I can see the silhouette of the man, sitting in his lawn chair, on top of the camper van. He and his companion are here most nights waiting, as are the rest of us , for the last act of a wonderful day on Sauble Beach.
To either side of the parking lot in which the camper van rests, is a wide expanse of clean sand, eleven kilometers long. It is the second largest fresh-water beach in the world. The largest, Wasaga Beach, lies on the other side of the Bruce Peninsula, as distant as it is different, from this quiet enclave.
Wasaga is a bustling resort town, growing by leaps and bounds.
Sauble, is not.
The reasons are many, not the least of which is location. Sauble Beach is off the beaten path for most of the residents of Toronto, who flock to Wasaga in droves.
Sauble is small. Old fashioned. A family-style beach seemingly trapped in a time-warp from the sixties; and that’s proven to be a mixed blessing.
“ To be honest with you, there are absolutely no attractions, other than the beach.” says Vince Artuso; a 70 year old Sauble resident, who moved here 40 years ago.
A one-time restaurant owner, real estate agent and former mayor of Sauble Beach, Vince is frustrated not only by what he sees at Sauble Beach, but also by what he doesn’t see.
“We used to have people who would rent a cottage for two weeks, in the last few years, it went down to a week. And, lately we’re hearing that renting is coming down to a weekend, or even, to save some money, maybe they rent it from Monday to Thursday.”
The reason, according to Vince, is this; “ The people who would usually buy a cottage, the young professional people, are paying too much for a house in the city, and there’s no spare change to buy a cottage.”
Susan Follett agrees that the city is expensive, but Sauble is certainly not cheap.
“ My cottage taxes are higher, than a house in mid-town Toronto.”, she says, and she speaks from experience. Follett lives in Toronto and runs a business there, as well as a second shop; “ A Shore Thing “, on the main drag of the beachfront town. Her cottage, is in nearby Oliphant, barely a decent walk from the Sauble River which marks one boundary of the beach.
She laments the seeming lack of cohesive effort needed, to shake Sauble Beach out of the doldrums.
“ It’s just not happening, you know? There’s no excitement to our main street. There’s no signage consistency – if that were a town in New England, you know what the town would look like. Beautiful! We don’t do that.”
Even the things that the town once did to keep the tourists amused and interested, are disappearing.
“ The trampolines are gone. The roller rink is gone. The amusements have gone. There’s not a lot of things for kids to do anymore.”
Even Mayor Janice Jackson will attest to that. Jackson’s family dates back to the early 1800’s in the Hepworth and Sauble Beach area, and she practically grew up at the beach. Today’s Sauble Beach however, is different from the one she remembers.
“ In my view there’s very little for children to do at the beach today, except enjoy the beach itself and our beautiful lake.”
“There’s a lot of events and attractions and things that were available to children when I was growing up, and they are no longer available. And, as a council, I would really like to do everything possible to turn that around, and make it more appealing for businesses to come in and open up.”
And yet, Jackson looks to the top of Main Street, where a shuttered amusement park lies in a deepening state of ruin, and seems curiously indifferent.
“ We’re not in the business of being in business at Sauble Beach, and I think that’s a misconception that a lot of our residents, and our tourists have. They look and see the amusement park that’s not in operation, it hasn’t been in operation for several years, and they look to the town to fix that situation, and it’s not our situation to fix.”
In fact, Jackson and her fellow council members were not elected to fix anything, so much as to stop something else: a massive municipal water, and sewer project, in a town that still relies mostly on well-water, and septic tanks, for it’s 35-hundred residents, as well as thousands of tourists every summer.
It’s a situation that Artuso sees as a threat to the most important attractions in town; the beach, and the clear, clean water of Lake Huron.
“ At one time you never had many people who lived here year round. Now you have 25-hundred people. They flush their toilets and dishwashers and whatever, and the septic systems will eventually not necessarily do any good to the beach.”
Artuso believes that contaminants may already be leaching through the ground, and making their way to the pristine shoreline.
He points to the recent appearance of algae along the water’s edge as one sign of contamination, and harkens back to a day when he, and his then five-year-old daughter would dig and build sandcastles all day, on the beach.
“ We used to play on the beach and build whatever, and I never saw black muck. You go there with a shovel today and you dig 15 or 20 inches, and you find black muck.
Too many properties, too close to the beach, are too small to adequately handle a substantial septic system, says Vince.
“ We have lots as small as 38 by 50. How do you manage to stay there with your own water, your own sewers, on a property like that? And, you still have a building on it!”
Mayor Jackson however, was elected on a promise to kill the municipal sewer project and its estimated price tag of more than 100- Million dollars.
Gail Mason, and her husband Daryl, voted for Jackson. They chose to retire in Sauble Beach eight years ago, drawn to the beautiful water, boating, fishing, and snowmobiling in the winter. On a fixed income, the prospect of a stiff municipal levy, was a significant concern.
“ We kind of felt that it was really the businesses downtown that were pushing for it. The average homeowner did not want it.”
Like most of the town Gail and Daryl draw their water from a local sand-point aquifer, and rely on a septic system. They agree that “ Sauble really does need some development downtown”, but maintain, that the business community must foot the bill.
“ If you want them, you can pay for them.”, says Gail.
The Masons say they were told that the estimated levy to connect a municipal system to their property would be at least $40,000.
Vince Artuso disputes those numbers, and points to neighbouring Southampton, where figures released by the town indicate that residents recently paid slightly more than $11-thousand dollars for a residential hook-up, while non-residents paid roughly $19-thousand. Less than half of what was estimated for Sauble Beach.
But Mayor Jackson argues, that there is little point in debating the price of something you didn’t need in the first place.
“ You certainly don’t need a sewer system to promote growth. The west side of Owen Sound is on septic systems; the movie theatre, Tim Hortons, McDonalds, Joe Tomato’s restaurant, none have sewers.”
Even in Sauble Beach, growth is coming, with or without sewers.
“ We’re in the process of ushering in two residential developments that could see up to 100 new homes. One project has 32 homes planned, while the other has several phases with mixed residential. Growth is inevitable for Sauble
Beach, and it’s going to happen soon. What we don’t need is to bankrupt the community with an unnecessary large-bore sewer system.”
The man on the camper van, now has a companion. A woman of similar age handed up a couple of glasses, and her own lawn chair, and the pair are seated contentedly, side by side, watching the water. Below them, a small crowd has gathered on the sand. More lawn chairs. A young father, hauling two kids in a plastic wagon. A large group of south Asian descent, who have temporarily abandoned their tour bus, join the crowd. According to Chief Vernon Roote, all of them, are trespassers.
“ Do you know where the Sauble Beach sign is? “, he asks. “ That sign, is on our piece of land.”
The iconic sign that welcomes everyone to Sauble Beach, is a couple of hundred meters to the south of the camper van. At the moment, it marks a very tenuous boundary between the public beach, and a large tract of land running south, along the shoreline, toward Southampton. That southern tract, is now the recognized territory of the Saugeen First Nation. Just a few years ago, it too, was public beach. The sand under the camper van, is part of an, as yet, unsettled claim that runs from the current boundary, nearly two and a half kilometers north along the shoreline, to Sixth street . That land, encompasses the main public beach, at the heart of Sauble Beach. It also crosses land that Rick Lemon’s family has owned since 1953.
That’s when Rick’s grandfather purchased a lot that runs from Second Avenue, west across Lakeshore Road, and all the way to the water’s edge. His family is one of four, that hold Crown Patents covering the main public parking lots for the beach, and the sand that the summer visitors stake out in abundance, near the water.
The Lemons own five cottages in Sauble Beach that they rent throughout the summer. They also receive a share of the fees collected at the public parking lot. The land claim is a delicate subject for them, as they will likely be a part of the legal proceedings initiated by Mayor Jackson and her council, to oppose the Saugeen First Nation, in court.
Growing up on a farm near Owen Sound, the beach has always been a cherished part of Rick’s life.
“ There was always a week or so between taking the hay off, and taking in the crops of grain that Mom would pack us up and head to the beach … and going to the beach was exciting for myself and my two brothers. … Once we reached Hepworth, we knew exactly how many hills, as small as they were, to count before that iconic sign; Welcome to Sauble Beach, came into sight.”
Sentiment, however, does not enter into the equation for Chief Roote, and the Saugeen First Nation.
“ The deed is made. The boundaries are made, and that goes back to 1854.”
When Rick Lemon’s grandfather, Norman McKee, bought his piece of the beach in 1953, the land was under the administration of an Indian Agent, appointed by the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. But the Saugeen First Nation never surrendered their treaty rights, and never authorized the sale of the disputed beach front.
“ We did not agree to that.”, says Roote. “ and so we are essentially suing the Federal government because they did not take care of our land for us.”
The claim has already undergone two rounds of mediation; the last in 2014. At that time, Roote says, it appeared that a settlement was imminent, with the former town council.
“ What we had agreed upon was that there would be a joint council between ourselves and the township to administer that, [ the waterfront strip ] and accommodate the tourist season.”
But the municipal election in 2014 changed things.
Some residents, like Gail Mason, thought the claim had been settled when the Saugeen First Nation took possession to the beachfront on the south side of Main street. Her view on the continuing claim, is typical of many Sauble Beach residents.
“ I don’t like it.” , says Mason. “ I think the natives have their own strip, and it’s a long stretch of beach, and I think they should be happy with that.”
The newly elected council of Mayor Janice Jackson rejected the tentative deal.
“ I’ve had conversations with Chief Roote and he made it very clear that his band was not interested in having a 50-50 deal. They always wanted to have final say, because they believe that that is their property. That’s their land. I explained to Chief Roote that I’m pretty much in the same situation as he is, and you know, the people of our town feel that’s their property also.”
“Sauble Beach is as important to us, as the Falls is, to Niagara Falls.”
The abrupt change in direction, from agreement to acrimony, has stirred emotions among the Saugeen people, according to the Chief.
“ The way it is, it’s creating a lot of bad blood between us, and I’m not sure that the people of Saugeen will ever allow the land to be used for bathing, ever again.”
The restaurant patio beside Rick Lemon’s property is crowded with shoulders and faces that have seen too much sun. Laughter prevails, as the drinks are hoisted, and the patrons bask in the refuge of a day where cares are banished, and life is simplified. They are lingering; reluctant to surrender the experience just yet. No one, is thinking about a pending land claim.
Orma and Rick Lyttle don’t think about it much, either. The retired couple from Pickering, have been here for 14 years. The biggest issue for them, in Sauble Beach, is having to drive across treacherous, snow clogged roads, during the winter.
“ You’re always on the road, going to your doctor, the dentist, the hospitals – you have to go to those, and that’s something you have to get used to …”
But when asked about the pending land claim, they seem almost indifferent.
“ If you look at the native beach in the summer months, it’s absolutely clogged with people. So, obviously, people don’t resent having to pay that kind of money to go on that beach. It’s just that we, as people up here, we’re used to not having to pay to use that north beach, and we would like to see that continue, if we could.”
Vince Artuso doesn’t see a problem either. “ It won’t be as extreme as a lot of people think. The Natives are interested in the tourist industry also. They’re managing a large chunk of the beach already, and they have a major income from leases that they have at the south end of the beach. So, they are business-people themselves and managing successfully, so far, a very good operation.”
Even with a significant title at stake, Rick Lemon seems philosophical. “ If it happens that the land claim by the Saugeen First Nations does go through, I would hope that people would still be able to freely enjoy the beach in the future, as they do today. Will fewer people visit the beach? I don’t think so. Sauble will always be a jewel.”
But for Chief Roote and his people, this is not an economic issue.
“ We have never really benefitted from the town – from the tourist season, for over a hundred years. A lot of our people – it’s our land. It’s not a monetary benefit, It’s our land, to use and live on.”
There’s a story that’s been going around Sauble Beach for years, that National Geographic Magazine declared the sunsets seen from the beach, are among the top ten most beautiful, in the world. It’s not a true story. The magazine has never mentioned Sauble Beach. But while the story may have no basis in fact, the claim behind it certainly does.
“ In our travels over the years, we have seen amazing sunsets,” says Rick Lemon, “ … in Mexico, in the Caribbean, Thailand, South America, Australia. Sure, I may be somewhat biased, but I have to say that Sauble’s sunsets rival the best of anywhere in the world.”
The crowd is beginning to clap, and cheer now. Both on the beach, and on the restaurant patio. After a long, slow, lazy arc that seems to echo the mood of the day, the sun has descended to touch the seemingly endless water of Lake Huron. A million reflections dazzle and dance from the water, and the sky is washed with vivid streaks of orange and bands of shocking pink. The few clouds that remain cast a golden glow toward heaven, and in that moment you might swear that you heard God whisper his blessing to those who have come to stand enthralled, before such intensive beauty.
This moment isn’t made for tourists, or townsfolk, or the traditional people of the Saugeen First Nation; it’s a gift to be shared, by all of them.
With a last stupendous burst of light, the giant red sun sinks into the gentle, lapping, blue horizon. The cheers fade. The crowds disperse, but the sun’s glowing memory, does not.
“ On horrible awful snowy days, I can close my eyes and see those sunsets.” says Susan Follett. “ They stay with you, forever,”