In Memoriam

DEATH OF A SHANGRI-LA

An Ontario resort goes up in flames, and a source of youthful nostalgia is lost

JAKE MACDONALD October 27 2003
In Memoriam

DEATH OF A SHANGRI-LA

An Ontario resort goes up in flames, and a source of youthful nostalgia is lost

JAKE MACDONALD October 27 2003

DEATH OF A SHANGRI-LA

In Memoriam

An Ontario resort goes up in flames, and a source of youthful nostalgia is lost

JAKE MACDONALD

WHEN I WAS young and green as grass, I worked as a fishing guide at a palatial and almost fairy-tale-like resort called Minaki Lodge. Like most of the staff,

I was certain there was no better place in the country to work than “The Lodge.” Imagine brawny walls of rock and log, high stained glass windows that turned gold and crimson in the setting sun, and a grand rotunda that soared up and up into an apex of iron chandeliers, massive chains and marvellously interlaced timbers.

Countless articles and brochures tried to articulate the spirit of the place, but you had to see it. Walking into the lodge for the first time, guests would always stop in the foyer, lift their eyes to that high ceiling, and let out a gasp. How could any advertising brochure capture that sound?

Minaki Lodge, near the Manitoba border north of Kenora, Ont., was surrounded by hundreds of miles of blue water. My job was to take people out “fishing,” a sport which consists mostly of, let’s face it, banter, relaxation and soaking up the beauty of nature. On the up long, 25-minute boat ride up to Big Sand Lake, I would pass the time playing an epic rock song in my head. All my fishing-guide friends did the same thing. As soon as the boat was speeding away from the lodge, we’d privately rip into those first slow, thumping chords of “Smoke on the Water,” that story of a grand Montreux casino that burns to the waterline. We loved the song because we loved the lodge. And in the same way that children read scary stories, we were fascinated and horrified by the idea that one day the same thing might happen to it.

But the Queen of the North managed to survive, albeit under the stewardship of a long list of wide-eyed suitors, many of them financially ruined by their ardour. Even the government of Ontario owned the lodge during the 1970s, and ended up $50 million lighter by the time Four Seasons Hotels Inc. took it over. No one could make it pay its own way, though—and then, in 2002, an Alberta white knight bought the lodge, swore it would never close again, and set about restoring it to its former glory.

This past summer, it was a great pleasure to come boating around the corner at night and see the lodge glowing like a big tiffany lamp above the river. But at 3:25 on Thanksgiving morning most everyone in Minaki, me included, was roused by the wail of sirens. Above Minaki Lodge the sky was lit up by the horrid glow of fire. The Queen of the North was burning, and yes, there was smoke on the water. The town’s volunteer fire department valiantly fought the flames, but by daybreak the 87-year-old lodge was gone.

The authorities promptly launched an arson investigation, and there was much speculation about whether someone would try to rebuild it. Rebuild it? One long-time Minaki cottager, my friend Bill Gardner, put it in perspective. “They can never replace it,” he said. “That lodge used to be part of my family, and now it’s part of history.” ffl