I came with the whitewater paddling crowd one summer. The Madawaska Kanu Centre staff packed into the Wilno Tavern and danced the night away, as is the Tuesday custom. The whitewater adventures are world-class in the Barry’s Bay area, and I think the live blues music is too. I felt a part of something very unique and fun.
What brought me back, a decade later, after traveling coast to coast, was a curiosity about those who lived here year-round, nested mindfully within the ecosystem, coaxing shelters, garments and sustenance from the earth.
There are many social scenes in Barry’s Bay but I feel we’re all connected by an affection for the land, a focus on activities like gathering firewood for winter and foraging wild berries in summer. We share a common lifestyle; we appreciate the simple things. Our community is not trendy or fancy. Since the terrain is rugged and the climate can be extreme, the friendliness is a quiet solidarity.
Getting a feel for the culture is made easy by the Barry’s Bay Visitor Information Centre. Housed in an old downtown train station, it doubles as a gallery and has a steady stream of fresh, local exhibitions. Some of this art is displayed outside, such as the annual, award-winning There’s Art in Your Woodpile Competition. Creatively stacked firewood, as public art, may be a phenomenon unique to my town.
Driving between local villages, the views from the hilltops, on Highways 60 and 62, are breath-taking, no matter how many times I pass over them. The sunsets, overlooking lakes upon lakes, make me stop short. A similar awe washes over me on sparsely-human-populated, winding dirt roads, discovering or re-discovering, magical meadows and babbling creeks. The Madawaska River Rentals helps visitors get into the landscape, canoeing or kayaking through peaceful wetlands or down its mighty namesake’s waters.
Having mystical experiences on the land is an undeniable part of local heritage here. Barry’s Bay is known for its spiritual communities. The Madonna House community of Combermere continues to showcase their traditional way of life. The Polish Catholic Kaszubs were among the first settlers here and their shrines are to be found on each backroad. Barry’s Bay is now home to people of many religious backgrounds and, for me, the religious roadside reminders represent universal sentiments of awe and gratitude.
The backroads are also picturesque due to the quaint old farmhouses. Some of the barns are exquisitely painted with traditional, colourful Kaszub designs. Many local artists make a living based on their relationship with nature. For example, the Wild Women Painters of the Wilderness are a modern-day Group of Seven and Sigrid Naturals makes luxury skincare products using wildflowers. Both of these artists are on the Madawaska Valley Studio Tour, which is not to be missed. Fuel up first at the new espresso bar, Madawaska Coffee.
As a young person, at times, I examine my choice to have quiet pace of life. But, then, I lean into it. I savour the lack of distractions and the time to reflect. Contentment comes through simply bearing witness to the miracles and the majesty of nature.
Storyteller: Natalie Robinson Hometown: Barry’s Bay, ON
Natalie Robinson earned a degree on each coast, traveled the world and returned contentedly to small town life in the Ottawa Valley. She’s been a contributor to the Pembroke Daily Observer and the Valley Gazette and has designed and taught courses for Loyalist and Algonquin Colleges. Currently, she lives outside Barry’s Bay where she does marketing for small businesses and rents her house and yurt on Airbnb.