The cottage seems to have it all: a sweeping view of Lake Rosseau, a shallow, sandy swimming area, and deep water for mooring a boat at the end of the dock.
But look a bit more closely at the property and the challenges become apparent.
“It’s not an exceptionally high property, but it’s really quite steep,” says Collin Dunnet, owner of Stonescaping Muskoka.
Indeed. The cottage and patio sit at the level of the road, some 50 feet above the lake. But from there, the property tumbles down in a series of smooth bedrock faces interrupted by narrow ledges.
A nearly unbroken series of wooden steps connects the cottage to the boathouse and expansive dock.
“At the top of the hill, the owners have a decent patio and sitting area,” says Collin. “And at the bottom, they have a dock and boathouse. The problem was the space in between.”
Studying the property, Collin could quickly see some opportunities. After all, he’s spent his entire career landscaping in Muskoka, where steep and rocky are par for the course. In between the bare bedrock faces he could see a succession of natural ledges, each of which provided an opportunity for a sitting area or a pathway.
“The most natural – and most cost-effective – way to landscape a property is to start by listening to what the land is telling you,” says Collin. “Pay attention, and it will often reveal the best way to achieve your objectives.”
A place to sit
In this case, there were several objectives to be achieved. The clients wanted a sitting area that would be separate from the cottage – somewhere that didn’t involve going all the way down to the dock, where a handful of people could sit and enjoy the sunset.
They also wanted to enhance access to the shallow swimming area, for themselves and for their grandchildren. “There was a set of wooden steps into the water from the dock, but you know how slippery wet wood can be, particularly later in the season when it gets a bit of algae growing on it,” says Collin. “They were treacherous!”
For the sitting area nearer the top of the hill, Collin took advantage of a natural ledge to the north of the stairs. It wasn’t perfectly flat, of course – few parts of Muskoka are – but it was close enough to only require a low stone retaining wall, less than three feet at its highest.
The wall, like most of the stonework, was built from large pieces of cut granite. “The previous owners had already installed granite flagstones at the front of the house, so we chose to continue the same look throughout the project,” he says. “It’s also just an ideal material for Muskoka cottages – it will last forever, and it blends perfectly with the native stone.”
Collin laid out the patio so that those sitting on it would be just above the height of the boathouse roof, allowing them an uninterrupted view of the lake. Frameless glass railings were installed to provide safety without blocking the scenery.
With granite flags on the patio and a network of granite steps and flags for a walkway, that part of the property has a new lease on life.
A place to play
For the swimming area, Collin eyed a previously unused area on the opposite side of the property. Although the shore is steep, there is a wide, nearly level ledge running the width of the property. “It was a pathway to nowhere,” he says. “So, we made it lead somewhere.”
Eight wide granite steps were installed at the south end of the ledge, leading directly into the water. A sandy area at the top of the steps was enhanced to provide a spot for chairs and bins of toys.
“The steps are stable and much less slippery than wood,” says Collin. “The kids can play in the water, then come up to the sand area to dry off – back and forth all day long, in perfect safety.”
It took creative planning to transport the heavy granite from the road to the various parts of the property. Collin and his team made two access trails, on each side of the property, again taking advantage of natural routes across the terrain.
“Once we were done, we planted trees on the trails and restored it,” he says.
The end result is an integrated and satisfying design, one that gives the owners the use they want, while still respecting the natural contours of the land.
TEXT A. WAGNER-CHAZALON | PHOTOS ANDREW FEARMAN