Hidden away in a small bay at the north end of Burgess Island, history appeared to be taking an unexpected turn, at least as far as anyone outside of a young child by the name of Bruce Burgess would be concerned. Even though he was just a boy, to Bruce, this was a vision he’d had for more years than he could remember, perhaps even forever. This dream or hallucination or whatever it was, was something he’d been hoping to see played out at some point in his life, and now it was happening, just the way he imagined it would….maybe better.
It was the perfect late summer Muskoka afternoon. The water was beautifully calm creating a glass like quality to the surface, a finish that was usually reserved for the early morning hours or later in the evening when the winds would die down to barely a whisper.
Streams of billowing soft peach and grey coloured clouds were lined up across the sky. Leisurely drifting by from the southwest, they created shadows and slowly moving pools of light that made the islands of Baldy and the Three Sisters stand out from the mainland like buttons on a silver green blouse. Lake Joseph never looked better.
Tucked among a cluster of magnificent white pines, just far enough away from a boater’s prying eye to create a touch of mystery stands the old Burgess cottage. A stately structure built by Bruce’s grandfather, Fred T. Burgess in 1899 when Muskoka was just beginning to attract a distinguished collection of long term summer residents.
In 1914, Fred T. Burgess decided to add a new building to the property. That year, a classic Muskoka boathouse appeared in the small bay next to the cottage. Sheltered from the strong northwest winds by the tip of the island, this would eventually be the safe harbour for a new passion of Bruce’s father, Fred C. Burgess. It would house a magnificent mahogany launch commissioned from the Ditchburn Boat Works in 1929 and christened, ‘Mowitza II’, which loosely translated as ‘Little Fawn’ in native Ojibwa. Her name belies her true nature. There was nothing remotely demure about this craft. She was built for speed, a powerful, step hull Viking launch that in the 1930s would win several senior class MLA race trophies with Bruce’s father at the helm. Tethered at the dock is another gem, an exquisite Peterborough Royal runabout that Bruce’s father bought for him from Curry Bulmer at the Winter Boat show held at the Exhibition grounds in Toronto in 1956.
Situated far enough away from the boathouse to not be disturbed, Bruce’s Grand Uncle, Arthur Welsman, sits quietly in a 1920s era row boat, chewing on a thick cigar and contemplating the odd task at hand before him.
He is meticulously dressed in a soft tan coloured pin striped jacket and trousers, a mustard yellow and deep red stripped woolen scarf casually draped around his neck. Each pant leg is rolled up at the cuff revealing heavy woolen socks and sturdy leather boots. He is more than overdressed for the day, but considering the fact that he is out of sync with time and that this particularly odd moment in his family’s history was being seamlessly blended with moments from the future and the past, his attire is perfect.
As Uncle Arthur carefully leans over the side of the small boat, a thin and almost transparent veil of cigar smoke drifts past his eyes and glances off the brim of his felt Fedora. Unperturbed, he reaches down to gather up the large cue ball before it disappears. He wasn’t playing as well that afternoon as he had in the morning. The majority of his earlier shots glided confidently into the holes in the lake like water slowly circling a drain. But later in the day, most of his shots simply skittered past the water pockets and then with out warning, casually began drifting away into the air before he could catch up with them.
In the stern of the boat, a bizarre collection of vocal duck decoys, each with their own distinct personality were of no help either with their gratuitous chatter and opinions. A distracting air of chaos reins on board making it more difficult for Uncle Arthur to focus on maneuvering the small skiff to retrieve his errant billiard balls. Fortunately for the decoys, Uncle Arthur was a patient man. The decoys were not part of the game today. Rather than water billiards, duck hunting was often the pastime of choice on a beautiful morning in the early 30s and it wasn’t unusual for a decoy to be left behind if attitude or complaints became an issue.
In keeping with the peculiar nature of this moment, present day avant-garde violinist, Nash the Slash, stands in the shallows to the left of the boathouse entertaining the Burgess family with a nostalgic composition. As young children, Bruce and his older brother Fred Jr. and their Great Grandfather, Charles Welsman, stand a little further out in the bay watching intently as Arthur tries to ignore the peanut gallery in rowboat and corral his shots.
Knee deep and surrounded by a cluster of holes in the water stands another curious bystander, Bruce’s father. He is dressed in a khaki, one piece swimsuit circa 1920s and holds the family dog, Jippie, who is more preoccupied with the water droplets rising from the surface next to his master than he is with any of the decoys or billiard balls drifting by.
Peacefully floating directly behind Bruce’s father is the magnificent Ditchburn motor launch called the ‘Mowitza II’. The varnished luster of her deep mahogany deck and sides appear so intense that the reflections in her mirror finish could easily be taken for another reality. Behind the steering wheel sits Bruce’s mother, Launi Burgess. Even though there is barely a breath of air, her hair is flowing wildly. With her head leaning back slightly and her eyes tightly closed, Launi imagines Mowitza at full throttle and loves every exhilarating moment. Seemingly unimpressed by all the activity below, a Great Blue Heron quietly flies by. The bird’s wings gracefully slice through the air with only a hint of sound marking its passage. As history gradually returns to its logical path, this odd afternoon also passes by like a flight of imagination. But for Bruce Burgess, this transcending moment was more real than he ever imagined it would be. The beautiful memories of this very unusual day now linger in his cottage dreams forever.