Miners’ Bay Lodge hooked on history
By Angela Long
Published July 7, 2016
Never underestimate the power of a fish.
“There’s a 23-pound trout in my office,” Miners’ Bay Lodge owner Russ Wunker says. “That’s why we are here.” He pauses for effect, surveying the members of the Haliburton County Historical Society sitting in the dining room of the Main Lodge, waiting to unveil a plaque commemorating a century of history. “But first,” Wunker says, “let me tell you about – “
Wunker tells them about the 11 logging camps that once dotted the forests of the former Lutterworth County, the 150,000 logs per week that travelled through the Gull system and out into the world – England, New York City.
“I’ve found the foundations of a shingle mill just steps away from here,” he says.
He tells them about Indigenous people in birch bark canoes, armed with a three-generation-old deerskin map on a quest to find a fabled silver mine.
He tells them about the courier des bois, the fur traders, travelling the length of Gull Lake.
“To understand Haliburton County,” he says, “you have to understand the fur trade.”
Wunker holds up a sepia-tinted photo of the lodge covered in snow and a rickety wooden bridge crossing a frozen creek.
“That was Highway 35,” he says.
He holds up a smooth piece of rock – basalt from northern Ohio – proof that “the first tourist came here more than 3,000 years ago.”
And instead of a toothbrush, the Indigenous visitor brought his adze, “or some call it a skinning stone,” says Wunker.
“I’ve also found spearheads, points, charcoal, a fire drill,” he says. “The more you dig, the more you find.”
It’s been an hour and Wunker shows no sign of tiring. No notes. No water. Just a man in love with this board-and-batten building once stuffed “with a ton of newspaper.” In love with the white exterior and slate grey tiles, the wraparound porch so many pass on Highway 35. They slow to 60 kilometres per hour where rock cut meets road, where Gull Lake sparkles as it has since it was called Kanisquingasquash, but rarely stop.
“I’ve been driving past here for 50 years,” says a Historical Society member, “and this is the first time I’ve ever stopped.”
A man dressed in chef’s whites, including the hat, delivers wraps and burgers. The audience drinks bottles of soda from straws.
“This is history,” Wunker says, opening his arms wide. “History is all around us.” The mostly-senior audience nods. “And now,” he says. “About that fish.”
According to Wunker, nearly 200 guests are here today because of that 23-pound trout. They stay in one of the property’s 38 buildings and 85 trailers – a world hidden from Highway 35. They stay in the Main Lodge or the Winter House. They stay in cabins and housekeeping cottages with names like “Bob & Mary’s” or “The Governor and Grandma’s.”
But no one would be playing croquet or tennis or horseshoes if Wunker’s grandfather’s scheme to open a citrus grove on the border of Mexico had succeeded. No one would be competing in the cannonball competition or the fishing derby or stunt night if the Wunkers hadn’t headed back to Ohio where they met Reverend J.E. Windsor.
On August 8, 1927, says Wunker, the reverend caught a rather large trout. Windsor told the Wunkers of a lake teeming with such fish and a “tumbledown motel” called the Bay View. the Wunkers, he says, were “hooked.”
“The couple who own it are old and want to sell, Rev.Windsor told them,” Wunker pauses. “A common story these days.”
The Wunkers packed up all they owned, including 100 chickens, and headed north. And in 1938, after a close call at the border where Grandfather Wunker forgot his travel papers were hidden in the lining of the Stetson he rarely removed, the re-named Miners’ Bay Lodge opened for business.
Russ Wunker was five days old when he first laid eyes on the 70-acre property hugged by Gull and Round Lakes. That was nearly 70 years ago.
“But I still don’t qualify as a local,” he jokes.
It’s been an hour and a half and the soda bottles are empty, the wraps and burgers just crumbs. It’s time to unveil the plaque. Wunker says he’s pleased to be honoured for maintaining such a historic building.
“Americans put up a historical motto on every outhouse and we tear our buildings down,” he says.
The audience of historians and a few lodge guests gather on the airy porch. Wunker pulls aside a hand towel, and there it is – official acknowledgement that Miners’ Bay Lodge is a historic building “circa 1917.”
Larry J. Giles, president of the Haliburton County Historical Society, shakes Wunker’s hand.
“Now, who would like a tour of the church?” says Wunker.
One woman stays behind, touching the plaque. Carol Converse has been coming to Miners’ Bay from Cincinnati since she was three years old.
“I’m part of the 50-Year Club,” she says – one of eight guests who have been visiting the lodge for five generations.
“But next month, my great grandchildren are coming, so the the sixth generation will begin.”
Cars rush past on Highway 35, but Converse doesn’t seem to notice. She looks past the road, toward Gull Lake, seeing something you only notice when you take the time to stop.