Like most Canadians, residents of Ontario have a love affair with fresh water and they’re working harder than ever to make it last. Groups like the newly formed Muskoka Conservancy and Friends of Algonquin protect natural and built heritage among the rugged granite outcrops and fur trees of Algonquin Park, Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, Lake Joseph, and myriad surrounding waterways. "Preservation of a century-old wooden cottage can be daunting, but this place is so generous with daily gifts," says Pat Marshall, whose family has cottaged in Muskoka since the early 1950s. "The island’s mossy paths, the small bayside beach, our Victorian cottage porch, and the clutter of family knick-knacks inside—for us, life on the lake is crammed with four generations of happy memories." Find out firsthand what Marshall and others are preserving. Maybe cruise in a mahogany Ditchburn to a Victorian island cottage in Muskoka. An hour farther north, "put in" your cedar strip and follow the J-strokes of more than 100 years of paddlers at Canoe Lake, a storied portal to vast Algonquin, Canada’s oldest provincial park, established in 1893.
When to Go: While winter offers sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hot toddies by the fire, summer rules in Muskoka and Algonquin. July and August promise warm lake temperatures and few bugs.
How to Get Around: Board North America’s oldest operating steamship, the R.M.S. Segwun, built in 1887 and restored in 1974, to explore the myriad bays and islands of Lake Muskoka. Take a pontoon boat tour of all three big lakes or rent your own ride. At Canoe Lake, the Portage Store offers canoe rentals, complete outfitting, trip advice, and guides. Paddle away to cast a line in the cool, deep waters of Big Trout Lake or glide past a massive bull moose in Grassy Bay. Watch for deer, fox, wolves, beavers, loons, and blue herons. Hang your food in a tree and make noise in the bush to scare away black bears.
Where to Eat or Drink: Sample local suds at Lake of Bays Brewing. Feast on Milford Bay smoked trout, Belly ice cream, and other foodie options detailed on savourmuskoka.com. If you’re not staying at Arowhon Pines, a historic Algonquin, all-inclusive wilderness lodge, it’s still possible to eat there. Tables are limited for nonguests, so call ahead to book for the seasonally fresh prix fixe breakfast ($25), lunch ($35), or dinner ($75).
What to Buy: Simply Cottage finds or masterfully re-creates treasures like Great-Grandma’s striped bedspread. Local crafts include decoys, moccasins, and pottery at the Portage Store gift shop.
Where to Stay: Windermere House on Lake Rosseau is an old Muskoka gem. See sites like homeaway.com for cottage rentals from modern chic and one-bedroom cabins to grand Victorians like Dumbiedikes. "You’d think I’d take it for granted, being the fifth generation up here," says Dumbiedikes owner Tamsen Tillson, "but each time I take in that view or dive into the lake, I’m grateful."
What to Read Before You Go: Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him by Roy MacGregor (Vintage Canada, 2011) gives a crash course in local Algonquin lore.
Fun Facts: "Ice-out" is a momentous rite of spring in Algonquin and Muskoka. This is the magical day in April, sometimes early May, when the softened icy cap on a lake just disappears—like someone pulling the paraffin seal off a jar of preserves when you’re not looking. Locals on each lake blog about it, bet on it, and then celebrate this early promise of summer.