Advertisement Close

The Man Who Built His Own Island

posted on: Feb 6, 2023

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The autumn leaves of striking colours gave the countryside an enchanting atmosphere as we drove on the winding Fraserburg Road in the heart of the Muskoka resort area in the Canadian province of Ontario. My colleague and friend James Peters, professor at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, was taking me to his cottage on the shores of Lake Healey, ten miles east of Bracebridge.  We were in the best of moods and in high spirits.  Every turn of the road seemed to offer a different postcard picture of beauty and enchantment.  It was a breathtaking kaleidoscope of never-ending colours.

Two miles from the lake we turned on a dirt road and made our way to what Jim had often told me was his ‘earthly paradise’.  In a few minutes we were parked amid birch and maple trees towering above and encompassing his cottage.

Comfortably seated on the veranda about 100 feet from the water’s edge, I spotted through the majestic birch trees something not far from shore.  “What is that?” I pointed to a dark spot projecting out of the water.  “An island which I am in the process of building”, Jim appeared to be starry-eyed as he gazed into the distance.  “But why? Why would you want to build an island?”  With all the space around the cottage I could not understand why anyone would want to go to all the trouble of constructing another bit of land.  “For the exercise and to grow a flourishing garden.  Around the cottage, the infertile soil shaded by trees and bushes makes growth almost impossible.  My isle which will be nourished by the sun and fertilized earth will be my tiny ‘Garden of Eden’.”

Jim Peters, born on Simcoe Street in the heart of busy Toronto, was a linguistics scholar and a life-long wood carver.  He loved to work with both his hands and brains.  Besides teaching, he carved exquisite works of art solely for his own pleasure.  In addition, he took part in every facet of community life and became a leader among the Arab Canadians.  Yet, this was not all.  Through the years Jim and I worked together to produce a lexicon of Arabic words in the English language which was published.

Nevertheless, despite all these activities, Jim was not fully satisfied.  Something in his life was lacking.  Living in the hustle and bustle of Metropolitan Toronto, he longed for nature and the open spaces.  Understandably, for years he yearned to own his own place in the wilderness of the north.  His profession with its accompanying long summer holidays gave him the time and, when finances permitted, he realized his ambition.  In 1965 he purchased two lots edging the three-square miles of Lake Healey, 130 miles from his home in Don Mills on the outskirts of Toronto.  A few years later, after clearing the undergrowth, he erected a prefabricated cottage and made it into his dream abode.  Every year, he could hardly wait for the school year to end.  His wilderness home, like the sirens of Greek mythology, lured him north.

On the other hand, even though his dream had been fulfilled, there was still something missing. A flourishing garden which he and his wife Thelma dearly wanted, due to the shady trees and leafy soil, seemed to be beyond their grasp. After failing in many attempts to grow vegetables – a task they pursued in a passionate fashion, he hit upon the idea of building an island. Here, away from the shadows of trees and poor soil, Jim believed a thriving garden was possible.

From the very moment this idea crystallized, he began his project. About 10 feet from the rocky shoreline, he commenced slowly to construct his island. 

In a spot filled with rotted trees, felled by the beavers, intertwined with water bushes, he laid, with rocks, the outline of his future isle. Stone by stone and shovel by shovel he moved the surrounding muck and placed it inside the rock curbing. After the interior area of the stones was filled, another, then another was built. I remember during one of my visits finding Jim dressed in a bathing suit working in three to four feet of water, like an oppressed labourer from the medieval ages. Yet, he seemed happy and content.

Habeeb Salloum on the left and Jim Peters on the right 1966

On and on he toiled in the same fashion as a beaver going about his task of building a dam. Day after day, during the months of July and August, the labour continued. After months of backbreaking summer work, in about 15 years, his island took shape above the water line. There is little doubt that when he surveyed from the cottage window his completed handiwork, he must have felt like a Pharaoh admiring his newly built pyramid. 

However, for the garden, his task was not yet complete. After building a bridge connecting the island with the shoreline, he carried with a wheelbarrow, tons of leafy soil to top the muck. He then fertilized this acidy earth with ashes from his cottage stove and well-rotted chicken manure brought from a nearby farm.

The summer after Jim had finished his island, I decided to pay him a visit. Cottage life with its black flies and mosquitoes had never been my cup of tea. Raised in the Depression years on the Saskatchewan prairies, I would often, in my youth, pine away for the activities and glamour of the bright lights. In the ensuing years when my longing had been satisfied, I never had the urge to return to nature or yearn to buy myself a cottage in the wild. Only my friendship with Jim made me come every year to pay a visit. This year it was to be a special occasion. I had come to see his completed island. 

From his cottage door, he pointed proudly, “There, before you, is my northern estate.”  Lush green foliage engulfed the whole 60 by 12 feet isle.  Soon, we were across the bridge admiring the beans, beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and even kohlrabi.  Nurtured by Thelma who loved seeing plants grow, the vegetables covered every square inch of the island. Only the rocky edges and a few pathways were bare. Every other spot was carpeted by greenery. It was a beautifully tamed part of nature engulfed by the encircling wilderness. 

Like most man-made structures, the island needed yearly maintenance. In the first years after it was completed, the lake waters and spring would flood over the top and in the process take away some of the rich soil. Like the Aztecs of Mexico who had built islands in their capital which they had to always maintain, every spring before planting a new garden, Jim would build the walls a little higher and add more fertilized earth. As the years passed and the isle rose higher and higher above the water, less and less work was needed. Rare was the spring when the water overflowed over the top. Jim’s island had become part of Lake Healey’s landscape. It blended in and added a little handmade greenery to the Muskoka wilds.  Now, a vegetable larder for the Peters’ summer home, it is paying back for the many years spent in its construction. 

In the late afternoon of that August day, a few hours before the time of our departure, Jim and I rested, lazing on handmade chairs. Under majestic birches, we gazed on the island in the bosom of Lake Healey’s calm surface. In the distance speedy monsters of our modern age racing at breakneck speed seemed to overwhelm the slow-moving row boats. Nearby, bathers were cheerfully plunging into the warm waters. It was a panorama of inviting summer activities.

Soon the cool breeze lulled me into a half slumber. In the dreamy atmosphere, I could see the green isle created by a man who loved the outdoors. It was as if I had been transported to a world of make believe where man had changed nature for the better.  Unlike many modern projects of our age that destroy or distort the wilderness, Jim’s island complemented the beauty of nature in one of Ontario’s well known resort areas. 

I was brought out of my restful daydreams by the voice of my friend, “Now you know why I call this place my ‘earthly paradise’.  Just feel the soothing breeze flowing from the lake through my towering trees which shade and protect us from the searing sun.  Does it not give you a feeling of elation?  And my island, is it not the crowning jewel to this tiny Muskoka Eden?”  As he talked, he appeared to be hypnotized by the exposition of his thoughts.

Driving back in the evening dusk, I thought of my day spent at my friend’s cottage. All day long I had enjoyed Jim and Thelma’s hospitality in their comfortable corner of the Muskoka wilderness – a spot enhanced and made more charming by the creative work of a master. Without question, the island created by Jim’s own hands did much to make what he calls his ‘earthly paradise’ complete.