You can smell the difference as soon as you turn on to Union Street at the bottom of the town hill off Picton’s Main Street, a vapour that strengthens as you pass the Macaulay House museum and the pillared elegance of the oldest court house in Ontario. There is moisture in the air redolent of lavender and lilac and chestnut, textures in the landscape, scarlet scintillas for the eye, as you roll along Country Road 8 toward the skinny eastern peninsula of Prince Edward County.
The wind carries the tease of discovery. The sky changes too. There is azure and purple, and colours between colours. The buildings are rural like elsewhere in the County, but here there is hope in their abandonment, and melancholy in their ruins. Civically, this is known as the township of North Marysburgh, the easternmost reach of the island municipality, but the good burghers of our quiet enclave, prefer (sotto voce) the ‘Duchy of Waupoos’.
Ojibwe for hare, ‘wabooz’ cannot be confused with any other place on earth.
Who can escape the charm of the word ‘Waupoos’. The name itself is more than singular. Ojibwe for hare, ‘wabooz’ cannot be confused with any other place on earth. At the hamlet, the escarpment drops dramatically to a fertile valley squeezed between limestone cliffs and the open expanse of Lake Ontario. During the time of glaciation, the area was depressed below sea level, and as the sea receded it left rich deposits of marine material. That same calcareous till now gives rise to dozens of vineyards and soft fruit orchards, each more beautiful than the previous, in an incognito Garden of Eden.
The road snakes eastward past several cross roads, mostly uninhabited and navigable only seasonally, sometimes perilous close to the water’s edge, throwing off long views and water perspectives that seem oceanic, more Mediterranean than Canadian heartland. Below the Rock Cross, the land spreads in a series of flatlands with open fields, infinite horizons and limestone slabs at the water’s edge.
Somewhere at the turn—where Cressy Lakeside meets Prinyer’s Cove, at the apogee of the infamous ‘Horn Trip’—the road becomes County Road 7 and works it’s way back on the north shore of the peninsula to the shire capital of Picton. Equally scintillating and as view-infused as its southern twin, CR7 winds through limestone cliffs, virgin forest and overgrown meadows to the height of land at Lake on the Mountain above the Glenora Ferry.
I should know. I discovered this Brigadoon, where time has stood still, twenty years ago. At first I thought it was too remote, too empty. Privacy is one thing, isolation entirely another. I bought a pile below the Rock Cross, an assortment of crumbling buildings, sheds and foundations already surrendered to the undergrowth. Cressy House is now a compound of fully restored farm buildings with undiluted view across the lake, more reminiscent of the South of France that the Canadian shield.
I got to know many of the descendants of the founding pioneers, the United Empire Loyalists and Hessians who first settled what was then called ‘Fifth Town’, the first township to be surveyed by the English in 1784. It dawned on me that Waupoos is as much a State of Mind as a geography. There is a quality of character, a serenity and detachment, that runs as a thread through the fabric of the Waupoos attitude. Waupoosians are over-viewers, we know the advantage of the big picture and the high road. We have a fierce independence combined with an accommodating spirit. We’ve developed a self-reliance and self-sufficiency, a Zen spirit that finds a home in this place where everything fits together—the lay of the land, the colour of the sky, the feel of the air.
Which got me thinking about declaring independence. Only virtually, mind. We are united in our commitment to a way of living. We have our own flag—a white rabbit against a horizontal background of blue and red. We are not a secret society with a private grip, but exist in a transcendental space and seek only the privilege of our camaraderie and shared outlook. Like a great vintage that reeks of terroir, Waupoos does not want to be analyzed or solved, only to be drunk in deeply and to fill the hearts of its people and travellers from beyond its borders.
Alan Gratias has had a lifelong affair with crumbling houses. You might say his life has been in ruins. Somewhere along the way he came to believe that if we save our buildings, we save ourselves. He is the author of The Completely Civil Servant, The Kingsburg Elixir, Crumbling Houses, Roger the Lodger, and the creator of a number of entertainment products under the Gravitatis brand. Alan lives in the Duchy of Waupoos on Lake Ontario where he tends to his dogs, courtyard barns, and ongoing deterioration