, and even a fender bender can cause a huge backlog. The solution? Take your time and be calm. “We recommend you pack your patience,” says OPP Constable Samantha Bigley, “and if everyone slows down, we can have an incident-free travel day.”
Once you’re out of the car and into the boat, it still pays to be vigilant. “Activity on the waterways has become an increasing concern,” Bigley says. Boat traffic is on the rise, and there are plenty of inexperienced operators at the helm – including some driving rented boats who may not even have their boating license. Seasoned boaters need to be more on guard, knowing there are novice boaters on the water who may not have proper navigation skills.
Perhaps a more surprising call the OPP gets is hikers getting lost on scenic paths. Most of Muskoka’s trails are well-marked, but even on an established trail, Bigley says, it’s easy to get turned around. Before you know it, it’s late, you’re tired, and it’s getting dark. When you’re going into the woods, always pack a fully charged cell phone, extra snacks, water, and any medication you need, and let someone know where you’re going.
The winds of climate change
It’s no secret that extreme storms are becoming more frequent in every season, but a larger issue isn’t as well-known: average summer winds are, in fact, declining. And that has implications for water quality. “There’s been quite a dramatic reduction in average wind speed over the past 30 years,” says Dr. Norman Yan of the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed. This creates ideal conditions for algal blooms.
Summer winds stir up the lakes, mixing warm surface water with cooler water beneath. With less wind, there’s less mixing of the water. “Since the lake is not being stirred by the wind and the air is still, it gets hotter at the surface,” says Yan. The bottom layer isn’t just colder, it also contains much less oxygen. Those conditions together can fuel an algal bloom. “The blue-green algae that form blooms love it when it’s hot and still,” he says. “They’re not nutritious and some of them are toxic.”
On top of that, when the water is too warm, daphnia – tiny creatures that eat algae – begin to die. Surface temperatures can now routinely hit 28 degrees or higher, a critical threshold for daphnia.
Though it may be disheartening to learn of the impact of climate change on the aquatic ecosystem, Yan remains optimistic that climate change can be beaten. “I’ve been an environmental scientist for almost 50 years,” he says. “We’ve solved a large number of national and global environmental problems.”
Coexisting with wildlife
When you’re in Muskoka, you’re on animal turf and you need to be prepared to share the space with its first inhabitants. “We believe it’s possible to live in harmony with wildlife,” says Alison Withey of Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Whether it’s deer in your garden or a bear in your backyard, your response should be the same. “Keep your distance and never feed wild animals,” explains Withey. That includes removing all food sources from your property, like bird feeders, fallen fruit, or insecure trash bins. While it may seem harmless to feed wildlife, animals can become habituated to humans and lose their sense of fear.
Spotting wild animals is definitely a perk of being in Muskoka, and dangerous encounters are rare. It turns out we can cause more damage when we intervene or confront wildlife, instead of simply leaving them alone the way nature intended.
Fire and lightning
According to Environment Canada, the chance of getting struck by lightning is less than 1 in a million, with the incidence rate steadily declining over the past 100 years as safety standards have improved.
You still need to follow basic precautions – particularly if you’re out on the water when a storm rolls in. But the greater concern with lightning storms is electrical damage and fires. “Lightning strikes can cause fires both in the wilderness and in buildings,” says Kevin Plested, Fire Prevention Officer for the Town of Bracebridge.
“When lightning strikes a house, it’s sometimes tough to detect if it’s caused a fire,” he says, “it usually affects the wiring hidden behind the walls and will cause a slight burning odour.” When lightning strikes in the wilderness, a fire may not break out until many days later.
A lightning strike nearby can also fry your electrical systems, even if it doesn’t strike the cottage directly.
While lightning poses a fire risk, the greater source of residential fires remains cooking and electrical issues. “It may surprise people to know that many seasonal homes, cottages, cabins and trailers are still not equipped with working smoke alarms,” he says. It’s the law in Ontario to have working smoke alarms on every storey of temporary residences and outside all sleeping areas. Do your own due diligence – test smoke and CO alarms wherever you are staying, be it your own vacation home or a rental.
Snow and ice
There was a time when many cottagers worried about snow load causing their roof to collapse when they weren’t here. Building codes and advanced construction techniques have taken care of that worry, but winter can still take its toll on your cottage.
“Muskoka once had a stable environment,” says Mike Vettese, owner of GBS Contracting in Gravenhurst. “Now we have a whole bunch of freeze-thaw days throughout the winter where ice moves upward, gets into your valleys and under any area of the roof where there’s heat.”
If your roof isn’t ventilated properly, you’ll end up with water regressing into the house, causing mould and water damage over time. “The air temperature in your attic space is supposed to be the same as it is outside,” says Vettese. “As soon as you have a little heat, that’s when ice dams start.”
If you do have ice dams, Vetesse recommends having it fixed by a contractor as soon as you can. Install proper heat lines that are designed for ice melting, and make sure insulation in your attic space isn’t blocking the soffit.
Salt and water quality
Poorly maintained septic systems and fertilizer runoff from lawns and gardens can cause a host of water quality problems – which is why Muskoka has some amazing lake monitoring programs, with volunteers and professionals alike testing the waters for signs of trouble.
Another threat to water quality that is just starting to gain attention in Muskoka, though, is road salt. It was declared a hazardous substance by the federal government in 2001, and studies are showing that it’s becoming a serious problem in parts of Muskoka.
Aquatic scientist Dr. Neil Hutchinson says our lakes are naturally nutrient-poor, and they are now low in calcium (a lingering after-effect of acid rain). That combination makes them particularly vulnerable to the impact of salt. “Because of the low calcium levels, road salt is far more dangerous than we thought in Muskoka,” he explains, “and the community of small aquatic life like plankton has already been altered.”
Municipalities and the provincial government have been trying to reduce the road salt they use. But we need to be wary of how much salt is being applied to private property like driveways and parking lots. “The guidelines for safe levels of salt pollution may be much too high,” he says, “and some lakes are seeing levels high enough to damage key species.”
The solution? Just use less salt. Sand is an excellent alternative in many cases. If you use salt, you only need to use about 24 ounces (two large coffee cups) to melt the ice on a standard driveway.
“We learned with acid rain that if we cut off a source of a problem, the environment is forgiving,” says Hutchinson.
Whether you’re a resident or visitor, Muskoka can always throw surprises our way. In the end, we all want the same thing: to enjoy the beauty and nature that Muskoka offers. From environmental issues to lifestyle habits, we need to take simple measures and be mindful that the natural beauty surrounding us should never be taken f