Ol’ Buttermilk Falls

Sometimes when you are researching a place, a small clue like a blank envelope starts the search. This envelope was donated by Joyce Mino to the Stanhope Heritage Discovery Museum Collection, but it’s all the information that the museum had on this lodge, that was obviously a part of Halls Lake at one time. Questions are asked and no one seems to know much. Then a photocopied article is sent to me and a name of someone else who might know something. The search continues! If you happen to have information on the Jasim Lodge or other historical aspects of the Halls Hawk Lakes area, please share with Joan Hamilton: jm4hamilton@gmail.com

This story is reprinted with permission from the editor. It was first published in Country Connections in the Summer/Autumn 2001 edition. The photos that accompany the story were not part of the original publication.

Ol’ Buttermilk Falls

By Liz Clark

I could hardly wait.  The school holiday the spring I turned 10 was to be spent at Halls Lake in Haliburton.  To my older sister and me, it seemed as if our family would be travelling to the most remote part of the world.  And it was a long trip in those days.

The highway north from our home in the city of Toronto was two lanes wide and meandered through every town and hamlet along the way. 

Ours was a late-model car and the engine regularly overheated.  The frequent stops to cool the motor made the trip even longer.  But once we passed the tiny village of Carnarvon, it was only a short drive up Highway 35 to the little bridge over Buttermilk Falls.

Over the next few years we made many trips to Halls Lake and every time our parents stopped at the Buttermilk Falls general store for supplies, we two girls would run back to the bridge and lean over the edge.  I can still recall the feeling of a vaporous mist that rose from the cascading waterfall as it flushed our faces and dampened our hair.  A refreshing, springtime breeze brought with it the scent of sap from nearby pine woods.  Later in the season, the heat of the sun and warm winds of summer slowed the water’s flow to a trickle, laying bare the edges of moss-covered rocks in the riverbed below. 

Our destination each trip to Halls Lake was Jasim Lodge, the dream of two couples who were family friends.  They told stories of what the area was like when they first visited the property.  Their land was difficult to reach. The road along the west side of Halls Lake was poor and the eastern access was only a track, so they walked in on a rough trail heading north from Buttermilk Falls.  Although the distance was less than a kilometre, it was necessary to bushwack in, packing all gear on their backs. 

But we were lucky.  By the time the lodge was built, there were some paved roads in the area.  It was not until we turned off onto gravel on the Little Hawk Lake Road that we had difficulty.  The access back down the eastern shore of Halls Lake posed quite a problem.

On that first trip it seemed we had reached the end of civilisation.  A succession of potholes lay before us on a one-lane track through thick forest and dense undergrowth.  Father slowed the old car to a snail’s pace but it made no difference.  We hit just about every one.  Some were so deep and we bounced so high, our heads would bang into the roof.

The road was still bad when the first guests began to arrive.  I recall one family pulling into the driveway in a new car.  The children were crying in the backseat.  The mother was clearly upset and the father began shouting.  That the road was impassable could not really be disputed but that the area was unfit for a family vacation was untrue.  Unfortunately, the father turned the car around and drove back out on that terrible road, vowing never to return.

Eventually the road was graded and gravelled, so many guests did stay and returned year after year to enjoy our friends’ hospitality in this pristine setting.

When the lodge was finally completed, there were eight guest cabins.  In the main building there was a small kitchen and a large, knotty pine-panelled common room with a screened porch where rough willow chairs were set out to face brilliant and ever-changing sunsets over the lake.  After dinner dishes were cleared away the tables were set up for games.  Most people liked to play cards.

During the winter evenings back in Toronto, our father steamed and bent wooden slats in our basement to make rowboats for the lodge.  His first attempt at this difficult project was nearly thwarted when the components were a bit too large to clear the basement doorway, carry up the steps and out into the backyard for final assembly.  A determined and persistent craftsman, he soon made the necessary adjustments in dimensions and his home-made rowboats finally reached the water’s edge at Halls Lake.  They were tied up to a small dock that was set far enough out over huge shoreline boulders so we could safely jump off the end into crystal clear waters that were refreshingly cool on the hottest summer day.

The weather was not always sunny and warm, for I recall almost as many visits in rainy weather. Even after it rained, it seemed to keep on drizzling, for the evergreen boughs that fanned out across the paths to the cabins continued to dampen us with droplets long after a downpour.

I also remember how cold it was at bedtime in the spring and fall.  The cabins were not heated, so we quickly jumped into our pyjamas and into bed under layers of handmade quilts, faintly scented with English lavender.  Each morning aromatic smoke rose up from the big wood stove in the little kitchen.  It drifter around the cabins and through the chinks in the walls to signal breakfast was ready.  We’d dress in a flash and run up to the lodge to eat hot porridge near a crackling fire in the stone fireplace. 

One day while hiking up the potholed road, a group of boys and girls discovered an abandoned house.  The front door was ajar.  We climbed up the rickety stairs, pushed aside the creaking door and entered into a dark room smelling of decay.  Broken furniture lay across the few remaining floorboards.

We girls huddled together, ready to turn around and run out the door, but the boys brazenly led the way up the flimsy stairs to the second floor.  We followed only out of curiosity.  There were two rooms upstairs, each with a small window that cast an eerie light upon the dusty floors.  There was a special feeling about the whole place but it was worse in the back room.  We all agreed the house had to be haunted and we hurried down the stairs and out the door, as if an imaginary “being” was at our heels.

The next day we got up enough courage to return to the “haunted” house.  The boys arrived before us.  As we tiptoed inside across creaking floorboards, hair-raising howls from the second floor sent us scampering back outside.  The boys were always thinking of ways to scare us.  In turn, we tried to think up ways to get back at them but never really did.  I guess they were tough little guys and didn’t think we were very scary. 

One bright and sunny day, we talked openly about our fears.  Probably people hoping to stay had built the house but, likely as not, they couldn’t make a living with little soil to grow anything and so far from the nearest town.  They must have just packed up and moved away, so the house really wasn’t haunted after all.  We climbed up to that once-dreary second floor, now bright with sunshine and, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside a pile of tattered old mail-order catalogues, flipped through the pages and surreptitiously examined the underwear selections.

More exciting was the hike down to Buttermilk Falls.  When very young, I never tackled this walk on my own, for I imagined the crack of a twig in the dense bush was a bear or some other animal that would jump out and – do what?  I didn’t know what would happen.  I would only venture a little way to eat wild blueberries from the bushes growing in a bog just past the poison ivy patch.

When I grew a bit older and felt braver I was given permission to join a friend and we hiked down on our own to the general store at Buttermilk Falls, I longed to be the soda jerk behind the front counter but my girlfriend, who was taller and looked older, got the job.  I was hired as dishwasher in the back room but it was all work and no fun, so by mutual agreement with the manager, it was only a one-night stand.  More fun than dishwashing was the Saturday night dances.  Bowl haircuts and overalls distinguished the local boys from the city kids.  Most of the boys hung back and leaned against the walls, while we giddy girls jitterbugged together to the frenzied beat of recorded swing music on the jukebox.  Although every evening in the country was special, I remember one in particular.  When a blanket of darkness lowered over the lake and the lodge was lit with lanterns and firelight, I reached high upon the bookshelf in the corner to bring down a big book with warn pages.  There I discovered the poetry of Robert Service.  In my imagination his “gal named Lou” joined me by the firelight as I read The Shooting of Dan McGrew and other stories of adventure in the far North.  Now 50 years have passed and, although the countryside has no doubt changed, I still recall the way it was, when we ran free and made our own fun on Halls Lake near Buttermilk Falls.

For more information about Buttermilk Falls, go to Algonquin Highlands Heritage Maps.