Ontario couple to keep remote Nova Scotia lodge ‘a place for dreams’
Tracey Erin Smith once woke from a vivid dream that she was an “earthy” 65-year-old who shared the beauty of her home in the wilderness with guests who rented cottages, each with a unique view of a pristine lake.
She felt a surge of love for this future self and wrote about the dream in a looseleaf notebook, only to forget about it as the years passed.
Twenty years to the day after she described the vision in red ink, Smith and her partner, Sarah Garton Stanley, put in an offer to purchase 23.4 hectares of secluded lakefront in rural Nova Scotia.
Known as Birchdale, it’s a property of local intrigue beloved by many in the area.
“It’s a place for dreams, there’s no question,” said Stanley. “I’m sure there were tons of people who dreamt about it, but we were the ones who actually thought, ‘Let’s do it.'”
The transition from their life split between a Toronto apartment and a home in Kingston, Ont., to an off-the-grid cabin without phone service was never anticipated. They both have busy careers in theatre based in Ontario.
Smith had never even visited Nova Scotia. Her mother once remarked that she should live in a hotel, due to her disinclination toward cooking and housekeeping.
But Stanley — who her partner said has always been more adept at fixing things — had been keeping an eye out for a rural property for some time when she stumbled upon the listing for Birchdale, a former hunting and fishing lodge outside Kemptville, N.S., that boasted a storied history.
Built in 1911 by the last man hanged for murder in Yarmouth County, the lakeside retreat was for decades beloved by families, frequented by celebrities drawn by its remoteness and sought after by sport hunters. Later, it became the home of a group of Carmelite monks.
Stanley first pulled up the listing for Smith in a coffee shop.
“I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life,” said Smith. “It was magical in terms of the nature, of time travel, in terms of the cabins and just the most unique, self-contained, tiny village I’d ever seen.”
Becoming the new owners wasn’t as easy as making the financial bid, however. Birchdale’s most recent proprietor, an American named Helen Matthews, had a particular vision for its future.
In the fall of 2019, she told CBC News that Birchdale “should belong to a Canadian and should belong to someone who cares about it, and its history and will keep it open” to the community who cherished it.
After seeing the CBC story about her unusual search — and the immense response it received on social media — Stanley and Smith realized their hidden gem wasn’t staying that way. They booked a flight and spent 24 hours in Nova Scotia that November, touring the property with a real estate agent, and Stanley’s brother and sister-in-law, who live an hour’s drive away.
It was on that visit that Smith realized the pine-needle sprinkled paths between 15 rustic cabins felt familiar. For the first time in years, she thought of the dream she’d recounted all those years ago.
Immediately, she felt a sense of belonging. For the first time, she could envision a life there.
Aspire to be ‘good stewards’
Back in Toronto, Stanley scoured Smith’s files until she found the notebook page that referenced the dream. For the next couple of months, they deliberated.
On Jan. 4, 2020, timing it with the entry, they put their offer in while sitting in the parking lot of a Loblaws the night Stanley opened a show in Toronto. The $890,000 sale went through in March, just as the pandemic hit.
Though Matthews referred to herself as the gatekeeper of Birchdale, Smith and Stanley have a slightly different perspective on their new home, where they plan to live for at least six months a year.
“We feel like we’re stewards, and we hope that we can be good stewards for this place,” said Stanley. “We aspire to reach her hopes for what we might be as the owners to follow in her footsteps.”
Instead of spending their first summer at Birchdale alongside Matthews learning about the nuances of the aging log buildings and the maintenance required, Smith and Stanley found themselves arriving alone to self-isolate with very little hands-on experience. Matthews remained stuck in the U.S. due to the border closure.
From the absolute darkness to the wildlife — the screech of a red fox came as a particular shock one night — to the logistics of emptying mousetraps and coping with unexpected floods and falling trees, the women said the scale of the adjustment “was shocking.”
“It was a real massive learning curve for the two of us to negotiate what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are,” said Stanley. They survived, and say they managed to laugh along the way.
Matthews, who is in her late 70s, guided them from afar, sending 18 pages of handwritten instructions and offering tips over a phone line as the women called from the one building with sporadic cell service. They said she’d cheer when one of her tips worked.
“She was so invested in our success and Birchdale continuing to be this amazing place for people,” said Smith.
Matthews wasn’t the only person to lend a hand. People from the area have volunteered their time and skills, arriving for “work parties” where they gave the women guidance and helped tackle projects — from splitting wood to new roofs and stairs — all while sharing stories and preparing food for the group to enjoy.
“We’re from major cities where this was not something that you see done and then to watch people, you know, drive from far distances and bring their own equipment and say, ‘OK, what do you need?’ And then do it. It was really very moving,” said Smith.
“They taught us how to be helped,” added Stanley.
Open houses planned
Last summer, in an effort to meet the local community amid COVID restrictions, the couple hosted an open house. Two hundred people visited. Among them was a woman in her 90s who’d spent her honeymoon at Birchdale in 1949.
“She showed us which cabin it was, there were photographs. Incredible stories,” said Smith.
Throughout the year, they’ve met other people who credit Birchdale for changing the direction of their lives — including those who received guidance from Matthews or the religious order that preceded her. Others stayed on the property as youngsters when it was still a lodge.
“They’ll point to buildings and say, ‘Oh, I worked on that, my uncle worked on that.’ And so everywhere there’s sweat from so many people in this place,” said Smith.
There are monthly by registration “Birchdale Afternoons” planned for this summer, the next one being July 18.
One of their visitors will be Matthews, who they’ve still only connected with by phone. She plans to return as soon as she’s able to travel.
No plans to become hoteliers
Stanley and Smith purchased the property in hopes it could continue to be a refuge, one with the potential for sustainable communal living. What it won’t be, they say, is a party destination or one that’s rented out to large groups. First and foremost, it’s their home.
So far, they’ve continued to host the groups that Matthews had long relationships with, including a writers’ retreat and organizations from Yarmouth and a group of Indigenous youth.
They admit it is far from a money-making venture. They welcome guests and visitors by donation. Their jobs still cover the bills.
Smith is the artistic director of Soulo Theatre, which she founded to help people tell their own stories on stage. A playwright and performer, she is also the creator and host of Drag Heals, a documentary television show that follows people as they develop one-person shows.
Stanley is a theatre director, is completing her PhD and works for the National Arts Centre as the assistant artistic director of English theatre.
This summer, they both alternate between Zoom calls and rehearsals and hours spent working on their long to-do list of property maintenance. They’re repairing and restoring cabins, one at a time. People have helped by milling fallen trees and providing expertise in carpentry and plumbing. Even still, there’s always a problem that needs solving.
“I think so long as we do our best to keep the place accessible and living and cared for… then I feel that people want to help us do that,” said Stanley.
Imagining plans for the future
Smith hopes to continue holding storytelling workshops, to dedicate one of the cabins to the kids who visit and she has been debating turning another into a café. They’ve bounced around ideas ranging from inviting new Canadians to hosting retreats for international thinkers.
From her workspace, which has one of the many views of the lake, Smith said she has been writing non-stop. She’d like to see what happens when other minds have the opportunity to get away from the intrusion of power lines, take a break from the internet and pause in the beauty of Birchdale.
“It may take a day or two, but it’s different. It’s very different. And your body changes. I think it’s an incredible place for creativity,” said Smith.
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