By Andrew Hind
Muskoka is a summer playground, where people enjoy frivolous afternoons on the countless pristine lakes, breathe fresh air, listen to the silence of the forests, and find solace in the hospitality of a resort or the comfort of one’s own vacation home. It’s one of Ontario’s most beloved regions.
There’s another side to Muskoka, however. A side rarely seen and at odds with its reputation as a place for carefree leisure and rustic beauty. There’s an underlying darkness that few talk about and fewer still witness. Ghost stories haunt cottage country’s dense forests, its deep lakes, and its quaint communities. They creep from shadow to shadow, existing out of sight of the frivolity that marks this land of cottages and resorts. The rocky landscape may have proved to be poor for raising crops, but it’s certainly fertile ground for haunting ghost stories.
In fact, it seems as if each village or town has a ghost story, and that every person you speak to will recall something that is just plain spooky.
Why? What makes Muskoka so densely populated by spectral inhabitants? It’s probably because Muskoka generates the strongest of emotions within visitors and residents alike. On one hand it’s breathtakingly beautiful, and countless people over the past century and a half have fallen under its spell. Muskoka is the kind of place you want to return to year after year…perhaps even in death. On the other hand, for many settlers it was a place full of sorrow, broken dreams, broken bodies, and unimaginable hardship. They flocked to Muskoka eager to turn the forests into golden fields of grain, only to have their dreams of a bright future dashed by the darkness of the impenetrable forests. And so souls, tortured by unfulfilled lives, linger on in search of the contentment that escaped them in life.
Take, for example, the so-called Ghost of Fairy Lake.
“As a boy in Ufford I recall my grandfather talking about ‘The Ghost of Fairy Lake,’” recounts Ken Veitch, a Bracebridge historian and author. “It was a tale that would send shivers down my spine each time I heard it.”
Sometime in the late 1800s, there was a pioneer couple trying to make a life for themselves on a property adjoining Fairy Lake in Huntsville. Theirs was a meager existence, eking just enough crops from the threadbare soil to feed themselves and their young daughter. The misery that was their lives only deepened when the man’s wife suddenly passed away (some say she died during failed childbirth, while others suggest it was one of the illnesses that occasionally swept pioneer-era Muskoka that killed her), leaving a grieving husband and daughter to fend for themselves. Though barely a child, the daughter assumed the household duties, trying to fill the void left by her mother’s passing.
A dark cloud seemed to hang over the family that year because the fields produced a pitiful crop that meant a lean winter ahead. Snow fell, and as the months passed food began to run dangerously low. One day, the man hefted his shotgun over his shoulder, kissed his daughter goodbye, and headed out into the cold to hunt for fresh meat. When he didn’t return by late afternoon, the girl grew concerned and decided to look for him. Because it was bitterly cold, she pulled a bearskin pelt over her shoulders and went out after him, following his footsteps still clearly visible in the deep snow.
The father, meanwhile, was returning home from a fruitless day of hunting. He was dejected and pangs of hunger wracked his stomach. Then, through the trees ahead, he saw the dark shape of a bear. He quickly brought his gun to his shoulder, took aim, and fired. The bear dropped and blood began to stain the snow. He raced to his kill, only to find that he had shot his daughter dead.
“For years after, so it goes, residents of the area said they would see a figure dressed like an animal wandering the same field where the girl died,” Veitch remembers. “I wonder if the tragic ghost is still there, haunting the scene of her death?”
One woman who does continue to haunt the scene of her death is an Ojibway maiden seen and felt at Bracebridge’s Inn at the Falls. Interestingly enough, she chooses to linger not in any of the five historic buildings that comprise the Inn’s property, but rather The Mews, a modern motel-style accommodations unit. At first glance, there’s nothing here to suggest a connection with the Ojibway. But what if we dig a little deeper?
Archaeological digs reveal that at least one camp used seasonally by the semi-nomadic Ojibway existed along the shores of the Muskoka River where Kelvin Grove Park is today. Of course where people lived they also died, so surely there were Ojibway who succumbed to illness, disease, or old age here. But because the Muskoka River floods each spring and the flood waters would have reached much higher before dams were built to control the flow, burials would logically have been on the higher grounds above the river. Perhaps even on the very ground where the Mews at the Inn at the falls stands today, as some have suggested.
But whether she was buried somewhere nearby or is simply a wayward ghost who decided to linger, the spectral maiden has become a fixture within The Mews. One businesswoman was awakened in the middle of the night by the sensation of being watched. When she opened her eyes, she saw a beautiful First Nations woman with dark straight hair, sitting on the bed with her hands in her lap, staring at her. Another guest reported a supernatural, bone-white mist that rolled up the walls and then flowed over the balcony to envelop him like a cold blanket. The whole time, the terrified gentleman heard mournful chanting and the sounds of drums beating. Then, the mist suddenly dissipated as if blown away by a gust of wind and the sounds of the unearthly burial ceremony faded away.
The maiden seems lost, unable to find her way into the afterlife. Thankfully, she is more confused than harmful, and her presence only adds further character to the already charming Inn at the Falls.
One of the most popular buildings located within the grounds of Huntsville’s Muskoka Heritage Place is the Spence Inn.
It’s easily the largest building within the recreated pioneer village, and the grandeur of its furnishings instantly tells you this was a building of importance. But what isn’t immediately apparent to wide-eyed visitors is that contained within its grey walls are ghosts and whispered legends of foul misdeeds.
One of the rooms in which unusual phenomenon most frequently occurs is located on the upper floor, a room furnished as a doctor’s office. There’s an old wheelchair, shelves lined with medicinal bottles, a desk littered with 19th century stethoscopes and other early tools of the trade, and textbooks on human anatomy and the latest in Victorian medical practices. This room, indeed the entire second floor, is marred by an unpleasant spiritual presence that lingers to this day. Like a deep stain, this dark taint – the product of foul deeds gone unpunished – can’t be removed, no matter how many years pass and how much the building changes over time.
Once, a staff member heard a loud bang from the second floor. It sounded like something had fallen, so she ran up the stairs and began searching the rooms for the source of the noise. She eventually found it: a big picture in the doctor’s room had fallen to the ground for no reason.
“I couldn’t figure it out; there was no explanation for it,” she said. “I remember a dark feeling in the upstairs that day, and I didn’t feel welcome there. Since then, others have experienced the same thing, and it’s always the same picture.” Another time, a terrified young visitor came face to face with the stooped, almost skeletal spirit of an elderly man. She let out an unearthly scream then raced down the stairs and straight out the front door. One story suggests the ghost is that of an evil doctor, an incompetent and uncaring traveling physician who left a path of misdeeds in his wake.
Chilling experiences in the inn are nothing new, and certainly pre-date its relocation from Spence. The museum archives have a letter in its possession indicating people had been complaining of spectral activity in and around the building – including ghostly carriages pulling up to the porch during the night – as far back as the early decades of the 20th century when it served as a private residence. Perhaps the Spence Inn continues to serve as a popular stop on long journeys as it did in the 19th century, except today’s guests are not weary stagecoach passengers but spirits on the road to the afterlife.
These are just a handful of the countless ghost stories that linger within the shadowy confines of Muskoka, tragic supernatural tales that seem so out of place alongside the breathtaking natural beauty and small-town charm that our region has become known for. But these stories speak to the history of Muskoka, and should be embraced rather than shunned.
Perhaps, if their stories are told and their lives remembered, these restless spirits could finally find some peace.