Wasaga – More Than Just a Beach

Welcome to the longest freshwater beach in the world!” proclaims the Wasaga Beach website. Comprising seven beaches, formerly independent communities amalgamated in the 1970s as one provincial park and town, Wasaga is the favoured destination for over two million people a year looking for summer beach fun.

“I love everything about Wasaga Beach,” says Jim Boudreau, who moved to the town four years ago from Bolton, “from the beaches to the accessibility. I wish I had thought of moving here sooner.”

His wife, Egle, adds, “Being able to walk all the different trails, to walking along the beach in all the different seasons is wonderful. The townspeople are wonderful and so friendly.”

With the 50th anniversary of Wasaga Beach coming up next year, former history teacher, lifelong cottager and now permanent resident, Dave Morrison is working with his brother Jack, Library Chair Lorraine Gruzuk, local author Patricia Copeland and the Town Council to produce a new edition of his sister Thelma Morrison’s book, a comprehensive history of Wasaga published 25 years ago. A new introduction and additional chapters will bring the history- and history there is- of the Town up to date. In doing so, the brothers continue their sister’s legacy as the well-known town historian and archivist.

More than just a beach (actually seven beaches!) community, the history of Wasaga includes an exciting chapter during the War of 1812, and a park, which is comprised not just of the beaches and lighthouse, but an island museum that details the story of the HMS Nancy. Local legend has it that the cannons preserved in the museum were found underwater by kids diving in the area.

Formerly serving as a trading post for the logging industry, because of its strategic position on the Nottawasaga River, where logs were floated upstream to different mills, tributaries of the Nottawasaga also connected what was then called “Schooner Town” to important ports on Georgian Bay such as Collingwood, Barrie, and Penetanguishene.

Open at the height of the summer tourist season until the end of the Labour Day Weekend, “Nancy Island Historic Site” has served since 1928 as an historic War of 1812 site in Simcoe County and the Georgian Bay region. It depicts a major event during the War of 1812: HMS Nancy’s battle against three American schooners on August 14th, 1814.  The island houses the charred hull and artefacts from the British ship, the HMS Nancy.

This made what would one day become Wasaga Beach strategic to both the Americans and the British during the War of 1812. From the outset of the conflict, there were only three routes from Montreal via water to the Northwest. One connected Fort York, in York (now Toronto) the capital of Upper Canada, with Barrie and eventually through the Nottawasaga, to Lake Huron. When the British were defeated at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, The Nancy happened to be the only British ship not present at the battle, and was able to continue making crucial British supply runs.

On July 3, 1814, the American fleet left Detroit for Fort Mackinac to try and ambush The Nancy, which they believed to be enroute to the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, but was actually laying in wait, hidden by a blockhouse, where it was discovered by American wood-gathering parties. A short battle followed, and hopelessly outnumbered by American ships, the British set the blockhouse and Nancy on fire and escaped into the surrounding forest. Eventually, silt and sand built up against the wreckage of the Nancy in the Nottawasaga River.

The “Friends of Nancy Island” community group is very active in trying to restore the park to its former glory, but provincial cuts and COVID have significantly impacted traffic and interest in the site. Before COVID, every year saw a full-costumed re-enactment of the battle. “We used to sit out on the back deck and toast them,” remembers Morrison. “They used to camp on the island.” The Boudreaus and Morrison agree that if the municipality and not the province ran the museum, it would be a different situation entirely, as the Town tends to take great pride and investment in its history, as evidenced with Morrison’s book.

Today, Wasaga struggles with the same issues as any part of Ontario, balancing public interest and conservation with development. “Private property versus community standards is the battleground,” Morrison relates. For instance, Beach One features a closed off area of the boardwalk, a conservation area for Plovers, a bird on the extinction list. However, “the Conservation Area is problematic because it’s massive. So, you need to create rules, which is going to end up with more exceptions than you want to deal with [as a homeowner].”

The area also encompasses the 100 Year Flood Plain, and with development and codifying, the Town has “lost control” with the costs of getting approvals, and works only on combatting complaints and not preventing future problems. However, Morrison emphasizes that he believes “preservation of public interest provides no-nonsense” in regards to combatting destructive development, “and if we want to preserve public access, we need to understand that [the Park] needs to be owned by a government agency. For all they drive us crazy, we need them.”

Though problematic, this does not detract from visitors or residents enjoying the lifestyle Wasaga offers. “There’s a lot of fun stuff to do in the summer…other than that, this really is a small town. There are a few monster homes, but we really haven’t been invaded by the big subdivisions [in the beach and river areas]”, although the developments are encroaching as they are everywhere in the province. “It’s a beautiful existence. I think this is a beautiful place to live: it’s the reason I’m here. I’ve spent almost every summer of my life here.” Morrison points to the Nottawasaga River sitting peacefully full of boats beyond his back porch, sparkling in the sun after a summer rain, “I feel like I’m in living in Paradise.”

WRITTEN BY: KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD

Author: LivingSpaces

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